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

Date: 2024-02-09T05:00:52+00:00

Location: cosmonautmag.com

Using recent debates over the role of the professional managerial class as a foil, Foppe de Haan argues that in order for the communist movement to transcend the failures of the past, it must go beyond the struggle against capitalism and call for an end to any and all forms of class rule. 


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, from the late 1970s on, a number of people in the US have argued for the existence of a distinct professional/managerial class (PMC), 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.2

On the left, this debate so far has yielded little besides the unhelpful conclusion that only factory (et c.) workers are ‘true’ workers, but that the PMC had to fight alongside them regardless which only served to reify the differences rather than work towards integration. The “PMC debate” then disappeared with the New Left’s collapse. It was only revived recently, 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.

One new contribution to this 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.3 While I appreciated his review, however, 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 Macnair that Liu’s use of “class” is sloppy and workerist, his own definition of class also strikes me as dubious, if in a different way. As such, I felt that both this debate and this amorphous social group, “the PMC” warranted further study.4 This was especially true since I saw a strong connection between Macnair’s narrow definition and the left’s failure to unify the class. I then had an exchange with comrade Macnair in the Weekly Worker, which resulted in this piece.5 I hope it is a stimulating contribution to the discussion of class unity, as well as a few related issues.


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

  1. How can we explain the rise of the PMC and “meritocracy?”
  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 to me, Macnair suggested 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, he 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, whose growth necessarily happens at the expense of the influence over the economy of the private sector.

I agree with comrade Macnair’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.

My analysis has led me to conclude that our difficulty in getting members of this group to join the movement relates to our issues with organizing marginalized social groups, stemming from the mistaken foundational assumption that our fight is with capitalism rather than with class rule. I’d contend that once we take this on board, it quickly becomes clear that one big obstacle to us reaching our goals is that many workers benefit sufficiently from life in class society to the point that they are, at least, ambivalent about ending class rule; while conversely, many marginalized workers are hesitant to join left organizations because they correctlysee the promise of “an end to capitalism” as insufficient. Furthermore, this ambivalence and hesitancy won’t dissipate on their own, because there are structural reasons why many broadly “economic” relations won’t be commodified, and why there is no linear or inexorable process of “proletarianization” that eventually leads to easy unity as illustrated by the past century.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 actions, propaganda, and education, as well as 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,” though it goes back to Marx’s time) approaches and their mostly useless liberal counterparts.

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 Hardly anyone challenges this notion, even though it strongly encourages wishful thinking and everyone knows it gets you nowhere to underestimate your opponents. Since hoping for capitalism to “decline” (let alone “collapse”) hasn’t worked out very well over the past century, I would humbly suggest we finally become empirical about it, at least, no matter how sure we are that “this time is different.” To that end, I would venture that capitalist class societies have been “maturing,” and that the ruling classes have been learning how to quell or undermine social movements even as the social and economic instability on which they thrive remains a factor, especially outside the rich countries.

Beyond that, there’s also the question of which “capital(ism),” as there are quite a few contenders. Broadly speaking, from the 1930s on, mass union and (left) political organizing against the backdrop of a really-existing Soviet sphere generated major pressure on the state and civil society 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. Much of these gains contributed strongly to working class resilience, and made it easier to say no to particularly exploitative working conditions or jobs. This is obviously something that 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, even during the post-war years the propertied classes were able to do a lot to split worker 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 creation and growth of social services and safety nets strongly contributed to the spread and normalization of capitalist relations of production, as the vast majority of organizations were staffed by employees, had managers, and had to constantly adapt to expanding and changing legal and regulatory frameworks. Offering those services grew support for taxation and the state, while the perception that states were open to doing so further decreased dissatisfaction. So, the support for revolution waned, while the provisioning of these new services generated private sector demand, and changes to education 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 pretty high expectations of their new social position irrespective of their politics.10

