Craving use-values

Addressing the central issues

Foppe de Haan returns to his differences with Mike Macnair on the question of the ‘professional-managerial class’

In his article, ‘Centrality of class’,1 Mike Macnair responds at length to my arguments2 and those of Catherine Liu concerning the question of how to unite those forced to work for others. What should we make of the rise of the ‘professional-managerial class’ (PMC), whose interests he analyses in the context of “declining capitalism”?

He concludes by saying that our goal should be to make a

positive case for working class rule and socialism - which is a case for radical democracy and the subordination of the labour bureaucracy, and in turn towards demanagerialisation and the restoration of the public power to the public.

I agree that our goals should be to offer positive arguments for classlessness and the democratisation of society. Yet it seems to me that the state of our movement indicates that we still have some analysis to do, especially concerning the role and interests of the PMC, for two reasons.

First, because this cohort is now orders of magnitude bigger than it has ever been historically. This has led to something akin to a state change in how class society operates, and how usable the single, bipartite division between those who are forced to work and those who live off their work still is, especially within our movement.

And, second, because of the broader implications of this development.

I will first respond to the points comrade Macnair raised, to clarify my argument and to correct a few misunderstandings. After that, I will try to bring things together and say something about the implications for theory, programme and the organisation of our party and movement.

Class-societal rule

To start, contra comrade Macnair, it makes much more sense to me to say that capitalism - or more properly capitalist class society - is maturing rather than declining. Capitalist organisational forms have by now been forced on most of the world, and literally billions of people have been proletarianised since we started touting capitalism’s ‘decline’, even though we have only recently passed the 50% marker. At the same time, the ruling class has been heavily experimenting with bureaucratising both public and private life, by expanding and multiplying state, quasi-state and private bureaucracies, including ‘publicly owned’ corporations. Modern institutions are deliberately much more layered than their predecessors, and ownership and control structures have become much more opaque.

This trend towards bureaucratisation and layering has been facilitated by, and requires, the growth of that old, but previously far smaller, social cohort, whose members have proven difficult to draw into revolutionary (and more easily into class-collaborationist) circles. This is partly because most of them at the very least believe in the need for some form of class society - a perception that is aided by its pervasiveness. Another part of it is that our societies are set up to ensure that many people enjoy some of its benefits (eg, being a father or male child in the context of the patriarchal family, living in a prosperous capitalist nation, having institutional power and the affordances that come with the more important and ‘respectable’ administrative positions in a class society conditional on employment), with this administrative cohort benefiting much more than most. And a last big part of it is that there is a very intricate, pervasive, liberal propaganda system, forced on all of us via mass education, ‘news’ and entertainment - all of which present class-societal rule as normal and/or necessary.

So, when comrade Macnair suggests that one’s class status is a question of one’s place in the material social division of labour, I quite agree. However, that formulation seems to me to - correctly - point to the fact that class status is about more than (in)direct dependence on the wage fund and its corollary: surplus value extraction from commoditised goods and services production.

To start, this latter definition strikes me as anthropologically unsound. Class-societal rule is about structuring society in such a way that you can force others to perform labour for you. To be sure, the extraction of surplus value from the production and sale of the fruits of commoditised labour is the most important expression of this under capitalism, because of the political uses to which control over people, capital and money can be put. But this cannot be the whole story, because we human beings primarily care about use values (not to mention things like owning money or capital, the promise of permanent lack of material want, and so on.) And since a substantial part of life is not normally commoditised or purchasable (even if there are exceptions, and even if wealth and inequality do distort this in a lot of ways), any ruling class worth its salt will want there to be ways to force people to supply them with those use values too, or to at least lower the cost of obtaining them, analogously to how surplus value is extracted.

Furthermore, because not just a member of the hegemonic class, but any human, values these, any means that allows us to more easily obtain those use values may be considered (and/or turned into) a class-societal perk. And this is not just a happy by-product of class rule, but also something that serves to promote the principle, because it allows more people to experience its benefits. In particular the general aim is to obtain them ‘for free’: ie, without having to do much, if anything, in return, and without them having to care whether the other party is particularly willing to help you.

The way this is achieved is partly by socialisation and partly by everyone being taught to devalue both the work that goes into the production and delivery of those use values (eg, via the conviction that ‘real’ work results from waged labour), as well as the people who perform those tasks (partly via sexism, racism, elitism, national chauvinism, etc, partly by not paying them, by their being seen as a subservient group in society, and so on; all of this facilitates exploitation by making it more rewarding, and easier to exploit people who fit the mould).

