When I was sixteen years old, I set out, with a friend who was a full year wiser than I, to resolve the problems with Historical Materialism, the second branch in the holy trinity of Marxist ideology (dialectic materialism and scientific socialism being the other two).
The way it was taught to us in school was a fairly faithful representation of Marx’s ideas. Before the formation of class societies, we had primitive communism, then we had the class societies, you know, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles….” and after a brief interlude of socialism, we will arrive to a higher order classless society. (well summed up here). We found it unacceptable. It’s not that we were that smart, it is the Marxist concept of class that was so stupid that even a couple of brainwashed 16-17 year olds could not live with it. The point of our ‘effort’ was to remove the inevitability aspect from the Marxist historical determinism. We wanted to believe that the reality we were living was not the end of history.
When Iván Szelényi and György Konrád published their book “The Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power”; it did not lessen the deterministic anxiety. The fall of communism seemed like some sort of vindication, but my joy was short-lived.
Living in Canada today, I have to think about class again. As all developed countries are marching proudly on The Road To Serfdom we need to understand the forces that are moving us in the wrong direction. Class interest is the primary moving force but existing theories are not up to the task of explaining them.
The subject is big. All I can hope to achieve is to give you the napkin-notes to a new way of looking at class.
What is class?
The dictionary definitions are a bit vague:
“A group sharing the same economic or social status <the working class>“ – Webster
“A group of people within a society who share the same social and economic status” – Encarta
The encyclopedias will define it a bit more verbose, along the lines of three approaches: political, economic/statistical and sociological.
The political definition works very well in the pre-industrial societies where social class was defined by laws and heredity, but it is a little more difficult to define political classes in the relatively free democratic societies without formal barriers to social mobility. Marxist ideologues look more and more like intellectual contortionist trying to squeeze 21st century reality of social democracies into Marx’s inadequate oppressor vs oppressed framework.
The most widely used approach today is statistical, dividing society along more or less arbitrary lines based on income.
The Sociological definitions try to group people based on their social behaviour and attitude. The most entertaining of these is Paul Fussel’s book: Class
The Marxist definition of class is about power relations. To the economic and sociological definitions political power is incidental, it is not at the core of the definitions.
What I would like to suggest is a functional definition along the lines of political interest and relation to power.
Social classes have clearly definable interests and motivations determining their political stance and political actions. Understanding class interest and the mechanisms through which political classes are trying to influence the state in their own favour is essential to understanding the nature of power in modern social democracies.
My definition of class in a democratic society is:
“a group of people within a society that share the same political and economic interest and act on them in more or less same way, often in an orchestrated manner”
Social classes may be defined by lifestyle or income, but political classes must be defined by shared political interest.
The Marxist definition is too rigid; you may find mine a little too loose. It has to be so as it is focusing on interests and activities, not on status and lifestyle. Most members of the classes I define are fairly static members of their class, but often have divided and occasionally conflicting loyalties. The essence of the definition is that we should focus on shared interest, attitude and activities, not on financial or social background.
What is power?
Power is the ability to do things. Economic power is the ability to produce and trade things, political power is the ability to force others to do things that they otherwise would not do. Since the state has a monopoly on the use of force, political power is the ability to influence the state so that it sets enforces the rules to favour your interest.
What is interest?
Our interest both as individuals and as members of society is to maximize our potentials. To get the most for the least. The most benefit with the least effort. The best possible price for our products, the highest salaries for our efforts under the best possible working conditions, guaranteed markets with the least possible competition, the most power with the least responsibility. We are all personal and collective interest maximizers.
I don’t think even Marx would disagree at this point. Well, maybe not Marx, the revolutionary, but Lassalle would agree for sure. The interest of the capitalist is to maximize profit; the worker’s is to maximize wages.
Political interest is to get as much benefit for the social groups and classes represented as possible.
It would be easy to follow the example of the most often used classification (upper-middle-lower) and say that there are only three classes: The productive, the distributor and dependent classes but that would be a little simplistic. Still, I will use it as a skeleton to expose the rest.
The political class
…..is the politicians, the justice system, law enforcements, the people who have direct power over our lives, the ones who can make decisions affecting our lives.
The interest of the politicians is to get re-elected. They rely on the support of the ideological class and depend on the support of the collaborator class. The interest of the rest (justice and law enforcement) is to have as many laws to enforce as possible. The political class also depends to a large extent on the dependent class which provides them with the excuse for most power-grabbing activities.
