The “Labor Aristocracy”

Against the Current, No. 128, May/June 2007

Charlie Post

SEBASTIAN LAMB, TOM Smith and Steve Bloom raise important issues in their responses to my articles on the labor aristocracy. Lamb and I agree that working class reformism and conservatism are rooted in the experience of capitalist social relations of production. Both of us reject elitist explanations that reduce workers to “passive empty vessels” into whose heads are poured all sorts of “garbage” by the ruling class. Our differences on the material foundations of working class conservatism are, in my opinion, matters of nuance.

Lamb argues that I tend to reduce working class conservatism to competition for jobs. For Lamb, work ing class conservatism is rooted in the competition among workers for jobs and housing, educa tion; “simultaneously the forms of oppression that cut through society,” (41) and the working-class experience of powerlessness.

Lamb is correct that the competition among individual sellers of labor power includes not simply the direct competition for particular jobs, but the competition for housing, education and social benefits. The competition for stable conditions of social reproduction (housing, education, etc.) cannot be reduced to competition for a stable place in production (full-time, secure jobs). How ever, a “good job” is the necessary, but not sufficient, condition for good housing in a “safe” neigh borhood, good schools for your children, and access to decent health care, a good pension, etc.

The experience of “having little control over their lives on or off the job” is also rooted in the com petition among workers. The constant reproduction of the reserve army of labor — the unemployed and underemployed — creates generalized insecurity in the working class. The threats of unemployment resulting from the business cycle, mechanization and outsourcing reinforce workers’ insecurity and anxiety.

Lamb and I agree that “when working-class movements are weak it’s the experience of powerlessness that usually shapes lives and politics” (43) — leading groups of workers to defend themselves at the expense of other workers.

Finally, Lamb and I agree that national, racial and gender oppression cannot be  to class exploitation. Various forms of oppression predate the emergence of industrial capitalist production, and capitalists grab hold of these already existing “differences” among workers to order access to employment, housing, education, health care. etc.

However, we should avoid returning to the notion that there are autonomous systems of oppression (sex/gender, race, nationality) and exploitation (class). A more fruitful approach focuses on intersectionality — examining how capitalist class relations shape and reshape relations of gender, racial and national oppression.

Self-Organization is Necessary

Tom Smith argues that socialist support for the self-organization of people of color, immigrants, women, gays and lesbians and other oppressed groups is “a kinder gentler form of separatism” that has promoted the bureaucratization and subordination of these movements to the Democratic party.

Smith is correct that the social movements of the 1960s have all become bureaucratized and their leaders integrated into the Democratic Party. However, this was not simply the result of their sepa ration from one another and from the labor movement.

The social movements of the 1930s — when struggles of women and African-Americans tended to gravitate toward the industrial workers’ struggles — suffered the same fate. The bureaucratiza tion of the labor and social movements of both the 1930s and 1960s were the result of concrete political and social struggles in the context of episodic mass mobilizations.

More importantly, Smith’s position fails to grapple with the reality of the real advantages that white, male, native-born and/or straight workers receive in the competition for jobs, housing and the like in capitalist societies. To expect these workers to initiate struggles against sexism, racism, homophobia, nativism and other forms of oppression is simply not materialist.

As socialists, we understand that taking up the struggle against oppression is in the interest of all workers. However, this is not the “common sense” of most workers in periods when collective class organization is weak, and collective class responses to the employers’ offensive appear un realistic.

Smith also reduces the development of socialist consciousness among workers to educational (propaganda) by socialist intellectuals. He argues that socialist intellectuals need to “convert the mass of workers from bourgeois ideology to socialism.” Socialists, like myself, who argue that the major task for revolutionaries today (along with socialist educational activity geared to small groups of activists) is to promote solidarity, militancy and democracy in the labor movement reduce themselves to “helpers” rather than “leaders” of the working class.

Unfortunately, the development of mass revolutionary consciousness is not simply a matter of appropriate socialist education. Smith’s position is another variant of what Lamb has called the “garbage can” theory of workers’ consciousness. Instead of the ruling class pouring their ideology into the workers’ heads, socialist intellectuals pour “scientific truth” into these empty vessels.

