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The Obscure and Unconscious Class

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Marx's theory of social class is rooted in his idea of a historic opposition between the producers and the owners of property. [Note: Property is defined here as a productive resource, not personal belongings like homes and autos.] He saw human history as a development of class relationships from slave owners to feudal lords to capitalists who owned the labor and production of slaves, then serfs, then workers.

Marx defined the classes according to their fundamental relation to the economy. The definition of class preferred in mainstream capitalist society is divided instead according to levels of wealth: as the upper, middle, and lower classes. But the wealth-based scheme has no real structural significance, it only obscures the dynamic opposition between owners and producers. A small business owner who is barely getting by has little in common with someone working for a minimum wage, although they could both be defined as "lower class." Owners rich or poor generally resent business taxes and regulations and want a government that protects their interests over their workers; workers want higher wages, job security, decent living conditions, and a government that supports their interests. The two factions have opposite interests and goals.

There are complications to the model of class opposition, but they don't negate its basic soundness as the primary driver of political-economy and history. Capitalists might have competing businesses and sectors, and somewhat different political policy agendas, but they share a basic interest in maintaining a society that protects capital and limits the power of workers. The working class is deliberately divided and weakened by fomenting discord between races, genders, and religions, and by the competition for jobs; but objectively, their common class interest is in a government that at least moderates the power of capitalists.

There have been marginal groups outside the opposition of owners and producers. Since ancient times there has been a landed gentry living in economic microcosms, exchanging access to land for agricultural labor to bring it to fruition. Merchants have been around for millennia, buying things for less in one place and selling them for more in another, but they too have tended to operate outside the social walls. Independent farmers and self-employed producers have generally had little interest in class conflicts, but they will likely resent competition from large businesses and governmental interference, while looking down on those who work for others. Then there are politicians, bureaucrats, doctors, lawyers, clergy, managers, teachers, and "the intelligentsia", who don't seem to fit with either side of the Marxist opposition of classes, and it is this group that I want to bring to special attention. In Marx's time their numbers and political power were insignificant, but they have become increasingly numerous and important in the modern era. I'll refer to them as ministrators, as they minister to people in various ways, and I want to argue that they have always constituted a class of their own. [Note: I prefer the term "ministrator" to "administrator" because to ad-minister suggests an executive function, which is just a subset of social ministration.]

What makes the ministrators a class akin to slave owners, lords, and capitalists is that they too depend on a surplus of social wealth for their sustenance. [Note: Unless there is a surplus of wealth being produced, everyone has to occupy themselves with production. There can be no full-time village chief, and no shaman, unless they can be fed by producers.] Ministrators have a particular claim on the surplus extracted from producers: Whereas slave owners and feudal lords claimed their share of the surplus by right, and capitalists lay claim to theirs by virtue of enterprise, ministrators can be said to take their share by means of license. Whether as professionals or as minor functionaries, ministrators are licensed (formally or informally) by government, or by their own associations, or in service to other ministrators. [Note: Some ministrators, often utilizing inherited wealth, license themselves to involvement in some chosen field.] And just as owners and producers engage at various levels and in various sectors of an economy, ministrators operate in various areas of social functionality, with more or less power and reward. In addition to the professionals, there are those who work at more mundane levels: soldiers, police, bus drivers, receptionists, tour guides, etc. As a class, ministrators don't produce things, they serve social functions.

A ministrator has at least a personal class awareness, though not what would usually be considered a class consciousness. As anyone who has ever "worked with the public" can attest, one becomes a somewhat different person, with a different affectation, when in service as a ministrator - even when driving a cab, staffing an information booth, or serving as a crossing guard. [Note: The difference between "working class" ministrators and producers can be difficult to determine. For example, in considering the cooks and the servers in a restaurant, what identifies the latter as ministrators rather than producers is their function of serving, of mediating between production and consumption, doing things for customers they could do for themselves - what in some restaurants customers actually do themselves.]

