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PMC or Coordinator Class Between Labor and Capital?

By Michael Albert | December 9, 2022 | Z Article

I remember an interview I once did, back about five years, for a British outlet and its first, opening question, went like this: “Since Occupy, said the interviewer, it has become fashionable for progressives to talk about the 1% vs the 99%. This two class analysis, however, has a much longer history. For example, Marxists typically highlight two classes—the capitalist class and the working class—and like Occupy focus people’s attention on the problem with an economic system that runs primarily in the interests of an economic elite – whether it be called the capitalists or the 1%. We have seen this kind of analysis, the interviewer continued, during the Bernie Sanders campaign in the US and here in the UK with Momentum—which is the organisation behind Jeremy Corbyn. I want to ask you about this analysis in light of the victory of Donald Trump in your country and Brexit in mine. But before doing that, I was wondering if you could comment on the efficacy of this analysis?”

So, asked the above, how would you have answered? Here is what I said about an issue, which is, to my mind, of considerable contemporary importance.

What the two class analysis explicitly says is up to a point correct and profoundly important, though sometimes obscured a bit by rhetoric. What the analysis leaves out, however, is also profoundly important and its absence severely undercuts the value of the positive insights.

The correct part is that by virtue of owning the tools and resources that society uses to sustain itself, “capitalists” dominate much of social, political, cultural, and of course economic life. Owners profit off others’ efforts. Owners control major centers of power and influence and have vast wealth with which to buy whatever they want and influence how everyone lives. To have an equitable, classless economy, we would have to eliminate monopolization of productive property into few hands. That is, equitable classlessness requires that we eliminate private ownership of productive assets. More, this is not just words, or clever slogans. It is demonstrable, and in fact by this time it is a virtually self evident fact. When individuals own resources, factories, and other means of production they have dominion over economic life. They hire and fire workers at will. They govern workers actions and conditions. They amass great fortunes for themselves, and then, with their great wealth, they buy and sell whatever they desire, including politicians. Of course, to realize this much about class can inform realizing a great deal more, but even just this main theme summarized in so few words is more than enough to evidence the critical importance of the two class view.

What the two class view leaves out, however, is that capitalists are not the only class that has major relative advantages. Below capitalists, but still above what I call the working class, resides what I call the “coordinator class,” which many call the “professional managerial class.” This group between labor and capital doesn’t monopolize means of production. This group between labor and capital monopolizes empowering roles in the economy. This group between labor and capital does tasks that convey to it skills, knowledge, confidence, social connections, and access to levers of decision making power, all of which leaves its members equipped and inclined to make decisions.

Employees who reside below this empowered group, the working class, in contrast do tasks that diminish their skills, delimit their knowledge, drain their confidence, sunder their social connections, and isolate them from levers of decision making power, all of which leaves them unequipped and also disinclined to make decisions.

The “coordinator class,” though hired and fired by owners in capitalism, have vastly more influence, greater bargaining power, higher incomes, better conditions, and more social say than workers below. Within capitalist economies, coordinators are a class between labor and capital. They are, as well, a class that can rise to rule when capitalism is replaced by an alternative that removes private ownership but does not remove the basis for a coordinator class above workers. This describes what has been called centrally planned and market socialism—whose economies should arguably be called, instead, centrally planned and market coordinatorism.

To attain an equitable, classless economy therefore requires not only that we eliminate a domineering capitalist class by eliminating people privately owning means of production, but also that we eliminate a domineering coordinator class by eliminating people monopolizing empowering tasks.

Now hearing that response, you, like the British interviewer, might well reply as he did, that “I know that this is something that you (and your old friend and collaborator, Robin Hahnel) have been talking about since the 1970’s and yet little on the Left seems to have changed. Could you speculate on why that is? What might be the reasons for resisting the kind of analysis that you have presented? Who might stand to gain by ignoring this analysis?”

And if you were asked that, how might you answer? My answer was, well, sometimes a new viewpoint takes a long time to garner substantial support because it is seriously complicated or, though it is reasonably accessible, it is quite far from familiar. But, I would add, is that really the full answer in this case?

Consider the claim that if 20% of society monopolizes all the empowering tasks in the economy than that 20% will, by virtue of that monopoly, accrue more confidence and influence than those below, accrue more power than those below, accrue more wealth than those below, and, based on its power and wealth, enjoy considerable daily direct control over economic and social life, especially over the lives of those below.

