Privilege Theory’s Critique of Marxism

by cominsitu

by Jehu 2014

1.    Privilege theory as a critique of Marxism from within Marxismsadwhiteguy

Privilege theory was custom made for post-war Marxism because, basically, with the just dawning realization that the class struggle appears to have all but disappeared in society in the post-war period, they don’t have much of anything else to discuss when it comes to politics.

Privilege theory has its roots in a self-critique within mid-60s Marxism that communists were neglecting the extent to which racism divided the working class. These critics argued the communists themselves marginalized or altogether ignored the surging black liberation movement and the movements of other oppressed strata within American society. However, the view of these critics of Marxism was, in large part, itself infected with many of the same naive conceptions of the working class in particular and class society as a whole as infected the thinking of the more “orthodox” Marxists.

The “white blindspot” critique assumed the working class was not  already divided by its material conditions of existence, but because the capitalist created and employed racism to divide it. As I will show, the false implication underlying the original argument was that absent racism, the working class would be united. The error is not unique to the “white blindspot” theorists: it pervades the Marxist praxis in the post-war period. This is the sort of argument that demonstrates Marxism’s complete lack of understanding of class society. The argument here is critical to both the critique of Marxism and of privilege theory because the assumption (implicit or explicit) made by Marxists on both sides is that the working class is capable of overcoming its divisions short of complete social emancipation.  On the other hand, the growing influence of privilege theory among activists demonstrates the working class is anything but united and likely cannot be united within its present material conditions.

The conflict over privilege theory can be summed up in two (admittedly simplistic) arguments:

1. With the overthrow of capitalism, racism, sexism and all forms of oppression will be done away with.

and

2. Racism, sexism and other forms of privilege cannot be ended simply by overthrowing capitalism.

At the outset, I am not going to say both sides are wrong in their characterization of the conflicts and divisions within the working class. I just want to assert that the notion of working class unity runs into some very thorny theoretical question based on a less naive grasp of how classes are constituted in bourgeois society. In historical materialism, all classes in bourgeois society have the same characteristics: First, their common material conditions of existence are independent of the members of the class. Second, absent a conflict with another class, the members of a class are on hostile terms with each other.

These characteristics of a class are not unique to the bourgeois class, but are features of all classes in bourgeois society — including the proletariat. The category, “class”, in historical materialism is defined by these two characteristics. Hence, in historical materialist analysis, the proletariat is, first and foremost, a body of men and women who share common material conditions of existence that are beyond their control and over which no social organization can give them control. Second, it is a body of men and women who are, in the absence of conflict with the other class, on hostile terms with one another as competitors.

Thus, contrary to both what we may call ‘orthodox Marxism’ and its privilege theory critics, theoretically it does not matter in the least what forms the divisions within the proletariat take at any point in time, since, in any case, these divisions always exist and must assume some definite form.

The individual members of the proletariat treat every other member of the class as the enemy — a competitor in the struggle to sell their labor power — and in the conflict within the class no competitor can be logically expected to willingly give up his or her competitive advantage over other members of the class. Moreover no competitor can give up his or her special advantages, since these privileges, as commonly defined in the literature, are identical with the individual’s personhood. People cannot cease being themselves, no matter how hard they try. It is the specific characteristics of their personhood — white or black, male or female, skilled or unskilled, highly educated or not — that constitutes their specific competitive advantage or disadvantage. Which is to say, these are characteristics that give them an advantage or disadvantage in the universal competition raging within the class.

This conclusion disturbs our Marxists because, as Tad Tietze put it, “it becomes hard to see how ideas can change at all.” So Marxists keep trying to come up with a way to reconcile their ideology with privilege theory, but run up against the same barriers to analysis.

That barrier can be conceptualized this way: the two ideologies are each concerned separate spheres of politics: Marxism, in its classical post-war form, is concerned with the political conflict between the two classes, bourgeois and proletarians; while privilege theory as such is concerned with conflict within and among various sectors and strata of the proletariat. The critique privilege theory makes of Marxism is, therefore, a critique of the class struggle from within the class of proletarians, a critique of its limited character. This critique of the class struggle is carried on from within the competition raging within the proletariat itself.

