On Capitalism and Class Rule: Moving Beyond the “PMC Debate”

Introduction

One of the more important unresolved discussions within the left concerns the concept of class, and especially the role and relevance of ‘intermediate’ classes in the fight against class domination.[1] Progress on this front seems to have been slow for multiple reasons, not least of all because these discussions have mostly taken sectarian forms (over whom to oust or shun, for example), while others feared to explore the basis of intra-class divisions lest they undermine the movement. That said, during the 1970s, a number of people in the US argued for the existence of a distinct professional/managerial class (from here on “the PMC”[2]), confronted as they were by a growing group of workers who saw themselves as progressives but who looked down on those they called “workers,” among whom they did not wish to be counted.[3]

On the left, this debate has yielded little more than the unhelpful conclusion that only factory and industrial workers are ‘true’ workers, but that members of “the PMC” owe it to the former to fight alongside them—a notion that only served to reify the differences rather than work towards integration. The “PMC debate” then disappeared with the New Left’s collapse. It was rediscovered only during Bernie Sanders’ first bid for the Democratic nomination, perhaps because a new generation of leftists sought an explanation for why so many self-described “progressive, middle-class voters” experienced such a passionate dislike of Sanders’ person and program.

A recent contribution to the debate is Catherine Liu’s Virtue Hoarders, a pamphlet in which she analyzes and inveighs against the rise of this “class” and how it tries to secure a place in society for itself and its progeny. Mike Macnair reviewed it for the Weekly Worker and found it wanting.[4] I appreciated his review and the fact he drew attention to the debate, but I was not convinced by his argument that the fundamental issue with her type of approach to politics is that it tries to reduce all political conflict to class conflict. Although I wholeheartedly agree with comrade Macnair that Liu’s use of “class” is sloppy and workerist, his own definition of class strikes me as overly narrow as well, if for different reasons. And since I saw a strong connection between Macnair’s—widely accepted—definition and the left’s failure to unify the class, while none of the other attempts to deal with this stratum I’ve run across have struck me as correct either, I decided to write in to the Weekly Worker to see if I could get this debate going, of which this piece is the result.[5] I hope it can serve as a useful starting point for a renewed discussion on the questions of class composition and achieving unity.

***

In my first response to Macnair’s review, I attempted to address the following questions:

  1. How can we explain the rise of the PMC and “meritocracy” as a trope.
  2. How can we unite all who depend on wage labor for their existence, and how does the existence of the PMC get in the way?

In his reply, Macnair suggests that the first question is a side issue, while the second could also be addressed without our being overly concerned with the PMC. From his conclusion:

The problem is not, I think, one of opposing either the PMC amalgam or meritocracy as a hidden secret of class rule as such. It is making the positive case for working class rule and socialism—which is a case for radical democracy and the subordination of the labor bureaucracy, and in turn toward demanagerialization and the restoration of public power to the public.

In addition, Macnair contends that the growth of “the PMC” illustrates that capitalism is “in decline,” because of this social group’s role in and attitude towards running the state, the latter only being able to grow at the expense of the influence over the economy of the private sector.

I agree with the comrade’s call to action. But I believe we need a more thorough analysis of the modern role and growth of this previously far-smaller social group to determine how its rise relates to the left’s ongoing failure, and I remain unconvinced by his arguments why their advent signals “decline”.

My analysis led me to conclude that our difficulty in getting members of “the PMC” to join the movement relates to our issues organizing marginalized groups, and that both stem from the almost 150-year-old, mistaken foundational assumption that our proximate fight is with capitalism rather than with class rule. I’d suggest that once we refocus and broaden our scope, it quickly becomes clear that many workers benefit sufficiently from life in class society that they are at least ambivalent about ending class rule; while conversely, many marginalized workers hesitate to join left organizations because theycorrectlysee the promise of “an end to capitalism” as insufficient. Furthermore, there is no reason to think this ambivalence and hesitancy will dissipate on their own, given the structural reasons why many broadly “economic” relations won’t be commodified, while the past century amply proves that there is no linear or inexorable process of “proletarianization” leading to eventual easy unity.[6]

For these and other reasons, I believe that socialists and communists should make the building of healthy workers’ organizations and movements a primary goal in the struggle against class rule, rather than a secondary goal in the “struggle for state power.” To that end, we should combat all institutionalized forms of “non-commodified” exploitation and divide and rule-politics. This must both happen within and be done by workers’ movements, and speak from our propaganda, education and actions (including from how we organize). Only in this way can we learn to understand and embody solidarity, and break with the long century of stagnation that has followed from sticking to the traditional (roughly “Bolshevik,” although it goes back to Marx’s time) approaches.

On the Maturation of Bourgeois Societies

One of the more stultifying notions repeated by much of the left is that capitalism is “in decline.”[7] For reasons that elude me, hardly anyone challenges this, even though it strongly encourages wishful thinking. Either way, given that waiting for capitalism to “decline” (let alone “collapse”) has yet to pay off and encourages sloppiness, I would humbly suggest we try to become empirical about it, no matter how sure we feel that “this time is different.” To that end, I will here argue that we should see capitalist class societies as “maturing,” and that during the past century, the ruling classes have become much better at quelling or undermining social movements, even as capitalist class relations now dominate nearly everywhere.

Broadly speaking, from the 1930s on, mass union and (left) political organizing against the backdrop of an existing Soviet sphere generated major pressure on states and civil societies to create and expand social safety nets, develop dependable (public) transportation networks, build affordable housing, offer universal primary, secondary, and low-cost tertiary education, create a whole slew of regulatory bodies, and so on. These gains contributed strongly to working class resilience and made it easier to say no to particularly exploitative working conditions or jobs.

This obviously bothered the propertied classes and bosses. But until the failure of “1968,” the invention of containerization, the Sino-Soviet split and the start of the oil and fiscal crises, they could do little to curtail this.[8] The working class was too well-organized and confident thanks to an unprecedented economic boom period made possible by the economic and societal destruction of most of the developed world coupled with the new availability of nearly unlimited quantities of cheap fossil and nuclear energy.[9] Nevertheless, sticking to the US case, even during the post-war years the propertied classes made meaningful inroads in undermining the worker and labor movements, e.g. by enforcing racial, spatial and educational segregation using the New Deal and GI Bills, by getting the unions to expel communists, and by pushing white working class women back into the home.