Having to manage new “welfare states” thus forced the bourgeoisie to learn to administer a public and private domain of hitherto unprecedented size and scope, and to find ways to expand without undermining (but preferably, reinforcing) class rule. So worker movements maintained or increased their dependence on the bourgeois state by embracing the further commodification of social life, while preparing the ground for a rollback or subversion of  gains made. These developments certainly made our lives a lot nicer, but the creation of welfare states and enormous legal-regulatory apparatuses also greatly benefited economic growth and the overall robustness of the class societies we still inhabited. Class rule was maintained or even enhanced by offering those (im)material benefits in ways that furthered 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. Then, from the 1980s onward, the propertied classes managed to (semi-)privatize and marketize most of what had been created and won, while ignoring or outright neutering many unions and other worker organizations.

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 it has entailed. While I agree that capitalist relations are the dominant social form of class exploitation, I think that our singular focus on this relation has led to profound strategic mistakes. It has allowed left liberals to feign hostility to “capitalism,” plus a few forms of chauvinism, while remaining silent on the question of how they feel about class rule generally. Our side has not forced the issue and used inconsistencies to our advantage by emphasizing the similarities between all forms of institutionalized exploitation and “class relations”. It has also made us take no heed of the fact that members of the propertied classes aren’t merely concerned with preventing and combating (self-)emancipatory politics in the workplace, but also with expanding their ability to force people to do work for them in private and informal settings. 

The best illustration that private exploitation also matters to capitalists to me is how white women were largely kicked out of the US workforce again after World War II, even though workers were already scarce due to the draft, multiple ongoing foreign occupations and wars, and access to tertiary education. Taken together, these measures greatly increased worker scarcity, bargaining power, and wage levels while decreasing potential profits. Yet, women were forced back into the home anyway, with broad support from a cross-class coalition made up of prospective husbands and fathers of families.11

I would posit that, generally speaking, 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 those power relationships and the (heavily skewed) division of labor so that there is little to no need for physical force or coercion that would expose the power relation. Such arrangements work best when people are socialized to find those relationships normal, for example by growing up in a world in which most people unquestioningly participate in wage labor and the subordination of women and children to men, and in which people constantly experience and use more or less subtle forms of coercion to get others to obey and help them.12

At a macro level, this leads to societies where groups of people are expected to unquestioningly help others, and to the making scarce of valuable goods and services, with access mediated either through market or other mechanisms (like power or social status, membership in or employment by certain organizations or institutions, et c.). We know that even the most trivial differences in access and treatment can be meaningful because of something that you’d evolutionarily expect to find in group-living species, namely that group members are highly attuned to noticing small differences in the treatment of relative equals but quick to accept large differences as “the way of the world.”13

In capitalist societies the politically primary form of exploitation 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 can be derived from controlling the process of the production and sale of goods and services (such as making profit and being able to direct people to further your organization’s goals), there are many use values that matter to people’s lives and require labor to produce or deliver. For instance, those related to family life, friendships, and sexual and romantic relationships. All of these require active maintenance, and produce use values for people. Much of the socially desirable and necessary labor that goes into producing them isn’t “socializable” (or commodifiable) because people do not want to (have to) obtain all the use values that matter to them through the market, and to fully commodify their lives.14

Since human beings aren’t just concerned with control over the means of production but also with these other use values, and since we’re evolutionarily predisposed to maximize convenience and notice social distinctions, it follows that people will value the little things, and try to get others to perform certain tasks or roles for them without having to reciprocate.15 As such, any means that allows someone to direct others to supply them with such use values may be considered or turned into— a class societal benefit or relation that contributes to the attraction of, and support for, class rule. (With envy playing a useful role in getting people to participate.)

The more such private benefits can be accessed thusly, the more people will think it normal that society works this way, and the more likely they are to support and defend the principle. Since 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. Meaning mainly through socialization (which will involve the occasional use of violence).

