In view of the historic May Day, 1st May, analysts from Monthly Review, the famous independent socialist magazine, identify tasks the working classes should press with. In the following interviews, conducted in early-April, John Bellamy Foster, Professor and Editor of Monthly Review; Fred Magdoff, Professor Emeritus, and one of Monthly Review’s closest associates, and Michael D. Yates, Professor Emeritus and Associate Editor of Monthly Review, provide answers (presented in alphabetical order) to a number of questions as well as slogans to be raised by the working classes on May Day in 2018.
The global working class is going to observe/celebrate 1st May as a day of struggle and fraternity. What do you see as the balance of forces between labour and capital both within countries and globally? What role has imperialism played in determining this balance?
Fred Magdoff: As the United States empire crumbles, the world order that has been in place under US guidance and domination since the end of the Second World War has become unstable. However, the US power is still being projected globally and — even aside from its current erratic and unpredictable president — continues to cause death and destruction and to be potentially even more dangerous. The effects of globalisation carried out under the direction of the key centres of capital have created in the periphery a large proletariat, generally poorly paid and working under unsafe conditions and with few protections. As farmers in the South suffer competition from exports of food produced by highly mechanised and subsidised farmers in the North and under direct attack by continuing land grabs, they migrate to cities where many can’t find jobs, swelling the world’s slums.
At the same time, workers in the North are in an increasingly precarious position resulting from the decline of labour unions (under long-term direct assault in the US and Britain, and currently facing challenge in France), decline in worker protections with the organised attack on social programmes, and the increase of other types of work arrangements than full-time employment: outsourcing, contingent and part time work, constantly changing hours and schedule of work, and relatively low pay. Austerity, especially during and following the Great Recession of 2007-2009, has adversely affected the lives of public sector workers as well as those that depend on public services. As a French student involved in the current protests recently stated, the worker and student demonstrations are directed at a system in which “precariousness has replaced prosperity.”
Most workers in the US have seen their incomes stagnate while many have been forced to take lower-paying jobs than they previously held, while still others have been rendered superfluous by the forces of automation and outsourcing to lower wage regions within the same country or to other countries. Many discarded workers do not have the resources to move to regions with a better chance of employment. This has left a sizable number of people struggling to live and raise their children, aware that something is very wrong, but not understanding what has caused their predicament. In this situation they are ripe for the influence of demagogues who blame other workers such as immigrants or those with darker skin tone. Anything that provokes more division among workers — by sex, ethnicity, caste, religion, type of work they do — is a benefit to capital because it keeps people from uniting and struggling together for better conditions. Although it plays out somewhat differently in Europe, the conservative parties and movements also use immigrants as scapegoats, blaming them for the varied problems facing labour.
John Bellamy Foster: Here I would start with Lenin. In The Collapse of the Second International, he wrote that a revolutionary situation arises when the following three characteristics present themselves:
(1) When it is impossible for the ruling classes to maintain their rule without a change; when there is a crisis, in one form or another, among the “upper classes,” a crisis in the policy of the ruling class, leading to a fissure through which the discontent and the indignation of the oppressed classes burst forth — for a revolution to take place, it is usually insufficient for “the lower classes not to want” to live in the old way, it is also necessary that “the upper classes should be unable” to live in the old way; (2) when the suffering and want of the oppressed classes have grown more acute than usual; (3) when, as a consequence of the above causes, there is a considerable increase in the activity of the masses, who uncompromisingly allow themselves to be robbed in “peace time,” but, in turbulent times, are drawn both by the circumstances of the crisis and by the “upper classes” themselves into independent historical action.
Lenin’s emphasis here was on the development of a fissure in the structure of ruling class rule, arising from the changing conditions of society. The result was the undermining of the basis of class rule, evident in a crisis not simply of the economy but in a crisis of the state. In these conditions, as Marx and Engels had emphasized in The Communist Manifesto, a portion of the ruling class can be expected to break away and ally itself with “the lower classes,” at the same time propelling the latter, whose conditions will meanwhile have been altered for the worse in the general crisis, into revolutionary historical action. At this point the balance of forces will tip to the side of revolution.