On top of this, the newly created social services and safety nets also contributed to the spread and normalization of capitalist relations of production, as most organizations were staffed by employees, had managers, and had to constantly adapt to expanding and changing legal and regulatory frameworks. Furthermore, offering those services grew support for taxation, while the perception that states were open to this increased satisfaction with the bourgeois state. Consequently support for revolution waned, while the educational changes meant that there would soon be many university graduates hoping to staff the many new professional, educational, managerial and regulatory positions that were and would be created, with most of those graduates having high expectations of their future social position irrespective of their ideological commitments.[10]

Having to manage these “welfare states” thus forced the bourgeoisie to learn to administer public and private domains of hitherto unprecedented size and scope, and to find ways to expand their size without underminingand preferably reinforcingclass rule. This included enormous legal-regulatory apparatuses, whose creation also contributed strongly to economic growth and the overall robustness of the societies involved. Class rule was entrenched by offering (im)material benefits in ways that contributed to class division. And although the propertied classes certainly lost some control over the state apparatus and corporate life, their power base was never truly threatened, thanks in no small part to the Soviets favoring class collaboration to strengthen the position of the USSR.

Workers, meanwhile, largely came to accept or even embrace the socialization and commodification of social life, and became increasingly dependent on the bourgeois state—which laid the groundwork for a rollback or subversion of earlier gains. And from the later 1970s onward, the propertied classes started to successfully (semi-)privatize and marketize most of what had been created and won, and to destroy or neuter many of the unions and other worker organizations that had been built on that class collaborationist basis.

On Other Forms of Class Exploitation and How They are Facilitated

Another widespread claim, made since at least the publication of Das Kapital, is that “capital”and nowadays usually the much vaguer “capitalism”is our main enemy. The problem with this for me is in what this has entailed. While I agree that capitalist relations are the dominant social form of class exploitation, I think that our singular focus on these types of relations has led to profound strategic mistakes. It encouraged workers’ movements to ignore or paper over divisions that thus remained as possible wedge issues to be exploited by liberals, right-wing and fascist populists and mass movements, the propertied classes and (parts of) the state. It also allowed our opponents to feign hostility to “capitalism” and this or that type of chauvinism while remaining silent on (or even embracing) the principle of class rule without being challenged on this. By focusing almost exclusively on developmentalism and achieving state power, the core of the workers’ and labor movements forgot about the overlap and interdependence of all forms of institutionalized exploitation.

Because of that misguided focus, the left also mostly ignored the fact that members of the propertied classes don’t just care about preventing and combating self-emancipatory politics in the workplace and public sphere. They also seek the ability to force people to perform labor for them in the private and informal spheres. The best illustration that being able to privately exploit others matters to the propertied classes is found in the postwar US, as the primary capitalist state left standing. At the time, US workers were already scarce due to the draft, multiple ongoing occupations and wars and increased worker access to tertiary education leading to few people being ‘unemployed’. Taken together, this meant workers were in a very good bargaining position, and that’s without mentioning high unionization rates and worker militancy. Nevertheless, in this period white working women were ousted from the work force and forced back into the home with broad support from a ‘cross class’ coalition of (prospective) husbands and fathers of families.[11]

To be able to account for developments like this, we need a framework that can deal with all forms of exploitation and domination. As a starting point, I would posit that class relations are those that allow a dominant party to get others to do work for them on an ongoing basis without having to meaningfully reciprocate or owe those they exploit. Such relationships, and the societies built on them, are most stable when everyone unquestioningly accepts a status quo in which there is a heavily skewed division of labor, so that there is little to no need for the use of force or coercion that would expose the power relation. For instance, when almost everyone unquestioningly participates in wage labor and in the subordination of women and children to men, this means that everyone constantly experiences and uses forms of coercion to get others to obey and help them.

In capitalist societies the politically primary form of exploitation indeed is control over (the fruits of) the labor performed by others, through possession of or control over the means of production. Yet besides the use values that derive from having control over the means of production and sale of goods and services (such as the abilities to privatize gains, direct how revenues are spent and force your workers to further the goals the owner sets), there are many other use values that matter to people’s lives that don’t involve markets or waged labor relations. Some primary examples of this are those relating to family life, friendships, and sexual and romantic relationships. All of these require effort to build, ‘produce,’ ‘deliver’ and maintain. And much of the labor that goes into this is difficult if not impossible to ‘socialize’ or commodify because people do not want to obtain all the use values that matter to them through the market, and to have to commodify their private lives.[12]

If this seems right, then since human beings aren’t just concerned with control over the means of production but also with these other use values, and since we are evolutionarily predisposed to maximize convenience and notice social distinctions, individuals will want to be able to get others to perform certain tasks or roles for them without having to reciprocate. In this, they are aided by the fact that humans as social animals are easily cajoled into helping others out because we derive satisfaction from helping others.[13] What follows from this is that any means that allows someone to get others to supply them with some use value, may be considered—or turned into—a class societal benefit or class relation—with this contributing to the attraction of, and support for, class rule. And the weaker the expectation of reciprocity the better.

The more such private benefits can be obtained thusly, the more normal people will think it normal that society works this way, and the more likely people are to support and defend the principle. Yet given that the provisioning of these use values cannot be enforced via (employment) contracts, and the interactions take place between romantic partners, friends, family, colleagues, and so on, the coercion must be exercisable through other, non-contractual ways.

The obvious avenue for this coercion is socialization (which includes the occasional use of violence). At a macro level, such socialization can produce societies in which  most people are willing to help others with no mind to the personal cost or the question why they are willing to spend so much of their life helping people who barely do anything for them.[14] Access to goods and services is mediated through market or other mechanisms (like power or social status, membership of or employment by certain organizations or social groups, et c.), and thereby contributes to social stratification, by encouraging lots of kicking sideways by people hoping to better themselves or those they care for. This happens because in group living species like homo (in)sapiens, even trivial differences in access to resources and treatment can become meaningful—especially so in situations of scarcity, as that’s when individuals are most likely to object to small differences in the treatment of relative equals, even as we are also predisposed to accept institutionalized power asymmetries and exploitation as ‘the way of the world.’[15]

Just as with direct and explicit market interactions, here too there will be a desire to maximize the benefit while minimizing costs, and to institutionalize those roles or relations. There are a few broad ways to “lower the price” the dominant party must “pay” for obtaining the use values produced by people forced to engage in such labor.

