Vivek Chibber: on the Working Class, Capitalism, Marxism, Postcolonialism, and the State
Transcript of conversation with Vivek Chibber by Jacobin (audio)
The issue before us is why socialists constantly focus on the working class as a strategic factor in society.
To get straight to the point, there are a couple of fundamental reasons why socialists do so, and I think they are very sound reasons. You can think of this as one, being a diagnosis of what’s wrong in modern society, and two, being a prognosis of what to do to make things better. Both of these point in the same direction.
So let’s start with the diagnosis.
The diagnosis focuses on what kinds of things people need in their life to have a decent shot at happiness, at decent social relations with others — all the things that go into what we call justice, and fairness. Whatever else is needed — and there are many things that are needed for social justice — there are two that just about everybody agrees on.
One is certain basic minimum material goods. People cannot live decent lives if they are constantly worried about having enough to eat. They cannot live a decent life if they don’t have basic health, or housing, or certain material provisions that allow them to strive to what they would regard as a higher end to things: creativity, love, friendship. All of those things are harder to sustain if you don’t have certain basic goods, so first of all you need these goods.
Secondly, autonomy, or freedom from domination. The basic idea is, if you’re underneath someone else’s thumb, if you’re being dominated by somebody else, there’s always a chance that that authority which they have over you will turn into abuse.
Being dominated by somebody else, therefore, means that the priorities by which you live are not going to be your own. They’re going to be the priories of that person who has power over you. Which means that you don’t essentially get to set your agenda, whatever that agenda might be.
Therefore, if in modern society people lack these basic material goods, and they lack autonomy, they experience domination. Whatever else they need, in that kind of society, justice is very hard to achieve.
Socialists say that capitalism is a social system which systematically deprives people of both the material goods that they need and their autonomy. The reason is simple: capitalism runs on the principle of profit maximization — it puts profits over people.
Now, why does that undermine both autonomy and access to basic material goods? Well, most people in a capitalist society have to work for a living, and they go to work for somebody else. While they’re working for somebody else, their employer, the employer’s priorities are not set by what is good for the employees who are working under him. They’re set by the firm’s goal of maximizing profits.
The reason the employer has to prioritize profit maximization is that if he does not, the firm dies. The only way the firm can survive is by wringing as much money as it can out of its economic activities as possible so that the employer can take that money and increase efficiency and other competitive strengths, so that he can beat out his rivals.
This is the fundamental problem: the thrust and the force of competition compels capitalists to always look after the bottom line. And the bottom line ends up being injurious to everybody else.
The flip side of profit maximization is cost minimization. Every firm has to try to maintain and hold its line on whatever costs it has so as the profit margins can be increased as much as possible. But cost minimization has an immediate impact on workers’ lives, because what they take as their income, which is their wage, is their employer’s cost.
So cost minimization means that every employer tries to pay as little as he can get away with when it comes to remunerating his workers. Which means that workers’ basic means of livelihood are determined not by what they need, but by what their employer can get away with. That’s issue number one.
Issue number two: while they’re at work, they have to surrender their autonomy to their employer.
The wage contract essentially says, “I’ll come work and work for you. You give me some money, and for the duration that I’m working for you, I am under your authority. What I do with my time, where I stand, where I go, who I talk to, how many bathroom breaks I take, where I look, how fast I work all this is not at my discretion. It’s at the discretion of you, the employer.”
That waking time, for most people in the world, is most of their waking day. That working time comprises anywhere between two-thirds to three-fourths of all the time that they’re awake — which means, effectively, that three-fourths of their active life is spent giving up their autonomy to somebody whose interests are lined up against their own interests.
This lack of autonomy inside the workplace is often compounded by being under their employer’s control outside the workplace. In company towns, or in cities where judges and legislators are bought up by the employer, even political authority is under the capitalist’s hands.
Therefore, for both of these reasons, it is built into the structure of capitalism that these fundamental preconditions for a just society are systematically undermined by the rules of the system itself.
