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In time for Labor Day, a reason to discuss Class

by techno Sun Sep 2nd, 2007 at 04:52:13 PM EST

Class analysis is most commonly practiced by the political left.  In fact, many consider class analysis a Marxist practice to this day.  I personally never found Marxist class analysis very satisfying because I could think of so many examples that did not fit into his scheme.  That did not, however, stop my interest in the subject.

So when I discovered in my early 30s that my favorite political economist, Thorstein Veblen, had postulated a VERY non-Marxist class analysis that described social reality much better than Marx ever did, I was quite excited.  Veblen's class analysis was several orders of magnitude more complex and nuanced and came buried in an even more complicated intellectual strategy called Institutional Analysis, so it is sometimes difficult to separate out.

What follows is my best estimate of Veblen's ideas--described with modern examples.  For example, the Business / Industry dichotomy is Veblen's.  Calling it an example of a rivalry between Predators and Producers is mine--with a hat tip to Ignatius Donnelley.


What is the proper way to define a class?

  1. prove the existence of a group with boundaries;
  2. explain what the members of the group have in common.

Class analysis is often based on income, but because a Producer-Predator analysis postulates that there are rich and poor members of Producers and Predators, the difference is fundamental yet esoteric.

Certain social scientists believe that membership in a class is determined by an individual's class awareness. This seems a reasonable requirement except the problems it creates in a country such as the United States where the notions of class and class interest have not been discussed in public for at least 50 years.

The Producers' existence is validated by the common intuition. We know that Producers exist because we can see what they have built. A building implies a builder. Similarly, we know Predators exist because we can see people taking by force or fraud something that belongs to someone else. The main defining criteria is their differing strategies for survival. In a real sense, Producers and Predators are occupational rather than monetary definitions.

Establishing the existence of Producers and Predators is simple enough, but as we shall see, many people are not clear examples of either one. Modern social scientists classify most occupations of advanced industrialization as service occupations.

The existence of service occupations does not destroy the producer-predator duality. Service, after all, implies an allegiance to another person or agenda. For most of recorded history, "service" was merely another name for Producers. Societies were pretty simple--there were those who ruled and those who served.

Because service often implies loyalty, it has become a tradition for those who would consider themselves a part of the service sector to identify with the ruling values of Predators. Disruption to this social order did not occur until producing servants became economically important enough to forge a separate agenda and value set.

Figure : 1.1

These illustrations are also animated:

Pre-Industrial Revolution
Upper (those who rule--Predators)
Lower (those who serve--Producers)

There were layers of stratification within each group, but one thing was absolutely clear: the lowest member of the ruling classes was above the highest member of the serving classes.

The industrial revolution ended this neat arrangement. For the first time, Producers achieved real power, but because industrialization, especially in England, was grafted onto feudal stock, the social arrangements were only slightly modified. Rich and powerful Producers acted much like the worst of the old Predators. This was the world as Marx described it.

Figure: 1.2
Early Industrialization (esp. England)

Marx's petit bourgeoisie were the servants who did the dirty business of predation--not to be confused with the servants who cleaned the stalls. These latter were still lumped together with the producing peasants, builders, and mechanics to form the proletariat.

The late nineteenth-century American Populist writers were not as critical of business enterprise as Marx. Going into business, after all, was the main element of the American dream. Though there was not much evidence, the populists believed that Producers could become successful and still maintain their producer attitudes. It was possible to reach the top without cheating anyone.

Figure: 1:3
Socio-Economic Distribution
Late 19th--Early 20th Century esp. USA

This graph is meant to show that, though a few Producers had become rich, most were to be found at the bottom of the social order in any meaningful sense. The gap is meant to represent the emerging awareness of a separate agenda. Populists, Marxists, and progressives of all stripes agreed to and organized around the notions of difference.

