ParEcon Questions & Answers

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What is class?

What about class? What is it?

street-4A useful way to look at types of economies is by how their institutions broadly divide people into opposed groups. Of course in any economy there will be differences in the precise circumstances that any two economic actors have regarding the economy’s institutions. You have one job; I have another. You work with those tools; I work with these tools. You have such and such income; I have so and so income. Yet within the spectrum of endlessly different precise circumstances allotted to each and every actor, economic institutions may also differentiate people into relatively large constituencies all of whose members share certain critical circumstances different from those shared by other large constituencies. Regarding the economy, we call such different constituencies classes, where a class is a group of people who by the positions they occupy vis-à-vis production, allocation, and consumption have sufficiently similar circumstances, material interests, and motivations for us to usefully talk about their group conditions and group tendencies as opposed to the group conditions and group tendencies of other classes who in turn share different circumstances, interests, and motivations. 

Of course not everyone in an economic class has the exact same situation or inclinations as everyone else in that class. Bricklayers go to different workplaces than waiters do. Pharmaceutical capi- talists own different property than automotive capitalists. Still, the point of class analysis is that the circumstances and conditions that everyone in a class have in common are great enough and their implications for people’s behaviors are important enough that it is useful to highlight the class collectively in trying to understand the overall dynamics of the economy. 

So what divides people into classes?

As every economist agrees, having fundamentally different ownership relations certainly divides people into different classes. History shows that ownership dramatically affects one’s claims on social product, one’s impact on economic decisions, and one’s interests and motives. Thus, in a capitalist society the conditions shared by all who own some means of production—whether pharmaceutical, automotive, or computer companies—give capitalists sufficiently similar circumstances and motivations for us to usefully talk about their collective (profit- seeking) behavior. It was owning some means of production that made the Rockefellers capitalists and it is the shared (profit- seeking) motives that ownership induces in capitalists that caused Adam Smith to write that “people of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.” 

Yet despite its importance, ownership is not the sole possible basis for class division. Instead, an economy’s division of labor or the role implications of its allocation institutions could also lead to some people sharing conditions systematically different than those shared by others, even with the same ownership situation. 

In capitalism, virtually every serious analyst calls those who own the means of production “capitalists” and those who own nothing but their ability to work and who must sell that ability for a wage paid to them for doing a rote and subservient job, “workers.” But in going beyond property as a basis for class division, we can also identify a “coordinator class” composed of those who receive a wage for their labors but who, unlike workers, do jobs that have considerable influence over their own and other people’s economic situations and who retain their more empowering jobs largely due to monopolizing certain skills and knowledge. And we can note that the class of workers such as assemblers, waiters, truckers, and janitors, and the class of coordinators such as managers, doctors, lawyers, and engineers, regard one another with opposed interests. And that each also opposes capitalists, though in different ways. 




Recently, a paticular school of thought has argued for what they claim is a new concept in place of or in addition to class – multitude. Here is a transcribed panel talk bearing on that…

Class or Multitude

April 14, 2005
By Michael Albert

ParisCommuneThe title of our panel here at the Left Forum in New York City, is “Class or Multitude?”

By way of answering, I think we need class concepts, but I don’t think we need the concept multitude. Here’s why.

Class concepts focus us on the difference between owning factories and selling one’s ability to do work. This difference produces capitalists versus everyone else. The source of this difference has to be eliminated if we are to transcend capitalism. I think we all agree on that.

Additionally, however, I think good class concepts should also focus us on a second critical economic difference.

Some people do work that conveys knowledge, confidence, and control over daily life. Their work is empowering. They give orders. They define tasks and decide who does them, at what pace, and with what distribution of the results. Their knowledge increases. Their confidence grows.

Other people do work that is overwhelmingly rote, obedient, and dis-empowering. They follow orders. They do not set schedules or agendas. They do not decide outcomes. Their knowledge decreases. Their confidence erodes.

On the one side we have people we call workers – which includes assemblers, bus drivers, short order cooks, miners, maids, nurses, and waitresses, the daily implementers of economic dictates – roughly 80% of the workforce.

On the other side, we have people who I want to call coordinators – which includes high level lawyers, engineers, doctors, accountants, architects, and managers, the daily designers and administrators of the economy and its protocols – roughly 20% of the workforce.

