To what extent has the working class been an agent of radical change? The author discusses steps, proposed in the third chapter of Can the Working Class Change the World?, that need to be taken for workers to bring about radical change.
Again, Professor Michael D. Yates raises critical questions in chapter 3 of his recently released book Can the Working Class Change the World?(Monthly Review Press, New York, October 2018): “How much has the working class changed the world so far? Can it go further and bring about a global transition in which capitalism is superseded by a radically democratic socialist mode of production, with maximum substantive equality across as many social outcomes as possible?”
The labour educator for 30 years presents an answer to the questions he has raised himself: “[T]here are forces at work within the capitalist social order that move workers in this direction.”
He, then, elaborates his assertion: “Yet there are others that counteract them. Therefore, the answer to the question depends on which has the greater weight. This is not simply a matter that can be settled by observation of the objective conditions. The two contending classes, capital and labour, have agency – each can act to further its ends. At the same time, the past weighs heavily on each, limiting not only what we can achieve but what we can know with clarity. Not everything will be possible at any given time.”
Michael Yates, director of Monthly Review Pressand former Associate Editor of Monthly Reviewmagazine, proposes a number of steps:
“First, we must grasp the nature of the world in which we live. Second, we must work out a plan of action to change our circumstances. Third, we must act. And fourth, as we act, we must see what happens, how we are affected, how our comprehension of things changes consequent on our activities, and how our possibilities have been altered. Each step is complex, and we can never be certain of our perceptions, much less the success of our endeavours.”
These, especially, the second step, “we must work out a plan of action”, demands serious attention. Moreover, the step contrasts with the haphazard, petty bourgeois style of argument that busies itself with slogan-mongering and undisciplined reading instead of disciplined study, and portraying the self as a rebel-hero. Disciplined study of the exploiting system and related issues is an imperative. And, portraying the working class as the hero of history instead of marketing the self is the approach that the exploited people require.
The chapter begins by examining the famous and basic assertion by Marx and Engels: Workers are agents of radical change. It, then, says:
“Capitalism radically transformed class society. In place of personal, direct relationships between those who controlled production and those who did not, the new system’s relations of production were mediated by an impersonal market. Today, it is uncommon for workers to know the owners of the enterprises that employ them, not just personally but even to recognise their names, and it is rare for consumers to know who made the things they purchase. What is more, the extraction of the surplus value from the efforts of those who toil in factories, mines, mills, offices, and the multitude of other capitalist businesses is hidden by the market.”
Here comes the mighty “Market”, a mechanism and an arrangement the bourgeois scholars have mystified and presented as the sole yardstick of civilisation, efficiency, and resource allocation. They have also made it an integral part of a particular form of “democracy” – a crude distortion of representation by the exploiters, an absolute minority social class, in the name of an entire people, an overwhelming majority in all societies in today’s world. Amy L. Chua’s claim is one example from hundreds of bourgeois scholarly works on market and democracy as she writes: “[M]arkets and democracy mutually reinforce each other.” (“The Paradox of Free Market Democracy: Rethinking Development Policy”, Harvard International Law Journal, vol. 41, no. 2, Spring 2000).
Nevertheless, Amy Chua, the professor of law entangled in the recent controversy over the nomination of the reactionary Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court, admits, (i) “there is also a deep tension inherent in free market democracy”, and (ii) “the realities of market-generated extreme wealth disparities”. (ibid.) Her “article focuses on an inherent instability in free market democracy” (ibid., emphasis in the original). Amy Chua’s article cites, in footnotes, scholarly writing on the issue and says: “Many [of those scholars] have explored the ways […] in which these two pillars [market and democracy] are said to reinforce each other.”
Amy Chua, in another article, writes:
“It is by now a commonplace that we are living in a period of radical global transformation. Particularly in the developing world, this transformation has had two watchwords: markets and democracy. [….]
“Marketisation and democratisation each has been the site of massive Western legal intervention in the developing world. Legal work on marketisation ranges from structuring international project finance to drafting market-oriented laws to developing legal regimes that facilitate the transition from command to market economies. Work on democratisation includes not only writing constitutions but also grappling with formidable issues such as the transplantability of Western social and political institutions and post-communist state building.” (“Market, democracy, and ethnicity: Toward a new paradigm for law and development”, Faculty Scholarship Series, paper 341, Yale Law School, 1998)
In a footnote, Amy Chua also mentions the “recent explosion of interdisciplinary work on marketisation and democratisation in the developing world.”
After this description, the extent and power of bourgeois scholarship dealing with markets and democracy need no elaboration. Thence, the myth of market and bourgeois democracy need to be exposed before the working class.
Michael Yates, professor of economics, shows the power of bourgeois academia and media: “It appears that we workers are paid a wage determined by the impersonal forces of supply and demand. It isn’t obvious that we are being exploited, that a surplus created by us has somehow become the property of the owner. We don’t appear to be in the same position as a serf who could have been seen delivering part of the family’s crop to the lord.” (emphasis added) It is the “appearance” to us, the perception of “isn’t obvious”. That is the trick. Bourgeois scholars and propaganda bombarding us from our cradle to coffin construct this perception. And, thus, we – the people, the working class – are unarmed in the realm of ideas, are neutralised in the area of concepts.
The economist discusses workplaces: “Inside workplaces, equally dramatic changes occur. As all successful employers know, the key to generating profits is to control, as absolutely as possible, every aspect of their business. And nothing is more critical than the command of the workers, because they are the main active agents in production. By control, we mean the ways in which workers interact with one another and with the tools and machines they utilise.”