The world got its first populist-producer billionaire in Henry Ford. Social progressives were enchanted. Ford seemed to have found the magic formula. He made his fortune producing something, paid his workers well, hired racial minorities, and embraced the 8-hour day. Better yet, when he made his fortune, he spent it on improving his product, opening a museum glorifying the history of the producing classes, and promoting causes like the end of World War I. John Reed, the American Marxist buried in the Kremlin wall, was convinced for a time that Ford's production theories and Marx's social theories would result in a Utopia.

By the same token, Ford's capitalist comrades were horrified. In spite of his incredible wealth and power, Ford was shunned by the wealthy and powerful for his ideas. As shown in the chart, the Predators still held power and chose to make the 1920s miserable for both Ford and the class he championed. The idealism at Ford Motor lost its luster when the firm began to lose money.

In the end, Ford was to become a tightfisted, union-busting tyrant. Even so, important Producer legacies remain:

Producers have their own business-management-leadership style that is successful--there is no need to emulate the Predators;

Clean fortunes are possible--class conflict need not be between the rich and poor but between the Producers--who believe everyone can be rich in every meaningful sense; and the Predators--who believe only a few can be really rich.

The Producers now had an economic agenda with a proven track record. This led to political success. It can be argued that, in the period between 1945 and 1970, the producer agenda dominated the political economy of the industrial states and the thinking of most of the rest.

Power, in all its forms, in the later stages of industrialization is far too fragmented to enable one to state clearly that the Producers are absolutely ascendant. (It seems as if most modern social science is dedicated to proving that no one has any power anymore. In a sense they are correct. No one seems to have real power because many persons and groups seem to have some. If a social scientist chooses to ignore the possibility of producer power, the fragmentation of power looks even more bewildering.)

In fact, a chart of power--both economic and political--might look something like this.

Figure 1.4
Economic Distribution (by occupational type)

This graph is probably misleading even if accurate. The newly significant service sector is, in reality, a convenient, but confusing, classification device because garbage collectors, bankers, and kings can be so classified.

With a huge service sector that can include bankers and royalty, there remain genuine Predators. At the top are persons whose income is derived from ground rent or bonds, military rulers, and the like. At the bottom are the petty thieves.

Figure: 1.5
Social Distribution (by interest group)

There may be three basic occupational types but there remain only two agendas. Those who would serve are forced to choose between those who would produce and those who will not. It is possible for royalty and bankers, persons once considered the essence of predation, to serve the interests of Producers. Kings and princes can be regularly seen pushing the products of their native countries worldwide. Bankers who live modest lives while promoting the economies of their communities were once a regular fixture of the American Midwest. And the best current examples are the investment bankers trying to bankroll environmentally sustainable technologies.

Unfortunately, such are exceptions. Most bankers are Predators, think as Predators, and if not, serve the interests of Predators. It is rare for any royalty (or anyone else living off inherited wealth for that matter) to justify income with real service.

An interesting picture emerges. It turns out that industrial societies do not need many real Producers because they are so efficient. A single farmer can produce enough food to feed several hundred people. A punch press operator can make more parts in one year than he can consume in a century.

Producers find few natural allies in the service sector. The exception concerns those associated with industrial maintenance. The difference between building an automobile and repairing one is very small. If the goal is not merely an automobile but an automobile that runs, they are economically identical since an automobile that is inoperative has no (or negative) value.

Socially, maintenance and production people share an important similarity--both must understand and use tools. If the fundamental difference is between Producers who use tools, and the Predators who use weapons, then maintenance people are, in fact, Real Producers though they are usually classified as service workers.

If maintenance allies itself naturally with production, the rest of the service industries pose more problems for producer recruitment to their agenda. It seems the only certain way to create Producers is to put tools in their hands and teach them to use them well.

Producers have appealed to the lower classes of the service sector through notions of class solidarity. This has not worked well. Trade unions look down on industrial unions and have joined forces only out of dire necessity. Producers can be awful snobs.

