Food for Thought

From the ABC’s of Anarchism by Alexander Berkman:

‘But professional men belong to the middle classes,’ you object, ‘and they are bourgeois-minded.’

True, men of the professions generally have a bourgeois attitude toward things; but are not most workingmen also bourgeois-minded? It merely means that both are steeped in authoritarian and capitalistic prejudices. It is just these that must be eradicated by enlightening and educating the people, be they manual or brain workers. That is the first step in preparation for the social revolution.

But it is not true that professional men, as such, necessarily belong to the middle classes.

The real interests of the so-called intellectuals are with the workers rather than with the masters. To be sure, most of them do not realize that. But no more does the comparatively highly-paid railroad conductor or locomotive engineer feel himself a member of the working class. By his income and attitude he also belongs to the bourgeoisie. But it is not income or feeling that determines to what social class a person belongs. If the street beggar should fancy himself a millionaire, would he thereby be one? What one imagines himself to be does not alter his actual situation. And the actual situation is that whoever has to sell his labour is an employee, a salaried dependent, a wage earner, and as such his true interests are those of employees and he belongs to the working class.

As a matter of fact, the intellectual proletarian is even more subject to his capitalistic master than the man with pick and shovel. The latter can easily change his place of employment. If he does not care to work for a certain boss he can look for another. The intellectual proletarian, on the other hand, is much more dependent on his particular job. His sphere of exertion is more limited. Not skilled in any trade and physically incapable of serving as a day labourer, he is (as a rule) confined to the comparatively narrow field of architecture, engineering, journalism, or similar work. This puts him more at the mercy of his employer and therefore also inclines him to side with the latter as against his more independent fellow-worker at the bench.

But whatever the attitude of the salaried and dependent intellectual, he belongs to the proletarian class. Yet it is entirely false to maintain that the intellectuals always side with the masters as against the workers. “Generally they do,” I hear some radical fanatic interject. And the workers? Do they not, generally, support the masters and the system of capitalism? Could that system continue but for their support? It would be wrong to argue from chat, however, that the workers consciously join hands with their exploiters. No more is it true of the intellectuals. If the majority of the latter stand by the ruling class it is because of social ignorance, because they do not understand their own best interests, for all their “intellectuality.” Just so the great masses of labour, similarly unaware of their true interests, aid the masters against their fellow-workers, sometimes even in the same trade and factory, not to speak of their lack of national and international solidarity. It merely proves that the one as the other, the manual worker no less than the brain proletarian, needs enlightenment.

This seems like a significant point in thinking about today’s highly-educated, underemployed working class.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Food for Thought

  1. Exactly right. Specialization is a mechanism of control. Feenberg points to Weber’s claim that differentiation is characteristic of modernity (Between Reason and Experience 184). Capitalists have long taken pride in being generalists. From Fernand Braudel: “after the initial boom of mechanization, the most advanced kind of capitalism reverted to eclecticism, to an indivisibility of interests so to speak, as if the characteristic advantage of standing at the commanding heights of the economy . . . consisted precisely of not having to confine oneself to a single choice, of being able, as today’s businessmen would put it, to keep one’s options open.” (The Wheels of Commerce 381).

    • Thanks for the comment Geoff, that is a good point.

      If we think a bit more broadly we can see that the underclass is the least specialized group in society, while intermediate groups such as the working and middle classes are progressively more specialized. The capitalist and managerial classes are less specialized than those below them, but still have a certain degree of specialization. While the lack of specialization of the underclass (the lumpenized portion of the population) is often pointed to as a major deficiency (job training is taken to be the key to social advancement) it might be the case that this arises from their lack of employment as human resources, which means that they are not subjected to the same control/discipline processes that characterize the intermediate classes. We can therefore make a distinction between the eclecticism of the capitalist class and the unspecialized skills of the underclass.

      P.S. The significance of this distinction becomes clear when we look at the difficulties the Chavez government in Venezuela has faced in establishing state-sponsored co-operatives employing former members of the underclass. Just because the workers in these co-operatives had not gone through a specialized education doesn’t mean that they were readily able to act as the sort of generalists a co-operative management structure requires.

  2. True. To say that capitalists and managers are generalists is not to say that they are unskilled! It is simply that their skills are general: speaking, writing, etiquette, people skills, judgment, leadership, etc. – including human relationships and influence (connections, which might be considered a skill in sense used in many RPGs). Perhaps these are better characterized as non-technical than as non-specialized: the particularity of connections, for example, matters very much.