The distributor/enforcer/manager class
…… is the ever expanding bureaucracy responsible for administering the re distributive and regulatory functions of the state, but also the management of organizations the state owns or directly controls. They are the biggest force behind the growth of the state. They have a symbiotic relationship with the collaborator class. Their interest is to have an ever growing amount to distribute and an ever growing number of rules to enforce. They abhor scrutiny like vampires abhor sunshine.
The ideological class
…… is the clergy in the church of the state. Its main function is to worship it, to cheer for it, to justify its existence. The ideology class is the media, the myriads of political organizations, parts of the educational establishment, all of those want to influence the political direction of the state for ideological reasons. The ideological class is the one of people with good intentions. The ones who when they see a problem say “Somebody should do something about this!”, somehow always meaning the state as they are unlikely to do anything themselves.
The interest of the ideological class is to find things to be concerned about, to have ‘problems’ identified and solutions proposed. They aim to be the custodians of public morality.
= === =
The productive class
…… is what supports the whole system. They are the people who are running businesses and working for them, taking risks and paying taxes. In an ideal world this would be the biggest class. In a socialist reality this is a fast shrinking one. The only thing that still allows the system to function is that this class is also getting more productive, producing more wealth with less people. The only interest of the productive class is to do its business unhindered.
The interest of ALL other classes is to either exploit or to corrupt the productive class.
Unfortunately, the productive class is corruptible. The essence of the free market is competition and where is competition there will always be winners and losers. The weakness of this class is that its members can be seduced into accepting ‘help’ to provide them with a special advantages against their competitors. The coercive power of the state can help them in many ways other than direct financial support.
The collaborator class
…… is the service provider of and mediator between classes.
The members of this class are lobbyists and all sorts of professionals mediating between the productive and the political classes or offer their services.
They can offer targeted benefits to their clients for their support (that can take many forms) which in turn they can paddle to the political and distributor classes.
The interest of the collaborator class is to create more economic dependence on the services they solicit. There is an interesting and intricate symbiosis between the collaborator, political and distributor classes. There is constant movement between their members. Some call it a revolving door.
The entitlement class
…… is a very exclusive class; its only members are labour unions who extort money either from the productive or from the political class for their members. Their powers derive exclusively from the political class which legalizes their extortionist powers. Since there are limits on how much they can extort from the productive class before killing their host, their main growth area is ‘public’ service unions where there is no limit to how much they can extort from the political class for their members in the distributor class. The existence of this class is one of the sad success stories of the state. It started as a noble idea that was utterly corrupted by special powers given to them by the state.
The subsidized class
…… is another growing segment of the economy, already under more or less full control of the state. Education, health care, many arts/media/research organization who are producing some sort of goods but whose existence would be doubtful without the government subsidies. The interest of this class is to maintain some sort of independence without losing the support and protection of the political classes. Doctors, university professors, artists, scientist and crony capitalist want to keep the money and the preferential treatment but will protest attempts of control and oversight. They will be in full support of the system as they are always asking for more targeted support for themselves. Most of what the members of the subsidized class do was at some point done by the productive class. In some cases they are in direct competition with the productive class. The interest of the political and the collaborator classes is to turn as big a segment of the productive class into members of the subsidized class as possible.
The dependent class
…… is the one trapped in the ‘social safety net’ Their members class are the welfare recipients, non-profit and ‘community’ organizations, some natives, anybody with a livelihood dependent mainly on direct government support.
Their interest is simply to maximize benefits and avoid responsibilities. The have a somewhat conflicting set of interests: the larger their number is, the more entrenched their benefits will be while on the other hand, the larger their percentage in society is, the fewer the resources will be available to them. Their biggest competitors are the subsidized and the collaborator class.
They get their greatest support from the ideological and the distributor classes whose existence is justified partly by the plight of the dependent class. Not surprisingly, those two classes have absolutely no interest in actually solving their problems as that would eliminate a serious chunk of the source of their power.
While the definitions and the cursory analysis of these classes may be debatable, I hope that the need for a different approach to define political classes is not.
If we are to understand social policy it is essential to understand the class interest of its promoters. Knowing their household income or television viewing habits just won’t do it.