In capitalism, all around us, coordinators are subordinate to owners but in turn benefit at the expense of workers. In another type of economy, beyond capitalism, coordinators can rule workers.

Institutions that create and preserve the coordinator/worker class hierarchy include corporate divisions of labor, remuneration for output or for power, hierarchical decision making, and markets or central planning for allocation.

Sadly, with private ownership eliminated, these institutions remain central in what most people call socialism, but which I think we should call coordinatorism.

I want classlessness, which means I want all workers to enjoy conditions of comparable empowerment and quality of life at work. I want all people in the economy to have a fair say in outcomes. I do not want a few people to rule many others.

I think we need class concepts, then, to highlight the three class structure of modern economies and to guide our efforts to eliminate not only ownership bases for class division and class rule, but also division of labor bases for class division and class rule.

So what about the concept multitude? To be honest, I am not sure I get it.

Being one word, multitude presumably refers to essentially one thing. What?

Perhaps multitude refers to anyone who could conceivably become a revolutionary in revolutionary times. But since that could be anyone at all, the word population would do equally well as a label for that concept. I doubt the whole population is the intended meaning of the concept multitude, though I have heard people use the term that way.

Perhaps multitude refers instead to everyone who is a very good prospect to become revolutionary in revolutionary times. But then the word multitude just replaces the two word label, likely revolutionary, and that doesn’t seem very innovative or essential either. I also doubt that that is the intended meaning of the concept multitude, though again, I have heard people use the term that way.

Perhaps multitude means, instead, those who by virtue of their economic position are very good prospects to become revolutionary in revolutionary times. Taken in that sense, the concept multitude would replace the old concept proletariat, or even working class. As Michael Hardt himself put it in an interview back in January, “[this] is one way in which you might think of our notion of multitude as being very close to a traditional notion of proletariat, that is, the class of all those who produce, once the notion of production itself has been sufficiently revised and expanded.” This, I think, is the intended usage. Regretably, I also think it is the most counter productive usage.

If the term multitude means likely agents of economic and social change, and includes “all those who produce,” I think there is a high likelihood emphasizing it would crowd out giving equal attention to kinship, race, and power based dynamics as to economy based dynamics.

I think emphasizing multitude would tend to hide that procreation, sexuality, socialization, celebration, identification, adjudication, legislation, and implementation count just as much as production (and for that matter consumption and allocation) in people’s conditions and consciousnesses, and also in igniting or thwarting revolutionary inclinations.

Advocates of multitude correctly want to highlight that production affects and is affected by culture, gender, and power – so far, so good. But if our method for incorporating that insight impedes our also using central concepts that are specifically rooted in those other domains and not just in thinking about production, not to mention if they impede our using more detailed economic concepts of class and of consumption and allocation, then despite our good intentions our adopting the concept multitude will narrow rather than broaden our focus.

To see what I mean, I hope it is sufficient to note that using multitude this way would mirror the impact on the left of the old use of the term proletariat, also meaning revolutionary agent based on being a producer.

For example, many activists who used the term proletariat as agent of change, took race very seriously, even considering it of paramount social importance. Nonetheless, the proletariat-based framework led them to understand and think about race in overwhelmingly economic terms. And using proletariat as an organizing principle had the same predictable delimiting effect on people’s approach to gender and political power, as well, of course.

Despite multitude being defined more broadly than proletariat was defined, nonetheless, like the word proletariat, the word multitude identifies a revolutionary agent based on examining economic foundations. That approach will, I fear, cause people to think that the only or at least the most important way to become revolutionary is by way of economic concerns and attitudes. I thought we transcended that “rank the oppressions” approach thirty years ago.

Moreover, even if the above danger was avoided, I think elevating the concept multitude would certainly enforce a bi-polar view of economic change. Regarding economy, with multitude guiding our thoughts there will be potential bad guys – maybe we will call them capitalists, or emperors, or whatever – and there will be potential good guys, the multitude. This is quite like when the conceptualization of economic struggle was capitalists versus the proletariat or versus the working class, with no other economic agents operating.

The trouble with a two constituency approach to agents of economic change is that it covers over the existence of the coordinator class and makes it seem that beyond bad capitalist economics there can only follow either more of the same or, instead, good multitude economics.

This is quite like orthodox Marxism Leninism’s mentality that there is capitalism and then there is socialism. An economy simply must be one or the other. In fact, however, beyond capitalism there are at least two possibilities: one bad, one good.