This suggests, on a broader level, that if the kernel of the privilege critique of post-war Marxism is correct, the proletariat can only supersede capital by such means as it allows it to overcome its own divisions. Thus, there cannot be a purely political overcoming of capital. Unless the material conditions of the proletariat (and the divisions produced by these material conditions) are done away with at the same time as the capitalist mode of production, there can be no social emancipation.

For this reason, Marxism fails to come to grips with the critique offered by privilege theory precisely because Marxism proposes capital can be overcome by political means alone.

2. The special duty of white communists …

When Noel Ignatin put his pen to paper to raise questions about the strategy of the Progressive Labor Party (PLP) in 1966, he probably had no idea it would give birth to what we now call the privilege theory critique of Marxism. Many of his ideas are drawn from works and writings that predate his own argument and from a historical schism within American communism itself over the “Negro Question”.

ignatiev

However, in his polemic Ignatin was concerned to make a single and over-riding the point: White revolutionaries had a specific responsibility in their revolutionary work to carry out education among the white working class in the US of the situation of the black workers and to convince white workers to put aside their racist attitudes and support the cause of black liberation.

This poorer sector of the working class was characterized by a quote from W.E.B. Dubois as a “basic majority of workers who are yellow, brown and black.” The emancipation of man was, in DuBois’s view, the emancipation of labor and the laboring class was far more complex and varied than it was typically conceived in communist activism as identical with the organized (and mostly white) labor movement.

At the time Ignatin wrote his polemic, this more complex working class movement was engaged in struggle on a number of fronts, not the least of which was the black liberation movement in the United States. Ignatin’s criticism of the PLP was, in first place, a criticism that the group belittled the importance of this overwhelmingly working class struggle and saw it as a movement that was separate from the working class movement itself.

Ignatin’s critique of PLP begins with this observation:

“While you pay a great deal of attention to the Negro liberation movement, and correctly recognize it as a part of the global struggles for national liberation, you fail to discover the specific role it plays in the proletarian revolution in the United States. Thus, in your strategy for the proletarian revolution, you place the Negro question outside of the class struggle.”

In Ignatin’s view, the African American people were largely working class and the character of their struggle was decidedly proletarian. According to Ignatin, the PLP held to the view,

“that white workers have “their own class demands” which are separate from the demands of Negro liberation (which you summarize as “more jobs, housing and full political rights”), and that in the parallel struggles of two groups of workers for two sets of demands lies the path to the unity of black and white workers.”

Ignatin’s criticisms along this line are significant, because he was a contemporary of Harry Haywood and worked with him in an effort to reconstitute a revolutionary communist party after the CPUSA was accused of revisionism. (Ignatin was later expelled from the group.) One of the points Haywood made, was that the CPUSA betrayed its long standing position on the so-called Negro Question, which Haywood had played a key role in formulating in the early 1930s.

Ignatin’s critique of the PLP thus drew from a particular brand of ideas on the role of race in the labor movement associated with Haywood’s life work. Although, in conversations with me, Haywood never endorsed the “white blindspot” thesis, what they held in common, beyond all doubt in my mind, was the contention expressed by Ignatin in his polemic that white communists have a particular duty to combat racism among white workers. This duty went well beyond simply criticizing racist ideas and practices among white workers, but also arguing for a broader conception of a multinational, multi-racial working class that is more complex than most communists assumed in practice, as well as a programme, strategy and tactics consistent with this broader conception of the working class.

This theme, that the working class is not just a bunch of well paid white union guys, runs through Ignatin’s polemic. Not only is the working class in the US drawn from many different nations, at a global level, this class is overwhelmingly yellow, brown and black. Ignatin was arguing against the tendency in the PLP to portray the yellow, brown and black members of the working class as separate from the organized labor movement (that was overwhelmingly white at the time); and to argue that the demands of these mostly marginalized workers was a component part of the working class’s demand. The demands of the black and Latin workers were the demands of the working class as a whole, not separate demands.