It is, actually a description of the broader society under capitalism, a description of democracy in capitalism. Capitalism controls, “as absolutely as possible, every aspect of” society, capitalism commands people under its control, and capitalism commands the way people under its command interact between them.
Professor Michael Yates specifies the interactions: “These interactions comprise the labour process, and it is this that must be ruled.” (emphasis in the original) In the broader society, in the area of ruling the working class, and broadly, an entire people, interactions in the realm of the rule of capital are through the political process, and within/with the aid of political institutions/fora, capital creates and operates. So, understanding the workplace is also vital for understanding capital’s politics.
The labour economist tells a fact directly, which the mainstream ignores craftily:
“[C]apitalism tends to create the workforce it needs. It must have control, and so the institutions that comprise the system – the market, the schools, the bourgeois scholars, especially the economists, whose work justifies whatever capital does, the ideology of individualism that buttresses the entire edifice – bring forth workers who are compliant.” (emphasis added)
Searching questions with the emphasised parts in the above quotation help unmask capitalism’s political power and the political tactics used to keep people chained to capitalism’s politics.
The chapter focuses on a political question: “[W]orkers were not ignorant of the political power of capital, so it became clear to some proletarians and their allies among intellectuals like Marx and Engels that political efforts had to be tied to the transformation of both the state and the system of production and distribution. [This] meant that they conceived the ever-growing working class as the agent of the ultimate abolition of itself, the ending of class society, and the building of a world of associated producers, ending the multiple alienations of a class society.”
“To formalise their political presence, they created political organisations, most prominently working-class political parties. If these could gain control of the government, either by electoral means or armed insurgency, then they could dictate what the state did.”
The above citation is a very significant observation leading to strategic and tactical slogans irrespective of the level and quality of bourgeois democracy, variants of comprador-bourgeois democracies, and political systems under control of the nouveau rich segments of the newly-independent countries.
One of the most important questions to working class politics is the issue of class unity, which is regularly ignored by many sections in the working class camp or the by voices raising issues related to the working class.
Michael Yates discusses the issue in a section, “Barriers to class unity”, of the chapter. He looks at “obstacles that impede the class-consciousness and unity of the working class.” These include skill, mobility of capital, nationalism, race and gender. Michael Yates writes in the chapter:
“Capital’s representatives quickly grasped the need for and their power to divide workers into hostile and competing parts. Skill, nationality, race, gender – all have been used to split the working class, both in production and what we will call capitalism’s hidden abodes.”
Today, imperialist capital vigorously plays the game: Divide and rule. It is a fatal game to the working class. In this suicidal game, a shameful practice, a group of non-governmental organisations, a part of so-called civil society and rights organisations, and a group from the progressive pole extend their active hands. Today, sectarian slogans are encouraged in the name of securing rights of one or another sect/group/people of a region, and thus it is presented that people with another colour or from another region are not exploited, are not deprived, are not suppressed. In this effort, capital forms an alliance with medieval ideas, which is an alliance of the exploiting classes against the exploited. In the same style, a camp portraying itself as progressive forms an alliance with medieval ideas and forces. The very premise for victory of the struggle for emancipation by the working class – unite – gets lost, which in turn helps capital, helps imperialism.
Lenin, during his fight against the Bundists, raised the issues of compartmentalisation and dis/unity of workers (“‘Jewish’ workers” and “‘Christian’ workers”, “struggle against the bourgeoisie of Russia as a whole”,“the whole of proletariat”, “we must not set up organisations that would march separately”, “we must not weaken the force of our offensive by breaking up into numerous independent political parties”, “we must not introduce estrangement and isolation”,“the closest union and fusion of the entire proletariat fighting against the tsarist autocracy”, and many similar statements in articles available in Collected Works, vols 6, 7 and 8, Progress Publishers, Moscow, erstwhile Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, 1974 and ‘77).
To send his points home, he quoted Odessa workers on a joint strike, attending joint meetings and joining joint demonstrations: “Have no fear, have no fear, […] we have neither Jews nor Russians in our midst, we are all workers, life is equally hard for us all.” (“The latest word in Bundist nationalism”, Collected Works, vol. 6, emphasis in the original) Today, compartmentalisation, essentially mobilising parts of the working class as competitors and hostile parts, of the working class is shameful and painful, and one of the guarantees to the destiny of defeat.
Can the Working Class Change the World?suggests:
“Objectively, a working class exists, but this does not mean that its members are conscious of their capacity to disrupt production and the system itself. However, once the importance of race and gender is realised – along with capitalism’s third pillar, imperialism – then the way is cleared for the possibility of building a cohesive and radical working class. But this is easier said than done.” (emphasis added)
Michael Yates bares a truth, which shows the real face of capitalism: “To employers, workers are nothing more than costs of production, to be controlled and minimised.” Capitalism treats workers as dispensable, because, capitalism knows, there is a big reserve army of labour.
At the end of the chapter, Michael Yates, as a scientist, tells us clearly: “[W]e can never be certain of our perceptions”. It is a scientist’s suggestion: question, again question, never rely on dogma. Without a scientist’s attitude of relentless questioning, the working class cannot build up its organisation and politics, cannot play its role as agents of radical change.
* Farooque Chowdhury writes from Dhaka, Bangladesh.
* Note: This is part four of a seven-part series review of Can the Working Class Change the World?.