I have just arrived home from having an after-work coffee with a colleague of mine. His name is Dominic. He is a community organiser. On Thursdays we both help to run a community mental health group in Small Heath, Birmingham (UK). Today was a good day. Group members engaged in some craftwork. We cooked and ate together – rice and vegetable curry with halal beef burgers – and there was some singing and dancing to the music on the radio whilst the food cooked itself. Amongst all of this I also managed to do a little psychological education work – on the topic of managing emotions – with the group, which seemed to go well.
Meeting Dominic has been a breath of fresh air for me. Although he is a father of three he is still young and very passionate about social justice. He is also solid working class – in his youth, snobs would probably have categorised him as a “chav”. Although his politics are sound, Dominic is not your typical Leftist. Despite his passion for social justice and training as a community organiser Dominic’s knowledge of Left politics is limited. This, of course, is not a criticism – and in some ways may even be an advantage! After all, if we are honest, Leftists do talk a lot of shit a lot of the time. However, there are some things that are worth knowing and me and Dominic touched on some during our after-work coffee earlier this evening.
As is typical with me and Dominic, we talked about a lot of different topics that we are both interested in and passionate about. For example, we are both interested in working with people who hear voices (so called “schizophrenics”). Another example of our shared interests is mental health as a social justice issue. Yet another common recurring theme, that came up this evening, is that of social class. What became apparent from our little chat however, is that whilst Dominic has a very good instinctive understanding of class dynamics he also has very little intellectual knowledge. What I mean by this us that he was not able to articulate his feelings. This is exactly how I was before I educated myself (with a little help from my friends). I spent years, decades actually, walking around knowing that something is wrong – that the system is rigged – but unable to say what, incapable of presenting an argument that expressed my feelings. This is an incredibly frustrating and disempowering state to be in. Then I read Noam Chomsky, Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel – which put an end to that.
Anyway, me and Dominic agreed to spend some time together, over the next couple of months, exploring the issue of class. Then Dominic checked the time on his phone and realised that he had to go takeover looking after his kids so that his wife could do some work. So that was that – at least until our next get-together. On the train journey home I thought about what we had discussed and decided that I should try to write something on the topic of class for Dominic to read in preparation for our next meeting. Then I thought, perhaps I could write something on the topic as a Telesur opinion piece to see what others think so that I could refine what I send to Dominic. Who knows, perhaps others might also benefit from reading this. So here is what I had in mind as a starting point…
For me, one of the central questions that we need to be able to answer in order to have a basic, but good, understanding of how society works is: what are the sources of power for the different classes? For those of us – like Dominic and myself – who are interested in addressing class exploitation and oppression – answering this question is crucial as it can help inform both vision and strategy for an alternative classless economic system. In trying to answer this question however, we first need to understand that when we are talking about class we are talking about economics. But what is economics? This question can turn many people off. They think economics is for specialists called “economists” and not for them. They hear the word “economics” and white noise invades their minds and they lose the ability to think. This is exactly how I used to react. However, the truth is that, whilst there are people called economists who specialise in economics, it is also possible to gain a basic understanding of economics that allows us non-specialists to engage in a meaningful conversation about the subject.
For example, when we break it down into its primary functions, economics instantly becomes both more manageable and understandable. These basic functions are; (1) production, (2) allocation and (3) consumption. But what, you might ask, is being produced, allocated and consumed? The answer to this question is goods and services. Examples of goods and services include; education, transport, communication, health care, food, water.
So now we have a basic understanding of what economics is about and hopefully this topic feels a little less intimidating. However, you might now be wondering what the hell class has to do with economics? Or more precisely, what has class got to do with the production, allocation and consumption of food, for example? This is a good question! The answer is that economic systems – that is a system of production, allocation and consumption of goods and services – can be organised in a number of different ways. Furthermore, what determines the specifics of different economic systems is the design of the individual institutions that go to make-up the particular system as a whole. Let me try to explain.
We know that economic systems need to be able to perform their primary functions of production, allocation and consumption. We also know that to perform these primary functions we need to create institutions that facilitate these economic activities. Now – and this is the important point that connects economics and class – the design of these institutions can either create a class system within the economy or it can create classlessness.
Now I would argue that the current dominant economic system – typically referred to as capitalism – generates a three class system. They are, starting with the most powerful; (1) the capitalist class, (2) the coordinator class, and (3) the working class. Furthermore, I would argue that by taking a close look at the design of the key institutions that go to make-up this particular form of economic organisation we can identify the power sources of the dominant classes within it. Let’s start by highlighting what the key institutions for production, allocation and consumption within the capitalist system are. They are as follows:
A. Private ownership of the means of production – the land, the factories, the machinery, etc.
B. Internal workplace hierarchy generated by an uneven division of labour – some jobs are more empowering than others.
C. Remuneration for power – the people who own and control the workplace / economy get paid more.
D. Competitive markets – each workplace tries to maximise its share of the market by outcompeting its rivals.
So to recap, I am arguing that we have a three class system and that the power source for the dominant classes within this system can be identified within the above key institutions. Also, and most importantly, this understanding can help inform both vision and strategy for an alternative economic system that is free from class exploitation and oppression.
Here then is my answer to our question: what are the sources of power for the different classes?
- The primary source of power for the capitalist class is (A) private ownership of the means of production. However, this is complemented and reinforced by (C) remuneration for power, and (D) competitive markets.
- The primary source of power for the coordinator class is (B) internal workplace hierarchy generated by an uneven division of labour. However, this is complemented and reinforced by (C) remuneration for power, and (D) competitive markets.
- The primary source of power for the working class is, within this system, none-existent. This is why the working class have had to come together in solidarity and set-up trade unions to combat this institutionalised powerlessness.
So this is what I was going to send to Dominic for him to read in preparation for our next after-work coffee together. Any thoughts? Suggestions for improvements? Changes?