[This is the eleventh essay in a multipart series addressing the surge in interest in and support for Socialism, what the surge means, what it seeks or will seek, where it might extend, and how it might unfold.]
All varieties of socialists pay very close and sometimes even too much or too exclusive attention to class. With peripheral exceptions, this attention focuses entirely on capitalists versus workers. The former own productive assets and earn profits. The latter sell their ability to do work to earn wages. The attention socialists give the capitalist/worker face-off has led to powerful understandings of wage and profit rates, the length of the work day and work week, the direction of technological investment, the structure of the workplace, and the intensity and products of work. Paying close attention to capitalist/worker relations has also helped explain unemployment and welfare policies, ecological dissolution and regulations, the motives and character of schooling, racial and gender income and wealth disparities, and intervention and war. But two other results of the near exclusive attention given to capitalist versus worker class relations are less accurate, less helpful, and often even seriously harmful to seeking a better world.
One such result has been down-playing and sometimes denying the equal centrality of race, gender, and power relations to class relations in determining societal outcomes. However, in the last few decades anti-racist, anti-sexist, and anti-authoritarian movements have accomplished much so the recent enlarging socialist advocacy only rarely severely suffers class myopia.
A second and quite harmful result has been about class itself. In my two prior essays I referred to a coordinator class above workers and below capitalists. Most socialists dismiss this accounting. While they see farm workers and factory workers, service workers and workers producing material commodities, workers in health care, entertainment, administration, or government, workers for small businesses and workers for multinationals, and even mental and manual workers and white collar and blue collar workers as parts of the working class, with rare exceptions socialists don’t see coordinators as a third primary class. Since coordinators sell their abilities to work to owners for wages, for nearly all socialists coordinators and workers are seen as being in one class with somewhat different circumstances but having shared class interests and inclinations.
So why do I see a third class between workers and owners? It is because I see that coordinators’ and workers’ different circumstances give coordinators and workers systematically different mindsets, tastes, and inclinations, as well as opposed interests. Honestly, I think this is blatantly obvious but, if not, here is another facet of the situation to consider.
Socialists have historically fought over how they view past historical experiences that call themselves socialist. Good, caring socialists rightly horrified by various behaviors of these past experiences have sought a non-socialist explanation for the harmful features to avoid socialism being identified with the failings. Some socialists have said the adverse aspects or even the whole experiences were never socialist but instead state capitalist. Others have said the experiences were once socialist but were taken over by state officials to become deformed socialism. More recently the whole experiences have been called 20th century socialism, meaning a bad kind to be avoided.
Consider the following alternative view. We should not call experiences that have eliminated capitalists, capitalist. To be consistent with virtually all socialist formulations about everything other than these past experiences, we should look at them to see if they attained or even ever comprehensively sought classlessness (which would be in tune with socialist aspirations) or if they were saddled with class division and elevated a new non-capitalist ruling class (which would mean the experiences were not socialist).
Once we adopt that agenda, we can easily see that the group of empowered workers I have called the coordinator class became, in these past experiences, a new ruling class. Coordinators remained the economic actors who monopolize empowering tasks and operate above disempowered workers. Coordinators’ circumstances still came firstly from the corporate division of labor, which was preserved and not eliminated, and from many associated familial, educational, governmental, and other supporting features of society. Coordinators relations to workers below them also stayed essentially unchanged, but with coordinators’ ultimate authority enhanced. That is, the coordinators continued to define and administer worker’s life situations, viewing workers either paternalistically or downright dismissively. What changed was that in the absence of owners the coordinator class was no longer subordinate to a greater economic class above, but instead became the topmost economic class.
So if we mean by socialism an equitable economy which workers self manage, or a whole society which has an equitable economy self managed by workers, then the Soviet experience, as but one example, simply was not socialist despite designating itself as such. It also wasn’t state capitalist, or deformed socialist, or 20th century socialist. It was, instead, economically coordinatorist. And if a group in society can become the group ruling the economy, it certainly makes sense in any consistent socialist approach to call that group a class.
But beyond academic or ideological nit-picking, why does this matter?
If the three class view is right, efforts to reach socialism can overcome capitalism and yet leave coordinators as ruling class. This in turn means that actions, campaigns, projects, and movements seeking socialism need to avoid becoming vehicles of continuing coordinator class presence above workers. They should instead become vehicles that steadily reduce coordinator sway and ultimately challenge and replace the sources of coordinator class rule. This in turn means the coordinator/worker dynamic is something movements seeking to move toward workers self management will need to address as they seek to alter schooling and on the job training and challenge coordinator prerogatives, and then to alter the definition of jobs and overcome the corporate division of labor by moving toward balanced job complexes. For those currently aligning with or thinking about aligning with socialism, attending to this altered understanding of class should therefore become an important part of seeking equity, self management, and classlessness.
Looked at from a different angle, a movement, organization, or project can truly express and elevate working class interests or it can only claim to be doing that but actually largely or even wholly express and elevate coordinator class interests. I claim workers have a very good eye for the difference. More, I claim workers often harbor great hostility for the coordinator class and it’s arrogance and paternalism. And finally I claim this often plays a role in how workers relate to social programs and campaigns. Some workers will support what is in their interest even if it comes with off-putting coordinator class values, manners, styles, and leadership preponderant. But other workers will rebel so forcefully against coordinatorish aspects that they will doubt or ignore the policy gains they might enjoy. And yes, I believe this kind of reaction explains much working class antipathy toward many social movements for peace, ecological sustainability, and even economic equity, and also played a significant role in the working class support that went and still goes toward Trump. Working class antipathy toward coordinators often exceeds how workers dislike owners for a very simple reason. Most workers never directly encounter an owner, but most workers very frequently encounter coordinator doctors, lawyers, managers, accountants and others and directly feel the paternal arrogance and authoritarian domination of many such folks. Constructively addressing the coordinator/worker interface while welcoming coordinators to participate in movements that, however, workers lead, becomes a clear priority once we have a three class view.
Succinctly put, an economic class is a group of people who by virtue of their position in the economy have broadly shared views, inclinations, and interests, and, in particular are at odds with other such groups and can be either subordinate to them or authoritative toward them. In our view, then, class can arise from ownership relations, but also from position in the division of labor. And while class isn’t the only thing that matters, it is one thing that certainly matters greatly.
We have in our essay series so far seen that implementing remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of work to attain equity, utilizing workers assemblies with diverse decision making methods to attain self management, and adopting balanced job complexes to avoid class division and ensure full decision-making participation, are all critically important to achieving worthy socialism. But that is not the whole economic story. There is another key aspect of economic life to address, allocation, or what determines how much of this or that is produced and where it all winds up. It turns out that a project can successfully pursue our equity, self management, and participation innovations for a workplace but still have its whole remarkable local achievement undone by a poor choice of how to allocate among workplaces and consumers. So that will be the next focus of this essay series.