Respecting no dogmatic label
On the occasion of the 1000th issue, Marc Mulholland reflects on the state of the left
Let me start with a little provocation. It is, after all, the Weekly Worker’s USP.
With capitalism, Marx wrote, “the notion of human equality has already acquired the fixity of a popular prejudice”.1 He was certainly premature in his judgement, and racism was to rise to unprecedented heights in the decades after his death. Still, his overall point was valid. Capitalism in the abstract cares not whether you are black or white, Christian or Muslim, gay or straight, male or female. It cares whether you can do a job that turns a profit.
Sure, at specific historically determined conjunctures the wily employer will super-exploit second-class citizens. The sharecropping peonage of Jim Crow America or the apartheid system come to mind. But over decades we have seen (incompletely, to be sure) the “icy water of egotistical calculation” - or, as we might say, the rational allocation of human resources - wear down caste-like hierarchies that for ages past “bound man to his ‘natural superiors’”.2
It might even be said - it is a matter for scientific inquiry, not pontificating - that certain phases of material production lend themselves to innate biological characteristics. We can think of the nimbleness of women and children working early textile machines, or the brute strength of men metal-bashing in the age of heavy industry. Perhaps the relative merits, apparently distributed asymmetrically across the sexes, of particular cognitive abilities (many men being better at spatial orientation, many women having superior “object-location memory”) have some marginal influence on differential aptitude for various jobs even today. It seems likely, too, that racial adaption to regional climates and pathogens have historically influenced the global division of labour.3
But, as Marx pointed out - and indeed exaggerated to reveal the trend - capitalism seeks to maximise availability for every job and consider every job candidate without preconception, the better to ensure that flexible labour markets hold down wages. And this continuously generates an ideology of equality, and even, at the limit, interchangeability. People, of course, are not actually equal in their aptitudes; but a prejudice that treats them as morally equivalent, each equally deserving of dignity, is a human conquest to be valued.
Of course, capitalism also systematically generates class inequality. Marx saw this through the prism of ‘labour-power’, the only productive property owned by the collective working class, which in its ideal state (from the capitalist point of view) is entirely partible and interchangeable. Labour-power, a social product and as such homogenous, produces more than its costs to hire in wages, and so it generates a profit seized upon by the owners of the means of production. We might quite validly reconceptualise this in terms of neo-classical economics: if remuneration reflects the marginal productivity of labour, then the great mass of employees, more or less interchangeable, have much less claim on income than the lucky few who have careers (not just jobs) because they possess assets of expensive rearing, schooling, training, social contacts, property assets and (sometimes) sheer good luck - all that we are pleased to call ‘talent’. The very dogma of bourgeois civil society is ‘careers open to talent’.4
Marx did not think that the wage-earning proletariat are morally better, more open-minded, more generous, or simply nicer than any other class. He thought proletarians well capable of narrow-mindedness and bigotries (some Marx recognised, as from our 21st century vantage we do; some he did not, because he shared them). He did not think that they are instinctively ‘communist’, for proletarian class-consciousness does not imply adherence to the slogan, ‘From each according to his ability; to each according to his needs!’ Marx thought that such an aim only becomes realisable when classes themselves dissolve.5
Marx did believe that the proletariat, in common with all citizens of capitalist modernity, have as a fixed prejudice the notion of essential human equality. He thought, like all classes, that they seek to have and to hold, in security and with confidence, the property by which they live; for proletarians, their labour-power. Like all classes, the proletariat cannot know confidence and security without owning the means of production that it sets to work. But uniquely, the modern working class cannot own the means of production, already socialised by the capitalist division of labour, except socially, and in common.
Modern workers make up the only class that by its conditions of existence is drawn towards the social, collective and democratic ordering of the totality of human relations. For Marx, this state of being in turn gives rise to all sorts of good things: emancipation from individual helplessness, the end of structured social antagonisms, the dissolution of the state as an organ superimposed upon society. Well, perhaps yes, perhaps no. Futuristic speculation is no more than that. But Marx’s grounding of society democratised and democracy socialised in a class agency was an imperishable conquest of social science and political practice.
But now, have these insights ever been held more tenuously by Marx’s supposed descendants, in the academy, in the ultra-left sects, in the wider labour movement? Their eyes are fixed by callow bigotries or religious fanaticisms, these vulgar excrescences left over in societies jerry-built from the rubble of history, or vomited afresh by fevered neoliberalism. Certainly, the diagnoses of racism, national chauvinism, homophobia and such are not exhausted by defining them as atavisms run cancerous. They are linked by a million capillaries to the beating heart of modernity. There is not, perhaps, a great deal to be found in Marx that might help us excise these tumours. But that is the point: the socialist tonic - class-based, rooted in capitalism, aspiring to its transcendence - is not some quack treatment for every ill.
There is little doubt that the bulk of the working class in this country pay little attention to the soi-disant Marxists. In return, the ultra-left either hypostasise the working class, mythologising its past and casting runes to predict the day when, like the fabled ‘king in the mountain’, some crisis wakes it from its slumbers.6 It is no wonder that on some sections of the left György Lukács’s absurd and elitist misreading of the Marxist theory of class-consciousness holds such sway. A revolutionary cadre thinks of itself as some kind of Baron Frankenstein, scanning the lowering skies for signs of the electrical storm that will raise the creature to life. Till then, the soul of the class burns in the breast of the revolutionary elect, awaiting the miraculous transfusion.
