Mark, you are involved in an organisation called What about Classism? Can you tell us what is Classism, some of the causes and how it has developed?
(Before answering your questions I want to inform the readers that definitions of any slightly technical terms used here – including classism – can be found at our Glossary.)
Classism is a form of social discrimination that has its roots in rigged economics. By rigged economics I mean a system of production, allocation and consumption that is designed and structured by elites to primarily serve their class interests over and above, as well as at the expense of, the interests of everyone else (not to mention that of the natural environment!).
In this way, you might say that rigged economics institutionalises classism which has the effect of normalising classism at the individual level. This means that people internalise the organising principles of rigged economics into their belief system – often without even knowing it – and with it adopting a classist outlook. That is how classism is maintained and perpetuated – from institution to individual, from one generation to the next.
Classism has a long history but in its present formulation we can trace it back to the rise of capitalism and the emergence of the coordinator class. From this perspective we are looking at a three class system with the capitalist class (1 or 2%) and the coordinator class (about 20%) making up the economic elite. The remaining 80 or so percent are the working class (including the unemployed) who, of course, are the ones who are on the sharp end of classism.
An important insight that follows from this – especially for anti-capitalist activists – is that we can get rid of the capitalists (the 1 or 2 percent) and their economic system (capitalism) and still have classism – an insight that was made all too real by Lenin during the Russian Revolution where the coordinator class rose to power off the back of a popular movement and then used that power to ensure that the working class continued in their traditional role of following orders from above. Although informed by Fabianism and not Marxism, I would say that a similar logic applies to the Labour Party here in the UK.
Why is classism ignored compared to racism and sexism?
When you say “ignored” I assume you are referring to the way in which the media rarely, if ever, mention classism when discussing social discrimination. Naturally this media bias informs public awareness so we also rarely hear people, “on the street” – so to speak, pulling each other up for being classist in the same way, for example, as we do these days for being racist or sexist.
To understand why this is happening we need to look at current anti-discriminatory legislation in this country (Britain). That piece of legislation is called the Equality Act, which was passed in 2010. The thing to understand about the Equality Act is that it effectively defines what equality actually means in this country today. It does that by highlighting what are called “protected characteristics” and there are nine of them. Combined, then, these nine protected characteristics constitute a legal definition of equality. The other thing to understand about the Equality Act is that not one of these protected characteristics addresses social discrimination in terms of class or classism.
This is why, in the six years following the passing of the Equality Act the economic inequality gap can widen and no one blinks an eye. What we need to understand here is that the Equality Act was written by the same elites that benefit from rigged economics and that it would be naive of us to expect anything different. And this, of course, is why classism is systematically ignored from the top-down. To counter this, what is needed is some bottom-up pressure – hence, What About Classism?
Classism can affect all classes. American academic Betsy Leondar-Wright has written on this. Can you explain the effects of classism on the different classes? Can you begin by shedding light on how it affects workers and organising?
Leondar-Wright’s initial research focused on class dynamics inside social justice groups and organisations within the US. What she found was that activist from different class backgrounds approached organising in different ways. The implications of her research, as I understand them, are that it would be helpful for social justice activists to become more aware of these differences in order to avoid the problems that they can often generate – thus making activist efforts more effective.
I have not done any formal research on the subject myself but the effects classism has on different classes seems to me to be pretty straightforward. I would say that rigged economics systematically disempowers the working class whilst systematically empowering both the coordinator and capitalist classes. Another way of saying this is that despite being a minority, elites get a much bigger slice of the economic pie than the majority, and to make matters worse, economic elites tend to have much better working conditions, etc. This double injustice can only be maintained if myths about the superiority of economic elites are internalised by the majority of the general public. My personal feeling is that most people are already aware of this injustice (at least to some extent) but that they buy into another myth – namely the belief that there is nothing that can be done about it. This, however, is nothing more than a self-fulfilling prophecy – i.e. if we believe it then it becomes the reality but if we stop believing it then all kinds of things can happen.
I would also add to this rather obvious observation that, just as slavery was dehumanising for both slave and master, in the same way classism is equally dehumanising for all three classes. There are, I would say, no real winners in this system – just different kinds and levels of losers. From this perspective everyone has a vested interest in addressing classism.
