An interview with Michael Albert (ZNet)
Since Occupy it has become fashionable for progressives to talk about the 1% vs the 99%. This two class analysis, however, has a much longer history. For example, Marxists typically highlight two classes - the capitalist class and the working class - and like Occupy focus people’s attention on the problem with an economic system that runs primarily in the interests of an economic elite - whether it be the capitalists or the 1%. We have seen this kind of analysis during the Bernie Sanders campaign in the US and here in the UK with Momentum - which is the organisation behind Jeremy Corbyn. I want to ask you about this analysis in light of the victory of Donald Trump in your country and Brexit in mine. But before doing that, I was wondering if you could comment on the efficacy of this analysis.
What the analysis you refer to explicitly says is correct and profoundly important, though sometimes rendered a bit obscure by rhetoric. What the analysis leaves out, however, is also profoundly important and the absence severely undercuts the value of the positive insights.
The correct part is that by virtue of owning the tools and resources that society uses to feed and sustain itself, “capitalists” dominate much of social, political, cultural, and of course economic life. A tiny group of owners profit off others’ efforts. By controlling major centers of power and influence and having vast wealth with which to buy whatever they want, capitalists overwhelmingly determine how everyone lives. To have an equitable, classless economy requires eliminating monopolization of productive property.
What the view leaves out, however, is that capitalists are not the only class that has major relative advantages. Below capitalists, but above what I will call the working class, is what I would call the coordinator class. This group doesn’t benefit from monopolizing means of production, but, instead, from monopolizing empowering roles in the economy. Within capitalist economies, they are a class between labor and capital, but they are also a class that can rule when capitalism is replaced by a predominantly two class alternative, as has been the case with what has been called centrally planned and market socialism - which should both be called, instead, I think, coordinatorism. To have an equitable, classless economy therefore also requires eliminating monopolization of empowering work.
I know that this is something that you (and your old friend and collaborator, Robin Hahnel) have been talking about since the 1970’s and yet little on the Left seems to have changed. Could you speculate on why that is? What might be the reasons for resisting the kind of analysis that you have presented? Who might stand to gain by ignoring this analysis?
Sometimes a new viewpoint takes a long time to garner substantial support because it is seriously complicated or even just accessible but quite far from familiar thoughts. But is that the answer in this case?
Consider the claim that if 20% of society monopolizes all the empowering tasks in the economy than that 20% will, by virtue of their monopoly, accrue more confidence and influence than those below, more power than those below, more wealth than those below, and, based on that wealth and power, considerable daily direct control over economic and social life. Put more specifically, consider the claim that doctors, lawyers, engineers, high level managers, and so on, will have due to their position in the economy doing ample empowering work far greater income and influence over social life than assemblers, short order cooks, delivery folks, and so on due to their position doing only disempowering work.
Consider as well the claim that if capitalists are removed by eliminating private ownership of the means of production but we retain the old corporate division of labor and other structures that hand all the empowering tasks to 20% and leave the other 80% with only disempowering, repetitious, and obedient tasks - then the former class will dominate the latter class dictating to rote workers from above.
I maintain that neither claim is particularly complex and that both should be clearly evident from even a perfunctory open minded look at history and current relations. I would also say that while the two claims are incredibly far from the common sense assumptions of members of the coordinator class, they are potentially obvious, sometimes spontaneously and sometimes only when directly raised, to most members of the working class.
If all that is right, then it follows that it probably isn’t only difficulty that prevents this kind of analysis from spreading. But what other factor may be at play?
We all have inclinations and biases stemming from our beliefs and habits, not to mention our outright material interests. These biases and assumptions coming from the behaviors and beliefs our circumstances impose on us impact how we come at issues and problems.
As but one example, if you are white in a grossly racist society, then even if you are sincerely intellectually against racism, nonetheless, the way you have been brought up, the circumstances you inhabit, and very probably the messages you daily receive tend to limit and skew your understanding. You may intellectually and even morally and emotionally reject racism and yet, at some level, nonetheless accept certain of its rationalizations and habits.
It is also true that if you are black in such a society, again, the horrible structures around you are likely to have impacted your beliefs and habits, sometimes quite adversely. The effects of racism on the dominant group, but also on the subordinate group, are real and serious and only dissipate with real effort and especially due to countervailing experiences. The same holds for gender issues, of course, and about race and gender every progressive knows all this quite well, and usually quite directly.
Translate these understandings - which few do - to the realm of class. Add to the situation that while there is considerable progressive attention to the existence of owners and workers, there is almost no attention to the specific existence and role of a coordinator class, much less understanding of the social - not biological - roots of its existence.
As a result, it is commonplace that people of all sorts take for granted that some people are born to make decisions and other people are born to obey. This seems to most observers to be foreordained and written in stone. And this belief, so prevalent it doesn’t even need to be enunciated, is not unlike, a half century ago, most people thinking that women had no capacity beyond serving husbands and birthing children, or that blacks had no capacity for anything other than using muscles and obeying orders.
The class analog is to think that people who assemble things, tend tables, drive busses, carry boxes, etc., have no capacity for doing richer, more empowering tasks, and that those who do richer, more empowering tasks are intrinsically suited to them. The social cause of the class division between the empowered coordinator class and disempowered working class is hidden by an assumption of capacity for the former and lack of capacity for the latter just as the division between Black and white, say, or male and female, has also been thought to be born of different intrinsic capacities and not imposed by contingent structures.
Okay, so, if the misconception that the different circumstances, incomes, and power of the working class on the one hand, and of the coordinator class on the other hand, come from different intrinsic capacities, rather than being imposed by institutions is prevalent, the lack of attention to the contrary idea is no longer so hard to understand.