The upper classes of the service sector produce a whole different set of problems for producer recruitment. Because upper class members of the service sector are unlikely to use tools to produce anything, the predisposition of history is toward the predator agenda.

Even this picture is still pretty primitive. As societies have become more complex, more sophisticated representations are necessary. Late 20th Century industrialized societies are at least three-dimensional;

Fig. 1.6

In purely economic terms, whether a person is rich or poor, politically conservative or progressive is of minor importance compared to whether he or she produces goods or services that materially benefit the community i.e. make the economic "pie" expand.

Class Conflict

The rise to prominence and power of the producing classes would tend to mitigate, one would suppose, the conflicts of class. In fact, something of the sort happened. Serious scholars have portrayed the United States as a classless society. Ninety-five percent of the Japanese think of themselves as members of the middle class.

People do not talk of America as a classless society any longer, but class conflict has grown exceedingly complex since the issue was last raised. Any simplistic description of class conflict in terms of rich versus poor is probably doomed to fail because it is irrelevant.

The fact that both major interest groups contain upper, middle, and lower economic classes does not end battles between these groups but, in fact, provides a wider assortment of possibilities for conflict. The conflicts are of four major types: predator against producer, predator against predator, producer against producer, and producer against predator.

Predators against Producers

This is the oldest conflict. One who does not produce food and shelter for oneself must get someone else to do it. The Predators have been extremely inventive over the years. Their methods have included slavery, imperialism, usury, ground rents, tithes, and taxation.

Of course, since the very upper predator crust does not do anything productive at all, servants who share the predator mentality have always surrounded them to do the actual work of profit taking, tax gathering, and rent collection. The real work of predation has been done by sheriffs, IRS agents, lawyers, judges, and an army of bureaucrats. Overseeing all this activity is the clergy (or other moral leaders) whose job it is to see that everyone agrees this is the best possible arrangement.

Predators against Predators

This conflict is usually called war. History books are filled with the lurid accounts of these conflicts to which nothing can be added here. Within a given society, predator-predator conflicts are rare because loyalty is a big predator virtue while treason is a big predator sin. As a result, while tales of revolution and coups d'etat are common, historically they are quite rare. There are also recorded instances of bankers ruining kings, but these are even more rare.

Producers against Producers

Though widely misunderstood, producer-producer conflicts are common. They usually center around the issues of automation. The sophisticated tools associated with industrialization enable anyone with access to this tooling to copy exactly any product. The producer with the best original design and the best tooling will eliminate those Producers with inferior products.

In the beginning of the industrial revolution, these producer-producer conflicts boiled over in social revolt as artisans were displaced by factories. The Luddite movement saw these displaced artisans smash sophisticated factory tools. The Luddite movement generated little sympathy. Few consumers were likely to complain about cheap factory-produced goods that were clearly superior to the more expensive goods produced by artisans. What really finished the Luddite impulse, however, was the realization that industrialization would also produce cheap, but sophisticated, tools. These tools would allow the small producer to fill the gaps in production left, deliberately or otherwise, by the large producer.

Small Producers seek niches for their efforts for very good reason. Direct competition with a large, established producer is extremely difficult. A large producer has production experience, established ties to suppliers, known marketing outlets, and access to finance. Unless the technology of the small producer is far superior, there is no chance in a direct competition.

There are examples of new Producers displacing old ones--such as when the $5 quartz crystal-microchip watch proved to be more accurate than the $5000 mechanical watch produced by the Swiss. Even today, the Swiss, with a four-hundred year head start in watchmaking, have not fully recovered from the competition of an upstart. Such examples are not rare.

Producers against Predators

When one thinks of attacks of Producers on Predators, strikes, boycotts, and sabotage are what come to mind. And in fact, these are about the only options available to lower class Producers.

Upper class Producers have an option that they have frequently exercised: simply make things so very complicated that only those who made them know how they work. This has been the strategy of choice as Producers have sought to increase their power. It has been highly effective. The world that Producers have created by the end of the twentieth century is so complex that it is a rare predator who has even the vaguest notion how the world works.