With regards to workers and organising I would say that the working class have been alienated from their own organisations (the Trade Unions) and their movement (organised labour) by the coordinator class and their professional managerial culture. Ironically this has all been facilitated by socialists within the Left who talk about alienation all the time. This, it seems to me, represents the fundamental problem that we face.
You have decided to take a human rights approach to addressing classism. Human rights issues in the refugee crisis have exposed human rights as weak protectors of human interests, why would it be any different for classism?
Human rights represents the only rational framework that I know of for thinking about, discussing and organising for progress and social justice. Human rights are based on what are sometimes referred to as self-evident truths and natural rights which are said to apply across the species – i.e. they are universal. To my knowledge all anti-discriminatory campaign groups – from the Chartists, the Women’s Movement, the Black Civil Rights Movement to the LGBT Movement – have all been informed by this kind of philosophy and, to be frank, I don’t see any reason to abandon it.
Your question, however, seems to suggest that one good reason to abandon human rights as an approach to addressing classism is due to its apparent failure to avoid the current refugee crisis. To my mind this fails to appreciate the real causes of this crisis. It seems to me that the problem here is not the philosophy of human rights, per se, but rather the distorting effects classism has on the application of human rights. If taken seriously human rights would inform social reforms that would undo classism but elites are not going to just let that happen. So, just as the notion of equality has to be managed in order to minimise its actual social implications the same also holds true for human rights. The refugee crisis (along with many of the other major problems in the world today – again, including the environmental crisis) is a product of classism not a product of the failed philosophy of human rights. Such crises are exactly what we should expect in a world where the notion of equality is legally laid down in the way that elites currently define it.
What kind of solutions are there to the problems associated with classism? What might a progression route to dealing with classism look like?
The most obvious problem associated with classism is economic inequality. However, as I have already suggested, rigged economics / classism is the root cause of many of the most serious problems we face today. Other, perhaps less obvious, examples include the debasing of the democratic process and perpetual conflict and war – the latter of which relates to the above question regarding the refugee crisis.
A progression route that would address these kinds of problems would need to get to the root cause of classism. This kind of analysis would reveal to us what needs to change (I discuss this in some detail below). It seems to me, though, that getting to and undoing classism should be at the heart of the Labour movement and perhaps particularly the Trade Unions. The problem is that since the end of the Second World War the Labour movement has, to a large extent, become part of the Establishment. This means that the very organisations that should be fighting rigged economics and classism are actually helping to maintain it. Worse, the Labour / Trade Union movements are themselves classist.
Now, it seems to me that this analysis suggests at least one possible progression route for a pressure group like What About Classism? That route is to organise to put pressure on specific parts of the Establishment – namely the Trade Unions. The idea would be to initiate transformation inside the Trade Unions which then could be used to effect broader social transformation. My feeling is that putting rigged economics and classism at the heart of trade unionism, where it belongs, would be a very good strategy for trade union revitalisation, which is a subject that trade unionists talk about all the time these days. Such a strategy would be a good way for the working class to regain control of their organisations and movements from the elitist managerial culture of the coordinator class.
Is classlessness an objective and if so what would the vision of a classless society look like?
Our mission is to “reduce, and ultimately eliminate, classism”. The elimination of classism is the same thing as classlessness. So yes, that is our objective.
To effectively dismantle classism we need to identify the sources of class power for economic elites. The analysis that informs this project highlights two such sources – the first being private ownership of the means of production, and the second being the corporate division of labour.
It follows from this analysis that if we are to move towards classlessness, that is to say if we are to unrigged the economy, then these two sources of elite class power will have to go. That, if you like, is one half of the vision. However, because economies need a way to organise ownership of the means of production and the division of labour in order to function we will also need to replace these existing structures with new ones. These new structures would be the other half of the vision.
So what we are looking at is more of a redesign of existing structures as opposed to a simple dismantling. What we put in the place of private ownership of the means of production and the corporate division of labour remains an open question – but the participatory economics (parecon) model offers some good options for people to consider.