The first is culturally devaluing certain types of labor (domestic, care for family, children, the sick and elderly), or by coding it as a ‘duty.’ Secondly and conversely, one can try to dehumanize or devalue the people forced to do the work by never showing interest in them and by encouraging and teaching everyone to be rude or mean to them. This may be done by talking up the “scientific” basis for said division of labor, or by teaching that violence, slavery, and exploitation of members of those groups are necessary or deserved, or don’t count as such because the victims are sub- or nonhuman—a very effective suggestion in a world in which nonhuman animals are bred into existence by the billions to be used as resources and as living factories, forced to produce milk, children, hair, organs, skin and flesh for those who own them). Lastly, the price people can command for their labor is affected by the communicative (or “terrorist”) effect of the use of direct and indirect (institutionalized) violence, threats, and so on: e.g. using (state) violence to break strikes or by firing and refusing to hire married white women and people with criminal records. All of this affects both what people can demand for their social or paid labor as well as how we treat them privately.

In people’s lives, such socialization generally starts with authoritarian parental (and “adult-child” and “teacher-student”) dynamics, in which fathers (but often all adults) may treat their children (or family) as property or as extensions of their own will, raising them to accept this, and possibly using them to aid the family wealth. One societal-level effect of children’s autonomy and developmental needs not being taken seriously is that many children get diagnosed with “disorders” like ODD or ADHD that largely relate to “disobedience”, “indiscipline” or “rebelling against authority.”[16] While these behaviors can indeed be debilitating for the humans involved, the prevalence of these types of disorders seems to me largely a response to industrial class societies and (reflexively) authoritarian parents pathologizing children for being unable and unwilling to “behave” according to their wishes (and becoming pliable productive workers/children).

At a different level, ethnic chauvinism and “patriotism” (which hijacks our species’ territorial tendency) have helped make workers buy into supporting ruling class efforts to undermine worker power, of course up to and including fighting in many of their wars.[17] As the largest multiethnic settler-colonial empire, US history necessarily is replete with instances of this, but let me use a European example for a change. From the 1950s through the 1980s, ethnic chauvinism aided the propertied classes in bringing millions of “guest workers” to Europe to undermine local workers and union power. This was (successfully) sold to workers by arguing that “their” countries lacked sufficient workers to maintain “growth”, and that the “guest” workers would (be) “return(ed)” to their originating countries afterwards; both of which were swallowed, with the national populations having made at best token (and invariably failed) efforts to organize with or alongside these new workers; or even just engaging in legal actions to try and ensure equal treatment and pay for the newcomers.[18] Even today, most of the times when say the Dutch Socialist Party engages with issues that involve Eastern European workers, the party focuses on the upheaval created by the arrival of overworked and bunk-housed newcomers as a problem for existing neighborhoods. Conversely, at the national level the party has made no attempt at all to organize (alongside) these workers via the unions, and all the last party leader was interested in was in getting the bourgeois state to institute (easily manipulated) work visa schemes, as though illegalization has ever empowered workers. Leaving aside the details, the main problem on this front is that a lot of left organizing has served to reinforce existing ethnic divisions, thereby making it easier for the propertied classes (including the landlords renting out 10-20 beds per single family home to migrant workers) to increase their profit margins and revenue base.

As a final example, consider how someone like Jeffrey Epstein was able to force underage and adult women into performing sex work so he could aid the US and Israeli secret services and/or blackmail people into letting him manage their money for decades with nobody with power caring to do anything about it until #metoo gained traction.[19] Or, on a larger scale, consider how the “sex tourism” industry both serves to commodify human interactions and increase social fragmentation of the working class living in and near Thailand, thanks to the existence of patriarchal mores and attendant sexual repression that get in the way of workers organizing themselves and gaining broader societal support for their struggle (which is probably why the World Bank enthusiastically promoted this as a “developmental scheme”).[20] All of these things lower the status of certain groups in society, weaponize existing chauvinisms, and discourage and undermine working class attempts to resist capitalist development (if not ending class rule).

Besides interactions and exploitation in the (mostly) private sphere and how various ‘chauvinisms’ interact with the exploitation of people as waged workers, there is another type of interaction in which people want to be able to get others to do work for them. This is in the semi-private sphere, and relates to how companies and other institutions are organized.[21] Consider for instance how managers and tenured professors can claim the work of “their” team in negotiations for promotions, rewards, and performance bonuses—a practice which has inspired many Dilbert comics and meme phenomena like ‘failing up.’ These dynamics involve more indirect forms of exploitation than being able to privatize surplus value or revenues, because people fulfilling such roles have little or no say in the way the organization is run, even as they benefit from being able to claim other people’s work as somehow theirs.

Finally, as I suggested earlier, in class societies, workers who do scarce (and “respected,” “important” or “difficult”—primarily mental—) labor, and/or who are well-organized, tend to be paid better and have better secondary benefits, leading them to be able to afford and demand access to specific use values such as nicer or job-supplied housing, greater autonomy in the workplace, chances for gifts from clients or petitioners, opportunities for self-enrichment through insider knowledge, and so on. In addition, they can afford and may be invited to join organizations that maintain high entry barriers in order for members to derive status from membership or attendance, and to ensure that members interact only with “the right sort of people.” This, of course, is one of the main reasons why elite meetings and schools often have high tuition, entry, or membership fees—not to ensure quality and to pay the staff well, but to keep out undesirables, and to signal their exclusivity and status.[22] And the converse of this is that in class societies, those who are poor or who display “bad taste” are presumed to belong to those who may be exploited.

Access to these “non-economic” material and immaterial use values clearly is a tangible (if diffuse and messy) part of an answer to the question of what one’s class position is. Or, formulated in a manner more in line with my overall argument: what (im)material interests someone has in maintaining class society. Which means that one’s “class position” involves more than just (not) having “specialized knowledge, and/or owning their own means of production.” Because, although the latter certainly is a relevant question—especially if you steelman “owning means of production” into “being able to control revenue and/or surplus value streams”—this nevertheless focuses far too exclusively on the economic sphere and on surplus value as the central use value to be able to fully explain people’s commitments to class rule.[23]

Which brings me to another of comrade Macnair’s claims, namely that most people do not “seek power over others” (i.e., as an end in itself). While I narrowly agree, I would stress that a lot of class societal “cultural” struggles revolve around restricting autonomy because class rule requires the policing of behavior to reinforce the principle. These may be fights over abortion rights; the policing of sex, gender expression, and relationships; cognitive and behavioral differences (or “deviance”), ethnic or religious oppression; denying voting rights to the propertyless; or what have you. In addition, many people reflexively try to control those around them if they dislike their behavior simply because this becomes part of their personality. As such, these dynamics express and embody politics even when they happen on the level of personal interactions and are part of what worker movements need to address or deal with.