If we take this as a rather broad outline of the conditions of a revolutionary situation, the question is to what extent is it relevant today? Here we have to observe that today the field for the operation of such contradictions is the entire globe. The world-capitalist system as a whole is caught in a stagnation-financialisation trap, where the only solution to endemic economic stagnation at the core of the system, is the expansion of the financial or speculative edifice, in a way that is inherently unstable and corrosive.
Neoliberalism, or the imposition of a new expropriative logic under the aegis of monopoly-finance capital, first arose in response to economic stagnation and metamorphosed into the political modality for imposing a new financial architecture on the entire globe. This went hand in hand with the globalisation of production accompanying the fall of Soviet-style societies. Neoliberal globalisation was soon revealed to be based on what US financial analysts called the “global labour arbitrage” or the systematic shift of labour-intensive production to the global South under the control of multinational corporations so as to take advantage of low unit labour costs and hence higher (often super-exploitative) rates of surplus value. This facilitated an enormous increase of exploitation across the globe and a vast draining of economic surplus (partly disguised by capitalist value-added accounting) from many of the poorest nations of the world.
The same processes of financialisation and globalisation also led to the rapid expansion of some economies in the global South, most notably China, which, due to its post-revolutionary character, has retained a semi-autonomous position, outside the imperial control of the centre — along with the growth of other BRIC or (BRICS or BRIICS) nations. The re-emergence of in the last decade or so of Russia as a great power is also significant in the new world configuration.
Since the Great Financial Crisis of 2007-2009, the power of the imperialist countries of the centre, or the triad of the United States/Canada, Western Europe, and Japan, has rapidly eroded, as these countries are at the centre of the crisis of economic stagnation and financialisation. Caught with low long-term growth rates and with the wealth of the top one percent (or top 0.01 percent) skyrocketing, these nations, which have traditionally ruled the capitalist society, are now all, in various ways, exhibiting a crisis of the liberal-democratic state that has been the modal form of capitalist rule for generations. Neo-fascist tendencies are emerging throughout the triad, as well in Eastern Europe and parts of the global South — for example, India, the Philippines, and Brazil (with its unprecedented political coup). Everywhere the political instability of the liberal-democratic state is now in evidence, pointing to widening fissures in capitalist rule across the globe. Under these circumstances, it is impossible to rule in the old way, and divisions at the top are more evident.
The decline of US hegemony, in which the United States due to its supreme position, particularly during the Cold War years, was able to govern through leadership of the capitalist world, is now too obvious deny. The United States, however, still has what is called in US foreign policy circles “primacy” — in its unrivalled power to engage in military and economic warfare and thus to attempt to impose its will by coercive means. Washington, particularly under the Trump regime, is thus now systematically seeking to exert its coercive geopolitical, geo-economic, and geo-military power — mobilising all its means of force in a futile and fatal quest to create a “new American century” or to “Make America Great Again.” Its imperial expansionism, which has developed unceasingly since the 1991 Gulf War and the demise of the Soviet Union later that year, in what Richard Haas, head of the Council of Foreign Relations, ominously called a “New Thirty Years War”, is now encountering far greater resistance — out of sheer necessity — from Russia and China, to the point that the world is now on the brink of a thermonuclear conflagration over Syria.
On top of all of this, and out-scaling it all both spatially and temporarily, is the planetary environmental crisis that represents the greatest, most intractable threat to its existence that humanity has ever seen, and one that is unstoppable under business as usual. The catastrophic and exterminist consequences of climate change are hitting the global South and the world’s poor first, but the repercussions are so great that the environmental crisis — conceived by Marx as a metabolic rift — is itself creating major fissures at this point within the “upper classes.” The educated upper-middle class in many sectors is increasingly at sharp odds with the capitalist class, “leading to a fissure through which the discontent and the indignation of the oppressed classes [could potentially] burst forth.”