Who Has the Power
What that means is that in order to move towards a more just social arrangement, you’ve got to figure out how to get people these basic provisions and greater autonomy. This has been the struggle of the poor since the birth of capitalism: trying to establish non-market access, or at least non-contingent access, to these things they need for decent lives.
The problem is: every time the poor have tried to advocate or ask for or plead for greater assurance of these things, they’ve come up against the resistance of their employers.
Within the workplace, if they ask for higher wages, if they ask for more control over the workplace, if they ask for more authority over investment decisions, every time they come up against the recalcitrance of the employers. If they make those demands outside the workplace, they come up against employers’ greater social power.
The basic problem is power in capitalism is not distributed equally. Not only do employers get to set the agenda within the workplace, they also have the authority and the power to set the agenda for society at large, because of their control of the state, their greater resources for lobbying, their ability to buy politicians. Fundamentally, as long as they control investment, they control the creation of all the wealth and all the income of society, so everybody has to constantly worry about whether or not they’re happy.
The Workers’ Opportunity
This leads to a strategic problem: if a vast majority of people in a capitalist society are denied the basic goods that are needed for social justice, and if every time they ask for them, they are denied by political authorities because of the influence of the capitalist class, how do you get them?
This leads then to the second factor after the diagnosis: the prognosis of how to fix things.
The prognosis is, in order to have a better chance at life for the vast majority of the people, and since power centers are not going to give them up voluntarily, you’re going to have to extract it from them, through a countervailing power on the part of the poor.
It’s a practical issue: if the bourgeois state, and the capitalist class, which has the power, does not, by its own generosity, allow the poor these basic things that it needs for a decent life, where is the power going to get the means to get those things from the capitalists? The answer can only be by extracting it from them, through a countervailing power on the part of the poor. This is where the strategic and practical importance of the working class comes in.
The working class is unlike any other social grouping in the non-capitalist section of modern society. However penurious it is, however dominated it is, however atomized it is, it is the goose that lays the golden egg. It is the source of profits, because unless workers show up to do their work every day and create profits for their employers, that principle of profit maximization cannot be carried out. It remains a dead letter.
Workers, therefore, have an opportunity, if they can take advantage of it: they hold the lever to the stream of profits that keeps the system going. Capitalists have the authority over them, but unless they agree to do what their employers say, the employers are left simply holding the bag — no profits for them.
Workers, therefore, are important for a strategic reason, which is that they are the agent, and the only agent, that has a structural place within the society that can bring the power centers to their knees.
That it is a capacity that they have, but they also have an interest in using that capacity. All of those liabilities, all of those constraints which I’ve laid out, which are in the way of moving towards a more just society, are most keenly felt in society as a whole by the working class itself. They are the vast majority of modern society. They also happen to be among the poorest end, and they are the ones who every day suffer the indignities, the deprivation, the loss of autonomy, the backbreaking work pace, the insecurity, and the anxiety of what to do with their lives when they are under somebody else’s thumb.
They are the ones that suffer the most under capitalism, and hence they not only have a capacity, but also an interest in coming together and struggling towards those ends which we think would generate more just social arrangements.
From the Margins to the Center
Now, there’s an important implication for this. Many people reading this are in and around universities, and you’ve suffered the misfortune of sitting through social theory classes and all that in the last twenty years.
Among progressives and in the radical left, the key category in the last twenty-five years has been the margins: marginality, embracing the margins, advocating for the margins, being the margins, loving the margins. If it’s marginal, it’s good.
Not that there’s anything wrong with the margins. But understand this: the reason the working class is important is because it’s not marginal. You’re going to have to get over your love of the margins if you want to do effective politics.
This doesn’t mean that you consign other socially oppressed groups to insignificance. Quite the contrary: anybody fighting for a just society has to take every form of marginalization and oppression as being incredibly important.
But understand that politics is not just about moral advocacy. It is also about the practicalities of achieving power against the power centers in an unjust world.