Like capitalists and producers, ministrators have an objective class interest, more or less clearly appreciated, which is the perpetuation of their worthiness to a share in the surplus. They rely upon a stable, productive, and efficient economy, without which their functions might not be sustainable.

All of this so far may seem to be of only sociological interest. I want to focus now on the issues of anti-capitalist revolution, democratic socialism, and bureaucratic power, with the ministrative class in mind. Their obscurity as a class has been detrimental to progressive political strategies for coping with their expansion and consolidation, and to their role in post-capitalist societies.

Marx predicted an inevitable revolution against capitalism that would begin with a stage when producers would seize control of the government, followed by a transition to communism when everyone would become a fully actualized, multi-faceted person, both productive and ministrative - thereby abolishing all class differences. Marxist parties have staged a number of revolutions toward that end, but only those in relatively undeveloped countries have succeeded in winning their struggles against the police and military defending capitalist property and government. And where those revolutions have succeeded the results have been disappointing, if not dreadful.

There are a number of reasons for the failure of such revolutions to meet expectations. They have Immediately come under mortal threat from within and without, and so they have focused, even obsessed, on military and police protections. But the basic problem is that those who have led the Marxist-Leninist styled revolutions have conceived themselves as the "vanguard" of the workers, when they have actually been ministrators. The leading revolutionaries, now ministrators after taking power, become ad-ministrators; they are still the same class, but no longer subordinate to lords or capitalists. In his book The New Class: An Analysis of the Communist System (1957), Milovan Ä ilas argued that the elite of ruling communist parties were corrupt, and had fabricated their own exploitative class after their revolution. The problem is, as so conceived, Marxist-Leninist administrations appear as confirmations of an unavoidable flaw in the human psyche - an inability to maintain benevolence when in power - and as a refutation of the progressive class-based theory of history.

Marxist-Leninists have been oblivious to the inherently exploitative nature of their class-based domination as ad-ministrators, and have been unprepared to restrain themselves as-such. Being steeped in a highly developed sense of history and political-economy, their control of a society has generally been more efficient, and sometimes more effectively oppressive, than the administrations of common despots and military juntas. Marxist-Leninists in power have been, at best, highly efficient ad-ministrators. [Note: Just as ruling class capitalists can be oppressive to small-scale capitalists as well as producers, ruling-class ministrators can also be oppressive toward "working class" ministrators. For example, the Bolsheviks of the Russian Revolution were equally hostile toward the military soviets (ministrators) and the industrial workers (producers).]

Alternatives to the Marxist-Leninist approach to dealing with the problems of capitalism have been to moderate it by means of regulation. The U.S. tried this in a limited way with the New Deal, but capital was largely untouched, and has gradually reasserted its dominance. The Scandinavian countries have taken a more robust approach, a more systematic dominance of capitalists by ministrators, and with considerable success. Germany too has tried to subordinate capitalists to administration; by law, capitalists and producers (and implicitly, ministrators) all sit on the boards of large industrial corporations.

It may seem utopian, but I believe the implications for genuine progressive change provided by a recognition of the ministrative class are 1) for the ministrators, to recognize that their interests are not universal, and to work for a truly free and democratic society requires a reduction and ultimate abolition of their exclusive license; 2) for producers, it is to recognize that their liberation requires that they develop cooperative organizations utilizing their own surplus time for mutual ministration.

Marx identified the law of capitalist development as a relentless consolidation of capital, of enterprise, into fewer and fewer hands. I think it is plain to see that the law of administrative development is of a similarly relentless consolidation of power, of license. Cooperative production and ministration, where everyone functions in both capacities, is the obvious remedy, and should be the ultimate goal.

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A former visitant of UC Santa Cruz, former union boilermaker, ex-Marine, Vietnam vet, anti-war activist, dilettante in science with an earth-shaking theory on the nature of light (which no one will consider), philosopher in the tradition of (more...)

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