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Making a Radical Rupture with Conventional Thinking Part 2

Making a Radical Rupture with Conventional Thinking Part 2

By Dennis Loo (10/6/13)

Conventional wisdom has it that people who hold revolutionary views are outside the pale and not to be taken seriously. When examined closely, however, it is the ideas that underlie and justify the existing system that cannot be taken seriously. The main objective of this series is to show the indispensable value of revolutionary theory and place the onus on those who are against the idea of the need for revolutionary change and a revolutionary analysis to explain and justify their positions.

In Part 1 of this ongoing series, I explored different inter-related serious shortcomings of conventional thinking about politics and economics. Part 2 of this series explores the question of how and why stratification exists, and how Emile Durkheim, the author of Functionalist Theory that justifies social inequality, tacitly admitted an error in Functionalist Theory’s central premise. Those who rule our present society and those who benefit from high levels of inequality constantly invoke this premise. The consequences of pointing out that admission of error hiding in plain sight are briefly reviewed herein.

"If one acquires the habit of contemplating vast horizons, overall views and fine generalizations, one can no longer without impatience allow oneself to be confined within the narrow limits of a special task. Such a remedy would therefore only make specialization [the division of labor and existence of classes] inoffensive by making it intolerable and in consequence more or less impossible." – Emile Durkheim[1]

Durkheim was speaking here of the results of a higher education upon people from the working class. According to Durkheim, it’s necessary to avoid exposing workers to the best that humanity has to offer because doing so would make them unable to any longer accept being kept confined to capitalism’s highly constricted role for workers. To which I would ask: “And what would be wrong with that result, Emile?”

Regarding the degraded role under capitalism reserved for workers, see the words of Frederick Winslow Taylor, the originator of Taylorization. Taylorization is the pinnacle (or nadir) of workers being reduced to machines. Dubbed “scientific management,” Taylor attempted to reduce every action by workers on an assembly-line process to their most “efficient.” Efficiency, however, it should be noted, was not the only goal; it is inextricably tied in with management’s exercise of strict social control over workers.

“It is only through enforced standardization of methods, enforced adoption of the best implements and working conditions, and enforced cooperation that this faster work can be assured. And the duty of enforcing the adoption of standards and enforcing this cooperation rests with management alone.”[2]

‘I can say, without the slightest hesitation,’ Taylor told a congressional committee, ‘that the science of handling pig-iron is so great that the man who is . . . physically able to handle pig-iron and is sufficiently phlegmatic and stupid to choose this for his occupation is rarely able to comprehend the science of handling pig-iron.”[3]

Only the “stupid,” according to Taylor, would choose to handle pig-iron. These fellows are not suited for doing more than that and they must be coerced to cooperate with others and to work faster. This is the perspective that those in authority generally have of those who do the hard, tiring, hazardous, and dirty work that makes capitalist society go. (Incidentally, workers don’t have to be coerced into cooperating with each other. They do this more or less naturally as a result of the fact that humans are social beings.) Durkheim, in the quote that we begin with here, is admitting something that Taylor would never have. Durkheim’s tacit admission sits hidden in plain view.

What Durkheim is admitting implicitly was that the existing division of labor and the social inequalities that characterize capitalism are too restrictive to allow the majority of people to realize their actual potential. The problem, in other words, is not the capacities of the people; the problem is that the capitalist division of labor is too confining to allow the blooming of the people as a whole. The problem is structural, not a paucity of human talent. This is rather astonishing since Durkheim is known for the opposite of this: as a proponent of the natural inequality of the people.

If the majority of people were incapable of understanding “vast horizons, overall views and fine generalizations,” then exposing them to it would do no harm. A higher education would not make being confined in narrowly defined workers’ jobs unacceptable to those workers. If workers did not benefit from a higher education – or its equivalent – then it would be harmless to present it to them. It is precisely because workers can in fact appreciate the magnitude of what these fine generalizations and vast vistas are because they are not too stupid to understand that they must be denied it!

In other words, Durkheim is implicitly undermining a central tenet of functionalist theory. This is no small matter given that Durkheim is the originator of functionalist theory. Functionalism’s central tenet is that a) people are “naturally unequal” and social inequalities that exist more or less reflect that natural inequality and b) for society to function best requires that the more talented occupy higher status positions and be rewarded disproportionately for their elevated status with material incentives.

According to functionalists, where you sit in the social hierarchy is because you deserve to be there: those on top should get more because otherwise the most able will not strive as much. Without the “best” in charge and on top, the whole society would suffer because the “best” would not be in positions of authority.

This is perhaps the major reason why Durkheim’s theory is amenable to both conservative and liberal perspectives. Conservatives tout the virtues of inequality, claiming that everyone gets what they deserve. Liberals also accept the view that inequality is natural and appropriate but differ from conservatives by arguing that “equal opportunity” is necessary to permit the natural sorting out of differential talents to be unimpeded by artificial barriers such as nepotism or discrimination by gender, race, or other such invidious distinctions. For conservatives, nepotism is one of the deserved rewards that successful people get for being successful. And since they regard people as unequal because of race, gender, “cultural shortcomings,” lower IQs, and so on, they see no reason to have programs like affirmative action to provide a more level playing field. What conservatives and liberals alike share is a vision of society based upon merit – those who emerge on top are more meritorious – and the belief that social inequality is a good and necessary thing, rather than an unnecessary obstacle that actually undermines social solidarity and interferes with the fullest unfolding of the creativity and capacities of the whole population.