The convergence of these various crises has given rise to neo-fascist tendencies as the powers that be seek to retain control, by enlisting the more reactionary elements of the petty bourgeoisie or lower middle-class as the rear-guard of the capitalist system — forging by these means a class weapon aimed simultaneously at the upper-middle class and the mass of the working class. Neoliberalism first and neo-fascism now as its heir apparent have torn the veil away from liberalism’s facade of progressive gender and racial policies. Not only is neo-fascism associated with nationalist-populism, jingoism, racism, sexism, and environmental exterminism — all integral to the alliance between the capitalist class and the reactionary elements of the lower-middle class — but also it reveals to a greater extent than neoliberalism itself the insurmountable nature of racial and gender oppressions in capitalist society. This has generated a revolution in Marxian theory in the forms of social reproduction theory and new analyses of racial capitalism. Such theoretical developments are themselves expressions of the growing resistance by subaltern forces to capitalism’s creative-destructive dialectic of expropriation and exploitation.
The balance of class/social forces today thus reflects an increasingly volatile world situation in which the proletariat or working class majority (including landless workers in rural areas) are increasingly in a position to forge a new historical epoch. Moreover, the future and even survival of humanity as a whole depends on the irresistible weight of working class struggle once again coming to the fore — in new forms under new conditions, embracing more diverse needs.
Michael D. Yates: Capitalism is a relentless, hegemonic system. It ceaselessly searches the globe for opportunities to accumulate capital. And it looks for elements of our lives that have yet to become commodified and works to create markets for them. Both are made possible by the exploitation of wage labour and the expropriation of land, resources, and bodies everywhere in the world.
To prevent efforts by workers and peasants to combat these depredations, capital has assembled a vast array of what we might call “control mechanisms.” Some of these are used in workplaces and include electronic monitoring; constant speed-up; systematic hiring; the deskilling of whatever work possible; the threat of dismissal for attempts to unionise or efforts to protest what employers are doing; divide-and-rule assigning of workers to pit men against women, black against white, caste against caste, ethnic majority against ethnic minority, one religious group against another; the intentional geographical separation of different aspects of a business’s production processes is another divide and rule tactic, which makes potential antagonists of workers in one country and those in other nations; and the co-optation of the leaders of the workers and peasants.
In every nation, the state serves as a bulwark of capitalism, standing ready to crush by main force both worker and peasant revolts, whether they be strikes, land struggles, or battles addressing racism and patriarchy. A constant ideological onslaught is waged by capital, one reflected not just in corporate propaganda, but also in the mass media, the schools, and in everyday culture. We are taught to consume, to be patriotic, to be suspicious of the “other,” to compete, to act selfishly, to see the system as all-powerful and unchangeable.
Despite the power of capital and the effectiveness of what it does to reproduce itself, workers (and peasants) have taken actions to oppose capital from the inception of the capitalist mode of production. Peasants have demanded that their “commons” be free of expropriation. They have even formed the basis for revolutionary upheavals in China and India. Workers have destroyed machines and factories, rioted, petitioned governments, struck, boycotted, picketed, and engaged in wars of attrition inside workplaces around the world.
Capital has been ascendant globally for many years now, at least since the 1970s when the neoliberal variant of capitalism shook the world. But there have been many signs of resurgence of the working class movement, as well as upheavals in the countryside. Teachers have been striking in the United States, in places where Donald Trump won a large majority of votes in the 2016 presidential election. In September 2016, as many as 150 million workers in India engineered an incredible nationwide general strike, following upon several such actions over the past decade. Workers are protesting everywhere in China against unconscionable exploitation in urban factories. People have been striking and marching in France, protesting the government’s attempt to “liberalise” labour markers and greatly weaken the power of the working class.
Workers in South Africa are agitating against neoliberal government collusion with multinational corporations. Indigenous peoples in Latin America and elsewhere are demanding respect for their cultures and an end to the theft of their homelands. Imperialism may be heading for a state of crisis, as the power of the United States has been stretched thin by the endless so-called War on Terror. Other nations are more willing to confront and challenge the United States in terms of what it demands from other states. So, we may be in for a period of global upheaval. I should mention, too, the growing concern for what capital is doing to our environment.