    To go off on a tangent, specialization in the technologies (product differentiation, DRM) is similarly a mechanism of control.

  3. This made me wonder what your take is on the Marxist argument that the development of the forces of production under capitalism produces a proletariat increasingly capable of managing its own affairs.

    What we’ve been discussing certainly seems to indicate the opposite tendency…

    Edit: The Bolsheviks blamed the failure of co-operatives in the USSR on the illiteracy of the proletariat, but I wonder if the complexity of the global economy would confound similar efforts today? I certainly feel like I could participate in running my workplace, but the esoterica of supply-chain management is totally unfamiliar to me.

    • This highlights the non-neutrality of technology and institutions. In our economy with our institutions I think you’re right. Production is highly distributed and the skills of coordinating it are lacking – and even if they were not, the structures of coordination are undemocratic. But this is not simply a question of our level of technology. Other productive technology could be more open to worker control.
      Take my favorite example: my 1980s stove. The design is simple and intended for user maintenance. The schematic is on the back. When a burner receptacle fails, I replace it with generic parts that could be made close by (they probably aren’t, but the technology to make them must be available in the area). Furthermore, the necessity of doing so taught me how to make the fix *and* that I could probably fix my fridge when it too failed. I could and did – the defrost vent had frozen over: but without the experience of the stove I probably would have paid someone to look.
      I can’t resist taking a whack at Apple here, because the iPad/Pod/Phone is built on precisely the opposite model. Its simple user interface is praised as democratic. But the price is paid in deskilling, in several kinds of dependency (including that supply chain, and the fragmentation of specialized skills across multiple incompatible competing platforms), in limits on local adaptation.

      • I think what you’re getting at is the value of “hacking” in democratizing technology.

        Simply put, the more transparent a technology is, the more potential it has for democratic control (The Apple products have plenty of potential for democratic use, but control is quite another matter as you point out).

        I’ve heard of the principles of cybernetics used in supply chain management being rearranged to suit a cooperative structure, and these sort of ideas/software I can imagine would be reasonably easy to adapt to the needs of economic democracy, but it would likely be more difficult to undo the years of effort that corporations have put into making machinery and other fixed capital more and more opaque.

        David Harvey once made a good point about this, saying that capitalist technology has certain biases in how it is used – for example he wouldn’t want an anarchist commune running a nuclear power plant. I imagine it would take quite a lot of time to transition from authoritarian technologies to democratic technologies, but at least people are trying to think these ideas through.

      • I’m thinking more about production by workers than about hacking (innovation and modification by users, not producers). I have in mind arguments made by Mumford, Illich, and Schumacher.

        Workers gaining control of production is much harder in the case of hierarchical systems with long complex supply chains: first because of the difficulty of initiating change in a large interdependent system, second because the need for a complex organizational structure (e.g. to supply the parts for manufacturing machinery) may reproduce the problems you’re trying to remedy. Furthermore, the organizational system that produces a device is mirrored in the device’s design. A capitalist cell phone will have a different design than a socialist cell phone because the two devices are produced by different organizational structures. Just as free software has different design characteristics than proprietary software, the one type of organization would have difficulty producing the same product as the other.

        A good example *might* be the comparison between Soviet and German military hardware in World War II. The Germans produced a wide range of highly engineered guns, tanks, and so on, whereas the Soviets produced a much smaller number of simpler designs. As it happened, while German hardware worked better under ideal conditions, Soviet equipment was much more rugged, forgiving, and maintainable in the field. Of course I don’t mean to praise Soviet (or German) organization, but I suspect the different designs and operational characteristics were reflective of different organizational structures in different kinds of societies.

        I imagine worker control of production entails more local control of production. That means local organization, less differentiation in skills and activities, and thus different technical designs with different operational characteristics. As you suggest, the inability of workers to manage their own affairs isn’t simply a characteristic of their skill set. When we talk about the capacity for self-management it is wrong to imagine stepping in to existing organizational structures to manufacture the same products: the products would be different too.

        Unfortunately, the path-dependency of technological development would put them in a position of catching up. (Something that could be better or worse depending on the success of technologies today: free vs proprietary software, for example.) In sum, much of the apparent lack of skills (due to overspecialization) needed for production is actually the extrinsic problem of technical design and organizational structure.

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