A bad post capitalist economy has institutions that elevate what I earlier called the coordinator class. I call this economy coordinatorism, though most people call it market or centrally planned socialism. I hate it, though many advocate it. Whatever we call it, and however we feel about it, this economy has public or state ownership, corporate divisions of labor, hierarchical decision making, and either markets or central planning for allocation.

A good post capitalist economy would have institutions, instead, that eliminate class division. I think this will be participatory economics, and I think it will include such features as remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of work, balanced job complexes, self-managed decision making, and participatory planning, but of course the jury is still out on all that.

For me, the problem with the concept multitude is that whatever fine intentions its authors may have, I think it is (1) a step back toward crowding out priority attention for race, gender, and power, and (2) also a step back toward drawing attention away from the nature and importance of the coordinator/worker division.

I know these claims fly in the face of the stated motives of those advocating the concept multitude. But so too did charges of economism and of favoring institutions that elevated a new ruling coordinator class fly in the face of the stated motives of those who in the past advocated Leninist approaches to social change.

Yes, advocates of multitude urge their desire to broaden economics so that it accounts for other dimensions of life. They want to address all forms of domination. But, despite these admirable desires, it is far more probable that shoveling all dimensions of life under a single logic emphasizing only production will underplay extra-economic variables at least as badly as in the past, rather than elevate them.

Second, trying to hammer all the varieties of economic possibility into a bi-polar framework of a bad capitalist economy pitted against a good economy that a multitude will win ignores that anti-capitalists can in fact seek a future that is classless or revolutionaries can seek a future that has coordinators dominating workers. I want classlessness. I don’t want coordinatorism. And so I also don’t want concepts that pervert seeking classlessness into seeking coordinatorism.

I favor using the concepts capitalist, coordinator, and worker for understanding the key constituency dynamics of current economies and also for understanding the two main kinds of post capitalist economy, coordinatorism and classlessness, or, in my view, coordinatorism and participatory economics.

I favor using concepts like man, woman, mother, father, black, white, religion, nationality, ethnicity, citizen, order giver, and order taker, and others as well, of course, for understanding the key dynamics of current families, cultures, and political structures, and for envisioning future improvements as well.

It seems to me that trying to shoehorn social or even just an economic reality into a single-constituency concept like multitude is wildly backward, not forward, in its implications.

Highlighting multitude obscures the independent priority of race, gender, and political structures as well as economics, and papers over the coordinator/worker difference – just as Marxist Leninist concepts obscured and denied these same central elements in the past.

One last point about multitude, and, for that matter, empire, not to mention, dare I say it, post modernism.

To make a worthy bottom-up revolution in the U.S. is going to require at least a hundred million people being powerful and informed advocates and designers of a better future.

This multitude, if you will, of revolutionaries, will all have to be able to comprehend society and historical possibilities. They will have to be not only comprehending but proposing and refining goals and strategies. The tools of revolutionary comprehension and communication will therefore have to be very widely shared and utilized.

To me it follows that talking about democracy, participation, or self management in a language that requires great privilege to have the time to have any familiarity with it is not conducive to democracy, participation, or self management.

The word multitude is fine, as is the word empire. But the fact that I honestly don’t know what either word means, at least in the usage of the books about each word, neither of which I was able to understand, seems to me to be a damning problem.

Of course, it could be that I just lack some capacity needed to read these works and to know what they say, sort of like being color blind or tone deaf. I can’t do it, but nearly everyone else can.

Or it could be that these books, Empire and Multitude – and there are many others, too, of course – are hugely more obscure than serious theory and vision for participatory movements should be, and that they can’t be understood by more than a tiny fraction of the population, or even by more than a tiny fraction of their actual readers.

I think the latter is more likely the case. And most often I don’t think obscurity in left communication is so much a failing of writing and speaking style, as that it reflects the implicit view that revolution is to be comprehended and led by a small sector of professionals, not by a whole population, and that serious discussion is to occur only among that small highly privileged group, not the whole population. That is a coordinatorist bias, a Leninist bias. It is hard to overcome, but I think we need to.

So – what’s my take on Class or Multitude? I reject multitude as a core concept. I welcome class, and particularly a three class orientation.


 Next Entry: Capitalism’s Classes? 

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