In this perspective, what is the world proletariat’s historic lesson, which can help it march forward to fight against divisive politics and ideology, and imperialism’s plan to continue its attempt to derail the struggle of the working classes?
Fred Magdoff: There is no alternative to redouble efforts to organise and develop local worker leadership. It is also important to carry out education of the wider community outside industries and workplaces about specific worker grievances as well as about the social and ecological problems that result from the drive of capitalists to maximise profits. Environmental degradation is a working class issue because it is the working people and the poor who have been, and will continue to be, the most adversely affected by climate change and by pollution of the air, water, food, and soil. One very positive development in the North, a result of many struggles as well as the aftermath of the Great Recession, is that many people are now open to consider that that the various severe social and ecological problems may be a result of how capitalism functions at its most basic level.
Other ways of organising society and work have become subjects for discussion. This opens new organising and educational possibilities. Many workers instinctively feel that worker power has been lost over the last half century and that they are at the mercy of the whims and needs of capital. This is the result of a class war from above that capitalists have been waging while workers have been mostly frightened into submission by threats to close down or move the company elsewhere. The on-going class war can no longer be one sided. We must fight back on every front.
Many people are beginning to understand the reality that the various social and ecological problems facing humanity can’t be solved in piecemeal fashion. A broader view of society is needed, one that unites all the social forces struggling for a more decent and healthy society. We need a new way of thinking: the struggles for social justice, ecological health, and against imperialist wars — mostly manifested as separate organisations/groups — are all part of the same struggle for a more humane world. The struggle in the workplace for better working conditions and decent pay is also part of the same struggle and needs to be incorporated into the concerns of those involved in all the other progressive social movements, just as workers need to become involved in the other social and ecological struggles. It is only this way that a critical mass of people can grow to the point that it is capable of challenging the system on many fronts.
When people are pushed and pushed down again and as their lives deteriorate, they eventually will fight back. Public school teachers in the United States have recently shown once again that unity and consistency, with outreach to the broader public and demands that transcend pay and working conditions, is a winning combination. The clear understanding of the issues and unity of the teachers of West Virginia led to an impressive nine-day strike during the end of February and the beginning of March, ending in victory for them, other public employees in the state, and for the state’s children. Teachers even went against the advice of union leaders and pressed on until all their demands were met. This example has inspired other workers in West Virginia as well as teachers in the states of Oklahoma and Kentucky, currently on strike as this is being written. These strikes seemed to come out of nowhere, but in reality they are a result of long years of organising as well as the building resentment over the many attacks on public education. Social media have played an important role in keeping teachers in touch with each other and united.
John Bellamy Foster: We have to be aware of the constellation of class/social forces. There is no doubt that now — though a few years ago it would have been almost unthinkable — we are witnessing an epochal crisis of the liberal-democratic state, on a level not seen since the 1930s — and in some ways exceeding even that. What this portends is an increasing inability of the ruling class to rule even at the very centre of the system, in the United States.
The Trump era and the neo-fascist tendencies it exhibits are thus not mainly a product of Trump himself but of the depth of the crisis of the system itself — even within “fortress America.” The same phenomenon can be seen across the globe. The recourse to neo-fascism (the fascist wolf re-emerging in new sheep’s clothing) can be seen quite across the globe and is a manifestation of the depth of this crisis. Insofar as this leads in the direction of a revolutionary situation it is first evident structurally in the splits at the top. Socialism is now developing again across the world but a lot of this is dependent on the breakaway of elements of the upper-middle class, who have been radicalised and are seeking to oppose the higher echelons of the system by removing its ideological cover and articulating radical and revolutionary ideas. These splits will undoubtedly become more obvious. The future — if there is to be one — lies with the working class, initially primarily in the periphery, as the main impetus of revolutionary change, but the opening to revolt is made possible by revolutions from above.
Indispensable reading in this regard is Georges Lefebvre’s classic The Coming of the French Revolution on how the French Revolution started not with a revolt at the bottom but at the top. In these circumstances, the working class needs to pour itself into the divisions now occurring in the society, aligning itself with the most radical sections of revolt, and ultimately defining the process in terms of its own needs and those of humanity — a category that necessarily excludes all those who choose the path of exterminism.