Even the specialist servants of predation have a hard time understanding the smallest slice of the world they pretend to govern, regulate, or defraud. Producers go out of their way to make matters difficult (the most interesting little producer secret is that every extant process of production can be explained to any reasonably alert 9-year-old.) What makes a producer a genius is the ability to solve problems that have not been solved before. Once found, a good solution is "obvious." Even so, the Predators and their servants exhibit an odd trait that makes this process of obfuscation easy.

Preservation of Archaic Traits

Predators do not know much about Producers (and their work) for an interesting reason that goes beyond the producer's tendency to make his work obscure. In many respects, Predators do not know about the work of Producers because they believe it to be beneath their dignity to know. They are fashionably ignorant.

The automobile provides a perfect example of a subject about which ignorance is quite fashionable indeed.

It is almost impossible to overstate the importance of the automobile on industrial society. It affects everything from city planning to sex. It is economically very important with millions of jobs at stake. Its impact on the environment in the form of resource depletion, air and water pollution, and the production of toxins is enormous.

Resource requirements affect international relationships. Rhodium, necessary for the production of catalytic converters used to fight air pollution, can only be found in commercial quantities in the Russia and South Africa. To fight air pollution, the United States has been forced to deal with one government or the other on a normal commercial basis. The choice of South Africa was for years the subject of a loud political debate and an object lesson in Cold War insanity.

One might assume that a subject of this import would demand widespread knowledge. In fact it has, but an odd phenomenon has occurred--those most likely to make major judgments on the future of the automobile are the ones with the least knowledge. Government transportation officials, environmentalists, car critics, and the like regularly make public pronouncements in which they mispronounce basic automotive terms, confuse facts, and generally give the impression they know absolutely nothing about the real automobiles that people drive.

More oddly, they seem genuinely pleased with their ignorance--treating it as if it were a badge of social stature. They even claim that their ignorance of the nuts and bolts of a subject allows them to arrive at more objective policy decisions. Now it is a fact that automotive policy decisions can be well formulated without knowing how a transmission operates. It is also a fact that such people regularly make preposterous decisions because they do not understand the subject.

Even if a person were to arrive at a policy-making group with genuine automotive knowledge, that person would be tempted to hide this knowledge for fear of being labeled a motorhead. In the august company where such policies are formed, the motorhead would be found guilty of a cultural crime--knowing what only the servants are supposed to know.

Producers know this social rule well. They have learned that scientific and technological issues are not to be discussed in polite company. As Veblen pointed out, the ability to do anything useful is suspect. Thorough knowledge of a subject demonstrates ability and experience, precisely the sorts of thing "important" members of society cannot have.

Ironically, people are not born fashionably ignorant--they pay good money to become that way. This cost is usually involved in getting a "liberal" education.

The Danger of Preserved Predatory Traits

The greatest problems facing the industrial states do not stem from conflict, but rather from a rough sort of cooperation. Such cooperation is not voluntary but is rooted in the oldest of the power arrangements: predator power is cultural, economic, military, and political while producer power stems from a mastery over physical processes.

In spite of its seeming obsolescence, predator power is still very real. In the United States, predator values dominate the cultural forums. There are many reasons but one is significant. The National Security Act of 1947 put the United States on a perpetual wartime footing--a fact which dominates economic decisions, distorts political institutions, censors newspaper reporting, and muddles the educational processes. The Soviet Union, the putative object of this war, was forced by this action to choose a similar set of values which have caused similar problems. Because of their commitment to the predatory values of militarism, these two nations were often called superpowers. They have also been called the "Klutzes of the North" by Gore Vidal for their persistent problems with production.