Put more specifically, consider the claim that doctors, lawyers, engineers, high level managers, and so on, due to their position in the economy doing mostly empowering work, will have far greater income and influence over social life than assemblers, short order cooks, and delivery workers will have, due to their position doing only disempowering work.

Can anyone sensibly contest that? You might say it is a good thing or you might say it is a bad thing, but can anyone sensibly say it isn’t true?

Consider as well the claim that if we eliminate private ownership of the means of production but we retain the old corporate division of labor that hands all the empowering tasks to 20 percent and leaves the other 80 percent with only disempowering, repetitious, and obedient tasks—then the former class will dominate the latter class. The 20 percent will dictate to rote workers from above. Again, not only is this self evident as a hypothesis, in fact, almost a truism, but it has been repeatedly born out in practice.

So, I believe these claims are not particularly complex and should be clearly evident from even a perfunctory look at history and current relations. I also believe that while the claims are incredibly far from the common sense assumptions of members of the empowered coordinator class, they are potentially obvious, sometimes spontaneously but often only when directly investigated, to most members of the disempowered working class.

If all that is correct, it follows that it probably isn’t only conceptual difficulty that prevents this kind of analysis from spreading. But what other factors may be at play?

To start to answer, presumably we can agree that everyone has inclinations and biases that stem from our beliefs and habits, not to mention from our outright material interests. These beliefs, habits, and material interests in turn come in large part from how behaviors that our circumstances impose on us impact how we come at issues and problems.

For example, if you are white in a grossly racist society, then even if you are sincerely intellectually against racism, nonetheless, the way you have been brought up, the circumstances you have experienced, and very probably the messages you daily receive will tend to limit and skew your understanding. For example, you may intellectually and even morally and emotionally reject racism per se, and yet, at some level, nonetheless you may harbor certain of its rationalizations and habits.

It is also true, however, that if you are black in such a society, again, the horrible structures around you will likely have also impacted your beliefs and habits. The effects of racist structures and their rationalizations on the dominant group, but also on the subordinate group, are real and serious and only dissipate with real effort and especially due to countervailing experiences.

The same holds for gender attitudes, of course, due to sexist patriarchal structures, and about gender too, every progressive knows all this quite well, and often quite directly.

Suppose we try to translate these type understandings to the realm of class. While there is considerable progressive attention to the existence of owners and workers, there is very little attention of any sort to the specific existence and role of a coordinator class between owners and workers, much less is there explicit understanding of the structural roots of the coordinator class’s existence, or of the character of the relations it has with workers.

As a result, it is commonplace that people of all sorts literally take for granted that some people are born to make decisions and other people are born to obey. This seems to most observers to be what they see. It seems to most observers to be foreordained and written in stone. Indeed, the belief is so prevalent that it doesn’t even need to be enunciated. And this is like, a half century ago, most people thinking that women had no capacity beyond serving husbands and birthing children, or that blacks had no capacity beyond using muscles to obey orders. The class analog is to think that people who assemble things, tend tables, drive busses, carry boxes, and on and on, have no capacity for doing more varied and empowering tasks, and that those who do more varied and empowering tasks are solely and uniquely suited to those pursuits.

The social cause of the class division between the empowered coordinator class and the disempowered working class is hidden behind an assumed high capacity for the former class and an assumed lack of capacity for the later class, just as the division between Black and white, say, or male and female, has also been thought to be born of different intrinsic capacities and not imposed by contingent social structures.

Since the misconception that the different circumstances, incomes, and power of the working class on the one hand, and of the coordinator class on the other hand, comes from differences in intrinsic capacities rather than being imposed by contingent institutions is prevalent, the lack of attention to the contrary idea is no longer so hard to understand. Proposing the existence and importance of the coordinator class and expecting a serious hearing becomes a little like telling people that trees can fly and expecting people to take time off from their other pursuits to examine and then support your claim.

To claim there is a third critically important, structurally-created class, in other words, is off the charts for most people and not worth any consideration. Most people, including all too many progressives, and especially folks who are in or who aspire to be in the zone between labor and capital, find the claim ludicrous. This dismissiveness protects a self image that coordinator class members need to believe to justify their advantages and to feel good about themselves even as they benefit from unjust monopolization of empowering work. Indeed, to obscure this class division also corresponds in part to working class needs to find ways to survive their disadvantages without exploding into furious anger in a context where options to furiously fight back are horribly limited. To deny coordinator class existence fuels the tendency to deny working class capacity to do empowering tasks just as to deny racism and sexism fuels the tendency to deny the positive capacities of women and minorities.

