Appeals of class society

We need to understand what makes the exploited actually defend the system that oppresses them, argues Foppe de Haan

Last month, Mike Macnair reviewed Catherine Liu’s Virtue hoarders, which is a contribution to the ‘professional-managerial class’ (PMC) discussion, with which Liu hopes to convince “fellow PMC members” to build socialism, rather than defend capitalism.1

I was intrigued, as the questions, to which the response was ‘It’s the PMC that’s the problem!’, strike me as unanswered and important. In this reply, I would like to respond to what Macnair and Liu say about class and meritocracy (a topic I am trying to elucidate myself). While I agree with Macnair that (a) we should not aim to explain every political conflict as a class conflict, and that (b) for something to be a class issue it has to be a long-standing phenomenon, I feel that he - and in fact most people - are failing to see the forest for the trees by accepting a highly partial definition of what ‘the meritocracy’ is about.

I would argue that, properly understood, all class societies are experiments in establishing meritocracies, with the ‘the meritocracy’ - the people who embrace this mentality and its consequences most deeply - simply being the clearest expression of that underlying pattern. And I would argue that looking at it this way has multiple benefits, not the least of which being that this makes it a lot easier to understand why capitalist development requires - and therefore promotes - extensive borrowing from earlier forms of class societies, and that we thus should not dismiss such developments as ancillary or transitory, especially when it comes to our propaganda, education and organising work.

As I see it - and I expect that we all agree on this - Marxism first and foremost is a political-emancipatory project concerned with establishing control by and autonomy for those currently forced to work for others, rather than being about any and all material benefits that flow from that. The converse goes for institutionalised domination and exploitation (aka class society), which capitalism elaborates on. Its primary aim is to ensure that a small group can control the many.

Of course, due to the way capitalism works as a process, it certainly imposes further and different constraints than did earlier forms, while it also encourages different forms of resistance, and so on. Nevertheless, it is intended to allow the few to control the many through control over the means of production, coupled with institutional arrangements that force the many to work for and thereby maintain that same system. Meanwhile, capitalists are very willing to borrow from and promote so-called pre-capitalist social forms, such as slavery, (semi-) feudal relations within the workplace and family, and so on, in order to maintain or expand their hold over others, and over the planet’s wealth.


To create and maintain class societies, people must be socialised (a process that involves both institutional and physical violence) into their roles, and, to achieve long-term stability and support, they must come to see the system as a whole as right and proper - or at least ‘better than the alternative’. In the millennia that followed their advent, justifications for exploitation have come in many forms. For instance, Aristotle claimed that people who meet certain criteria - eg, women, slaves - have it as their purpose to be controlled by others. The medieval church promoted the ‘great chain of being’ to sell the idea of feudal/clerical domination as right. And in the centuries that followed we see Lockean liberals reintroducing Roman law, and producing justifications for colonialism, privatisation/enclosure, ‘witch’-hunts and slavery, while enlightenment thinkers like Kant, in his answer to the question, ‘What is enlightenment?’, justified existing relations of exploitation and domination by making ‘maturity’ - determined by whom? - a prerequisite for being granted autonomy.

This propaganda - very much including the promotion of enlightenment ideals and of the importance of ‘freedom’ - was needed, of course, to distract people from the insane amount of structural and physical violence going on around them, with masses of them being persecuted and kicked off their lands in order to force them to work in the new factories, and to allow landlords to claim the land for their own use. Thanks to this, the violence and expropriation could be framed as ‘unavoidable steps on the road towards something greater’ (an argument that, of course, still appeals to many - those who are convinced that without capitalism there would be no technological innovation, etc).

All of these justifications and social roles are premised on the notion that human beings have no intrinsic, but only instrumental or extrinsic, value - ie, they only have value to the extent others value them - so that unequal treatment and exploitation are normal or proper. This logic I would call ‘meritocratic’, as it works by ranking and ordering (equal) people on the basis of extrinsic merit or demerit, and by institutionalising the use of carrots and sticks to get people to behave in ways approved of by those who make the rules.2 And in societies in which access to important resources is privatised, those who own them necessarily have a strong interest in promoting thinking and actions that reinforce the notion that our shared humanity is irrelevant, and that the only thing that matters is how others view you.

