In this review of Can the Working Class Change the World?, the authorreflects on the question whether the working class can defeat capitalism, its chief antagonist.
“Capitalism is a hegemonic social order. Capital seeks to dominate as many aspects of our lives as possible and to control every institution, from state to schools. Very little escapes its domination, including our thoughts. Its two essential underpinnings are exploitation of wage labour and the expropriation of nature, the non-market labour of women, and the bodies of black and other minority people. A complex set of structures supports these. Is it possible for capital’s chief antagonist, the working class, to combat and defeat it?” With this question concludes “Some theoretical considerations”, second chapter, of Can the Working Class Change the World?(Monthly Review Press, New York, October 2018), the book by Michael D. Yates.
The “chapter”, writes Professor Michael Yates, “lays out an analytical scaffolding that [shows] that working people are exploited and expropriated, making it impossible for them to achieve real freedom, autonomy, and unalienated lives in a capitalist society. Thus, there are grounds for them to rebel to accomplish these things.”
The second chapter defines capitalism: “Capitalism is a social system built upon exploitation and expropriation. It is both an economy and a society, composed of multiple, connected elements.” Yates elaborates the elements of capitalism:
“its central economic feature is production for the market, as opposed to production for use”; “the non-human means of production – land, machinery, tools, equipment, buildings, raw materials, and the like – are the private property of capitalists, […] a small fraction of the population”; and “most people must sell their labour power, their capacity to work, to the owners of the means of production”.
Capitalism gives birth to inequality of stratospheric magnitude. As evidenced, the chapter cites some statistics: “The three wealthiest people in the United States – Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett – now own more wealth than the entire bottom half of the American population, a total of 160 million people or 63 million households.”
On capitalism, it adds:
“One of the characteristics of capitalism is the separation of the political and economic spheres. In the feudal mode of production, state and economy were controlled directly by the nobility. [….] With capitalism, however, at least in those organised as liberal democracies, political leaders are elected by those eligible to vote. For capital’s ideologues, this is the definition of democracy and the reason why they claim that capitalism and democracy are congruent. The notion has been spread far and wide, and, to the extent that most people believe it, obscures the autocracy that reigns supreme in the workplace.”
This statement identifies a major issue used to confuse people: bourgeois democracy, actually bourgeoisocracy, which is autocracy of the bourgeoisie and the capital it controls, which is devoid of demo, in a broader sense, people. Bourgeois scholars create this confusion for commoners, while these scholars discuss the issues of democracy, people-power, participation, capitalists’ resistance to people’s politics and participation, and revolution and revolutionary measures by the working class.
We find the real character of bourgeois democracy in workplaces and production areas, which include factories, agricultural farms and forests, markets beginning from local level small markets to world markets of literally everything. Commerce and trade, institutions of all types including charitable and arts and cultural organisations, ideology and nature are also dictated by bourgeois democracy. The areas of management, propaganda, and education single-mindedly carry on interests of bourgeois democracy – an all-encompassing autocratic practice. Compromises capitalism enters into, and actions it takes with a façade of benevolence, are to ensure its supremacy.
Michael Yates, professor of economics and a labour educator for 30 years, writes in the second chapter: “Expropriation has been critical to capital’s development, and it interacts with and usually reinforces accumulation, although it can at times be a substitute for accumulation.”
After explaining capitalism, exploitation of wage labour, class struggle, the reserve army of labour, and expropriation, the chapter discusses the critical institutions of capitalism, which include the state, schooling, and media.
On the state, the author writes:
“Capitalism is a complex and opaque system, so, as is the case with the unpaid time of wage labourers and the many types of expropriation, the institutions that underpin and rationalise this mode of production require some effort to penetrate. The most important is the state. Capitalism was born inside state structures. [….] Governments from the beginning used their police power to protect private property and combat rebellions by peasants and workers. [Governments] enacted laws guaranteeing ownership of property, enforcing contracts, and many other matters important to capital. They have sanctioned slavery and the rankest kinds of discrimination against minority groups. They have denied women the right to vote.