For all these reasons, I would say that there is obviously more at play than what comrade Macnair calls “tacit acceptance” of class domination and class relations. Which is why I think we should take the above into account when it comes to questions of organization and agitation. People intuit perfectly well that they benefit from living in a class society even when they can’t put words to it and haven’t been formally taught that this is okay. And as many people have by now noted about schools in class societies, much of what’s taught in schools is simply how to act in a hierarchically structured environment. And many of the lessons schools teach indeed revolve around accepting that you shouldn’t talk back at those with institutional power.

On Hegemony and the Bourgeois State

In the introduction, I noted that Macnair sees a direct causal connection between growing political and cultural dominance of “the PMC” and its ideology “meritocracy” and capitalism’s “decline.” In his mind, their rise proves the propertied classes are losing power to the state, which presages “decline” because the state’s expansion can only happen at the expense of the private sector, reducing the latter’s ability to control society’s course of development.

This strikes me as too simple. As I pointed out earlier, the modern state plays an enormous positive role in developing the economy and class society. And particularly in the richer—politically and economically dominant—states, state spending and economic influence are at best weakly constrained by taxation. As such, demand that comes from the state will generally doubly stimulate private sector growth and development.[24] For this reason alone, it makes no sense to me to posit that growth of the bourgeois state apparatus necessarily comes at the expense of the size or political influence of the private sector, especially since the advent of neoliberal public-private partnerships.

Secondly, when state-controlling sections of “the PMC” use their power to constrain the behavior of the propertied classes, they tend to do so by pushing policies that contribute to the spread of class-societal norms and relations, especially since the neoliberal approach became dominant.[25]And especially in times of social unrest and economic stagnation, they’re quite intent on helping stabilize class rule. Their actions need in no way be progressive either. Both the “War on Drug[user]s” and the mass axing of welfare policies by promoting envy (“welfare queens”) while citing the putative need for “balancing the budget” or “austerity” fall comfortably within this category.

With respect to “the PMC” I would therefore argue that to the extent it has a shared ideology and overlapping interests, these revolve around the spread and promotion of class relations and commodification, while it doesn’t see the propertied classes and their interests as directly antagonistic. And although I will happily grant there is a relationship between the growth of their influence and the size of the state, I’d stress that neither growth of the state nor having more rules and regulations changes anything about the social dominance of the capitalist mode, but especially the relations of production. Because of this, I would say that even if “the PMC” were to achieve political dominance, the societies they run would remain ‘capitalist’. This is because “the PMC” have no control over the means of production (or even really over the state apparatus); they strictly believe in the separation of powers, sanctity of contracts, the constitution, and the value form; and its various sections are highly professionally invested in fighting each other to keep it that way. At their most radical, they want the state to fund “uneconomic” services and to fight corruption and entrenched class power, especially if working class organizations are strong. But that’s about it.

By way of illustration, consider how police officers see themselves and their work, with organizational slogans like “to serve and protect,” and a dual mandate of enforcing “law” and “order.” When it comes to their “fairly” enforcing the law, spatially selective patrolling and law enforcement serve to perpetuate and reinforce prejudices and create a juridical reality in which members of marginalized groups get arrested and convicted far more often, mainly due to over-policing so-called “problem neighborhoods” and making “judgment calls” on who and which crimes and misdemeanors to pursue and what to let go, even as they are also required to meet numerical targets that strongly encourage repressive tactics. Meanwhile, their requirement to “maintain order” largely involves evictions, demonstration-harassment, and police officers demanding obedience from citizens. Yet even though they are well aware of how their institutions operate, they prefer to see and present themselves as cogs in a machine with no responsibility for the aforementioned choices, denying responsibility for their actions by embracing the fiction that they are simply “enforcing the law” and doing their “duty.”[26] (And of course, a million and a half cop shows encourage viewers to see society through their blinkered bureaucratic eyes.)

Now, police officers have far more direct power over others than most bureaucrats. But I find them interesting for precisely that reason. Police forces (like militaries) exist because coercion and physical force are necessary to ultimately enforce decisions made by (liberal) bureaucracies. At the same time, broad public acceptance of their functioning illustrates how effectively we have all been socialized to see their actions as normal or even desirable, with hardly anyone translating criticism of excesses and abuse of power into a broad critique of bourgeois rule.

Similarly, state bureaucrats do differ from their analogs in the (quasi) private sector in terms of personal and ideological commitment to their facilitation of the bourgeois state, as well as in the amount and directness of the impact their actions have on the lives of others. But since the work of nearly every bureaucrat involves control over (the lives of) others, and many corporations also invoke ideals of service—if mediated by the market—I think it fair to say that “the PMC” is broadly defined by a commitment to facilitating class rule, and that it has neither the ability nor the dream of expropriating, or politically neutralizing, the propertied classes. (And it certainly helps that meritocracy as an ideology is perfectly compatible with a reality in which exploitation, enormous wealth disparities, hierarchical organization, and private ownership of and control over the means of production, are everywhere.)

Lastly on the issue of “meritocracy”, I would point out that it is much more than just a state ideology of a particular social group. Equally relevant is what I would term meritocratic reasoning, which usually goes unmentioned because of its normalcy. This is the generative logic or method through which any specific form of class exploitation and domination is rationalized and justified.[27]

By way of a succinct illustration, consider how normal yet circular it is that people who are “found wanting”—because “woman,” “Asian,” “Muslim,” “gay,” “trans,” “less-educated,” “poor,” or what have you—are often said to owe their second-class citizenship to themselves.

If we wish to end class rule, we must be able to recognize and analyze how class domination and exploitation are normalized, and how specific practices and customs contribute to their maintenance. Because while class exploitation may begin with exploitative and violent practices, these are normalized and maintained not chiefly by threats and violence, but by educational, institutional, and socially oppressive practices that presuppose and embody hierarchical norms. As such, there is a constant interplay between concrete forms of exploitation and their ideological justification, with the latter opening the door to the emergence of new forms of exploitation, or exploitation of different groups. And the logic is always the same, even if the material and other considerations change depending on the era and the kind of society we’re talking about.

