Michael D. Yates, in chapter 5 of his recently released book – Can the Working Class Change the World?– conducts an important task of assessing the power of capital. Below is a review of that chapter.
The working class, if it decides to win in class struggle, has to assess the power of capital. Without this assessment, the struggles the working class carries on against capital turn to adventurism or capitulation or puerile disorder. Consequently, the struggle lurches in a political wilderness, or, resorts to individual heroism, formulating programmes that reach the level of utopia, produce something called misspent energy, and discard the essential work of political education, organisation and planning.
Michael D. Yates, director of Monthly Review Press and former Associate Editor of Monthly Review magazine, presents an assessment of the power of capital on a global scale:
“Labour unions, labour political parties, and peasant organisations have, indeed, changed the world. Yet they have not succeeded in defeating capital and moving the world on to a radically democratic and fully egalitarian trajectory. Capital is still firmly in control of production, distribution, and politics. Most of the world’s income and wealth is monopolised by a small number of persons and global corporations. The advances made by the working class, broadly conceived, have proven short-lived and vulnerable to capital’s power. The Soviet Union is no more, and China has moved rapidly toward a full embrace of capitalism. Social democracy is on the ropes in the global North and has been thoroughly defeated in Great Britain and the United States. Even at its peak, social democracy did little to help workers and peasants gain control of their workplaces and land or to force a much greater equalisation in the distribution of wealth. Greater income equality happened, but it is wealth that matters most.”
The assessment may sound caustic to some persons/ideologues as it adds:
“If social democracy has never led to a full-scale assault on capitalism, what reason is there to believe that it ever could? Today, it is impossible to believe that there will be a recovery of even the modest political and economic project that labour unions and political parties once embraced and helped bring to fruition. This leaves a stark choice. Either continue to accept capitalism as a given and try to squeeze whatever crumbs capital might be willing to let fall from its table or radically change direction and begin to build a global movement that can transcend capitalism once and for all.”
He also reminds readers:
“During the massive protests in Europe in 2011, […] social democrats were remarkably silent.”
Does this silence tell a bit about social democracy’s collaboration with capital? Does it show that the silent “warriors” are actually part of the political wing of the dominating capital in those economies? Today, the working class has to find answers, in specific terms, not in general terms, to these questions if it is to organise its radical political march.
The assessment may shower shame on some, while, to the revolutionary political forces, may sound a bugle to class war by the exploited. This, the call to class war, is entirely political, entirely class-based, entirely under the leadership of the working class, and entirely free from non-governmental organisations politics – politics designed to secure capitalist-imperialist politics by theoretically, politically, and organisationally disarming the working class.
The labour educator presents a brief view from a number of countries in this chapter:
“[F]rom Latin America to India, left-centre political parties have often espoused policies that would help workers and peasants, but they have seldom delivered. Instead they have been mired in the same appeasement of capital, favoured export-led development, given subsidies to foreign capital, and failed to heavily tax the wealthy or implement serious land reforms. This has been true of Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Nicaragua, and India, among many other nations. Corruption has been a common denominator in these places too.”
Corruption has now turned into a tool for expropriating and appropriating entire peoples in entire societies, which is ultimately paid by the working class, as it is the working class that produces wealth. Corruption has turned into a tool for primitive accumulation, and a political tool for subjugation. Imperialist capital, multilateral financing organisations and the armaments industry, all take a role in this plundering.
Michael Yates presents a hard fact missed by some observers in the camp of the people:
“Ironically, the only government that has not gone on an austerity binge is Japan.” The reason behind this is that in Japan, there has been a weakness of some part of global capital. It should not be forgotten that Japan’s economy became so weak that it experienced what has been called a period of lost decades. It is a highly developed capitalist economy, which misleads many persons, economically speaking, every year. [They often ask] where is the weakness, where is the strength, and what is the tact of capital in this economy?
Professor Michael Yates also presents a labour union reality from Japan:
“[M]ilitant labour unions were crushed by post–Second World War governments, aided by the United States occupation and an alliance with Japanese organised crime. Unions in Japan are typically company-controlled, and social welfare is not very generous.”
Unions, not only in Japan, in many countries are organised/controlled/manipulated/crushed by capital by employing hoodlums, lumpen elements appearing to be members of the working class. It is a powerful way of capital to take the initiative. Even, literature on unions mostly goes silent on the issue – employing hoodlums. A more important issue, quite often absent in working class literature, is the role unions should take while confronting capital, and the relation between union and politics of the working class. It is a neutralised and/or sold-out leadership sitting at the head of the working class, leadership devoid of any revolutionary politics.
