A few essays on communism

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Zak Cope - Divided world Divided Class favorites

Labour Aristocracy

The labour aristocracy is that section of the international working class whose privileged position in the lucrative job markets opened up by imperialism guarantees its receipt of wages approaching or exceeding the per capita value created by the working class as a whole. The class interests of the labour aristocracy are bound up with those of the capitalist class, such that if the latter is unable to accumulate superprofits then the super-wages of the labour aristocracy must be reduced. Today, the working class of the imperialist countries, what we may refer to as metropolitan labour, is entirely labour aristocratic.

The labour aristocracy provides the major vehicle for bourgeois ideological and political influence within the working class. For Lenin, “opportunism” in the labour movement is conditioned by the preponderance of two major economic factors, namely, either “vast colonial possessions or a monopolist position in world markets.” These allow for ever-greater sections of the metropolitan working class to be granted super-wages so that it is not merely the haute bourgeoisie which subsists on profits. Thus, according to Lenin, it is not simply capitalists who benefit from imperialism:

The export of capital, one of the most essential economic bases of imperialism, still more completely isolates the rentiers from production and sets the seal of parasitism on the whole country that lives by exploiting the labour of several overseas countries and colonies.

For Lenin, superprofits derived from imperialism allow the globally predominant bourgeoisie to pay inflated wages to sections of the (international) proletariat, who thus derive a material stake in preserving the capitalist system:

In all the civilised, advanced countries the bourgeoisie rob—either by colonial oppression or by financially extracting “gain” from formally independent weak countries—they rob a population many times larger than that of “their own” country. This is the economic factor that enables the imperialist bourgeoisie to obtain super-profits, part of which is used to bribe the top section of the proletariat and convert it into a reformist, opportunist petty bourgeoisie that fears revolution.

There are several pressing reasons why the haute bourgeoisie in command of the heights of the global capitalist economy pays its domestic working class super-wages, even where it is not forced to by militant trade-union struggle within the metropolis.

In receiving a share of superprofits, a sometimes fraught alliance is forged between workers and capitalists in the advanced nations. As far back as 1919, the First Congress of the Communist International (COMINTERN) adopted a resolution, agreed on by all of the major leaders of the world Communist movement of the time, which read:

At the expense of the plundered colonial peoples capital corrupted its wage slaves, created a community of interest between the exploited and the exploiters as against the oppressed colonies—the yellow, black, and red colonial people—and chained the European and American working class to the imperialist “fatherland.”

Advocates of imperialism understood very early on that imperialism would and could provide substantial and socially pacifying benefits to the working classes in imperialist countries. Cecil Rhodes, arch-racist mining magnate, industrialist and founder of the white-settler state of Rhodesia, famously understood British democracy as equaling imperialism plus social reform:

I was in the West End of London yesterday and attended a meeting of the unemployed. I listened to the wild speeches, which were just a cry for “bread!” “bread!” and on the way home I pondered over the scene and I became more than ever convinced of the importance of imperialism … My cherished idea is a solution for the social problem, i.e., in order to save the inhabitants of the United Kingdom from a bloody civil war, we colonial statesmen must acquire new lands to settle the surplus population, to provide new markets for the goods produced in the factories and the mines. The Empire, as I have always said, is a bread and butter question. If you want to avoid civil war, you must become imperialists.

The late English historian Eric Hobsbawm usefully proposed that the labour aristocracy be defined in terms of the level and regularity of a worker’s earnings; his degree of social security; his conditions of work, and the way he is treated by foremen and supervisors; his political and cultural relations with the social strata above and below; his general conditions of living; and his prospects of future advancement and those of his children. According to Hobsbawm, the labour aristocracy first developed in Britain between 1840 and 1890 where improved economic circumstances in the country made it possible for the ruling bourgeoisie to afford “significant concessions” to the working class—in particular, that section of the working class whose scarcity, skill, strategic position in key industries and organisational strength facilitated its political ascendancy. For Hobsbawm, the initial growth of the labour aristocracy is primarily related to the trade-union consciousness of skilled workers and their tendency towards organising according to trade rather than class. The distribution of imperialist superprofits to the metropolitan working class dissipates the cohesion of this earlier labour aristocracy since the entire working class becomes a “bribed” class. For Hobsbawm, labour aristocratic privilege in general depends upon the ability of its holders to maintain other workers in a structural position of subordination:

Only certain types of workers were in a position to make or keep their labour scarce enough, or valuable enough, to strike a good bargain. But the relatively favourable terms they got were, to a large extent, actually achieved at the expense of their less favoured colleagues; not merely at the expense of the rest of the world which British business dominated.