More on How Ignoring “the PMC” Facilitates Class Division

Now for my second major objection to Macnair’s analysis, which concerns the one-sidedness of his analysis of “the PMC’s” role in terms of the functioning of the bourgeois state and its members’ tendency towards self-enrichment.

In countries with underdeveloped citizenries and state apparatuses, nepotism, self-enrichment, and incompetence can certainly undermine the state’s credibility and stability, as well as general societal functioning. In developed capitalist states, however, these seem to me political non-issues. The state’s roles as both an investor and a source of demand easily compensate for any problems caused by official corruption. In addition, due to both professionalization and to the proletarianization of both work and families,[28] opportunities for familial enrichment have meaningfully declined. At the same time, the US shows us that capitalist states can institutionalize enormous amounts of corruption and graft without causing revolutionary unrest. The propertied classes just need to be able to channel the disgust and distrust in the right directions (say by promoting cynicism coupled with regionalism or soft separatism). In any case, this doesn’t begin to cover the problems caused by “the (modern) PMC’s” existence.

To come to a fuller understanding of the interests and functions of “the PMC,” I would argue we need to consider these two questions: 1) how do members of this group relate to the principle of class rule? and 2) what happens when we apply these insights more broadly?

As I suggested earlier, the domain in which interactions are marketized or commodified has grown enormously in size since World War 2, and so have the public and nonprofit sectors. At the same time, substantially because many workers gained tertiary educations from institutions that encode class values, many positions were created that offer workers power over other workers. As a result, the simple dichotomy between those forced to work for others and those who parasitize on their labor became a lot less “clean.” Class relations and commodification have been expanded and normalized further, and a large fraction of waged workers now is professionally and occupationally involved in (re)producing them and in exerting power over others (while benefiting from these arrangements in various ways).

This increase in the number of roles and positions that give workers power over others illustrates that the ruling classes understand that support for class rule increases as these principles are embedded in and embodied by more practices and organizations.[29] Conversely, the fact that something very similar happened in the USSR (and most unions) serves as ‘negative proof’ that workers and labor movements didn’t anticipate this happening, and failed to combat it.

As I pointed out earlier on, the social roles performed by members of “the PMC” tend to involve control over others or their fates or livelihoods through their work. The avenues for that control are either “rent-seeking”—using their control over scarce resources or services to extract use values—or indirect exploitation through being empowered to compel others to further their stature and goals (or some mix of the two). Depending on the role and organization, these others may be colleagues or third parties (clients, citizens, dependents, students, interns or trainees, children, and so on).

Similar class-societal perks abound, and add up even if their individual draw may be lesser. Many workers who live in modern ‘capitalist’ class societies occasionally experience them. For instance by receiving higher than average pay for the hours of work they put in because the job they do happens to be scarce or yields niche goods or services, or they receive said pay because they’re willing to take flak for their bosses; they might benefit by being allowed to terrorize “their” students to teach them “discipline” and “obedience”; or by being able to force their wives and children to be at their beck and call and to aid the family business—or to be able to claim the best/most food or other essentials for themselves.[30]

The more such practices exist, the more likely people are to embrace the principle of class rule, even when their own exploitation angers them. Furthermore, the existence of these types of organizational roles serves to concretely curtail people’s autonomy, and to create contradictions and conflicts within the class that obstruct unification. It therefore puzzles me that comrade Macnair says he is aware that class is about the “material social division of labor,” and that everyday behavior has more influence on one’s class position than ideological beliefs. But he doesn’t seem to grasp the relevance of (or want to acknowledge the existence of) those dynamics. This not least because even if it were true that workers have no stake in maintaining class rule, but simply acquiesced to living in capitalist class societies, this doesn’t matter much in practice. Involuntary reproduction of class relations (especially cross-generationally) is equally effective in reinforcing their normalcy. As such, mass reproduction of these behaviors will over time lead to mass uncritical reproduction, and social and cultural shifts to the right as people stop resisting new norms.

If the above seems right, it follows that most of the working class will defend class relations as desirable at least in some contexts. Which means the class has more to lose than “its chains,” and that the problem is deeper than that workers have internalized chauvinistic and pro-class rule attitudes.[31] Denying or ignoring this and hoping that doing so will aid ‘class unity’ against the most economically- and politically-important form of exploitation thus strikes me as a recipe for failure. Workers who are used to these practices and advantages will not magically want to give up their class advantages “after the revolution;” nor should we tell those who are currently exploited and marginalized in the private sphere that they should accept a lack of solidarity and their own domination by others until then. In short, the ability to privately exploit confuses and, perversely, incentivizes the class, and contributes to the lived experience-informed intuition and habits embodying conviction that institutionalized exploitation is acceptable or even unproblematic so long as the form is not too exploitative and the benefits small to moderate.

To combat this, we should organize and agitate in ways that combat these dynamics and promote solidarity. Because if we don’t, we’ll leave the door wide open to continued division and splits—as illustrated by the past 80 plus years of attempts to organize the class.

***

Before moving on to what this should mean for our organizing work, a final point about 'other' class divisions. While it’s likely true that some form of patriarchal rule was the first type of class rule affecting humans, I don’t think it useful to suggest that any specific division of labor and related forms of domination is, as Macnair suggests, “substructural to class” (and therefore partly unrelated to exploitation under capitalism).[32]

Let’s stick with the division between men, women, and children. Hardly any of the work women do is inherently “women’s work.” As such, any claim of this nature obscures as much as it exposes.[33] More fundamental, however, is the fact that the exploitation of women and children is not “substructural to class,” but rather another form of class exploitation, with the additional benefits for the propertied classes discussed earlier: it allows them to pay women and children less, and treat them worse. Again, this a big part of why capitalists have little interest in fighting and abolishing other forms of exploitation, and why liberals will only haphazardly and incompletely address discrimination and oppression, as well as exploitation in the private sphere. The existence of such ‘private’ relations are highly useful in facilitating other forms of exploitation and capitalist development, and in dividing those who have to work for a living.[34]

Finally, the genesis of specific forms of exploitation is generally not all that relevant to the question of how to rid ourselves of class rule. And since there are constantly new groups being marginalized and new populations being proletarianized and added to the reserve army of labor via the dynamics I’ve pointed to in this article, treating them as single issues generally only results in us playing whack-a-mole.