The thing about the working class that makes it important is that it is the central social category and social group within capitalism (second only to capital, of course). This means, therefore, that the reason you go after it is because of its centrality to the system, not because of its marginality.
That means that the tenor of the political debates has to change. Quite often you walk into a meeting today, and the discussion will be about whether or not this group is fighting for the margins, is looking for the margins, is bringing the margins in. That’s great, if it’s a code word for saying we have to make sure every indignity, every injustice is something we’re concerned with.
But understand that you also have to ask: who are the central and the key players in this society that can bring the kind of changes we need?
Not just in our politics but in our understanding of the system, we have to move beyond the obsessions with margins. We have to start thinking of the nucleus, the core, and the foundation of modern society, and building and establishing power within those foundations.
Right now, at this moment, the Left is the weakest its been since its birth on this issue, and one reason it’s embraced the margins is because that’s the space that it inhabits. But the fact that you’ve been pushed into the margins doesn’t mean you should embrace it.
The agenda for the Left for the foreseeable is going to be to figure out how to get out of the margins into the nerve centers of capitalism. Because that’s where the power is. And until you’re able to aggregate and use that power towards different ends, you’re not going to get the kind of society that most moral people want. That’s why socialists focus on the working class.
In your ABCs piece, you say capitalism can’t deliver the goods. When criticism of capitalism does make it into mainstream discussions, it usually argues “late capitalism” has gone off the rails, or that it isn’t capitalism that’s the problem but neoliberalism — some variant of capitalism that has gone amok.
What you’re saying is that capitalism will inevitably produce injustice, and that as a result it will inevitably generate class conflict.
Two ways to look at this. You’re right that the code word for everything now has become neoliberalism. It’s become the stand-in for anything that counts as a genuine analysis of modern society.
That’s partly because much of left discourse is overwhelmingly dominated by nonprofits and academics, and capitalism is still a no-no — you can’t bring up capitalism. So you need something else, and it’s very useful to say, “Well it’s not capitalism as such that we worry about — it’s Reaganism, it’s Thatcherism.”
There’s no doubt that the current variant of capitalism is truly inhumane, certainly more so that the one that proceeded it. That’s one reason why you don’t see the word capitalism very much. But first, it’s important to understand that if you compare today’s version to capitalism with its place in history, it’s actually not the exception. We’re reverting back to capitalism’s pure form. It’s a system in which everybody is thrown out onto the market, and they’re told “Sink or swim, man. It’s up to you.”
The era of getting social supports, some kind of social insurance, of basic guarantees, the welfare state — that was an era that dated to about the 1930s and 1940s. But it was a departure from the norm in capitalism. We’re going back— neoliberalism is actually just capitalism in its pure phase.
There’s two ways you can look at this. One is on an absolute scale: does capitalism on an absolute level actually deny people what they need on an everyday level? The answer is that for most of the world, it does — it fails. It fails because most of the world now is in a very unalloyed, barbaric form of a market society. In India, in China, in Africa, in the Middle East, the vast majority of people still live barely at a subsistence level. And that’s not an accident; it’s because they have to work for employers that simply don’t care about them. So on an absolute scale, for most of the world, capitalism is failing.
The other way to look at it is on a relative scale. In a country like the United States or in Western Europe, it’s of course true that poor people and working people have gotten a lot for themselves, and their lives are actually quite decent. But when we bring up a relative scale — not just relative to the rest of the world as is, but relative to how they could be living given the state of productivity, given the state of technology, given the state of the country’s infrastructure — could their lives be better than they are now? The answer is: absolutely.
Finally, to the extent that workers in the West have achieved better lives for themselves, this has come about because they aggregated their power. The reason the welfare state arose in the West in the time that it did was because of enormous and violent class struggle, in which labor unions managed to extract these kinds of concessions from employers in a way that had not been possible previously.
As long as you have capitalism, not only are you going to have to fight for everything you have, but those things that you have are constantly going to be under threat from the employers who never wanted to give them to you in the first place.