The majority of workers found themselves restricted from entry into the unions of the relatively prosperous workers so that, however militant in relation to their employers, the labour aristocracy was also set against the majority of the workers in securing its special labour market position. Yet this provision of higher wages to a section of the workforce rests on the bourgeoisie’s ability to afford these wages—that is, upon the condition of monopoly control over superexploited labour-power.

At the turn of the 20th century, the “new unionism” of Western Europe and the United States began to challenge the conservatism of the labour aristocracy and threatened the security of the capitalist system. As a means of countering this threat, more potential than actual, imperialist states began to incorporate wider swathes of core-nation workers into positions of power and privilege over the newly proletarianised workforce in the colonial and neocolonial countries by means of enfranchisement, the inculcation of jingoism and the guaranteed provision of rising living standards and working conditions. As it developed over the course of the last century, the labour aristocracy was first transformed from being a minority of skilled workers in key Imperial industries to a majority of imperialist country workers dependent on state patronage. From the First World War to the 1970s, social democratic politicians and trade-union bureaucrats were the reputable middlemen in the social partnership forged between oligopoly capital and metropolitan labour.

Even as the Keynesian social contract was systematically dismantled under neoliberalism, the massive proletarianisation and superexploitation of Third World labour in the final decades of the last century provided that unprecedented standards of living and the widespread introduction of supervisory and circulatory occupations further insulated metropolitan labour from the intrinsic conflict between capital and labour. Nineteenth century restrictions imposed by labour aristocratic unions on membership for the mass of workers have today been entirely substituted for restrictions on immigration from the Third World which are national in scope and allow the maintenance of profound global wage differentials.

The development of the labour aristocracy should not be thought of as purely the result of the machinations of a ruling bourgeois strategy to maintain power. Imperialism is a particular stage in the development of capitalism relying upon the extraction of superprofits from large portions of humanity. The ability of monopoly capital to exploit labour is restricted in that its high organic composition sets limits to investment opportunities which only superexploitation can (temporarily) overcome. To maintain the influx of superprofits and, hence, overall profit rates, imperialism must ensure that the working class in the core nations of the capitalist world economy, where it constitutes the majority, does not attempt independently to reorganize production in its own interests. Through its representative political institutions, imperialism therefore aims to keep its “own” workers committed to the status quo whilst accumulating additional profits and enervating potential opposition by maintaining domestic division on the basis of gender, “race,” religion, ethnicity and market opportunity (for example, by controlling access to cultural capital and selectively applying penal policy).

Yet the labour aristocracy is a kind of Golem. Induced by the imperialist bourgeoisie to protect its hegemony, as metropolitan labour’s wealth and power has grown the labour aristocracy is increasingly unaccountable to its master. Within the system of imperialism, the labour aristocracy today sets economic and political limits to its repression in so far as challenging its interests necessitates either open conflict within the First World between workers and employers, or an equally coordinated but piecemeal assault on its most vulnerable, poorest and most oppressed sections. Invariably, the latter process occurs according to the ongoing historical legacy of capitalism’s uneven global development. Accordingly, today’s imperialist bourgeoisie attempting valiantly to staunch the flow of superprofits to its working-class junior partners whips up racism in the media, through laws and through the pronouncements of its political representatives for fear that it cannot afford the political infrastructure nor the loss of trade to less neoliberal rivals should it attempt head-on confrontation with the whole.

By virtue of granting them a share in the enormous profits reaped from continual imperialist subjugation, the ruling class of the imperialist nations is able to keep its citizenry from striving to unite on a socialist basis with the superexploited nationalities. As the late US historian Bernard Semmel has correctly written, “The mere division of produce between capitalists and labourers is of very small moment when compared with the amount of produce to be divided.” Greek Marxist economist, the late Arghiri Emmanuel expands upon this basic insight admirably:

When … the relative importance of the national exploitation from which a working class suffers through belonging to the proletariat diminishes continually as compared with that from which it benefits through belonging to a privileged nation, a moment comes when the aim of increasing the national income in absolute terms prevails over that of improving the relative share of one part of the nation over the other … Thereafter a de facto united front of the workers and capitalists of the well-to-do countries, directed against the poor nations, co-exists with an internal trade-union struggle over the sharing of the loot. Under these conditions this trade-union struggle necessarily becomes more and more a sort of settlement of accounts between partners, and it is no accident that in the richest countries, such as the United States—with similar tendencies already apparent in the other big capitalist countries—militant trade-union struggle is degenerating first into trade unionism of the classic British type, then into corporatism, and finally into racketeering.