Let me give a few examples. A common one would be patriarchal values and relations, allowing men to get (‘their’) women to do things for them in the context of the household without this being consensual and/or (re)negotiable, or even counted as labour (even though the same kind of tasks - cooking, cleaning, tidying, etc - in the context of the market does count as waged labour, and is thus at least structurally ‘valued’ by that double-edged sword). Another would be people demanding that you do stuff for them for free, ‘for the family’. But another, less discussed class-societal perk would be that of team leaders being able to direct ‘their’ team to do work that aids them personally, by being allowed to tout ‘their’ team’s labour when arguing for promotions, rewards or bonuses (more about this later).

Since all of these things spring from class-societal divisions (that are actively and structurally promoted), these patterns must be considered part of the appeal, and of our analysis of what makes people buy into, accept or defend class-societal rule.

Now, as I noted in my previous article, the jobs members of the PMC perform do generally involve control - either over other workers, or (especially, but hardly only, in the case of state bureaucrats) over members of the public. That allows them to extract use values (including bribes) from them, or to benefit from their institutional position in other ways. On top of that (as has been pointed out by many, including more than a few French academics), members of this cohort also tend to enjoy deferential or preferential treatment, they often have more job autonomy, they are more likely to be platformed by the bourgeois and state media, or to be listened to by politicians; they have access to certain desirable use values like nicer housing, etc than ‘regular’ workers do.

These material and immaterial benefits seem to me far more tangibly, intuitively and convincingly part of the ‘calculation’ of someone's class position, and much more likely to inspire class-societal loyalty, than something like ‘academics belong to the petty bourgeoisie because they possess specialist knowledge and own their own means of production’. This especially because the same goes for mail delivery work, while it aids me only barely less than it serves as an adjunct, which to me hints at the fact that the petty bourgeois nature of this (and any) type of profession has rather more to do with the whole of their legal and contractual rights, (enforced) scarcity, control over other workers and the institution generally, perks like faculty housing, pay, job autonomy, access to funding and social standing (which working for the post also used to give).

So, when comrade Macnair argues that most human beings do not wish to dominate, or “aspire to power over others” (ie, as such), I quite agree. That said, I would note that marginalisation does aid the general exploitation of that social group, as well as the ease with which marginalised status can be extended to other groups, so that this is almost never an end in itself. Besides that, it is also important because those at the top have a psychological need to constantly reconfirm their own superiority, as this helps them rationalise the violence they inflict on those ‘below’ them, needed to maintain the class order (while conversely, it also helps to keep in check the expectations of the exploited, who internalise many of these views).

Furthermore (again), people do value (the convenience of) being able to receive use values without having to put in much effort beyond, say, uttering a threat or two, or offering some money. And, irrespective of whether they admit it, most people do understand that these are features of life in class society, which work because everyone is under institutional pressures (eg, living in a place where others will let you die if you lack money, or where your husband or ‘customer’ is legally or practically allowed to abuse you, because society looks the other way or even punishes you if you ask for help), and is socialised to act in that way (eg, people being raised to ignore or deny their own needs whenever a request is made of them). Many people come to appreciate this, or see the behaviours as personal quirks or failings, while they rationalise the downsides of class-societal life. I will come back to this later, but, all in all, I would say that there is more to this than ‘acquiescence’ and reluctant reproduction of class-societal forms.

Class society and capitalism

Next, a bit more about ‘capitalism’. I will start by observing that maintaining and expanding class society (and spreading capitalist class relations) is a different goal than ‘maintaining capitalism’ (ie, growing the mass of value, ‘profit maximisation’, and so on), and that, while these goals often substantially overlap, they just as often partly clash, without it being a given which will win out in any particular conflict.

That said, I would say that, especially in times of systemic crisis, but also over the longer term, the trend is one of expanding and entrenching class society, with (sectional) capitalist developmental considerations coming a close second. And, since everyone, including the most ardent reactionaries, by now recognises the superiority of capitalist productive relations when it comes to producing and extracting value, there is little chance of further bourgeois ‘constitutional revolutions’.

There is a great deal of evidence pointing towards the fact that purely capitalist concerns or imperatives do not automatically win out. It can be found at every level from the personal to the global. On the individual level, we have many landlords or bosses extracting use values by demanding or accepting sexual acts as ‘compensation’ in lieu of payment or simply because they can, even though economically this cannot even be recognised as ‘rational’. At the macro level, two of the more extreme (and telling) examples of this are the following:

  1. The US capitalist class ceding quite a bit of political power in order to maintain class rule in the form of the New Deal.
  2. That class allowing and even facilitating the creation of elaborate social safety nets in Europe (and Japan), which included publicly administered and owned institutions that delivered important use values (like housing, energy, childcare) for free or at very low cost.