“States have also developed means to steady markets in times of crisis, and they have enacted legislation that grants working people some concessions while strictly limiting or forbidding actions that could threaten the existence of capital. The first evolved from the ideas of the British economist John Maynard Keynes. [….]The second arose in the face of political agitation emanating from the working class, forcing states to make concessions that placed some limits on the actions of capital, but not enough to threaten its power.”
After discussing the issue, Michael Yates suggests: “[T]here are spaces in the state machinery for mass actions to pressure governments to enact measures that improve the lives of working-class people.”
In this period of renewed onslaught by capital, mass actions for improving people’s lives are no less important. Populist politicians, in reality bourgeois in their outlook, are also resorting to these measures to gain credibility and validity, which actually helps capital to carry on acts of plunder at society-wide level in many countries. On the other hand, an improvement in the lives of people creates a space for people to rest, to repair their barricades, to re-organize their battle against capitalism. Moreover, measures that improve working-class life take away some ground/initiative from so-called neoliberalism’s assaults on people’s lives. Thus, it is a two-way space; one for the people while the other helps the rulers.
However, Michael Yates doesn’t miss the basic character of capitalism and its politics today as he writes in the chapter:
“These days, the weak democracy through which capital rules is fraying around the world. One sign of this is the weakening of the separation between polity and economy, replaced by the direct rule of capital. Business still has enormous leverage over the state through its financing and purchasing of government bonds and its campaign contributions. But now capitalists often rule more openly, as elected and appointed state officers and as financiers of what had formerly been public programs, both national and global.”
Bourgeois scholars marketing their democracy as the only and universal form of democracy don’t talk about these aspects: separation between polity and economy, direct rule of capital, enormous leverage of business over the state through its financing and purchasing of government bonds and its campaign contributions, and now capitalists’ more open rule as elected and appointed state officers and as financiers. This direct rule is reflected in corruption at epidemic level, wide indiscipline, crude lies, brute repressive measures, erratic and reckless moves on the stage of geopolitics, decay in quality of political leadership/institutions, and the decadence of the modern bourgeoisie, making a mockery of any claim they have to moral standing. This trend is visible in many bourgeois democracies spanning from the First to the Fourth Worlds. This trend is also starkly visible in factional fights within the bourgeois camp, and in its politics and institutions in some advanced bourgeois states. Even, its factional fights harm credibility of vital parts of its ruling machinery, which is a problem because credibility is required for imposing its rule.
However, the bitter fact of today is many in the people’s camp miss the basic character of bourgeois democracy. Lenin in “Theses and report on bourgeois democracy and the dictatorship of the proletariat” identifies one of the basic characteristics of the system: “The old, i.e., bourgeois, democracy and the parliamentary system were so organised that it was the mass of working people who were kept farthest away from a machinery of government.” (Collected Works, vol. 28, Progress Publishers, Moscow, erstwhile Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, 1977)
While discussing media, Michael Yates focuses on the Internet: “As media have migrated to the Internet, critics of mainstream outlets have claimed that it has become possible for those with limited resources to provide a wider range of views, including deeper analyses of capitalism. There is truth in this, and there are many possibilities that weren’t available before. However, those with the most wealth have had the greatest influence on what we get electronically. And talented journalists have had a difficult time earning a living on the World Wide Web.”
Instead of looking at the Internet from a narrow angle, he brings in the issue of inequality – greater access and influence depend on “those having the most wealth”. The question of inequality is a vital issue to people, to the working class.
The question is so bold that the mainstream organisations, most of which serve imperialism, cannot escape it. These organisations nowadays regularly focus on the issue – inequality – although the root of inequality – exploitation – is not identified. These issues – exploitation and inequality – should be discussed boldly and widely as ideologies and politics the exploiters market, from medieval to so-called post-modernist, but which, inside the system cannot adequately analyse these. These ideologies and politics escape analysis of their origins. Instead, capital’s ideologues market racist, supremacist, divisive ideas, which are lies in relation to the interest of the working class, and lofty ideals to the exploiters.