On Organizing the Class

One thing that saddened me in writing this is that mine largely aren’t novel insights. Yet over the past century, almost all attempts made by marginalized and more progressive sections of workers’ organizations to convince the rest of the movement that ending class rule is about more than economic exploitation and dependence on the wage fund have come to (next to) nothing. The left organizations of yesteryear mostly refused to incorporate these critiques, and skillfully removed, bullied out, or otherwise neutralized the sections that did.[35] And even though what remains of the organized left is finally changing—thanks in part to its collapse—attempts to integrate these insights are still very ad hoc, and usually justified with liberal arguments about the importance of diversity and inclusion, rather than emphasizing that the need for this follows logically from class analysis or the Marxist framework.

As I’ve argued, the above was generally justified by arguing wage labor under capitalism is the only politically relevant form of exploitation (or put differently, that wage exploitation is the only relevant shared interest on the basis of which we can or should try to unite “the class”), and that almost everything else is secondary to obtaining state power and overthrowing capitalism. Judging by the historical record, this was never adequate, but it certainly isn’t today, in countries with large proletariats. Too many of those forced to work contribute to and benefit from class rule to ignore this.

Because of this long tradition of shoddy analysis and little theoretical, agitational, and organizational attention being paid to other-than-wage exploitation, large sections of the class are (still) ambivalent about wanting to end capitalism and class exploitation, on top of not believing there is a viable alternative to capitalist economic development. Because these issues were relegated to the sidelines for so long, most workers still don’t see that we must engage in relentless critique of all aspects of class rule if we want to end it.[36] Only as we start to make work of this will we be able to build healthy, broad movements that work toward ending this.[37]

I hope this piece convinces others that it is politically relevant that there are more use-values than just abstract labor that people want to be able to obtain, at low cost or for free, and why and how this increases support for class rule. Yes, members of “the PMC”—especially the part that belongs to the (petty) bourgeoisie—benefit far more from class rule than other workers. Nevertheless, our problem is that a substantial part of workers also benefits from the existence of such arrangements, and therefore contextually or partially support the existence of class rule, thereby confusing them and undermining intra-movement solidarity and our attempts at self-organization.

I still think that being forced to work for others in exchange for money is the most widely shared and, politically, the most important interest on the basis of which, and against which, we can and must organize in order to achieve true emancipation and self-control. But to unite our class in this struggle, we must be equally attentive to other forms of exploitation, while addressing them in ways that promote solidarity and increase our organizational power both within and through the organizations in which we are active. Those other forms of exploitation and associated cultural patterns of behavior are not going to go away, and we lose credibility by not agitating and organizing against this. To this end, we must understand and be able to explain the meritocratic logic that structures class exploitation and that mobilizes and institutionalizes forms of chauvinism to facilitate this, so that we can combat it through propaganda, education, and solidarity work. Until we are clear about the cross-connections and the mutually reinforcing nature of different forms of exploitation and marginalization, and the importance of consistent struggle, we will continue to carry water to the sea.

I thus in no way disagree with Macnair that “class” should be central to our analysis. But we must use a broader definition, because we have to keep in mind—and communicate clearly—that our goal is abolition of class rule, and not just of capitalism. We must stop papering over and ignoring intra-class divisions in the name of “worker unity,” and be clear that uniting is hard work. Given that class is a modular or multidimensional issue, I’d also strongly recommend we start talking about class in terms of which (im)material interests people have in supporting or rejecting class rule. How people provide for their subsistence and basic needs affects their commitments and broader lives in major ways, but humans are complex, and this is not the only use value or form of exploitation that matters.

Additionally, we will also have to dust off and update the criticisms deployed against the Lassalleans way back when that have largely been forgotten thanks to more than a century of class collaboration. Because if the past century teaches us one second lesson besides the need to unite the class, I’d say it’s that social democracy and “state socialism” were very effective at deradicalizing and disorganizing the class. Leaving aside the attractions of nationalism as such, attachment to the smaller and larger benefits of “prosocial” state policies, but also the fact that these use values are provisioned by the state or market, strongly impeded the self-organization of our class. This was doubly so because we had no critique of bourgeois (neoliberal) control over their functioning at the ready, and so were unable to prevent this trend, or even to try to counter it, probably because the overlap between neoliberalization and the kind of bureaucratization that had hamstrung our own organizations (as well as the USSR) made it impossible to critique the former without first—or also—dealing with the latter.

Obviously, the solution to worker attachment to the nation-state isn’t the demolition of said state, or to hope for its demise. The class won’t learn anything from that, and there is plenty of new work to be done, even in societies where social safety nets remain, to build a new movement. It’s just a question of figuring out new answers to the “how.”

One way to start developing this critique might be explaining the shortcomings of dependence on a state apparatus which is distrusted and feared by many. In doing so we might develop a better way to rebut the arguments of the (populist) right, which currently has a de facto monopoly on critiques of bureaucracy and the welfare state, while the remainder of the left mainly uncritically advocates its reintroduction and expansion, and remains focused on parliamentarianism as the only route to power. Connected to this, within unions and workplaces we’ll have to develop different dynamics and to combat hierarchies that pit workers against each other.

In sum, it was a strategic mistake to think we could end capitalism by fighting capitalism. So let us learn from this by promoting and enacting solidarity and class unity. I hope the above clarifies how we might change our agitation, education, and attempts at self-organization, and become more effective. Enacting this shift will of course take time, not least of all because we will have to combat the “received wisdom” of the past century and a half of leftist organizing, in which the Marxist/socialist left only accorded instrumental value to the building of robust and healthy worker organizations.

Luckily, much of the practical agitation, political education, and organizing work is already being done, albeit inconsistently and partly outside “our” direct reach, given that there now exists a broad constellation of antidemocratic “progressive” movements and NGOs with conflicting incentives that are very good at liberal railroading and hoarding movement resources to fund “professional activism.” Nevertheless, we have to learn to deal with this after having wasted most of the past century because we were unwilling to reject the ban on factions, and the conceit that you can build a robust worker movement without taking seriously the pluriformity of (our) class.


[1] For instance, Lenin spoke of a ‘workers’ aristocracy’ in (1917) in Imperialism: the highest stage of capitalism, while as recently as 2015 in Understanding Class E.O. Wright defended a modern definition of a ‘middle’ class.