Unwilling to challenge predator power or its values directly, Producers historically have found themselves in the unfortunate position of increasing the powers they seek to thwart. Producers have made war more deadly with their weapons, authoritarianism more pervasive with big-brother computers and surveillance technologies, and demagogues more influential with television. If this were not enough, the producer's failure to challenge the notions of wealth, monetary policy, and usury has multiplied the predatory aspects of their own industrial enterprise. To succeed under such assumptions, a producer is forced to violate nature even as he is exploited. As a result, the main crises of industrialization is the environmental crises.

The Predators disavow any responsibility for their role in the industrial rape of the planet and their response is as old as history. Return, they say, to the Garden of Eden. Go backward to a time when the Producers did not present such ghastly problems. Roll back the social gains of the Producers and the problems they have caused will disappear.

There is no retreat from producer problems. Industrial-environmental problems have already been created and they would not vanish even if the Producers and industrialization were to disappear overnight. There is no Garden of Eden solution. Producers are responsible for the magnitude of our environmental problems. Only they understand their scope. Only they can create a solution for problems that already exist.

The implications of this reality are enormous. It means that rather than a return to predator values that have dominated economics since the 1980s worldwide, producer influence must be extended further into the cultural, economic, and political arenas--arenas where Producers traditionally have feared to tread.

Display:
Parasite I think is the proper term.  What we are talking about in the capitalist system is the exploitation of people.  With full knowledge of America's industrial age complete with the coal miner's story of the company store, China, free of OSHA, unions, the right to know laws and even the 1997 Kyoto CO2 restrictions capitalist companies eager to sell their own grandmothers into slavery flocked to the billion man marketplace.

Yes, I'm irrational, incoherent, my wife's aunt just died and Lord, I'm ready for that last horsie ride, the one just before the Biblical Apocalypse.

by Lasthorseman on Sun Sep 2nd, 2007 at 05:18:27 PM EST
This is a really interesting diary, thanks for putting it together.  I've never come across any discussion of class in this way before, and it certainly goes some way in breaking beyond the constraints of the Marxist view on class.  

It ought to be quite clear that class cannot be broken down into rich vs poor anymore, and opportunities and barriers are far more complex than that. Your discussion here is one way of framing it, although I'm sure there could be many variations. It doesn't feel as though political thinking has moved on enough to take this into consideration though, hence the numerous failing political interventions in various areas.  Good food for thought here, thanks.

by In Wales (inwales aaat eurotrib.com) on Mon Sep 3rd, 2007 at 04:41:08 AM EST
You may find this essay of interest. The author looks at class as a cultural issue. She finds that education tends to define class more than the prior income basis.

Class Matters

Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Mon Sep 3rd, 2007 at 09:29:45 AM EST
A good link, thanks.  I'll try to take a more detailed look later.
by In Wales (inwales aaat eurotrib.com) on Mon Sep 3rd, 2007 at 09:41:01 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I find her discussion of class to be a minor improvement on Marx.  My problem with Marx is that I have long considered him a Predator Class charlatan--which explains why the various Marxist experiments were FAR from being anything CLOSE to a worker's paradise.

Those of us who actually have Producer Class credentials soon grow used to never being appreciated for what we do.  That is "normal."  But what I cannot tolerate are those lazy social "scientists" who will not even acknowledge our existence.  This woman wouldn't know an accomplished Producer if he or she was working in front of her face.


"Remember the I35W bridge--who needs terrorists when there are Republicans"

by techno (reply@elegant-technology.com) on Tue Sep 4th, 2007 at 01:29:04 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Why not raise your objections with her directly. I'm sure she would be interested in hearing what you have to say.

Her background is in community organizing, not in theoretical economic philosophy.

I've had discussions with her several times and it has always been interesting.

Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Tue Sep 4th, 2007 at 04:14:44 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Why not raise your objections with her directly?

At the risk of soundling like a jerk, WHY would I want to do that?  Here is a woman who basically believes things that I stopped believing 35 years ago.  I sincerely doubt she spent 1/3 as much time on her essay as I spent just rendering out the illustrations for my video.  And she sees her world as a "community activist."