How Imperialism Works

In his defense of the theory of the labor aristocracy, Steve Bloom argues that I miss “the essence of Lenin’s conception” by focusing on the profits of individual capitalist corporations and ignoring how “imperialist super-profits arising from the enrichment of entire ruling classes acting through imperialist states. The mechanism was the exploitation of entire nations, not individual workers or group of workers.” (43)

Bloom specifies one mechanism by which the ruling classes of the global North exploit the global South as a whole — “unequal exchange” as a result of “prices for agricultural goods and raw materials produced by the colonial nation are set artificially low… [while] the cost of manufactured products that is has to buy are set at a market price, or even artificially high.” (43)

Bloom offers no statistical data on the volume of profits earned through unequal exchange or what portion of total wages earned in the global North is made up of these profits. More importantly, he doesn’t try to reconcile his notion of “unequal exchange” with the dynamics of capitalist competition and accumulation, or what Marx referred to as the “law of value.”

Instead, Bloom argues that various forms of non-market coercion (unequal trade treaties and direct colonization, corporations’ “monopoly power”) account for the “exploitation of entire nations” through the mechanism of unequal exchange.

Unfortunately, the use of non-market coercion — military power, monopoly power, etc. — is the distinguishing characteristic of pre-capitalist, not capitalist imperialism. As Ellen Meiksins Wood argues in Empire of Capital8, what distinguishes capitalist from pre-capitalist imperialism is precisely the absence of non-market coercion. Capitalist social relations don’t depend on non-market coercion in the exploitation of direct producers. Rather than legal, juridical, and other non-market forms of coercion to ensure that producers perform surplus labor for their exploiters, capital relies on the operation of the market in labor-power to ensure the production of surplus-value.

Capitalism requires a state (or a system of states in the case of capitalist imperialism) to create the general conditions of capitalist production (separating laborers from the means of production, organizing the legal framework for market competition, suppressing challenges from below. It does not require, however, direct political or military interference in the production of goods and services to ensure exploitation at home or abroad. Put simply, capitalist imperialism does not require the use of either political or “monopoly” power to artificially depress or raise prices to generate profits.

Unequal Exchange and Plunder?

Shifting gears theoretically, Bloom argues that wage differentials between workers in the global North and global South (and among workers in the global North) flow from different levels of mechanization (organic composition of capital) and the resulting differences in labor productivity (rates of surplus value). Bloom claims, however, that the different levels of mechanization are the result of unequal exchange and outright plunder.

Conflating profits derived from capitalist production organized by transnationals in the twenty-first century, IMF and World Bank structural adjustment policies in the twentieth century, and colonial plunder and mercantile manipulations in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, Bloom argues that capital in the global North “was derived, in significant part, from the global south via all of the mechanisms, direct and indirect, noted above.” (44)

While the notion that plunder, mercantile fraud, unequal exchange and other forms of imperialist super-exploitation over the last five centuries is a “significant” source of capital invested in the global North is a common argument on the left, it has little historical foundation. If plunder in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were a significant source of capital accumulation, then Spain and Portugal — the most effective early modern pre-capitalist empires — should have experienced the breakthrough to industrial capitalism well before England in the eighteenth century.

Similarly, if profits from slave-based plantation agriculture in the Caribbean and the transatlantic slave trade in the seventeenth and eighteenth century were decisive to the capitalist industrialization, then France — which possessed the most lucrative plantation island, St. Domingue, now Haiti — should have preceded England in the industrial revolution.

As Ellen Wood argues, “only in Britain was that wealth [accumulated from the slave trade and plantation economies] converted into industrial capital … the difference lies in the new capitalist dynamic which had already transformed the logic of the British economy, setting in train the imperatives of competitive production, capital accumulation, and self-sustaining growth.”

The role of imperialism in maintaining capitalist accumulation in the global North today is equally complex. On the one hand, imperialism plays a crucial role in maintaining profitability and accumulation in the advanced capitalist societies. Transnational corporations earn higher than average profits derived from labor-intensive operations in the global South.