For Lenin, writing a century ago when this process was nowhere near its mature stage, imperialism was succeeding in creating a large proportion of “straw bosses” and labour aristocrats within the core-nation working class. “To a certain degree,” he wrote, “the workers of the oppressor nations are partners of their own bourgeoisie in plundering the workers (and the mass of the population) of the oppressed nations. Politically, the difference is that, compared with the workers of the oppressed nations, they occupy a privileged position in many spheres of political life. Ideologically … the difference is that they are taught, at school and in life, disdain and contempt for the workers of the oppressed nations.” The great American scholar and progressive W.E.B. Du Bois put it even more succinctly: “the white workingman has been asked to share the spoils of exploiting ‘c__ and n__’. It is no longer simply the merchant prince, or the aristocratic monopoly, or even the employing class that is exploiting the world: it is the nation; a new democratic nation composed of united capital and labor.”

With these definitions in mind, we can now begin our study of the labour aristocracy and its characteristic politics, both as developed historically and as existing today.

On social chauvinism

This core-nation industrial proletariat fought often desperate struggles for wage increases, more humane working conditions, universal suffrage and the right to organise in trade unions. In the first half of the 19th century, these struggles set this proletariat against the economic interests of the employing class and the state which acted on its behalf.[156] Despite an even more exploited slave-labour population providing the wealth upon which colonial (commercial and plantation) markets thrived, before the advent of imperialism, and the outward investment of monopoly capital in production industries employing superexploited labour, capital accumulation also depended crucially upon ploughing back profits wrung from the core-nation workforce. Indeed, the burgeoning European proletariat occasionally showed common cause with the foreign peoples oppressed by its ruling class. For example, in Sheffield in 1793 a petition opposing the African slave trade was signed by over 8,000 men working in and around the metalwork industry. The famous London Corresponding Society which united the liberal and democratic ideals of artisans in England’s capital with proletarian interests in the rest of country—thereby originating the British labour movement as such—was given great impetus by the abolitionist activism of freed African slave Olaudah Equiano.

These examples, however, are atypical; even the most revolutionary proletarian organizations of the 19th century (the Communards of Paris, for example) disdained to support colonial liberation. A far more representative way of European workers relating to colonial subjects was displayed when 90,000 British soldiers, drawn mostly from the lower classes, of which around half were killed, unsuccessfully fought to re-establish colonialism and slavery in Haiti between 1793 and 1798. Nonetheless, as a result of its own grinding exploitation, the proletariat has a radical class interest in abolishing all relations of exploitation[157] and the oppression-exploitation matrix established by capitalism. Out of its struggles in Europe grew a set of political, economic and moral ideals which became known as socialism (a term coined in 1834 by French philosopher, economist and political democrat Pierre Leroux). In the ensuing age of imperialism, however, socialist ideology rapidly became transformed into social chauvinism. A confluence of national and racial chauvinism focusing on the material needs of European-descended national working classes, social chauvinism is the characteristic and dominant political ideology of the metropolis in the pre-globalist monopoly phase of capital accumulation.

Zak Cope and WEB Du Bois - The social chauvinism of the labor aristocracy

The late British social historian Robert Gray noted of the Victorian British labour aristocracy that, while material well-being and social imperialist propaganda did not always translate into bellicose working-class support for militarism, it is nonetheless true that conservative adaptation to capitalist imperialism confirmed in the metropolitan working class a sense of imperial loyalism, superiority over non-European civilizations, admiration of the activities of their country’s army and government and hostility to immigrants from poor countries which were (and are) definitely chauvinistic. Since the First World War, the labour aristocracy, capital’s “labour lieutenants”, has demonstrated a complete lack of solidarity with the workers of the Third World. Indeed, it has actively supported their oppression.

From what sections of the working class is the labour aristocracy principally drawn? It is crucial to recognise that the size, strength and composition of the labour aristocracy changes according to the shifting historical and geographical dimensions of the international class structure. Lenin hoped that the capacity of the monopoly capitalist states to organise the “bribery” of a labour aristocracy in their own countries would be temporary, since inter-imperialist rivalry and the resistance of the colonies would destroy the material basis for such a provision. However, the hegemonic position US capital attained after the Second World War created a period of economic and political stability for the monopoly capitalist powers which has allowed for an increase in super-wages, strengthening core workers’ continued allegiance to imperialism.

In the late 19th century, the labour aristocracy consisted mainly in skilled and unionised workers and members of co-operatives whose privileged position in the domestic labour market and consequent higher wages were directly attributable to their exceptional position in the international division of labour relative to the mass of workers in the dependent countries. Characterizing the intrinsic connection between superexploitation and racism, W.E.B. Du Bois pointed to the basis of labour-aristocratic privilege:

That dark and vast sea of human labour in China and India, the South Seas and all Africa; in the West Indies and Central America, and in the United States—that great majority of mankind, on whose bent and broken backs rest today the founding stones of modern industry—shares a common destiny; it is despised and rejected by race and colour; paid a wage below the level of decent living; driven, beaten, prisoned, and enslaved in all but name; spawning the world’s raw material luxury—cotton, wool, coffee, tea, cocoa, palm oil, fibers, spices, rubber, silks, lumber, copper, gold, diamonds, leather—how shall we end the list and where? All these are gathered up at prices lowest of the low, manufactured, transformed, and transported at fabulous gain; and the resultant wealth is distributed and displayed and made the basis of world power and universal dominion and armed arrogance in London and Paris, Berlin and Rome, New York and Rio de Janeiro.