That fight that I talked about, that antagonism between employers and employees, therefore, is written into the system. You’re not going to get rid of it. This is why socialists have said that you can have a more civilized capitalism, and you should fight for that more civilized capitalism, but understand that it’s like a cancer: you can keep giving it chemo, you can fight back the growth of the cancer cells, but they always keep coming back.
The main argument of the piece is that workers are the key revolutionary social agent. It’s important to actually say what a worker is.
In the last five years, we have seen enormous explosions in social struggle. Occupy Wall Street is where a lot of this started, which was fantastic: it put on the map this idea of the one percent versus the 99 percent, which was really useful because all of a sudden you have millions of people talking about vast gulf, the huge inequality in the society on every level.
At the same time, this enshrined a conception of class as being about how much you make, which isn’t exactly what we mean. So what is a worker?
It’s been a very effective rhetorical tool to talk about the one percent versus everybody else, and that everybody else is defined as a negative category, whoever is not in the one percent. The assumption and the implication is that they all are not only worse off than the one percent, but that they can all come together in some way as an effective social group.
On a very narrow range of issues that’s true: the ninety-nine percent is going to have certain common interests. But a significant chunk of that ninety-nine percent are people who we would never call workers. They’re going to be managers, they’re going to be people who have a great deal of autonomy, who own their own means of production, and therefore for some of them, like the managers, even though they’re not in the one percent, their job is to make the one percent happy by getting more work out of the bottom sixty percent.
While right now they might not be getting as much money and have as much wealth as the one percent, they aspire to be and will try to be in that one percent, because there’s an actual chance for them to do so at some point.
Up on top of society, there’s a game of musical chairs: employers have managers, managers go up a ladder, and the way you go up the ladder is by screwing over the people underneath you. That’s your job. So for the kinds of ends that we’re talking about, of actually bringing people together around an agenda to push employers to give up some of their profits for higher wages and other things, managers aren’t going to be a part of that. That’s why you’ve never had unions try to bring in managers, because they know that you’re essentially bringing in your enemy.
What that means, therefore, is that this language of income being the divider, or these percentage points being the divider, is rhetorically and in some narrow ways useful, but it’s strategically and politically not very useful.
The key thing for an analysis of capitalism is not what your income is, but what you have to do to earn your income. If what you have to do to earn your income is boss and manage other people, then you’re not going to be a part of that movement. That’s what managers do.
On the other hand, if you have to submit to the authority and the depredations of these managers and their employers, now you’ve got a reason to try to fight against them.
That’s why class is not the same thing as income groups. Class is fundamentally about which side of the divide you’re on — whether you’re extracting labor or whether it’s your labor that’s being extracted.
My next question is sort of rhetorical: “Do workers still exist?” The reason I ask is because there are arguments out there that workers have won important gains in the past, but they’re not a relevant force today.
Every few decades, there’s this new theory that emerges that the working class is disappearing for one reason or another and thus irrelevant. We also hear that the United States is postindustrial, that automation has now replaced workers (or will soon) that we all live in a gig economy, that we’re too precarious.
It’s clearly true that working conditions are changing, and that does mean something, but does that change the position and the role of the working class?
We should not be too quick to say no. First of all, no in a big sense. Nothing is new in the current structure of capitalism in any deep sense.
This view that automation is eventually going to end in everybody being out of work and robots running everything — it is not true and it can’t be true. It is of course the case that automation continually throws people out of their particular workplace, but the effects of throwing these people out is always counterbalanced by two things.
One is that in a growing economy, if productivity is increasing, and the tempo of economic growth is always on the upswing, new firms and factories and plants and workplaces are springing up all the time, which then suck up the workers who were thrown out of work by the automation. So there’s a dual process going on, of some people being thrown out, and then those people being sucked up by new firms.
This view that automation will result in everybody eventually losing their jobs screens out and ignores this second, counterbalancing thing. It just assumes that the existing factories and workplaces are the only ones that will ever exist, and over time, as they throw people out, those people are going to be like the zombies in the Walking Dead, they’re just going to be shuffling around looking for jobs and there’s no new jobs. That forgets the fact that you’re always sucking these people up into new employment venues.