They did so, of course, to undermine working class attempts at self-organisation. And, because these programmes were administered by the bourgeois state apparatus, or existed in the context of a bourgeois state, these concessions allowed or forced them to experiment with putting the state (budget) to new uses, and with expanding ‘civil society’, while preserving class rule. (Of course, attempts to expand the state are far from new, though in earlier eras, because the social base was so weak, and because we were less of a threat, state functions were more or less limited to waging war, administering class ‘justice’ and promoting the commoditisation of production and social interactions by creating markets, including in human beings.)

These experiments were quite beneficial to both capital and to class society. The projects funded this way generated lots of work, opportunities for graft and personal enrichment, while in the medium term they also hugely decreased societal overhead costs (transport, education, costs of living, and so on). Entire new industries and cities were created. The lowered tuition fees facilitated (1) the growth of ancillary industries, while also allowing capitalists to save on personnel training; (2) the expansion and centralisation of marketing, propaganda, media and ‘news’ production; and (3) the adding of managerial layers by the capitalist class, from the growing cohort of university-educated members of the working class, who had been encouraged to expect, and soon received, lots of perks relative to ‘normal’ workers, as well as control over them, and so on.

All of which served to strongly boost economic growth and the overall robustness of the capitalist economies, while class rule was maintained or strengthened by implementing policies that offered us (im)material benefits in class-divisive ways, as well as through fairly open efforts to undermine working class attempts to self-organise. As such, although the ruling class lost some direct control over the state, all of these policies were implemented in clientelist and commodifiable ways, while they have been very successful in commodifying the new public goods that were first provided as near ‘pure’ use values like school lunch, education, childcare, housing, elderly care, and so on, so that most of these now allow capitalists to generate and extract additional wealth and labour from us, by turning more people into workers. At the same time, the provision of those use values by the state strongly increased public support for taxation and the bourgeois state/constitution.

Today, many (pro-)capitalists are still wary of the state because of the changes that were enacted and enabled in this period, and because they object to the production of (non- or barely commodified) use values, with some justification. And, although this anti-state rhetoric has been relentlessly maintained by the media and other propaganda producers, we should probably note that actual fear and hatred of the state is primarily found among politicians, middle managers, think tanks and owners of small and medium-sized enterprises. Meanwhile, the bourgeois state, especially at the national or federal level, is almost completely coopted by big capital, which uses its control to further its sectional interests.

This is done partly via subsidies and bailouts, partly via anti-competitive ‘intellectual property’ legislation, but importantly also through the creation of an enormous bureaucratic regulatory apparatus, which plays an important role in, among other things, frustrating market competition by raising barriers to entry, because of the high overhead costs that accompany the need for regulatory compliance. This strongly benefits large firms and secondarily the ‘knowledge workers’ employed or retained by them, while it harms small business owners due to economies of scale, and because the former pay far lower tax rates than small businesses do. All of which engenders hatred of ‘the state’, and distrust of (state) ‘socialism’.

Of course, the capitalist class also got lucky, and I do not wish to undersell the value of the material and immaterial gains those forced to work made in this period. Nevertheless, it seems to me that this is a useful way to look at what happened in the western countries from the 1930s onward. And our movement is substantially to blame, because we were (and most of us still are) far too focused on the question of gaining state power.

As I already noted at the beginning of this piece, given this history, and given that capitalism as a mode of production is currently more entrenched and pervasive than ever, I do not think that we can derive from the size of the bourgeois state apparatus the conclusion that capitalist class society/rule is in decline (or that this requires the fruits of imperialism - as opposed to generic expansion of capitalist relations of production - once developed). Instead, what I have described should be seen as experiments in growing the total mass of value being produced and extracted in order to further entrench class-societal rule, and to use the state in other ways than as a creator of markets and enforcer or defender of sectional interests and as a guarantor of access to needed resources and cheap labour. It has thus far managed to undermine or demolish every (revolutionary) working class attempt to self-organise.

PMC and state bureaucracy

Related to the above issue are comrade Macnair’s comments on the importance of PMC allegiance to the bourgeois state, the pretence of a ‘level playing field’, ‘upholding the rule of law’, and so on. If states fail to inculcate those values and uphold them, he argues, this will result in civil unrest. While I generally agree, I would point out that the US shows us that for modern states (which can create money and sell bonds) it is possible to incorporate and institutionalise enormous amounts of graft and grifting without this undermining bourgeois state rule, so long as the hate and distrust this generates is channelled properly.