[2] I will be using “the PMC” in quotes throughout this essay to emphasize the dubiousness of this term even as it does mostly get at something real. That said, I would emphasize that this not one ‘class’, as it combines multiple (varying) forms of exploitation and rent-seeking behaviors that members of this group have access to or are able to engage in, even as most of the people counted among “the PMC” do now work for wages. More on this later.

[3] See On the Origins of the Professional Managerial Class, an Interview with Barbara Ehrenreich – Dissent Magazine for a useful introduction to and summary of what I’d say was the most notable left contribution to the ‘PMC’ debate, which nevertheless looked at the issue in a completely wrongheaded way, namely by positing a hard distinction between “material” versus “ideological/cultural” production which, among other failings, is simply bad science – see e.g. Bruno Latour, We have never been modern (2005).

[4] American ‘Blue Labour’? – Weekly Worker.

[5] My first reply can be found here: Appeals of class society – Weekly Worker. Macnair replied to it here: Centrality of Class – Mike Macnair responds to Foppe – Weekly Worker. I then wrote a second reply which also didn’t yield the response I was hoping for that can be found here: Addressing the Central Issues – Weekly Worker. The latter piece forms the basis for this article.

[6] It seems to me a mistake to hope for a time when “the class has been proletarianized,” because that is simply not how (capitalist) class societies work. This is misguided partly because societies are constantly changing culturally and socially, and people are constantly trying to come up with new ways to lift up and push down other social groups, partly because there is no reason for the propertied classes to want to “finish the bourgeois revolution” (as the phrase goes) and clean up all of the supposedly “pre-capitalist” forms of exploitation, but mainly because production is constantly reorganized to stifle unrest and keep people on their toes. These facts, coupled with constant technological and social change, mean that there are constantly shifting opportunities for workers in specific sectors to make a better or even (petty) bourgeois living by doing (artificially) scarce work, and to try and safeguard their new-found relative sinecures. For example, due to their relative scarcity, programmers in general get paid high wages despite being almost completely unorganized. A subset is even able to become decently-paid “consultants,” and some those with (access to) start-up capital, luck, and skill with picking their niche end up sufficiently-rich to become capitalists a trend stimulated by paying them partly in company stocks.

[7] This has a long and impressive pedigree. See, among others, L. Trotsky, “The War and the International” (1914); V.I. Lenin (1917), Imperialism: the highest stage of capitalism; G. Lukacs (1924), Lenin; a study on the unity of his thought; L. Trotsky (1931), The Revolution Betrayed; E. Mandel, “The Marxist theory of Imperialism and its critics” in Two Essays on Imperialism (1966); H. Ticktin, “The Nature of an Epoch of Declining Capitalism,” Critique (1998). This is closely related to a similar trend of adding modifiers to ‘capitalism,’ e.g. post-capitalism, ‘late,’ ‘imperialism,’ ‘monopoly capitalism,’ and what have you, which has on the whole taken on similarly unhelpful lives of their own. This type of thinking ties in with thinking there will be a final crisis, e.g. because of ‘falling rates of profit’ that will break capitalism permanently. While I don’t know of any way to disprove this will happen at some point, I’d say waiting for it to happen is a fool’s errand at best.

[8] Brought about by western economic maturation and dollar depreciation due to increasing industrial competition, oil reliance and high US (foreign) military expenses. On the latter points, see Michael Hudson’s Super Imperialism.

[9] Yet according to the “decline” thesis, all of this was irrelevant. One particularly poignant entry from this “tradition” is the 1934 (!) book declaring and analyzing the decline of US capitalism: Lewis Corey: The Decline of American Capitalism (1934) – MIA.

[10] Note that when it comes to university education, a lot of socialization happens there explicitly as well as implicitly and by osmosis. For an interesting account of how this works (which may by now be slightly dated, and which will apply differently depending on where you live (as for instance the Dutch university system was a bit freer than he describes), see Jeff Schmidt’s Disciplined Minds.

[11] Note that even if working men didn’t realize or care about the advantage of economic control over their wives and children, they would start valuing it very quickly once it was institutionalized because that’s how these things go. Either way this was a huge problem.

[12] One nice illustration of the absurdity of such a stance is Immanuel Kant’s definition of marriage as a contract for the mutual use of your partner’s genitalia for self-gratification.

[13] But also, to value novelty, to become jaded, and to respond strongly to (fear of) loss of current position, privileges and perks.

[14] There obviously is nothing wrong with helping people without expecting anything back the issue is simply how this help is conceived of, whether it’s a one-sided duty for which you’re not allowed to expect anything (sometimes up to acknowledgment of effort) in return, and so on. And that’s exactly where things go awry in situations of institutionalized exploitation, as those are precisely the circumstances in which those who benefit don’t want to have to acknowledge how important this is for their own position.

[15] See, for example, the research into the effects of using highly-graded social ranking done by the Whitehall Study into the British Civil Service, which found that functioning in such environments greatly increases social stress: Whitehall_Study#Health_risks – Wikipedia. Another issue relating to this that we should take into account is that, especially once basic needs are met, life generally becomes about balancing needs, which includes accepting periods of abuse or exploitation because you’re trying to meet basic needs, or because you’re saving up for a big life event. Manfred Max-Neef has done interesting work on this as an economist, building on and trying to formalize Maslow’s work on needs hierarchies.

[16] Oppositional defiant disorder – Wikipedia.

[17] When it comes to the interaction between politics and biology, I’d strongly recommend people engage with Arnold Schroder’s work and podcast Fight Like an Animal, which can be found via his blog Against the Internet.com. A good starting point is his series of podcasts on the biology of the left/right divide. (Or in essay form.) Another is his podcast on oxytocin, in which he talks about why we cannot wish away human biology, for instance because this hormone both encourages ingroup care behaviors and feelings of tenderness, and helps us to engage in outgroup aggression.

[18] This is not to deny the difficulty in organizing workers who are both afraid to lose their jobs or be deported while also having much lower expectations or a focus on providing for their families through remittances simply because, from their perspective, they benefit greatly while people don’t speak the language, and ethnic differences come into play.

[19] Jeffrey Epstein part 1 – Capitalism Hits Home (D@W). Of course, another part of the problem here is that unions have also refused to deal with workplace safety for women for decades, thereby maintaining a rift between workers rather than ‘using’ this problem to practice worker solidarity.