Compared to this “dark and vast” colonial and neocolonial working class, the white working class (the working class of imperialist nations bound by white supremacy) is prosperous indeed, a fact which ensured that social chauvinism readily incorporated racist doctrines.

The American working class was self-consciously and militantly “white” long before European workers organised around that putative identity. Indeed, not only did the racial category of “whiteness” have extra-European origins but, in the mid-late Victorian period, much of the European working class, particularly those in urban areas, was actively excluded from it. Although immigration of non-white groups proved the major catalyst for European workers’ active deployment of a politicised white identity, the nature and availability of this identity is rooted in the racialised imperialist nationalism of the early 20th century. In that period there was a notable shift in emphasis from “whiteness as a bourgeois identity, connoting extraordinary qualities, to whiteness as a popularist identity connoting superiority, but also ordinariness, nation and community.” Thus, from being marginal to the white identity in the 19th century, Europeans en masse came to adopt and adapt it in the 20th century as jingoistic state institutions conveyed racist consciousness to the working class.

In the era of imperialism, state intervention into the economy was combined with mass media enculturation and philanthropic and civic initiatives to guarantee working-class quiescence. The notion of a national community embracing decent working-class living standards and a popular sense of belonging was thereby considerably enhanced so that thoroughly racialised nationalist symbols and ideology could now be adopted and adapted for usage by the labour aristocracy. As social geographer Alastair Bonnett shows of the British case, “Welfare came wrapped in the Union Jack” and a white supremacist notion of nationality thus advanced as the ideological accompaniment of social democratic capitalism.

In 1933, W.E.B. Du Bois characterized the split within the global working class in the clearest terms, considering it the basis of racist social chauvinism:

This large development of a petty bourgeoisie within the American [and Western European—ZC] laboring class is a post-Marxian phenomenon and the result of the tremendous and worldwide development of capitalism in the 20th Century. The market of capitalistic production has gained an effective worldwide organization. Industrial technique and mass production have brought possibilities in the production of goods and services which out-run even this wide market. A new class of technical engineers and managers has arisen forming a working-class aristocracy between the older proletariat and the absentee owners of capital. The real owners of capital are small as well as large investors—workers who have deposits in savings banks and small holdings in stocks and bonds; families buying homes and purchasing commodities on installment; as well as the large and rich investors. …

Of course, the individual laborer gets but an infinitesimal part of his income from such investments. On the other hand, such investments, in the aggregate, largely increase available capital for the exploiters, and they give investing laborers the capitalistic ideology. Between workers and owners of capital stand today the bankers and financiers who distribute capital and direct the engineers. …

Thus the engineers and saving better-paid workers, form a new petty bourgeois class, whose interests are bound up with those of the capitalists and antagonistic to those of common labor. On the other hand, common labor in America and white Europe far from being motivated by any vision of revolt against capitalism, has been blinded by the American vision of the possibility of layer after layer of the workers escaping into the wealthy class and becoming managers and employers of labor[…].

The second influence on white labor both in America and Europe has been the fact that the extension of the world market by imperial expanding industry has established a worldwide new proletariat of colored workers, toiling under the worst conditions of 19th century capitalism, herded as slaves and serfs and furnishing by the lowest paid wage in modern history a mass of raw material for industry. With this largesse the capitalists have consolidated their economic power, nullified universal suffrage and bribed the white workers by high wages, visions of wealth and the opportunity to drive “n__.” Soldiers and sailors from the white workers are used to keep “d__” in their “places” and white foremen and engineers have been established as irresponsible satraps in China and India, Africa and the West Indies, backed by the organized and centralized ownership of machines, raw materials, finished commodities and land monopoly over the whole world.

ILO statistics

Just how much more are imperial core workers making? As of 2007, according to the ILO, 11x more.

If you make more than PPP $1.50 / hour, or ~$250 / month, then you are in the minority of the world’s workers.

Also, remember that western finance capitalists aren’t paying for southern labor in PPP dollars, they’re paying unadjusted wages, so the surplus value extracted is much higher. Southern workers are working using highly mobile, 21st century capital equipment, while being paid wage levels from the 1800s.

Inflation-adjusted Average Wage Rates for male workers in 2007 _
Monthly wage for OECD workers $2,378
Monthly wage for non-OECD workers $253
Hourly wage for OECD workers $17
Hourly wage for non-OECD workers $1.50
Factoral Difference between OECD and non-OECD wages 11
Median Global Hourly wage $9.25