Should We Believe in a Classless Society?

It’s not clear what a classless society means, precisely.  As Wittgenstein might say, “I cannot picture it.”  And it stinks of utopia.  It’s difficult to avoid picturing a class society, where class is rigidly maintained, where the rule of the ruling class is undisputed and incontestable - and one aspect of this brutal rule is the absolute prohibition on acknowledging that class exists.  The prohibition of class analysis is a means by which the ruling class maintains its rule.  (And of course, in many ways, this is already how the United States, for instance, operates.)  It may be that class will always exist, but will take a very wide variety of forms - and we are bound vigilantly to oppose each and every form of class domination as it appears.  The price of liberation is eternal vigilance.  Part of that vigilance is always refusing to believe that we live in a classless society, and always working to detect class relationships, no matter how subtle. Belief in a classless society always serves the interests of the ruling class.

It is often assumed that after the collapse and defeat of capitalism, a classless society will automatically and naturally emerge - and it is often further assumed, usually without explicit acknowledgment, that this classless society will last forever, or at least a very long time.  I am happy to see any evidence that someone might bring to suggest that any of this might be the case.  But until then, I remain skeptical.

Fredric Jameson famously observed that “ is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.”  Part of the reason for this failure of imagination is that the end of capitalism is conflated with a classless society, and the idea of a classless society has never been fully defined - in part because the very term “class” has not yet been fully defined.  This is a fundamental - and consequential - failure of existing leftist theory.

For example: if the workers came to own the means of production, and thus the antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat were sublated, and yet at the same time there remained an unequal division of labor between those who identify as male and those who identify as female, I for one could not consider this to be a classless society.

It's easy to imagine other post-capitalist class systems: military vs. civilian springs to mind.  Or scientists vs. laypeople.  Or educated people vs. uneducated people.  Particularly in the era of artificial intelligence and genetic engineering, other forms of inequality present other problems to think about.  And we can imagine other class systems.

Or take the state, for another example (or even the “semi-state”).  Is it possible that those representatives whose responsibility it is to plan and administer a workers’ state could have interests contrary to the interests of the rest of the workers (for instance, the interest of maintaining their own power)?   Let’s leave aside, for now, the question of what, in fact, historically happened in 20th century Stalinist bloc countries.  I’m only asking if it’s possible, theoretically, that this could happen.  One typical response is to sidestep this issue by playing with semantics, along the lines of saying, “Yes, something like this could happen, but let’s not call it ‘class’.”  There is a Trotskyist tradition of referring to this kind of nomenklatura not as a “class” but as a “caste” - rather a poor choice of words, in my opinion, one that could easily be regarded as Eurocentric.  What exactly are they implying with this term, “caste”?  That a system existed in which a Brahmin-like group of families of theoreticians and intellectuals ruled over a Kshatriya-like group of bureaucrats and military men, who in turn imposed this system on the rest of the people?

A parallel tradition exists among some anarchists, who often speak of workers electing workers’ councils, who then elect recallable representatives to higher coordinating councils.  Marxists - and just about everyone else - upon hearing this, reply: what you have just described is a state.  You may not call it a state, but it functions like a state, and we might as well be honest about that.  There might be a rule, written or unwritten, spoken or unspoken, against calling it a state, because the state always exists to serve the interests of some class, and we are supposed to live in a classless society.  But again, I assert: the prohibition of class analysis is a means by which the ruling class maintains its rule.  Therefore, we must detect and declare the existence of class and class antagonism, even and especially if the prevailing ideology claims that no classes exist (as might happen in a Stalinist, Trotskyist, or anarchist society, just as it is asserted by some deluded nitwits today).

Someone may reply: then the answer is more participation!  We are assured that every cook can govern, and participation is the magic word that many wave around to fix all problems.  In a democracy, there are always cheerleaders asking us to make this a more participatory democracy.  One can only imagine that in another kind of system, there would be similar (but worse) cheerleaders trying to get us to be participatory Stalinists or what have you.  The anarchosyndicalist workers’ councils would undoubtedly be cajoling us to go to the meetings, to make the decisions, to vote - perhaps even to achieve total consensus.  But some people really don’t want to participate in these meetings, which undoubtedly would go on and on and on.  Some people would rather go to the beach.

This brings us to the real problem at the core of the issue of the notion of a classless society, which is more fundamental than the problem of the state, namely: it is unclear how class could be abolished without at the same time abolishing the division of labor.  And it is unclear how the division of labor can be abolished at all - or even whether it should be.  Sure, people may give us throwaway lines, like Marx’s famous joke in The German Ideology that “in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.” 

But is the answer really that everyone will have to do everything?  Are we going to force every person to be a doctor, who specializes in every specialty in medicine, and at the same time a chemical engineer, and a participant in the government, and a philosopher, and a writer, and an artist, and a factory worker, and a farmer, and a soldier, and a daycare worker, and a computer specialist, all at once?  This idea is as silly and unmaterialist as it is oppressive.  Not everyone is going to be in every role at once.  Some people are not going to want to do some things. 

Certainly it is possible for a person to take on a wide variety of roles over the course of a lifetime - and it is probably healthy to do so, as well.  Perhaps one will not be able to fulfill every single role, but it is good for people to gain a range of perspectives, working with many different people with their own varieties of experience.  All of this is to be encouraged.  But some specialization is unavoidable, and only someone horribly twisted by ressentiment wouldn’t see something hopeful and beautiful in a person who had dedicated a good portion of their lives to a specific task, to learn it and master it as deeply as possible - this is what we admire in everyone from our scientists to our athletes.

Inevitably, there will be problems.  Let's return to the idea of workers' councils - imagine that every sector of the economy is under the control of the workers themselves, in the form of these councils.  That's well and good for many products - but what about councils that are in control of, say, steel production, or some other strategic resource, the control of which could allow one sector to achieve a position of dominance over other sectors?  Of course, the ultimate strategic resource is energy production.  (And in the future, artificial intelligence could occupy an even more strategic position.)  This is not to say that workers' councils should be opposed - it merely means that, even and especially in such a society, we should be vigilant about new forms of class antagonism arising.

We should fight for a society in which people can maximize their potential.  We should fight for a society in which people can change roles quickly and easily from one sector of our society to another, no matter how different - and in which there is no bar for entry based on ethnicity, gender, creed, and so on.  We should fight for a society in which no one’s role is fixed, where no one in any role is exploited or oppressed, and where everyone can participate in the decision-making to the extent that they choose.

It is difficult to imagine a society in which different people did not have different roles, at least temporarily.  And these different roles will quite likely have different purviews of responsibility - differing not only in degree of responsibility but also in kind.  Of course we would wish that these roles would be in some sense be “equal.”  But merely wishing for this equality does not make it so - and only a fool or a liar would have us assume that they must automatically and naturally be equal, without us working relentlessly to overcome any systemic privilege that may arise.  Instead, not only must we be on the lookout to see whether the differing material interests between roles open up into class antagonisms - we must assume that they will.  And on that assumption we must build, in advance, institutions powerful enough to conquer and overcome them.  Indeed, by the law of entropy, we can expect our antagonisms to multiply, not to disappear.  The sooner we have the maturity to admit this to ourselves, the more effectively we can get to work on these problems.


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