That said, my interest is mainly in two questions. One, how to understand the PMC’s role in, and loyalty to, class society. Two, what to make of the members of this cohort who do not work for the state or public institutions. As I have argued, roles that offer similar forms of institutional power over others exist in infinitely many non-state institutions that employ or rely on these workers, as the ‘neoliberal turn’ is in large part about finding new ways to intertwine public and private, and arguably to further shrink the non-market sphere.

With respect to the first set of questions, and for reasons related to my earlier point about (having opportunities for) use value extraction, I would put more emphasis on the more everyday reasons these workers might have for supporting class-societal rule - something I will say a bit more about in the next section, but which involves the doling out of circumscribed, employment-contingent access to class-societal perks and experiences of rule.

This is relevant especially when it comes to understanding those who work for the many ‘non-state’ institutions that have sprung up since World War II, who perform roles that confer many of the same kind of perks and affordances that state officials also enjoy, with the usual gradations. I would say that this explosion of managerial and administrative roles at the very least indicates that a substantial fraction of the capitalist class understands that the likelihood of acquiescence to, through to the embrace of class-societal rule, increases, the more dominant the class-societal logic is generally (ie, the more concrete practices and institutions it is embedded in), and the more people enjoy the ‘perks’ of life in class society at least some of the time. This also serves to circumscribe worker autonomy (the crudest and most blatant example of this experience probably being the practice of hazing, in which humiliation encourages both irrational bonding and wanting to ‘pay it forward’ to the next cohort). It does so because it increases the chance that, besides the negatives of class rule, workers also have positive associations with the practice of ruling and exploiting, even if they may disagree that their being ruled is legitimate or necessary.

While I agree about the relevance of the Abercrombie-Hill-Turner thesis, which comrade Macnair raised, I would add three points:

(1) Reluctant reproduction of class-societal forms tends to reinforce, or at least fails to undermine, the normalcy of those forms to the outside world. As such, mass reproduction of those forms, especially without constant agitation against them, will over time lead to mass, uncritical reproduction, and societal shifts ‘to the right’.

(2) We must be ruthlessly clear (in a non-liberal way) that most workers will defend - and not just acquiesce in - class logic at least some of the time, and not just ‘ideologically’ in terms of internalising and espousing racist, anti-worker, sexist, nationalist, etc sentiments.

(3) The fact that those forced to work do so is politically and propagandistically relevant, because of how attachment to any benefits derived from such practices will confuse them and others into thinking that the principle is not the problem (or is unavoidable). Of course, we need to be wary of challenging and combating such behaviour and practices in counterproductive ways (eg, ostracising comrades as soon they do something ‘wrong’, public crit/self-crit sessions), because we do need to start from the assumption that we are all willing to learn and change. But, if we wish to unite the class, we do need to agitate and organise against this, because these trends are part and parcel of class-societal rule.

Hegemony and meritocracy

Finally, a few words on the question of the self-organising capacity of the ruling class and ‘hegemony’. To me, the question is not that interesting, because, as I understand them, members of the PMC see themselves as performing a class society-facilitatory role. This is particularly obvious in armed bureaucrats like police officers, one of whose biggest concerns is to ensure they are treated with ‘respect’ (ie, deference), and who tend to get extremely agitated when you refuse to play along.

The conviction that they are playing their part in ‘upholding the social order’ is central to their role, even as they enjoy - and abuse - their institutional power. And, while theirs may be an extreme case, it strikes me as emblematic. Furthermore, while they tend to create additional positions for ‘others like them’, in times of class upheaval, and/or when class society is too obviously stagnating or destabilising, they will strive to make class society more ‘fair’, in ways that lead to more means-testing, more administration, and so on, while they do next to nothing about ending class-societal rule. And, as we all know, seeking ‘more opportunities for skilled people to excel’ without objecting to class rule, inherited wealth, inequality and so on will at best lead to the occasional ousting of incumbents or demolition of monopolies, but not to a change in the relations of production.

So, when comrade Macnair calls ‘meritocracy’ a particularly modern (which I take to mean ‘capitalist class society-befitting’) ideology, I agree. Of course, its associations with Napoleonic France and US hegemony are a product of the fact that it is so useful in promoting pro-capitalist social forms, and in replacing incumbents. But the ultimate aim still was the (re)production of class societies - a process facilitated by the idealistic promotion of these values via the inherently ‘meritocratic’ school system, which states either established or coopted under the guise of professionalisation and increasing democratic control over the indoctrination of the young.