The derivative fact that the coordinator class also occupies positions of power vis a vis media and communications means it largely determines what is and what isn’t widely communicated in society‘s media, including in our own progressive media. This in turn causes media to overwhelmingly ignore this class issue, partly as a matter of material and social self defense, and partly as a matter of manifesting coordinators’ deep-rooted, self-serving assumptions.

Fifty years ago white and male leftists, at the heads of various kinds of movement organizations and structures, resisted efforts to elevate discussions of racial and gender hierarchy. Partly they were defending their positions because they believed that they were doing great work and their replacements would not do great work. Partly they were acting on reflex, expressing ingrained assumptions. Fifty years later such racism and sexism isn’t entirely gone within the left, but it is vastly diminished. In contrast, on the class axis, the analogous behavior regarding coordinator dominance over workers persists virtually unaddressed. Working people serve coordinator class leaders even inside anti-racist, anti-sexist, and anti-capitalist movements.

Hearing the above, the interviewer replied, “Okay, so how does your analysis relate to current events? What, for example, does it tell us about Brexit and Trump? Why are so many working people seemingly turning away from progressive politics?” How would you answer such questions?

My own answer was that many factors and variables play a role, of course. But one pretty simple factor which almost always plays a role, including in these cases, seems to me to be whether progressive politics is believable to working people. Suppose a mafia boss comes to town and claims he will raise the well being of everyone by his policies if you will only give him free space to do his own business as he chooses. The promise, taken alone, may ring enticing. If the mafia accomplishes what he claims, it would have benefits. But you would probably say no, I won’t support the mafia boss, because I don’t trust his flowery rhetoric. I don’t trust that the mafia will do as he says. I believe, instead, the mafia will do what the mafia always does, pursue mafia gain.

Okay, so what if a clear cut emissary of a class that daily dominates you in ways that of late have been getting steadily worse comes to town and says he or she will serve not his or her class, or even higher classes still further up, but you? You could reasonably have grave doubts. What if someone else then comes along, and he is rich too, indeed even richer, but he is the only other choice and he sounds more like you? He seems to understand your pain better. He appears to carry less official baggage. His promises seem to you more believable and to go further. He doesn’t call you deplorable. And so on. The rejection of mildly progressive policies when they don’t register as honest shouldn’t be too surprising. To gravitate toward abstention seems obvious, and has been predominant for ages. To gravitate, instead, toward monstrous views requires further explanation—but not too much more explanation if the monster does a good job of appearing to be other than he is regarding what you take to be central concerns. We have seen that often, too. And if the monster also marshals fear and hate effectively, that will add to his momentum. And we have seen that too.

We might ask, what would have been different if Sanders had run in the U.S. instead of Clinton? I think the main thing would have been that far more people—on all sides—would have believed Sanders meant what he said. Which, indeed, I think would have been true. With Clinton, far fewer people thought she meant any of the progressive stuff she said, so much fewer, that in many states, she lost to a lying lunatic, and as a result she lost the overall electoral college count.

Again, lots of variables operated, but one, which I think was clearly visible, was many voters’ justified distrust of and even anger and hostility toward the coordinator class and its culture and dismissiveness. To have an emissary of that class advocate progressive policies causes the policies to lose legitimacy by the association.

This has been occurring for a long time, especially in the US., but elsewhere too. Left ideas have reached into diverse race and gender communities, yet not as much into working class communities including blacks and women in the working class—and the three class analysis says one reason for that could be that sadly, and often accurately, class conscious anti-coordinatorist working people find the left unattractive due to its coordinatorist dismissiveness toward working people.

The British interviewer here went from description to prescription, asking, “Are the current structures of progressive organizations in line with the kind of values and goals we espouse? What does this say about the current structures that dominate progressive political organizations? How might we organize in a way that brings about the changes we say we want?”

Those are good questions. My own reply is that to be in line with our most worthy values our institutions need to be feminist, anti racist, anti authoritarian, and also anti classist, and not just in words, but in their very definition and structure. This needs to be the case, both so our institutions will lead toward our full goals, but also so they will appropriately respect, involve, and empower all potential present day allies, and not alienate and exclude or mistreat them.