The professor of labour economics brings to notice this aspect: “[L]abour unions and political parties did little historically to build rank-and-file democracy and competencies or to engage members in radical, empowering education and actions [….].For some of the same reasons, workers are forsaking labour unions, and union densities continue to fall, everywhere.” Actually, this absence of practicing rank-and-file democracy and educating members is a demonstration of capital’s power, the power to corrupt, the power to inactivate as practicing democracy at grassroots level of union and political education enables union members to engage in combat with capital.
The power of capital to influence and control is evident as “[i]n the stronger social democratic parties,” writes Michael Yates in the chapter, “the trends are the same, moving steadily rightward, harming the working classes of their respective countries in an effort to ward off attacks from conservative political formations. While these parties once administered the social pact between labour and capital in such a way that social welfare spending and working-class security increased, today, with capital abandoning the labour-management accord, they too are deserting what was once their chief constituency.” The story is re-told by the economics professor: “In Great Britain, the Labour Party long ago abandoned its commitment to the working class.”
In a number of countries, the reality is no less bad: Individuals – either a bunch of blackguards or a band of betrayers to the class – usurp union leadership with a posture of being busy with “activities related” to the working class. And, in some countries, these are simple fortune seekers, careerists, and a new breed of predators, living by union money and money from dubious sources.
The professor cites the rising trend: springing up of the far right, anti-immigrant, neo-Nazi and neo-fascist forces redrawing the political map of countries beginning from northern, eastern, central, south-western Europe to the other side of the Atlantic. The development was, Michael Yates writes, “unimaginable even two decades ago.” He informs us of a more alarming fact: “For some of the same reasons, workers are forsaking labour unions, and union densities continue to fall, everywhere.”
This development shows a few aspects of capital’s power, and limits of power:
(1) Capitalism, specifically a faction of capital, finds no alternative other than resorting to an ideology and politics, which is nothing but backward, and harmful to its existence. For example, capital’s exploitation of cheap labour – migrant labour – is driven out. The migrant labour is part of the reserve army of labour. This reserve army of labour could have worked as a bargaining chip with the labour in capital’s own yard. Capital is failing to exploit cheap labour, although it is always running at fatal speed to maximise its profit, and exploiting cheap labour is one of the ways to maximise profit.
(2) The faction/part of capital resorting to acts that are harmful to its own interest is powerful enough to influence at least part of labour and, in the field of politics, part of the electorate.
This reality related to capital simultaneously exhibits its power and weakness.
“Labour and politics”, a section in the chapter, tells a few bitter truths that are hidden by the mainstream media, which is a major source of information for the commoners. The facts include:
(1) “Organised labour [in the United States] has tied itself to the Democratic Party, which by no stretch of the imagination can be described as a labour party. It has, in fact, abandoned whatever concern it had for working people, believing instead that a coalition of highly educated suburbanites and traditionally Democratic minorities gives it the only chance to gain state power.”
(2) “Yet, despite this, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and most of the member unions contribute tens of millions of dollars and untold hours of phone-banking, house calls, and social media work to get Democrats elected, no matter how conservative these politicians are.”
(3) “In 2011, for example, Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO president, and James Hoffa, Jr., head of the Teamsters union, were sharply critical of then-president Barack Obama and the Democratic Party for catering to business and ignoring the working class. Forget for a moment that these labour leaders have been far removed from the working class for a very long time, and Hoffa, who is an attorney, never did a union job like those his members do every day. Their reproaches were well founded.”
(4) “Yet, when Obama ran for a second term, [Trumka and Hoffa] were all-in with the rank and file’s money and time. Hillary Clinton, who, if anything, was even more pro-capital than Obama, got the endorsement of Trumka and nearly all AFL-CIO unions.”
(5) “The unions shunned Bernie Sanders, a left-liberal who actively courted those who do society’s work. The Democratic Party treated him like a pariah, whose candidacy was wrecking it. Clinton tried to tar him as pro–Fidel Castro, when, to his credit, he refused to denounce Cuba during a debate.”
So, Michael Yates writes:
“An independent labour politics rooted in militant action is as far removed from the thinking of United States labour chiefs as can be imagined. They will do anything to maintain a mythical seat at power’s table, seemingly oblivious of the truth that no one at that table sees them sitting there.”
This is evidence of the power of capital. This power to corrupt and control part of labour leadership is much powerful in a number of countries in the periphery, although capital in those peripheral countries is not as powerful as its kin in the advanced capitalist economies. Here lies a contradictory condition of capital, and a task for the political forces claiming to be for the working class.