The “price” of use values produced by non-commoditized labor can be lowered in a few ways. First, by culturally devaluing some types of labor (domestic, care for family, children, the sick and elderly), or by coding it as a duty. Secondly and conversely, by dehumanizing or devaluing 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). 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 what people can demand for their social or paid labor as well as how we treat them privately.

In people’s lives, this socialization generally starts with authoritarian parental (and “adult-child” and “teacher-student”) dynamics, in which primarily fathers (but often all adults) 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 illustration of this is in how many children are diagnosed with “disorders” like ODD or ADHD, relating to “disobedience” or “rebelling against authority.”16 This is largely a question of industrial societies pathologizing children for being unable and unwilling to fall in line behind rules and expectations that barely fit children’s developmental needs.

At a different level, ethnic chauvinism and “patriotism” (which hijacks our species’ territorial tendency) helped make workers buy into fighting countless wars and other efforts to undermine worker power.17 As the prime, multiethnic settler-colonial empire, US history is replete with instances of this, but let me use a European example. From the 1950s through 1980s, ethnic chauvinism aided the propertied classes in bringing millions of “guest workers” to Europe to undermine local workers and union power by arguing countries lacked sufficient workers to maintain growth, with the populations making at best token efforts to organize with or alongside these new workers, or even to organize solidarity actions for equal treatment and pay.18 This is still very much an issue, as even today, most of the political efforts by, say, the Dutch Socialist Party that concern migrant labor involve politicizing the upheaval created by the arrival of overworked and bunk-housed newcomers in existing neighborhoods coupled with pleas for quota, or temporary worker visa schemes, to supposedly make them harder for bosses to exploit. All of this serves mainly to reinforce the division between “us” and “them” on the organizational and cultural levels, and increase profit margins and revenues.

Lastly, and on a different level again, 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 by offering sought-after use values like sex and sexual access to beautiful women by commoditizing them.19 Or, on a larger scale, how the “sex tourism” industry both serves to commodify human interactions and contributes to 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

Besides interactions and exploitation in the (mostly) private sphere and how they interact with 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 stems from how companies and other institutions are organized. All managers (and similarly, tenured professors) are allowed to claim the work of “their” team in negotiations for promotions, rewards, and performance bonuses— an experience that underlies many Dilbert comics, and phenomena like ‘failing up.’ Such dynamics involve a more indirect form 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.

Finally, in class societies, workers who do scarce (and “respected,” “important” or “difficult”— primarily mental—) work, and/or who are well-organized, tend to be paid better and have better secondary benefits, leading them to be able to afford or 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 are able to afford or may be invited to join organizations that maintain high entry barriers so that members can 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.21 The converse is also true: 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 is clearly a tangible (if diffuse and messy) part of an answer to the question of what one’s class position is. Or, to formulate it in a manner more in line with my overall argument, society being organized this way impacts the (im)material interests people have in maintaining class rule.22 Which means that people’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 “having one’s own means of production” into “being able to control income and/or surplus value streams”—this is far too focused on the economic sphere and on surplus value as the central use value to be able to fully explain workers’ commitments to class rule.23

Which brings me to one 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’d 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 can 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 is part of how they function, both on the job and in their homes. As such, these dynamics express and embody politics even when they happen on the level of personal interactions.

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 relations by workers. We should take these things 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 don’t formally learn that this is okay— even (especially) in schools, much of what’s taught is simply how to act in a hierarchically structured environment, rather than the subject matter. The question is how to be constructive about making the class see why they should object to and combat this, after the left refused to engage with it for most of the past century. Furthermore, we need to take into account the ability to obtain other use values, and the discrimination and marginalization of other social groups.

On Hegemony and the Bourgeois State

In the introduction, I said Macnair sees a causal relationship between growing political and cultural dominance of “the PMC” and its ideology, “meritocracy,” and the decline of capitalism. He suggests this means the propertied classes are losing power to the state, which presages the “decline” of capitalism because the state’s growth diminishes the private sector’s ability to control the society’s course of development.