The second thing is this: the automation that’s throwing people out of work through technological change, new machines, new processes coming in place — every one of those generates a demand for additional skills and additional workers to continue to produce those technologies, to service them, to figure out how to make them better. Technological change is generating new occupations all the time. So it’s always this dynamic process of one side of the equation throwing people out, but at the same time creating the conditions for those people to be sucked into new positions.
The key thing is, everything rides on the rate at which these two processes interact.
Right now, the fears of automation leading to a desert and mass unemployment are stoked by a reality, which is that in the past fifteen to twenty years, the pace of new employment generation has in fact been very slow. And because it’s slow, we see the people who are being thrown out either not getting jobs, or doing gig jobs, temporary work here and there.
That has to do with the fact not that we’re seeing the true force of automation, its bare fangs finally visible. It has to do with the fact that this this particular era of capitalism in the West has been delivering very slow rates of growth, very low levels of reinvestment, and therefore very low levels of reemployment for the people being thrown out of work. That’s why there’s a kernel of truth to it, which is that that does change the conditions for organizing people.
It’s very different, and in ways I would say a lot easier to organize people, when everybody is sure of work, because then they’re less afraid of their boss. What we’re going through right now is a period in which people are so terrified, so beaten down, that in their jobs, in their workplaces, they are much more afraid of raising their head, raising their fist, than they had been sixty or eighty or even forty years ago.
That means organization is a lot harder, and this is one minor reason why the existing trade unions are not really trying to organize new workers. Their strategy essentially for twenty-five years has been acquisitions and mergers: you raid other unions, you go to campuses because students are already organized, and UAW says, “See, we’re organizing, because we brought a bunch of grad students into our union.”
It’s a lot harder to walk into an auto plant and organize workers. And it’s not just because bosses have a lot of power over their workers— the workers themselves are very much worried about the consequences of even taking a step, because they know that it’s a desert out there.
When we talk about the working class as the revolutionary agent of change, this seems very far away from where we are right now, certainly after forty years of givebacks and one-sided class attack. Socialists have always supported trade unions. But the union movement is on its back in major ways. Each year in this country, union density falls to a new low, strike activity falls to a new low.
Most unions are now at this point run by bureaucrats who don’t actually seem that interested in organizing their workers so much as sort of striking deals at the top with little input from the unions. How do socialists approach unions with all of this going on?
What you’re asking is that there might be some reason to focus on workers, but are unions the best vehicle for unions to bring that about, given where they’re at now?
First of all, we need to be flexible about this. The key point is: remember that it’s not a moral issue per se. It’s a practical issue, which is, how do you bring capitalists to the table to say, “Okay, we’ll give you something”?
We have to be open to the fact that as capitalism evolves, maybe new possibilities open up for how we bring poor people together. Maybe today, there’s a greater space for electoral politics, because of the incredible role that the state plays in distributing income. Maybe neighborhoods are a very important place, because workers live there, and they can aggregate themselves into larger numbers, because perhaps in workplaces it’s not so easy. We have to be open to all those things, certainly.
But until we have practical reason and practical experience with these other forms of organization, and other forms of interest aggregation, I don’t see a way around keeping unions as an absolutely pivotal mechanism and instrument within left strategy.
If you can find a better one, great, let me know about it — I’ll help you advertise the thing. I haven’t been able to see one anywhere, and the last twenty years have been an interesting experiment in this way. In the last five years alone we’ve seen mass mobilizations all over the world. In the Middle East, which brought down a few regimes, in Brazil, in India, where I’m from, in the United States. What all of them have in common is that while organized labor has played varying degrees of roles in all of them, it hasn’t really been at the core of any of them.
The second thing that they have in common is that they’ve all ended in defeat. They all had lots of people come out into the streets, and while they were in the streets they made a great spectacle, but they didn’t have a lot to show for it at the end of the day.