However, should you want her to get in touch with me, please inform her that I will expect she understands the essay above, and that I will terminate the conversation immediately if I sense that she thinks Producers are inferior to her and need her skills as an "activist."

"Remember the I35W bridge--who needs terrorists when there are Republicans"

by techno (reply@elegant-technology.com) on Tue Sep 4th, 2007 at 07:42:55 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Closed mindedness is usually the sign of someone who doubts the strength of their own beliefs.

Personally, I don't care what you believe or whether you wish to discuss things with someone with a different perspective. It's your loss, not ours.

Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Wed Sep 5th, 2007 at 09:58:31 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, a useful analysis, thank you for putting it down for us. The interesting thing is when we now see that the Predator class is rendering whole geographical regions of producers redundant and expecting them to all fall to the bottom of the scale without protest. It's one of the structural instabilities we're seeing inow as peak oil bites.

keep to the Fen Causeway
by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Mon Sep 3rd, 2007 at 10:51:09 AM EST
I think Peak Oil is a part of it: but it's also the pervasive spread of the Internet,the development of "Intellectual Property" and the wholesale stripping out of administration "costs" aka staff via automation, outsourcing and so on.

"The future is already here -- it's just not very evenly distributed" William Gibson
by ChrisCook (cojockathotmaildotcom) on Mon Sep 3rd, 2007 at 01:50:28 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Excellent diary.

The real work of predation has been done by sheriffs, IRS agents, lawyers, judges, and an army of bureaucrats. Overseeing all this activity is the clergy (or other moral leaders) whose job it is to see that everyone agrees this is the best possible arrangement.

The modern equivalent of the clergy are the conservative media. The job of Fox, the WSJ, the FT and the Econo is to promote holy writ and the actions that support it, no matter how ridiculous the justifications and disconnected from reality the results.

As for judges and lawyers - they aren't necessarily supporters of predation. The supporters are more like mercenaries who use symbolic violence as a substitute for physical violence. But there are also judges and lawyers who work to oppose predation; I'm not sure if they count as producers, or not.

What's interesting is the absence of the political class from this picture. My take on it is that parliamentary politics is almost ireelevant. The best the producers can hope for is slightly more humane living conditions and perhaps some free time.

The predators are the ones in charge, and they're likely to remain in charge.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Mon Sep 3rd, 2007 at 08:05:46 PM EST
The modern equivalent of the clergy are the conservative media.

An EXCELLENT observation.  I am tempted to modify my post.

Please remember, however, in USA, the clergy still fill their old-fashoned roles.  If you have a strong stomach, you should check out the USA televangelists with their Jesus-LOVES-the-rich Calvinism as they try to fleece their flocks.

"Remember the I35W bridge--who needs terrorists when there are Republicans"

by techno (reply@elegant-technology.com) on Tue Sep 4th, 2007 at 01:41:08 PM EST
[ Parent ]
it reminds me a bit of this chart i once saw in a discussion of bourdieu, where he had laid out the left and right in french society, tying it not just to money, but also to one's side of the divide between economic and cultural capital. middle class teahcers would be on the left, middle class shopkeepers on the right, and so on. then he added stuff like whether you drank pernod or white wine in there, it was pretty interesting.

american society is at once ignorant of class and fractured into a zillion subclass conflicts. conservatives have become quite skilled at playing the latter, liberals are still crippled from their disavowal of the left in the cold war.

by wu ming on Tue Sep 4th, 2007 at 03:15:43 AM EST
Now a booze Class Analysis - there's an idea.

Solidarity with the People's Beer Party!

Down with the running dogs of Wine class traitors!

"The future is already here -- it's just not very evenly distributed" William Gibson

by ChrisCook (cojockathotmaildotcom) on Tue Sep 4th, 2007 at 04:41:24 AM EST
[ Parent ]


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