This strikes me as too simple. As I wrote earlier, the modern state plays an enormous positive role in developing the economy and class society. And especially in the richer states, state spending and economic influence is only weakly constrained by taxation. As such, its actions will generally doubly stimulate private sector growth and development, except in times of energy and resource scarcity.24 For this reason alone, it makes no sense to argue 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 push policies that contribute to the further spread of class-societal norms and relations, especially since the neoliberal approach has become dominant.25 Furthermore, in periods of social unrest or economic stagnation, the existence of a robust “PMC” is advantageous to the propertied classes, as the former will seek solutions that maintain or stabilize class rule. Those solutions need in no way be progressive. Both the “War on Drug[user]s” and destroying welfare policies by promoting envy while cutting budgets, citing the putative need for “balancing the budget” or “austerity,” comfortably fall within this category.

What I’d propose instead is that “the PMC”  has a shared ideology and overlapping interests that’s no direct threat to capitalist rule because it revolves around the spread and promotion of class relations and commodification. And while I’ll happily grant the relationship between the growth of their influence and the size of the state, I’d stress that neither such development, nor having more rules and regulations, changes anything about the social dominance of the capitalist mode, but especially relations of production. Because even if “the PMC” were to achieve political dominance, they’d still rule capitalist societies, given that this social group has no control over the means of production (or even really over the state apparatus), and strictly believes in the separation of powers, sanctity of contracts, the constitution, and the value form, with sections being 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 worker- or, occasionally, propertied class-power, especially if working class organizations are strong. But that’s about it.

As an 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 enforcement serves 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 what to pursue and what to let go. Meanwhile, “maintaining order” largely involves evictions, demonstration-harassment, and police officers requiring obedience from citizens, using their powers to ensure compliance. Yet they prefer to see themselves as cogs in a machine and deny responsibility for their actions by suggesting they are simply enforcing the law. A million and a half cop shows encourage citizens to view society through their eyes, normalizing this.

Now, police officers have far more direct power over others than many bureaucrats. But I find them interesting for that very reason. They (like militaries) exist because coercion and physical force are necessary to carry out decisions made by (liberal) bureaucracies. And broad acceptance of their functioning illustrates how effectively we have all been socialized to see that as normal or even desirable, with anyone translating criticism of excesses and abuse of power into a broad critique of bourgeois rule.

State bureaucrats obviously differ from their analogs in the (quasi) private sector in terms of 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 almost 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 has neither the ability nor the dream of expropriating, or politically-neutralizing, the propertied classes. On this front, 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.

That said, I would add that “meritocracy” is much more than just a state ideology of a particular social group. Equally relevant is what I’d call 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. By way of a succinct illustration, consider how normal yet circular it is that people who are “found wanting”—because of labels like “woman,” “Asian,” “Muslim,” “gay,” “trans,” “less-educated,” “poor,” or what have you— are often said to owe their second-class citizenship to themselves. For instance, when bullies attack someone for “looking like a little girl.”26 If we want 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, they 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.

More on How Ignoring “the PMC” Facilitates Class Division

Let me now turn to my second major objection to Macnair’s analysis of “the PMC:” the one-sidedness of his analysis of “the PMC’s” role in terms of the functioning of the bourgeois state, and their tendency towards self-enrichment.

In countries with underdeveloped citizenries and state apparatuses, it’s often the case that nepotism, self-enrichment, and incompetence pose problems for the state’s credibility and stability. In developed capitalist states, however, these seem to be 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 the work and of families, opportunities for familial enrichment have meaningfully declined.27 At the same time, the case of the US also shows that capitalist states can institutionalize enormous amounts of corruption and graft without this causing revolutionary unrest. All that’s needed is that any hatred and distrust is channeled properly (say by promoting cynicism like “the federal government is useless and to blame for everything,” coupled with regionalism or soft separatism). Nevertheless, this doesn’t begin to cover the problems caused by “the PMC’s”  existence.