A concrete example of liberals’ and conservatives’ affinity for each other can be seen in Obama’s differences with Romney during the last presidential race: Obama argued that those from disadvantaged backgrounds needed some governmental assistance to provide them a more fair shot at the American Dream. Romney, on the other hand, is more of a naked Social Darwinist. Both, however, accept the propriety and necessity for there to be poor and working class people.

Democrats like Obama skirt over this by talking about people getting a fair chance to escape the (unnamed) working class into the middle class, without ever naming and acknowledging that most of the populace in any capitalist country must be confined to working class status. If you were to listen to the Democrats you would think that it would be theoretically possible to get rid of the working class and that everyone could be middle and upper class. This is, of course, nonsense since capitalism requires working class jobs. The Democrats and some Republicans’ positions about the alleged lack of necessity for a working class and the poor would be the equivalent of getting rid of the lower 2/3 tiers of a pyramid and expecting the upper 1/3 of the pyramid to remain standing in mid-air unsupported by its now missing base.

The Democrats, then, fill the role of the “good” meritocrats; they want everyone to have a more equal chance to achieve upward mobility. The Republicans scoff at the idea that anyone might need or should have an assist to get on their feet: “let them eat cake” is their dictum. The GOP is the party of the “heartless” meritocrats. But both parties are meritocrats and neither of them wants to see the elimination of the degrading and unnecessary existing division of labor between the haves and the have-nots because they both celebrate and represent the interests of different sectors of the capitalist class and the capitalist order.

So what would happen if Durkheim’s nightmare occurred and everyone in the society were exposed to the broad horizons and fine generalizations? The existing order could only then continue through the use of naked force against the determined resistance of the majority of the people. And such an order would be precarious and not stand for very long. A revolution would ensue.

It needs to be said here, to address a possible objection, that exposing people to a higher education is not the same thing as everyone in the society individually being just as talented, smart, and capable as everyone else. That there are differences among people individually – some people are stronger and can run faster and leap higher, some people are better musicians, some are better at quantitative reasoning, some are better artists, and so on – goes without saying. Even if everyone were to receive exactly the same level of training and have access to the exactly the same resources, some people would still be better than others in various respects – some people are world class talents and others are not. But this difference among individuals is different than saying that a higher education – or its equivalent[4] - should only be reserved for the smartest and most talented.

Being armed with a real understanding of how things work is not the same thing as being able to do the most cutting edge work in all or any arenas. You can be taught about how the economic and political systems actually function, which is what a revolutionary education accomplishes, without being yourself able to be the political leader of thousands or millions. If, to use a different example, you are taught the finer points of music or sports, this will allow you to much more deeply appreciate the works of outstanding musicians and athletes without you necessarily being able to become an outstanding musician or athlete yourself.

This brings us back to the original point of this essay and Durkheim’s tacit admission about the limitations of class society: if workers were to learn the true and inner workings of the capitalist system, especially the concealed class interests behind political leaders' actions and statements, then they would no longer be easily misled by those leaders. They would demand the truth and would be armed with a greatly enhanced ability to spot lies. This takes us back to the main theme of Part 1 of this series: the obfuscation of how the political system actually operates. Keeping people misled about how and why public policies are made and having them continue to believe that "The People" are in charge when they are not is necessary in order to perpetuate the ruling class' dominance. Celebrating and justifying ever growing disparities of wealth and income under the guise of it being due to the differential abilities and social worth of people - when in fact individual differences do not and should not result in such extraordinary differences in life chances - can only be smuggled under people's noses as long as the underlying theory justifying these vast differences isn't exposed as bankrupt.

The existing capitalist/imperialist order rests upon exploitation and plunder and can only continue through the use of coercion and manipulation. That manipulation includes the thick fog of misinformation that surrounds the making and implementation of public policies.

In any population of people, it is true, there are going to be those who are better at specific things than others. Having incompetents handling critical matters such as medicine, or people in charge of disaster prevention and relief who know nothing about emergency management, violates most people’s expectations of a good society. Not everyone can become a physician, and only qualified individuals should take key posts. But this obviously sensible policy differs from excluding the working class, oppressed minorities, and/or women from learning about the grander vistas that humanity has achieved. To understand how the political system really works, to be exposed to the best in art and science, to be introduced to humanity’s key philosophical questions, the varying answers to those questions historically, and to be steeped in history and its lessons and so on in this fashion should be the norm for virtually everyone in a society, regardless of what they end up doing as an occupation. Specialized skills and area specific knowledge are not the same as these kinds of lessons. It does not take exceptional intelligence or talents to benefit greatly from that manner of education. (Globalization and the Demolition of Society, Pp. 311-312)