Yet, while this is true about meritocracy as a ‘state ideology’, I would point out that all forms of hierarchy and forms of institutionalised oppression are justified and generated using the same ‘small-m meritocratic’ logic of picking metrics of merit that supposedly justify exploitation and domination of anyone who does not meet them.3 And that if we want to supersede class rule, it makes sense to expose the generative logic, whose purpose is to normalise domination and exploitation. (And again, while this will historically have started with concrete exploitative practices, a certain interplay is needed to achieve class rule.)

Now what?

As I have argued, a substantial fraction of those forced to work for others believes in the need for and/or correctness of class rule, while they experience meaningful benefits from playing their part in reproducing class-societal forms. On top of this, there is also the fact that the problems posed by this cohort are not limited to the PMC. We find analogous interests and behaviours, part-time and partial support for class-societal forms, in every part of the proletariat. Some of the oldest, and only partially abolished, forms are spousal and more general familial exploitation, but there are a slew of other, more recent ones, like nationalist, racist and (settler-)colonial exploitation; all of these enable superexploitation (to varying degrees) of specific parts of the proletariat.

Since there are now many, almost uncountable, of such dividing lines and forms of exploitation, it ultimately seems to me counterproductive to consider the specific divisions (such as the gender division of labour) as being ‘substructural’. Firstly, because nearly all of the work that women, for instance, are forced to do is not inherently ‘women’s’ work, causing the claim to obscure as much as it reveals. Secondly, and more importantly, because any strict base-superstructure division is untenable: class societies are constantly generating new ways of exploiting, ranking and degrading people, with exploitive practices encouraging devaluation, while the latter facilitates expansion of the former, and similar treatment of others. Our task is to explain how this pattern builds on and feeds off itself, facilitating exploitation and the unequal treatment of equal needs. Until we are clear about the connections, all we are doing is either playing whack-a-mole, or unduly ignoring class- and organisation-divisive behaviour.

So, yes, class should be central, but I think we need to define it differently, and I hope the preceding discussion illustrates that practices of extracting and the abstract ability to de facto freely receive (usually non-commoditised) use values is material (in both senses). And, while I do think that ‘those forced to work for others’, etc is the most important shared interest on which to agitate and organise against class-societal rule, we also need to take into account that class societies offer other ways of extracting labour and use values, and why and how this gets in the way of our self-organisation - these other forms are ‘available’ to a far wider group of people, with a bunch of new mass practices and ways of exerting control and division having been added in the past two centuries.

Besides that, we also need to dust off and elaborate on the critiques first levelled at the Lassalleans, to clarify how bourgeois states have used the cheap/free provision of important use values as a way to further entrench the principle of class-societal rule (eg, by explaining how ‘nanny state’ tendencies fit into class-societal rule, both in order to undermine the legitimacy of such ‘governance’ and to dissociate these practices from ‘left politics’, and disabusing those on the left of the notion that an enlightened few should try to ‘save humanity from itself’.) If the past century teaches us anything, it should be that attachment to perks of life in class society has proven to be a powerful motivator to oppose self-emancipation, and that we must overcome these through a strong focus on agitation, education and organising work.

Incorporating these other aspects of life in class society into our agitation and propaganda work will certainly take some getting used to, given the state of the left and the fact that the building of a robust and healthy worker movement has thus far largely been valued instrumentally, and treated as a kind of afterthought. This results from how we have been taught to ignore and/or devalue any non-market or non-commodified, as well as intra-institutional (eg, those you have at work), interactions. But, while this is more cumbersome, it seems to me a theoretically sound way to explain the importance of ‘economic’ interactions that do not fit within the (deliberately narrow) scope of ‘market behaviour’, involving commoditised goods and services, and more generally why class-societal rule is anti-democratic.

Of the challenges we face, it seems to me that much more than figuring out programmatic demands (which is relatively straightforward), our main - and thus far most elusive - goal is that of achieving class unity (on a healthy, non-opportunistic basis). As I see it, taking on the above will help quite a bit, especially when it comes to building our movement, and working within other organisations. Although a lot of the necessary practical agitation, education and organising work is already taking place, it is being done haphazardly, while much if not most of the left still treats these issues as at best secondary objectives in the fight against ‘capitalism’ (again, itself a misnomer).

It is my hope that looking at the issue of class and the appeals of class-societal rule in this way will help us to understand why we should pay more attention to the issues that our predecessors largely refused to take on, and which the contemporary social movements also fail to address (though for the opposite reason). It will help us to understand how we can integrate them into the broad struggle against class-societal rule and for communism.

  1. Weekly Worker June 3: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1350/centrality-of-class-mike-macnair-replies-to-foppe-.↩︎

  2. ‘Appeals of class society’ Weekly Worker May 20: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1348/appeals-of-class-society.↩︎

  3. See beyondmeritocracy.info/homepage/introduction.↩︎