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

Since World War II, we’ve seen an enormous increase in the size of the domain of the market (or commodified social life), as well as the public sphere and nonprofit sector. Consequently, the simple dichotomy between those who have to work for others and those who parasitize on their labor has become a lot less useful and “clean.” Class relations and commodification have expanded and normalized further, and a large fraction of the class now is professionally involved in (re)producing them, as well as in occupationally exerting power over others (and benefiting from these arrangements in various ways).

This increase in the number of functions that give workers power over others (also a big issue in the Soviet sphere) illustrates that part of the propertied classes understand that support for class rule increases as these principles are embedded in and embodied by more practices and organizations.28 As I have discussed, the social roles performed by members of “the PMC” tend to involve the exercise of power over others, either as “rent-seeking” use value-extraction through control over scarce resources or services, or by indirect exploitation through being empowered to compel others to further your 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). 

Many workers occasionally experience the benefits of living in a class society, if only by being paid well because they are willing to take flak for your a boss as a middle manager, by demanding and teaching “their” students’ obedience, or by forcing their wives and children to be at their beck and call, and to be able to claim the best/most food or other essentials.

The more such practices exist, the more likely people are to embrace the principle, even when their own exploitation angers them. Furthermore, the existence of these kinds of organizational roles serves to concretely curtail people’s autonomy, and to create contradictions and conflicts within the class that frustrate class unification.

It therefore puzzles me that comrade Macnair 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 doesn’t seem to grasp the relevance of (or want to acknowledge the existence of) such dynamics. This not least because even if it were true that workers have no stake in maintaining class society, and that they simply acquiesce to the fact that they live in capitalist class societies, this doesn’t matter much in practice. Because involuntary reproduction of class relations (especially cross-generationally) is equally effective in reinforcing their normality. 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 is agreed on, it follows that most of the working class will defend class relations as desirable at least in some contexts, and not just professionally, either. Which means it has more to lose than “its chains,” and that the problem is deeper than that workers have internalized chauvinistic and pro-class rule attitudes.29

Denying or ignoring this and hoping that doing so will aid ‘class unity’ against the most economically- and politically-important form of exploitation is, thus, 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 the concluding section, I’d first like to make one final point about class divisions other than wage exploitation. 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).30

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.31 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 that I 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. Such relations are highly useful in facilitating other forms of exploitation and capitalist development, and in dividing those who have to work for a living.32

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 playing reactive games of whack-a-mole.

On Organizing the Class

One thing that saddened me in writing this is that these aren’t novel or deep 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.33 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.34 Only as we start to make work of this will we be able to build healthy, broad movements that work toward ending this.35

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 benefit 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, and address 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 have to 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 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 that’s now 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’s 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 building of a robust and healthy labor movement was only valued instrumentally. 

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.

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  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. 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 eg Bruno Latour, We have never been modern (2005).
  3. American ‘Blue Labour’? – Weekly Worker.
  4. 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. Nevertheless, it’s not one ‘class’ in the traditional sense, 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.
  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. This has been almost completely rewritten since.
  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 are 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,’ eg 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. Again, 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.
  13. 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.
  14. 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.
  15. But also to value novelty, to become jaded, and to respond strongly to (fear of) loss of current position, privileges and perks.
  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).
  20. Free Markets, AIDS and Child Prostitution (Jstor).
  21. This relates to but is broader than what academics like to call “opportunity-hoarding.”
  22. Obviously, my argument in this section could be elaborated further, as this is just an introduction.
  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).
  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 large share of total taxes.
  26. See this article for a more detailed analysis and explanation: Introduction – BeyondMeritocracy.info.
  27. See, for example, The Family is Dead, Long Live the Family – COSMONAUT.
  28. The most explicit examples showing that class relations are taught and how are 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.
  29. See the CPGB’s draft programme formulation here: 4. Character of the Revolution – CPGB.
  30. After domesticating animals.
  31. 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.
  32. 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.
  33. And this is something that the canonical Marxist texts certainly make easy.
  34. ’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).
  35. 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-ification 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.