Michael D. Yates: I trust that readers understand the following list is not comprehensive, and that others will add to it. I trust too that what these points imply is that we have failed many times in the past because we did not adhere to the principles enunciated in them.
Capital must be attacked on all fronts, at all times. This means workplace struggles that aim to curtail capital’s power: shortening the workday, resisting constant speed-up, demanding some control over the introduction of machinery, insisting on an end to surveillance, especially the new forms of electronic monitoring, demanding better pay/benefits and conditions, especially for safety and health. Politically, labour must build an independent politics, without allegiance to any bourgeois party. It must fight for the entire working class, including those in the reserve army of labour and those who labour in the informal sector (most of the working class in countries like India). Class warfare must be waged in education, media, the environment, and culture; in all aspects of life.
Special attention must be paid to Mother Earth. Workers must make the environment a cause central to its demands, both at work and in the larger society. Here, alliance with peasants will be critical in many countries. A revolution in land tenure and usage is an absolute necessity, and time is short. Industrial agriculture, genetically modified organism crops, biofuel production, industrial production of meat and fish, overuse of cropland for animal feed, all of these things have to end. The expropriation of peasant land allows for greater exploitation of workers, so this is a working class issue. Not to mention that the working class will be hardest hit by global warming, especially in places like Bangladesh, where many millions of people are at risk from rising sea levels.
Direct efforts must be made to end racism, patriarchy, and nationalism, three pernicious facts of modern life that delimit the power of the working class. People of colour and women are now on the move. Their organisations must be respected by all of the working class. Their leadership in the labour movement, in the class struggle should not be taken for granted. Solidarity with workers and peasants in other countries must rise to a principle, with actions taken, as a matter of course, to support these workers and peasants.
Workers and peasants must engage in forms of collective self-help, beginning to produce and distribute goods and services independent of capital whenever and wherever possible. Community and rooftop gardens, cooperatives, land purchases, building of working class housing, childcare, and a host of other productive and distributive activities. These will not only help satisfy consumption needs, but they will also give us confidence that we can, indeed, organise and operate those things central to human life.
In connection with the first four points, we must engage in ideological campaigns. In every organisation, in every struggle, there must be an education component, with radical, critical education the key. We learn by doing, that is true. But in our doing, we need to develop larger, more encompassing perspectives, and these will not normally develop without education. As much as possible, once we learn, we must spread the word to others. Worker and peasant schools, short course, programs of all kinds should be organised. In our ideological efforts, we must stress the concepts of solidarity: an injury to one is an injury to all, the “We” is more important than the “I,” the golden rule, we are all brothers and sisters, we have little to lose but our chains, humility before the power of nature, as much substantive democracy as possible in all aspects of life, equality in all aspects of life.
Within our organisations, we must combat the tendencies to compromise with capital, the formation of bureaucracies independent of the will of the members, sectarianism, racism, patriarchy, homophobia. Leaders must be held accountable.
And, with this lesson, and in this perspective, what slogan should the world proletariat raise on this May Day, the 1st May?
Fred Magdoff: Unite for jobs, social justice, and a healthy environment
John Bellamy Foster: Rosa Luxemburg was right to pose the crucial question as one of Socialism or Barbarism. But today the alternatives before us have taken on an even more dire form, reflecting the fact that lives of whole generations of humanity, especially in the poorest countries, are now in jeopardy, along with the earth as a place for human habitation. Hence, Socialism or Barbarism has metamorphosed today into a question of Eco-socialism or Exterminism. The immediate task is to construct a “New International” with the goal of transcending capitalism’s creative destruction of humanity, society, and the earth itself.
Michael D. Yates: The earth and all its bounty belong to us, and we shall have them! Exploitation, NO! Expropriation, NO!
Thank you for the analysis, for reminding the historic lesson, and for suggesting a slogan for this May Day.
* These interviews originally appeared in Monthly Review Online on 30 April 2018
* Monthly Review’s Associate Editor R. Jamil Jonna’s contribution in putting the interviews into final shape is thankfully acknowledged