Neoliberal “accumulation through dispossession” — the massive privatization of formerly publicly owned land and industries and their sale at extremely low prices — also increases the transnational corporations’ profits. As argued in my original article, imperialist investment and the globalization of neoliberalism constitute important counter-tendencies to falling profits in the global North.

On the other hand, profits derived from foreign direct investment — the only concrete measure we have of profits from imperialism — made up between 5% and 10% of total US corporate profits between 1948 and 1969 (the long wave of expansion), between 10% and 25% between 1970 and 1999, and exceeded 30% only in 2000 and 2001.

The vast majority of foreign direct investment is in other countries of the global North. Thus, the total share of profits from the global South only exceeds 10% of total profits after 1970 — after profitability falls in the global North. Put simply, the total profits derived from imperialist investment in the global South constituted too small a portion of total profits to explain the differential levels of accumulation and mechanization in the world economy.

Labor Aristocracy and Imperialism

Bloom claims that my analysis of the role of well paid “aristocratic” workers in major economic and political struggles is irrelevant to the labor aristocracy thesis. “If we understand the labor aristocracy theory as positing that layers of the northern working class have been conservatized on questions specifically relating to war and imperial exploitation then there is no refutation of this whatsoever in the list of other kinds of struggles that Post presents.” (44)

This was certainly not the case of the struggles of skilled industrial workers in the early twentieth century, who led militant workplace struggles against deskilling and speedup before, during and after the First World War and engaged in strikes and demonstrations against the war.

The vast majority of the Bolsheviks in Russia were these well-paid, skilled industrial workers. These “relatively privileged” workers were the back bone of the newly formed revolutionary Communist parties after World War I. The notion that these workers’ higher wages and other material privileges made them conservative on the question of “war and imperial exploitation” is simply not historically accurate.

Clearly, most of the other examples of the mass struggles in the United States, Europe, Brazil and South Africa I discussed were not explicitly antiwar or anti-imperialist. However, the well-paid workers who led these struggles in the 1930s and again in the 1960s and 1970s often displayed a political radicalism that transcended a defense of their “relative privilege.” Again, these were the workers who were the cadre of the radical and revolutionary left through the 1940s — joining parties and organizations that linked militant workplace struggle with a broad political agenda that included the struggle against racism and war.

More importantly, workplace militancy is the necessary pre-condition for working-class political radicalism — including the development of anti-war and anti-imperialist consciousness and activism.

Bloom claims that my alternative theory of working class conservatism is “rooted in essentially ideological factors.” To repeat, I argue that working class conservatism is rooted in the workers’ simultaneous existence as collective producers and competing individualized sellers of labor power.

When workers act as collective producers against capital and the state, there is a potential for workers to develop radical, revolutionary class consciousness — a consciousness that rejects racism and national chauvinism. However, workers’ collective action against capital does not take place spontaneously — without organization and leadership from below.

Lacking effective class organization and activity,  independent of the labor officialdom, workers’ lived experience as competing sellers of labor-power leads them to defend themselves against other workers rather than against capital.

For Bloom, the fundamental difference between us is that he believes that collective, self-organized working-class struggles against capital cannot, by itself combat or uproot racism and national chauvinism.

I agree that working-class self-organization and self-activity alone will not uproot racism. Nor will the overthrow of capitalism, by itself, abolish racism. Both require the self-organization and self-activity of the oppressed — especially people of color.

Socialists recognize, however, that the overthrow of capitalism is the necessary precondition for the eventual abolition of racism and national chauvinism. Similarly, collective, militant, working-class self-organization and self-activity is the necessary precondition for combating racism and national chauvinism in the working class, because workers’ experience as competing sellers of labor-power provides a fertile environment for these forms of oppression.

The “relative privilege” of some workers in the global North is neither derived from the superexploitation of workers in the global South, nor an insurmountable obstacle to both workplace militancy and political radicalism.

ATC 128, May-June 2007