At the start of written history, these determinants of merit were pretty crude and static, with superiority being tied to maleness, strength, battle prowess, kinship relations, ethnicity, religious affiliation, wealth - see The Iliad for an idealised example of this. But, as such hierarchically organised societies expanded and grew more populous, and as subgroups within those societies - like merchants, bankers and artisans - became sufficiently influential and large, and as the role of money grew, it became possible – and, arguably, necessary - to move to less static and more dynamic modes of production and domination. Over time, this led to the creation of the most dynamic set of arrangements thus far, in which people are controlled through waged labour and debt, while they are taught and incentivised to accept the fiction that achievement, advancement and social reward are merit-based and tightly correlated, and that everyone earns their place in society. All of which is 99% nonsense, of course, but difficult to ignore or shake off, because of the many institutions that encourage - or force - you to play along.

One of the implications of the fact that domination and exploitation are so intertwined seems to me that we need to put more emphasis on understanding - and talking about - their interplay, and especially the way in which persistent arrangements do not directly contribute to exploitation and capital accumulation, but do relate to control (eg, the promotion of the nuclear family, policing sex and reproduction, capitalist support for specific religions, racism, or the existence of ‘inefficient’ dynamics within the workplace). For instance, working men did not just embrace or defend class society because they got to claim the fruits of their wives’ and children’s labour, but also because they generally controlled the latter’s lives, which they enjoyed. Owning human beings, likewise, was not only profitable: it also brought with it the ability to rape, harm and command people - basically whatever the owner desired. And most of these institutional arrangements were very actively promoted by the capitalists, likely in part because, at a macro level, such violence aimed at specific groups undermines working class solidarity and organisation.

As one example of capitalist development in action, consider how the World Bank recommended Thailand promote sex tourism - which everyone understood involved mass sex slavery, human trafficking, and so on - in order to ‘grow the economy’ - ie, to kick-start capitalist development.3 They did so for a few reasons:

As such, it seems to me that this ‘control’ thing - and the desire for it - is part of what we have to talk about in our propaganda and organising work. Not just because this actively aids capitalist development, but also because we have to politicise those arrangements and that socialisation, and explain how they are part and parcel of how class society reproduces itself.


Is the PMC a class? Is meritocracy its ideology?

Irrespective of whether the PMC is a class, it seems to me important to note that the post-World War II settlement has created a large, historically new cohort of people with similar interests and aspirations, performing jobs with similar affordances, who all come out of a school system intended in large part to create (colonial) administrators, and who thus share a preference for addressing problems in the most bureaucratic way possible - not least because this leads to the creation of additional positions for ‘knowledge workers’ and consultants. In doing so, the settlement created a new expectation when it came to receiving an education - which is important and useful to the bourgeoisie, because it allows them to reinforce the notion that social outcomes are about (individually, scientifically/scholastically determined) ‘merit’, while the tuition hikes that have followed force young people into taking on debt to get a credential, which increases their likelihood of accepting any job post-graduation, and so on.

As such, in all western societies we now find a large cohort of people who are not owners of means of production, but who have control over others not because of their wealth, but because of their role within corporations or the state. Of course, being able to control others has its appeal, such as being able to have them perform tasks for you, and being able to further your career that way, for which you can motivate them with the carrots and sticks that come with your position. On top of that, this cohort, of course, also enjoys a bunch of civil society benefits, both in terms of having more opportunities for putting forward their perspectives, and because their institutional role or credentials may allow them to act differently, and afford them deference that ‘regular’ people do not receive; both of which do matter to people.

Having control over others as part of your job is not the same as, and of course is less extensive than, the control and wealth capitalists have, but it is nevertheless something that motivates - and splits and confuses - those forced to work, and thus something that we need to engage with, obviously without falling into the double trap of thinking either that ‘the’ working class has ceased to exist, or that the whole of this professional-managerial cohort should be written off as reactionary. Neither of those claims holds up. Nevertheless, getting them on board is certainly a harder sell, not least because we have yet to really start practising those arguments, given the aforementioned workerist tendencies, coupled with decades of Stalinist managerialism, which meant that very few (including very few ‘Marxist’ academics) were willing to genuinely analyse this issue.