Occupy is a very good example of that. It was a fantastic movement, and it was the trigger that got a lot of the current mobilization going. But the difference between a factory occupation and a park occupation is just this: people in the park have to go home. At some point they’re going to go home, and elites can just wait it out, because production is going on, profits are being made, without any disruption. Factory occupations, however, are a whole different thing.
Without figuring out some way of having an institutional means of bringing workers together like through a union, I don’t know any way around it.
It is absolutely true that the union movement today shows no interest in doing this. It shows no interest in fighting. It shows no interest in pursuing the kinds of goals that the labor movement in the past had. To me, that just means you build a better one, that’s all. It’s like saying a cure for this disease is not doing as well as it could, but until you find a different cure, you’ve got to keep working on that one.
It’s harder making this case today in left settings because there are very few workers who come to left settings. It’s harder to make the case that workers are important, because a lot of people on the Left are students and academics, and they want to talk about exotic things. But I don’t know any other way around it.
So while we have to be very clear-eyed and unromantic about where the labor movement is today and be aware of all of its infirmities and its liabilities, until we find a practical alternative, it seems to me that the only option that we have is to make the existing kinds of institutions work better rather than abandoning them.
Workers are not immune from the prevailing ideas of society: the acceptance of racist ideas, sexist ideas, all kinds of ideas that divide workers in ways that are exactly unhelpful to forming these blocks that could exert power. Unions could be a vehicle to fighting against those ideas. Sometimes they are, but often they’re not.
You have right-wing unions like the building trades, for example, that are actually signing on to Trump’s nationalism, because they think it can save them a few jobs in the short term. We need to figure out how to overcome this. But there’s a structural difficulty here.
There’s two difficulties. Let me say this first: the history of the union movement is not a linear one. The history of the union movement, not just here, but everywhere, has been a kind of internal conflict over what the shape and the goals of those unions are going to be.
There’s always been a conservative wing, which has tried to narrow down the range of issues they take up and simply build on the strength of the most skilled, the most privileged, and thereby sometimes the most conservative workers, and aggregate power by monopolizing scarce resources and keeping other workers out. That is, in many ways, to what we’ve returned to today.
But even in this country, and elsewhere, there’s actually a very long and noble tradition of trade unionists fighting for a wider and more encompassing vision of what the labor movement is. In the United States, in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, communists, socialists, and anarchists fought for that vision, and they had enormous success in doing so.
One of the greatest and most important legacies of that was the fact that in the 1920s and 1930s in the Jim Crow South, it was white communists, white trade unionists who were risking their lives organizing black workers with black sharecroppers, who saw each other as comrades. That was inspired by a very particular vision of how to organize workers.
That vision lost out, partly because of the internecine warfare within the labor movement in the 1930s and 1940s, partly because the American state came down on the side of the more conservative wing of the labor movement in order to make sure that the Left didn’t win out — which culminated in McCarthyism, from which the Left never recovered.
But we need to investigate that, be aware of it, and on the Left, hold it up proudly, and say, “This is what we aspire to.” That’s something that I think we can return to today.
That brings me to the second problem. The second problem is this: there is nothing automatic in the labor movement that will push it towards a more encompassing vision of how to organize. In fact, there are many reasons why it’s rational to take the short-term, more conservative route — focus on their race, focus on their ethnicity, keep the women out, because it’s easier. It’s hard working going out and bridging these divides.
In the past, it was the ideologically committed socialist left that came to unions and fought for this. The problem today is not just that the labor movement is more conservative, has this racism, has this exclusivist ideology. It’s also people who call themselves socialist have no connection to labor, and, to be honest, many of them are simply not interested, because of this weight of this university and campus left.
Until the Left gets outside the campus, out of the seminar room, until it starts to open up offices in working-class neighborhoods, full-time organizers, gets jobs within that, until it implants itself within labor the way always had until the 1970s and 80s, you have no way of bringing this alternative vision of organizing into the labor movement. That’s going to make it hard to move towards a more encompassing, more universalistic form of class struggle.