All of which prompts a question: Why do the less desirable jobs in any society, such as picking crops or cleaning bathrooms, have to be reserved for a certain class of people who must do these jobs their whole lives, while others are exempted entirely from having to participate in these socially necessary tasks? Why cannot these tasks, the putatively lowly, but indispensible, as well as the highly esteemed, be shared by everyone? Of course, someone who has exceptionally specialized skills such as brain surgery should not be doing things that would endanger their hands and eyes, but they could certainly spend some of their time doing more humble tasks. They and the society would be the better for it. (GDS, p. 313)


Functionalist theory assumes that societies require a hierarchy for their overall welfare. The people who occupy leading and disproportionately rewarded positions do so because they perform exceptionally important functions and they are particularly worthy due to their skills; to get them to fill these crucial posts they must be disproportionately rewarded; others who are less talented cannot fill the elites’ shoes and therefore occupy the less well-rewarded positions; if people are doing what they are most suited for, then the whole society benefits. This argument seems plausible, but functionalists conflate several different factors in justifying social inequality. To begin with, they equate incentive with material rewards. While people obviously differ in their abilities, the people who assume leadership posts do not necessarily have to be materially rewarded more substantially for what they do. Teachers, for example, carry out exceedingly important tasks for a society, as do parents, yet they are not well compensated. They do what they do for reasons other than the material rewards. The American dictum that implicitly celebrates moneymaking, “Those who can, do, those who can’t, teach, and those who can’t teach, teach teachers,” overlooks the fact that if everyone avoided teaching because they were all so good at other jobs, there would be no one to teach the young and the untrained. Would all children and teens be autodidacts then? Is not outstanding teaching one of the critical skills in any society at any time in human history? How does the accumulated knowledge and experience over millennia get passed along otherwise? Is everyone who home schools their children the best teacher for all subjects? Where do these home school parents get the materials such as books for their children to read if not from people who are writing books in order to teach?

While everyone needs to be motivated to work and to excel, the nature of the reward does not necessarily have to be material. A society that equates material rewards with success and that relies upon material success to motivate people is also saying—and must say—that success equals having things that others do not have. This turns society into a zero sum game of winners and losers and structurally encourages a sense of entitlement among the “winners” that they are better than the “losers” and that they merit goodies and respect that should not be granted to the less deserving hoi polloi. Is this the meaning of a good society: the leaders think of themselves as so much better than everyone else? Because there is only a finite amount of monetary and material incentives to go around, more for a few people means less for most others. Moreover, if the incentive must always be external to the job or activity itself, then something is wrong with the work or activity; what makes it not rewarding intrinsically? Perhaps the activity needs to be changed so that those who do it gain satisfaction from the act of doing it. Not all jobs are amenable to that change, which is why the less desirable activities such as cleaning up need to be shared.

I work at a university in which teaching is valued more highly than research. At Research (R-1) universities, the opposite is true; at R-1 institutions, a great deal of friction typically exists among faculty within the same discipline because they are competing for slices of a finite pie for their research, another zero sum game. At non-R-1 universities, being a good teacher is something everyone can achieve; it is not a zero sum game. Consequently, relations among faculty members at teaching-focused universities are characteristically far more collegial. Material rewards as the incentive means that social solidarity, what functionalists value more than anything else, is actually undermined by the structure’s inherent logic that people participate in a zero sum game in which many must be deprived so that a few may benefit a great deal. Rewarding people with non-material incentives, on the other hand, does not function as a zero sum game if what is being honored is cooperation and dedication to the group. Physicians in the US customarily make much more than the average worker. People will commonly cite doctors’ expertise and the importance of what they do as the reason for this inequity. In countries outside of the US, physicians perform equally important work for their patients but are not paid nearly as much. Is this because people in the US need more incentive to become physicians? Is it because physicians outside of the US are not valued as much as within the US? If we stopped paying brain surgeons as much as they now earn, would that mean that everyone now performing brain surgery would put down their scalpels and say: “Well, I’m not doing this any more.” Would the people who are paid well now and/or honored for their work refuse to do their jobs if they were paid less? If outlandish salaries were no longer paid to TV network anchors (such as the $60 million per year that CBS [used to pay] Katie Couric [before they replaced her]) and if CBS, for example, paid their anchorperson, say $600,000 per year, would this mean that they would not be able to find a good person to anchor their nightly news broadcast? I should imagine that there are some people for whom the reward of fame, exposure, influence or service to the society would mean that they would be willing to do the job for a relative pittance in dollars. Not that CBS would have to do this, but the point here is obvious. (GDS, Pp. 313-315)

End of Part 2. Part 1 is here. Part 3 is here.


1 Emile Durkheim, “The Division of Labor in Society,” in Classical Sociological Theory: A Reader, ed. Ian McIntosh (New York: New York University Press, 1997), 200

2 Frederick Winslow Taylor, Scientific Management: Early Sociology of Management and Organizations (New York: Routledge, [1947] 2003, 83. [Emphases in original.]

3 David Montgomery, The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State and American Labor Activism, 1865-1925 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 251.

4 Malcolm X educated himself while in prison by reading a ton of books. He went from someone from the streets to a towering leader of people, steeped in history because of his prison studies.

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