The argument Ignatin was making in this regards had deep roots among communists going back to the 1920s-1930s. Moreover, every turn the CPUSA made toward what the group around Haywood called opportunism in the 20th century was signaled by its willingness to downplay the “Negro Question”. The white blindspot Ignatin refers to in the polemic is the willingness of white communists to ignore their particular duty in the struggle for working class unity.

It is critical to understand what was happening in the larger movement at this time. The Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, an important young activist movement in the black liberation movement, had expelled its white members and demanded they begin organizing work among southern working class whites. This was a profound change in the direction of the movement, which had, until then, focused mostly on organizing black people and liberal middle class whites. A letter by the legendary southern activist, Anne Braden, from that period, showed the impact this decision had.

“One of the very good effects that has come with the call for Black Power from the freedom movement is that today more people are recognizing the necessity to organize in the white community.

Some of us have been saying for a long time that this is a necessity—and to its everlasting credit, SSOC [Southern Student Organizing Committee — Jehu]  people were among those who saw this before it became a popular concept. Now there is much more general acceptance of the idea.

We have SNCC to thank for this, of course. Stokely Carmichael has been quoted as saying SNCC is not interested in saving this country, it just wants to save black people. But it may well be that if SNCC does the correct things to save black people, it will save the rest of us as a by-product.”

This shift in the focus of white activists around SNCC was a vindication of the long time CPUSA insistence that white communists had a special duty to work among white workers to unite the class. White blindspot the polemic, therefore, does not appear in a vacuum, but in tandem with the events occurring in the movement in the South. It was an attempt to restore to the consciousness of white communists their special responsibility in forging working class unity.

So-called “black demands” were not , in fact, black demands at all but the demands of the working class as a whole. When black workers marched for political rights, this was the working class marching for political rights. It was not something to be tacked on to the bottom of class demands — “Oh. And by the way, black people should have voting rights.” The working class was being denied voting rights, because black workers were as much a part of the working class as whites.

The duties of white communists followed from Ignatin’s group’s core belief that in the US working class unity was impeded by racism.

“The greatest ideological barrier to the achievement of proletarian class consciousness, solidarity and political action is now, and has been historically, white chauvinism. White chauvinism is the ideological bulwark of the practice of white supremacy, the general oppression of blacks by whites.”

Although, in theory, no communist should have disputed Ignatin’s claim, by 1972 we have polemic doing just that. Alan Sawyer pushed back against Ignatin’s polemic, stating:

“While indeed there are privileged outposts jealously guarded (usually by craft unions) such as construction jobs, etc., these do not make up the “average” for the American proletariat and the white workers within it.”

In other words, racism is a problem for working class unity, but it is not THE problem. The problem, Sawyer argued, can be defined as one of a small labor aristocracy.

“Indeed, to pose the question of the masses of white workers in a deal is to obscure the real situation and to impose upon the masses of white workers the material situation of only a small upper stratum.”

The argument Sawyer makes, recapitulates a key formulation in Ignatin’s own paper that the capitalists had concluded a white supremacist compact with white workers. The argument is not over whether this compact was actually concluded, but the extent of the parties to such a compact among white workers. While Ignatin claims all white workers cash in on their “white skin privilege”, Sawyer argued any such an agreement only extends to a small segment of the working class.

Moreover, the complicity of whites in the wars of aggression against the working classes of other nations is accompanied by the active participation of African Americans in these wars of conquest. Sawyer asks:

“Now, why would Black and Third World people join the army if they are not getting these few crumbs that the whites have made a deal to get in return for which the whites are supposed to be in the army?”

Sawyer concluded there was no such deal, but that all workers are being coerced by the state to participate in its wars of aggression. According to Sawyer, race privilege was only a secondary factor in the problem:

“If race privilege enters in at all, it is to make coercion more palatable for some whites, to confuse the issues and divide the working class. But as a means of compulsion, it is absolutely secondary and therefore a mistake to put it primary as the DEAL does.”