It is true that many of the specific values that PMC members focus on or promote are indeed transient, in part to draw attention away from the problems caused by class society. But many of the values they promote are not transient. Eg: the Protestant work ethic; attacking ‘vagrancy’ and reliance on programmes that aid the working class; careerism4. They are intimately tied up with ‘merit’ and ‘demerit’, and the idea that those who ‘lose’ - ie, those who do not end up near or at the top - deserve to not get anything, because they ‘are’ the undeserving poor. Which is also why the Obama era saw the revival of To kill a mockingbird (and the recently re-envisioned ‘Hamilton’ musical). Yet, as I see it, the ability to shift quickly is part of what makes post-war liberalism so effective at stymieing actual organisation and resistance, in that there now are millions of little meritocrats running around, promoting a million different forms of identity politics (now ‘intersectionally’), which serve to undermine working class solidarity and organisation.5

Getting to grips

While I agree with Macnair that Barbara and John Ehrenreichs’s 1977 definition of a PMC which he discussed has issues, I have tried to explain why I think the near-singular focus on the relationship to the means of production - and specifically the focus on ownership - is unhelpful, when it comes to understanding class society’s appeal. And, while it is true that not all trades afford you control over others or civil/societal privileges, most of the jobs for which you are now expected to have a bachelor’s degree or higher (which includes quite a few of the trades) certainly involve managerial or (guild) ‘master’ privileges, most obviously so vis-à-vis interns, teaching aides, adjuncts and freelance workers. Think of politicians, architects, physicians, editors, lawyers, judges, professors, movie directors, and so on.

Again, I am not arguing that members of this professional-managerial cohort are ‘irredeemable’ (to echo Hillary Clinton). And I am still on the fence as to whether we should try to roll these other considerations into the definition of class, or that we should come up with additional dimensions, upon which to analyse the problems with class society, and what gets in the way of our achieving class unity and revolution. I agree that it is unhelpful to turn any difference into a class conflict. However, I do think that we should pay rather more attention to these other aspects of what makes people buy into and defend class society and (Lockean) liberalism than we do currently, if we want to convince a substantial fraction of the workers who experience those material and immaterial benefits to nevertheless fight to end class society.

Class societies constantly – and, I would argue, necessarily - generate new modes of oppression, and new forms of dependence - partly because this benefits specific sections and partly because it serves to undermine working class solidarity. As such, we need to become better at spotting, calling out and organising people affected by the outgrowths, and their drivers, as there is zero reason to think they will allow all of the ‘pre-capitalist’ forms of domination and exploitation to be overcome (let alone that capitalism will exterminate them for us), when these have proven so helpful in convincing part of the class to support working class exploitation, and to accept capitalism’s ‘downsides’.

For instance, I would say that the ‘inefficiency’ and wastage caused by the semi-feudal intra-institutional dynamics that David Graeber points to in Bullshit jobs should be understood through this lens - though another driver, of course, is that oligopolists benefit from the extra overhead generated by bureaucratisation, as this serves as a barrier to entry. Generally though, these seem to me a cost of doing business in the highly bureaucratised and credentialised societies produced by post-war capitalism, in which both big capital and the new professional/managerial cohort are constantly seeking to generate new revenue streams, jobs and positions of influence and power for themselves, because this allows them to keep telling themselves that bureaucratised incrementalism and its handmaiden, procedural fairness, are where it’s at.6

To conclude, while I agree with Mike Macnair that the Ehrenreichs drew the wrong political conclusions from the trends they identified as threats, I do think that the problem they saw is one we have yet to come to grips with. I hope that the above remarks will contribute to that, unpolished though they may be.

  1. ‘American “Blue Labour”?’ Weekly Worker April 15: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1343/american-blue-labour.↩︎

  2. A more extensive argument can be found here: beyondmeritocracy.info/homepage/introduction.↩︎

  3. See, for example, www.jstor.org/stable/4399484.↩︎

  4. About which I have written a little more here: beyondmeritocracy.info/blog/on-personal-responsibility-and-careerism.↩︎

  5. I have elaborated upon how the capitalist class promotes identity politics (mostly focusing on why it caught on) here: beyondmeritocracy.info/blog/linking-neoliberalism-identity-politics-and-bureaucracy.↩︎

  6. As an aside, this may also be useful in understanding what ‘class’ meant or means in the context of state socialism.↩︎