[20] Free Markets, AIDS and Child Prostitution (Jstor).

[21] For this point, I am indebted to my reading of David Graeber’s Utopia of Rules and Bullshit Jobs.

[22] This relates to but is broader than what academics like to call “opportunity-hoarding.”

[23] One group that nicely illustrates why this formulation (“owning their own means of production”) falls short or is uselessly vague is adjuncts or academics without permanent employment contracts and no outside funding. They now have just as much specialized knowledge and most of the same means of production used by tenured academics. What they lack, mainly, is paid time to do research, access to grant money and Ph.D. students to do grunt work for them. Because access to tertiary education was so greatly enlarged, academics stopped being scarce while access to funding became much scarcer; creating a situation in which they are far too busy jockeying for position to come together to make demands.

Another group is sex workers, who also strictly “own their own means of production,” but for whom it is even more true that the work they do isn’t scarce, while most are unable to extract surplus value because they need to pay “protection” money, and cannot organize because their civil and labor rights generally aren’t protected by the state, and a cross-class coalition works to keep them marginalized.

With these examples in mind, I would say that the class societal character of an occupation (as opposed to that of a person or family) is a combination of the totality of the relationships to relevant means of production, the sector in which the work happens, whether scarcity exists and can be maintained (e.g. by imposing vocational training student limits or guild-like accreditation requirements), what legal and (collective) contractual rights professions (or practitioners) enjoy, what primary/secondary working conditions they have enforced (e.g., guaranteed housing, high salaries) and which social privileges they offer due to the work done and professional network entailed, access to specific use values like land, food, juridical decisions, and so on. And whether and how much power or control they offer over other workers, clients/residents and the organization they exist in. (Here it also matters that although civil servants, managers and academics, among others, do work for a salary or wage, they do not have the same experience of exploitation as other wage workers because it is not exactly clear whether or how they contribute to (surplus value) production; nor, conversely, how surplus value is extracted from their labor.) And besides these more traditional, Marxist, economic ‘social productive’ considerations, there’s also how much effort people have to put into obtaining these other use values, and whether one is exploited or can exploit others in the private sphere.

[24] See, for example, L. Randall Wray, Understanding Modern Money (1998), and Mariana Mazzucato, The Entrepreneurial State (2011). The exception is in times of energy, labor and resource scarcity, as that’s when the material tradeoff between the state and private action is most likely to be at least somewhat zero sum.

[25] This approach centers on privatizing social goods and services to increase opportunities for privatizing public wealth and spending, while only helping the deserving (and really) poor, mostly at the cost of the middling sorts, who pay an ever-increasing share of total taxes.

[26] That said, note that they’re not at all unique in doing so. I’ve written something about the broader tendency to do this here: https://beyondmeritocracy.info/blog/on-personal-responsibility-and-careerism

[27] See this article for a more detailed analysis and explanation: Introduction – BeyondMeritocracy.info.

[28] See, for example, The Family is Dead, Long Live the Family – COSMONAUT.

[29] The most explicit examples showing class relations are taught concern hazing rituals in student organizations and the military. These rituals serve a threefold purpose: to humiliate people to teach them that some people are not worth anything, to make people form bonds through shared humiliation, and to teach all members of the organization to accept humiliation and exploitation as something that either “comes with the territory” or, better yet, is fun or rewarding to engage in. It is perpetuated by everyone’s own subsequent entitlement to treat the next cohort the same way.

[30] This mainly happens in situations of constant scarcity; which is why these may seem somewhat alien to readers who grew up in the energy rich states.

[31] See the CPGB’s draft program formulation here: 4. Character of the Revolution – CPGB.

[32] That is, the first after domesticating the other animals.

[33] Related to this, I think we need to be careful with the division between “[remunerated] ‘social’ or ‘productive’ labor [of goods and services that can be sold at a profit]” and “social reproduction” or “reproductive labor” (associated with private production on the one hand and consumption on the other). I understand why people do this, and there certainly is something to it, but this division remains inside the liberal/capitalist frame, rather than emphasizing that work is work, and maintaining a household and relationships and helping children, friends, and neighbors is just as important to life as is producing commodified goods and services. And the work also often involves exploitation. Economists may ignore this, and the discipline teaches that work only counts as such if a price tag can be put on it. As Marxists, we should be critical of this, rather than going along and implicitly endorsing the notion that commodified production matters more. Terminology matters.

[34] Sticking to women’s issues, see Free Markets, AIDS and Child Prostitution on Thailand; or Jacques Donzelot, The Policing of Families (1997) on the emergence of the patriarchal family in France after the French Revolution in order to ‘sell’ industrialization to male workers; or see this contemporary union report on violence against women in the Asian garment industry: Asia Wage Floor Alliance – Gender based violence. Obviously, there are infinite other examples.

[35] And this is something that the canonical Marxist texts certainly make easy.

[36] I’d say this also implies that we should be a bit more sympathetic to bourgeois/non-communist initiatives that in practice contribute to the reduction of disparities in the treatment of workers and increased solidarity, such as the existing large social movements. Of course, these have their limitations, but it’s clear that our politics have benefited, and that their work has made it easier to organize collectively, among other reasons because they have helped rid a large part of the class of morbid fictions such as that some workers aren’t legal persons, or are incapable of agency, or “without a right to life” (like indigenous peoples if they object to and resist settlement, according to settlers themselves).

[37] Obviously, I haven’t directly dealt with bureaucratization and the policies promoted by the Soviet Union and the antidemocratic control of workers’ organizations to which this led on the one hand, and the NGO-ization of “progressive movements” on the other. But I am hopeful that the analytical frame I’ve put forward here will help undo that (and prevent recurrence) as well. The other big issue I have not gone into here is the question what role the fear of “national immiseration” and/or economic collapse (as opposed to fear of an end to class society) played in motivating capitalists and workers alike to accept class compromises. To the extent that’s a scientific matter, I’d say it doesn’t belong in this article. That said, I would also stress that the past 120 years clearly illustrate that workers’ organizations need to be able to counter the arguments made by bourgeois economists— starting with the conceit that taxes fund spending, and the bromides related to the need for “austerity” when the perpetual growth machine is (locally) stalling. Specifically with respect to the latter, Clara Mattei’s and Mark Blyth’s works on the history of austerity politics should prove useful.

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