Proposing the existence and importance of the coordinator class and expecting a serious hearing becomes like telling your associates dogs can talk and expecting them to take time off from all their other pursuits to examine your claim and then support it.
The claim about a third critically important class, in other words, is off the charts for people and not worth any time because to them it appears so utterly ludicrous, for those in or aspiring to be in the coordinator class, and so evidently ghettoized, for those who would otherwise readily understand it.
Of course, the fact that this mindset corresponds to the self image needed by coordinator class members to justify their advantages and feel good about themselves even as they benefit from unjust monopolization of empowering work, and even corresponds to working class members looking for ways to simply survive their disadvantages without exploding into furious anger in a context where options for fighting back are horribly limited, both drive and abet the tendency to rule out such a perspective - just as once in the past, similar mindsets and interests made many people dismiss arguments about the positive capacities of women and minorities as ridiculous.
Likewise, and finally, the fact that the coordinator class occupies positions of power vis a vis media and communications, not just managing the factory floor or arguing legal cases, or doing surgeries, but also controlling what is and what isn’t widely communicated in society means media, and often even progressive media, is overwhelmingly closed for exploring this class issue, partly as a matter of material and social self defense, and partly as a matter of manifesting deep rooted identity serving assumptions.
Okay, so how does your analysis relate to current events? What, for example, does it tell us about Brexit and Trump? Why are so many “ordinary” people seemingly turning away from progressive politics?
There are many factors and variables at play, of course. But one pretty simple one which comes into play almost all the time including in these cases, seems to me to be whether progressive politics is believable to working people.
Suppose a mafia boss comes to town and claims he will raise the well being of everyone by his policies if you will only give him free space to do as he chooses. The words taken alone ring wonderful. If he accomplishes what he claims, it will be excellent. But you probably say no, I won’t support the mafia boss, because his fancy rhetoric aside, I don’t trust that he will do as he says. I believe, instead, he will do what the mafia always does as always solely in pursuit of mafia gains.
Okay, so what if a clear cut emissary of a class that daily dominates you in ways that of late have been getting steadily worse comes to town and says he or she will serve not his or her class, or even higher classes still further up, but you. You have grave doubts. What if someone else comes along, and he is really rich too, or even richer, but he is the only other choice and he sounds more like you, he seems to empathize better, and he carries less baggage you are aware of, and his promises seem to you more believable and to go much further. And so on.
The rejection of mildly progressive policies when they don’t register as honest shouldn’t be too surprising. To gravitate toward abstention seems obvious, and has been predominant for ages. To gravitate, instead, toward monstrous views requires further explanation - but not too much more explanation if the monster does a great job of appearing to be other than he is regarding what you take to be central concerns. We have seen that often, too. And if the monster marshals fear and hate effectively that adds to his momentum, of course. And we have seen that too.
What would have been different if Sanders had run in the U.S. instead of Clinton? I think the main thing would have been that far more people - on all sides - would have believed he meant what he said. Which, indeed, I think would have been true. With Clinton, far fewer people thought she meant any of the progressive stuff, so much fewer that in certain states, she lost, and as a result she lost the overall electoral college election. Again, lots of variables were operating, but one, which was clearly visible I think, was many voters’ justified distrust of and even anger and hostility toward the coordinator class and its culture and dismissiveness. To have that be the lying emissary of progressive politics causes the latter to lose legitimacy by the association.
This has been occurring for a long time, especially in the US., but elsewhere too. Left ideas can reach into diverse communities, yet not as much into working class communities - and this analysis says one reason for that could be that class conscious anti coordinatorist working communities find the left off putting precisely and sadly, often accurately due to its coordinatorist dismissiveness toward working people.
Are the current structures of progressive organisations in line with the kind of values and goals we espouse? What does this say about the current structures that dominate progressive political organisations? How might we organise in a way that brings about the changes we say we want?
I think to be in line with our most worthy values our institutions would need to be feminist, anti racist, anti authoritarian, and anti classist, not just in words, but in their very definition and structure. This is both so they would lead toward our full goals, but also so they would appropriately respect and involve all potential allies in the present, not alienate and exclude or mistreat them.
We have tried very consciously and with considerable though not complete success yet to pursue racial and gender parts of that agenda, but we have been rather poor about the class parts of that agenda, most often not even trying. Too often our efforts still utilize internal divisions of labor and also decision making methods that are coordinatorist and that thus say to workers, this movement really isn't about your liberation. It elevates others above you. It leads somewhere you don't desire to go, and it treats you as subordinate along the way.
Without offering a book on the subject, it seems to me the answer to how to organize more successfully is to do so in ways that foreshadow and are consistent with attaining feminist, anti racist, self managing, and classless goals.
Let me add one last comment. Trump elected. People wonder why, what went wrong. People, including serious leftists, offer answers. Almost without exception the answers point to faults and failings of others then the person offering them.
Consider a serious activist who has been active for a decade or two or five. Which such activist says, well, our feminist work, our anti racist work, our peace work, our ecology work, or, most of all, our anti corporate, anti capitalist work, has not successfully reached far enough...we have not done our job well enough? Pointing at mainstream parties, at mainstream media, at segments of progressives other than ourselves as cause of the recent horrors, all has some logic, to be sure. But what about admitting that something about our radical approaches, our radical words, our radical styles, our radical organizations has prevented our affecting huge numbers of working people even enough so they wouldn't support vile insanity, much less enough so they would be by now actively participating in and leading progressive and revolutionary agendas? And yet, if we want to win, aren't our own choices where we need to look most closely for what we can change to do better?