More ‘practical’ is the pot pourri approach, which gathers in every ‘victim’ or ‘survivor’ of a factitious capitalism depicted as demonic demiurge hyphenated with 666 epithets - the “white supremacist, capitalist, heteronormative, cisnormative, ablist, neo-colonialist patriarchy” perhaps.7 These victims of ‘intersectional persecution’ are to be annexed to the movement, there to shame and inspire the notional big battalions of the working class (who pay no heed, of course). At least, this approach seems practical, until the gurus find themselves immured in Facebook therapy circles, ‘trigger warnings’ standing sentinel, nervously tending their following of the irrational, the broken and the embittered.
The Labour Party, it is true, does orientate to real workers as its principal social base. But it has mostly lost its ambition to organise workers as a ‘class’ in the sense of the term that Marx sometimes used it: ie, as producing from within itself the will and the means to rule politically through a party constituted for that purpose. The reasons for this are various. Certainly careerism is one such, with the advent in Labour of a dedicated political caste, generally well-heeled and products of elite universities, trained up by parliamentary internships and think-tanks.
More generally, the rise of meritocracy - which is bourgeois ideology in near unalloyed form - has been realised by a massively expanded university system. This means that with every decade since the war more and more of the most able workers, who in the past would have exercised their qualities in workers’ educational associations, trade unions and Constituency Labour Parties, have been hoisted onto career ladders, appropriating them for the bourgeoisie.
This highly selective social mobility is probably more significant than vaunted theories positing the death of the working class as a social formation. After all, the working class of the First and much of the Second Socialist Internationals, covering the 50 years 1864-1914, were disproportionately semi-artisans in small-scale workplaces. The smoke-stack or conveyer-belt proletariat only really came into its own in the 50 years between 1920 and 1970 (and, despite nostalgia, were rather less oppositional to capitalism than their predecessors). In the near 50 years since, the public-sector workforce has been a mainstay of the left, even if the post-Fordist workforce, which in work-organisation is not dissimilar from the mass of the 19th-century proletariat, lacks its artisanal traditions of self-confidence and independence. But the decline of a truly organic working class intelligentsia has been precipitous as its cadre have been bourgeoisified.
The likeliest potential for reconstituting the working class as a relatively cohesive political subject, therefore, lies in the proletarianisation of intellectual labour (in IT, consumer industries, and so on). This, indeed, seems to be happening, as intellectual labour markets, by capitalism’s inexorable tendencies, are exposed to innovations that make them more competitive.8 Nonetheless, as is evident from the semi-revolutionary situations now frequent in middle-income counties, in this time of transition (if such it is) to a new equilibrium, the proletarianised brain-worker often responds to insecurity with petty bourgeois despair at their loss of hard-earned social prestige, and a desperate faith in neoliberal solutions to restore a fading Eden of bourgeois rewards.
Exactly how a proletarian associational culture might reconfigure is hard to estimate, though it seems clear that the factory closed-shop trade union is not likely to be central. Much more plausible are networks of political sociability generating an oppositional public sphere not unlike that of the pre-1914 German Social Democracy. In the absence of such a public sphere, or at least with it still inchoate, a will to socialism must remain gravely attenuated. Anti-capitalism is a not uncommon sentiment even today, but it remains wholly negative and uninspiring. The various anti-capitalist parties/ initiatives only testify to the prevalent poverty of hope. A positive ethic of social republicanism (‘republicanism’ in the classical sense of a political community of equals made up of individuals free from domination) requires the modern wage-worker class to associate and produce a leadership loyal to its roots.
Until then, the bourgeoisie are the default, unloved leaders of the working class in capitalist society. Labour acts on this recognition.
It is important that germinal forces act against that recognition. It seems to me that the Weekly Worker admirably contributes to this task. It combines a refreshing clarity about where we are without abandoning the key strategic lever that is the wage-worker class. It is aware that hard truths need to be voiced, but also that only multiple voices can speak them. The Weekly Worker has allowed even this writer page room, and I am if anything a ‘centrist’.9
I may disagree with a good deal of what the Weekly Worker espouses: I do not think the Communist Party label is recuperable. I have little faith that a unity of the ultra-left sects would amount to much more than its parts. I am pained to see George Galloway indulged and the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty anathemised. But, for now, it matters little. The Weekly Worker respects no dogmatic label or academic title, it takes seriously the project of working class emancipation, it scorns short cuts, it respects history, and it opens its pages to dissidence.
“Revolutions are always verbose,” said Trotsky somewhere. But the chatter starts in quieter times, and in smaller spaces - in the side streets, pubs and flop-houses off the public squares. The Weekly Worker has been chattering for 1000 issues: long may it continue.
1. K Marx Capital: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch01.htm#136.
2. K Marx, F Engels Communist manifesto: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch01.htm.
3. ‘Modern scientific explanations of human biological variation’: www.britannica.com/blackhistory/article-234690.
4. La carrière ouverte aux talents, as it was usually put. I have read it argued - as a killer point in an unflattering review by Pamela Pilbeam of a book I have written - that those we used to think of as the bourgeoisie are now in fact the true proletariat. I am quite at a loss as to what this is supposed to mean; but it might say something about the confusions that abound in the academy regarding class since the nihilistic infestation of the ‘linguistic turn’ took hold.
5. K Marx Critique of the Gotha programme (1871): www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1875/gotha/ch01.htm.
6. ‘King in the mountain’ fable: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King_in_the_mountain.
7. Quote from C Nagarajan, ‘Moving beyond conflict in the feminist movement’ New Left Project (January 26 2014): www.newleftproject.org/index.php/site/article_comments/reachingout.
8. Capitalists, for example, are most anxious to preserve international migration for ‘skilled’ workers. With a wired world, much IT and administrative work is, at least in theory and increasingly in practice, not tied down to any geographical locale.
9. Cf The Vienna International: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Working_Union_of_Socialist_Parties.