Movements have tried very consciously and with considerable though so far incomplete success to pursue the racial and gender and even authority parts of the needed agenda, but movements have focussed less if at all on the class parts of that agenda, most often not even trying, at least regarding coordinator class dominance over workers.

Too often our projects still utilize internal divisions of labor and decision making methods that elevate coordinators and that say to workers, this movement really isn’t about your liberation. This movement elevates others above you. This movement leads somewhere you don’t want to go. This movement treats you as subordinate along the way. This movement is not your movement.

It seems to me the answer to how to organize more successfully is to do so in ways that foreshadow and are consistent with attaining feminist, anti racist, self managing, and also classless goals.

Regarding a classless goal, I think the main step is not only to define movement responsibilities so that internal training and roles elevate working class members while countering the presumptions of coordinator class members. It isn’t coordinator skills, talents, and knowledge that need opposition. It is the idea that those skills, talents, and knowledge should belong to a few, and not to all who work. The problem is the corporate division of labor that allots empowering tasks to about 20% of the population and disempowering tasks to about 80% of the population. The problem is not the people who benefit from this division of labor, much less is the problem their expertise per se. The problem is this division of labor itself. The solution for a future economy is to adopt a new division of labor that apportions empowering and disempowering tasks so that all employees, which mow means all workers, are prepared and inclined by their circumstances to make decisions. The implication for movements is that to plant the seeds of the future in the present and to represent and elevate working class participants, they should redefine their own allotment of tasks and responsibilities and also incorporate into their program demands addressing worker subordination in their daily circumstances as they seek post capitalism.

Trump was elected in 2016. People wonder, why, what went wrong? Many leftists offer answers that point to faults and failings of others. And, indeed, to point at mainstream parties and media as the cause of recent horrors has some logic. But what about admitting that something about our overall radical approaches, our radical words, our radical styles, and our radical organizations has prevented our affecting huge numbers of working people even enough so they wouldn’t support vile insanity, much less enough so they would by now be active participants in and definers of progressive and revolutionary agendas? And yet, if we want to win, aren’t our own choices where we need to look most closely for what we can change in order to do better?

For those who wonder why to take the idea of a third class between labor and capital further and why to consider its broader implications for seeking a better world—perhaps consider this.

If we see and highlight two classes, we will tend to perceive and highlight two economic systems in competition—one that elevates the owning capitalist class and one that elevates workers and eliminates the ownership relations imposing a class above it.

In contrast, if we see and highlight three classes, we will tend to see and highlight three economic and social systems in competition—one that elevates the owning capitalist class, one that elevates the empowered coordinator class after removing the owning class above it, and one that elevates all employees as workers after removing private ownership relations but also the division of labor that imposes a second class above workers.

The first of the three economic systems is capitalism, which we currently endure and suffer.

The second of the three economic systems is called by many market socialism or centrally planned socialism, but is really more accurately called coordinatorism.

The third of the three economic systems, a classless possibility, is a proposal for post capitalism and post coordinatorism that some call participatory economics.

I mentioned at the outset of this article that some activists call the third class the “professional managerial class” or “PMC” while others, including myself call it the “coordinator class.” Why the different labels? Is there anything at stake in choosing one or the other?

Put differently, why in a book titled Between Labor and Capital that was literally built around Barbara and John Ehrenreich’s essay titled, “The Professional Managerial Class,” did Robin Hahnel and I use the label “Coordinator Class” instead of the label “PMC”?

The answer is that we felt the PMC label would orient folks to highlight credentials, education, and attitudes—ideology—as the basis of the class between labor and capital, over and above, and perhaps even to the exclusion of highlighting the centrality of job structure and the division of labor as the basis of the class between labor and capital. We felt that regardless of intentions, which were then shared, the PMC label could tend to overly focus attention on rebutting the third class’s supporting rationalizations, but might obscure the parallel and entwined need to structurally replace the institutional basis of those rationalizations.

We wanted a label that would focus attention at least equally on how the existing corporate division of labor apportions empowering tasks into about 20 percent of jobs, thereby elevating members of the class between labor and capital above workers who are left with only disempowering tasks. We wanted a label that would name the class between labor and capital, but that would also focus attention on the need to create a new division of labor to apportion empowering tasks comparably into all jobs as part of a new classless self managing, equitable, diverse, solidarity, sustainable, classless, participatory economy.