The power of capital to corrupt and control part of the labour leadership is again brought to notice by Michael Yates:
“Yet there are many examples of unions treating minority and female members in a discriminatory manner. In the United States, craft unions once refused to accept African Americans as members (they were barred from admission by the unions’ constitutions), and racial disparities still plague unions in terms of holding union office and access to jobs. Women are woefully underrepresented as union officers.”
Fatal practice by part of the leadership – discrimination in union themselves – in the service of capital! And, this is power of capital, power that needs to be assessed by labour for identifying the approaches, attitudes, viewpoints, “friends”, and forces that it needs to neutralise.
The chapter discusses the emergence of and set back in socialist blocks, and impact of revolutions in Russia and China on the world. “In the global North, especially in the advanced capitalist economies of Europe, the fear of a left-wing labour movement compelled capital to recognise and deal with workers affiliated with social democratic parties and governments. These parties were not radical; they neither foresaw [nor] favoured the overthrow of capitalism. They might appear socialist from the vantage point of the United States, but that sets a low bar. Their political programmes assumed the indefinite continuation of capitalism […]”. This is also capital’s power.
This power seems, at moments in history, all-powerful. So, “a sense of political powerlessness”, writes Robert B. Reich, “is on the rise among citizens in Europe, Japan, and the United States”[i]. In the peripheral countries, the major portion in the world of capital, the reality is, generally, more than the “sense of powerlessness”. A specific, country-by-country, assessment of political participation by people in the political process arranged by dominating capital and imperialism will show that there is no scope and space for participation by people in those countries.
Everyday developments in the political arena in those countries stand as witness to the claim made above. The reason behind this is the state of capital, backed by imperialism, in those countries. Reports, etc., of organisations/agencies/donors on their so-called democracy initiatives in those countries bear another evidence that supports the claim.
Why is there a sense of powerlessness among citizens in the advanced bourgeois democracies? Why this absence of space for political participation in the peripheral countries? Professor Dani Rodrik of Harvard University points out a fact: “If we want more globalisation, we must either give up some democracy or some national sovereignty.”[ii] No doubt, the globalisation professor Dani Rodrik mentions is capitalist globalisation. It is like taking a toll; the toll of de-democratisation, or, non-democracy; the toll of infringement/trampling of sovereignty.
Robert Reich’s assessment provides an answer to the questions made in the paragraph above:
“By almost any measure, global capitalism is triumphant. Most nations around the world are today part of a single, integrated, and turbocharged global market.” The same is found by Mark Blyth, Eastman Professor of Political Economy at Brown University, as Blyth writes, “capital markets and capitalists set the rules that democratic governments must follow.”[iii] Martin Wolf, chief economics commentator at the Financial Times, London, also talks about this power of capital: “Today’s capitalism is global. [….] Left to themselves, capitalists will not limit their activities to any given jurisdiction. If opportunities are global, so too, will be their activities.”[iv] All these observations are from the mainstream, not from Marxist-Leninist literature.
The working class has to identify capital’s power in every area of life including workplaces, unions and politics if it is to meaningfully encounter capital.
All these, the tales of capital’s power, remind the observation made by Marx:
“In Western Europe, the home of Political Economy, the process of primitive accumulation is more or less accomplished. Here the capitalist regime has either directly conquered the whole domain of national production, or, where economic conditions are less developed, it, at least, indirectly controls those strata of society which, though belonging to the antiquated mode of production, continue to exist side by side with it in gradual decay. To this ready-made world of capital, the political economist applies the notions of law and of property inherited from a pre-capitalist world with all the more anxious zeal and all the greater unction, the more loudly the facts cry out in the face of his ideology. It is otherwise in the colonies.”[v]
Today, in many countries the process of primitive accumulation continues with barbaric force. It is capital’s power, indeed! In some countries, it is medieval in appearance, and in others, it is modern. It continues with imperialism’s active participation. It continues mainly in the global South, the area imperialism considers its backyard. The working class has to dissect this reality while getting ready to charge it. Michael Yates assists in the assessment of capital’s power with his book.
* Farooque Chowdhury writes from Dhaka, Bangladesh.
* Note: This is part six of a seven-part series review of Can the Working Class Change the World?.
[i]“How capitalism is killing democracy”, Foreign Policy, 12 October 2009
[ii]“The inescapable trilemma of the world economy”, Dani Rodrik’s weblog, 27 June 2007
[iii]“Capitalism in crisis”,ForeignAffairs, July/August, 2016
[iv]“Capitalism and democracy: the strain is showing”, Financial Times, 30 August 2016
[v]Capital, vol. 1, Progress Publishers, Moscow, erstwhile USSR, 1977