“Capitalism’s supporting institutions”, writes Michael Yates, “combine to make it appear that capitalism is what it is not. It is the realm of freedom, democracy, the best we can hope for. [….] If in our schools, from our media, from our governments, even from the pulpits of our churches, we hear repeatedly that we live in the best of all possible worlds, our minds are conditioned to believe this. An ideology predisposed to take the system as given and unchangeable creates a powerful barrier to radical change.” Thus he brings to notice one “powerful barrier to radical change”, which is very often missed by many while encountering capitalism.
The chapter exposes bourgeois-imperialist education and media as it says: “While education, in addition to its socialising function, is itself a site for considerable capital accumulation (textbooks, standardised tests, the selling of research patents by universities, for-profit colleges), mainstream media are capital-accumulating enterprises as well. As such, they depend on corporate advertising, and their goal is to turn a profit. They have a cosy relationship with the state, and the government is one of their primary sources of information. Seldom do the media either name or analyse critically the mode of production in which they operate. This is not to say that what they publish, or broadcast, never provides useful information. But if we look at television news, for example, endless commentary assaults viewers with the trivia of politics and celebrity culture.”
The chapter focuses on an aspect of capital missed by a group of feminists and environment activists: “Capital […] always [tries] to co-opt attempts to limit, much less end, exploitation and expropriation. There are countless examples of this, from corrupt and employer-friendly labour unions to the subservient embrace of white rule in the United States by Booker T. Washington. Some feminists simply want more women chief executive officers and members of Congress. And some environmentalists have been willing to make compromises with business that end up doing nothing to end environmental destruction. But these do not constrain the accumulation of capital or liberate all black people, all women, and all of nature from capital’s rule.”
One of the basic aspects of capitalism is accumulation of capital, the function that destroys and demolishes lives and environment, stifles possibilities for humane development, hinders the path of women.
The interplay between expropriation and exploitation is also discussed in the chapter: “Nature is stolen by capital, so that labour can be further exploited. In addition, land, water, even air, are made into commodities that can be bought and sold, again creating new arenas for accumulation.” The exploited, the poor, the working class pay most for this area of accumulation while the exploiters endlessly enjoy their nice life.
The chapter cites an example from India:
“Capital’s lust for export-crop lands and mineral wealth in India is so great and the remarkable unity of interests between business and the state so tight, with startling instances of corruption and police and paramilitary violence, that large swathes of land have been confiscated and tens of millions of peasants displaced just in the past thirty years.”
India is not a single case of this unity of business and state. Rampant examples are in countries in the global South. Today, this unity is so powerful that resistance to this appears nil. It is so wide and all encompassing that anyone may draw the following conclusion: This is the order of the day in this breed of capitalism, and capitalism of this variety cannot sustain without this corruption, a major deviation from its much-touted “free competition”, capitalism’s holy hymn.
Nevertheless, Michael Yates doesn’t miss another related point as he writes: “However, all crusades to make freedom, substantive equality, and real democracy reality are, by definition, radically anti-capitalist.”
The point is strengthened as Yates writes:
“Racism, patriarchy, and environmental catastrophe must be addressed directly. In other words, there can be no separation between exploitation and expropriation.
“If we embrace this perspective, many struggles take on a new light. If every effort to end exploitation is either implicitly or explicitly anti-capitalist, then so is every movement to end patriarchy, racism, and the rift between humans and nature. These are not just peripheral to capitalism; they are intrinsic to it. They cannot be eliminated within capitalism but only in a new, radically different society.”
On the subordinate capitalists in the global South, Michael Yates identifies the related function:
“Aiding and abetting global capital are a subordinate class of capitalists in the global South, people and businesses that oversee the exploitation and expropriation of peasants and workers. This local capital is permitted to keep some of the spoils, just as white workers have been allowed to share in some of the profits generated by the super-exploitation of black and other non-white workers.”
To defeat capitalism, an understanding of the system, and identifying its tricks and “magic” is an essential prerequisite. The second chapter of the book Can the Working Class Change the World? helps us to perceive capitalism as it really is.
* Farooque Chowdhury writes from Dhaka, Bangladesh.
*Note: This is part three of a seven-part series review of Can the Working Class Change the World?.