In this polemic by Sawyer, we can see the outlines of what will become two lines of argument in the ongoing conflict between the “orthodox” Marxist school and its privilege theory critics — and it is also to see what both sides have in common. Both sides agree that the source of the conflict within the class is the capitalist class and its state, who manufacture and spread racist ideology among the class to keep it divided, disorganized and subject to exploitation.

The distinction to be made, as Sawyer puts it, is whether Ignatin was “putting a secondary tactic of the bourgeoisie’ in primary place generally.” The question Sawyer believed must be answered is whether the fight against racism is the “central, immediate task of the proletariat today”. And he does this by offering, as so many “orthodox Marxists” will again in the coming decades, as a false choice between the struggle against capital and the struggle for working class unity.

“Does the proletariat have to wait for white supremacy to be eliminated before it (through its vanguard) takes action against its class enemy? Or is white supremacy eliminated precisely in mobilizing the proletariat (through its vanguard) against its enemy and in the process eradicating white supremacy and other wrong ideologies as they appear in their true form as obstacles to class unity, to class struggle?”

In this ongoing conflict the two sides have since mobilized history, theory, empirical evidence and (frankly) no little amount of demagoguery on behalf of their respective positions. However, I don’t want to appear to be neutral in this discussion: insofar as both sides are wrong, the privilege theory critics of Marxism are so far less wrong than the defenders of “orthodox Marxism” that they might as well be right.

In a world where the working class is overwhelmingly yellow, brown and black, the position of “orthodox Marxism” in this debate is ridiculous. Moreover, since the working classes of the most advanced regions of the world market are mostly non-brown, the capitulation of the working class in these countries to their respective fascist states is indefensible.

I do not buy the argument that the working classes of the advanced countries are somehow tricked into electing and then re-electing murderers and war criminals. Obama got re-elected by an electorate composed overwhelmingly of proletarians, who each knew full well of his war crimes. They voted for him not because he would put an end to those war crimes, or would commit fewer war crimes than his opponent, but because they don’t care about his war crimes as long as they get their food stamp socialism.

If you cannot defend the basic assumptions of historical materialism on this basis, and have to import non-historical materialist explanations to explain this sort of behavior (like the argument of Robinson), you are not a historical materialist, but a charlatan.

3. Privilege theory, fragmentation and the rise of Hitler

One of the problems with the debate between the privilege theory advocates and opponents is the lack of perspective. In particular, the legacy of slavery in the  United States has few counterparts in the rest of the world. This appears to put both advocates and opponents of privilege theory in the position of trying to analyze what at first seems like a one off event. Making sense of the issues in the debate is harder because there are few other examples of a working class as riven by the sort of unrelenting racism the US working class suffers (South Africa, Rhodesia and Israel come to mind).

Adolf Hitler with Hess and Goebbels, c 1939-1945."

Of course, part of the problem is trying to figure out which parts of the legacy of American slavery are unique to the U.S. and which may have appeared in different forms in earlier time or different places. This has provided the space for certain writers to offer racism as the determining influence in European social relations. This racial determinant is counterposed to class struggle as the motive of history and it attempts to explain present relations through the lens of European racism rather than class.

On the other side, the biggest problem the orthodox Marxists opponents of privilege theory have is their inability to explain racial antipathy within the working class on the basis of the assumptions of historical materialism. They try to finesse this defect by constantly regurgitating the argument that racism is a form of bourgeois ideology manufactured by the ruling class and spread among white workers to keep the class divided. Thus the puzzle of the intergenerational reproduction of the white worker’s disdain for, and fear of, the black worker is resolved by assuming it to be the product of the other class; and once it is safely handed off to the other class, its presence in the middle of bourgeois society can be attributed to previous patterns of domination.

This leaves the field open to all sorts of academic bullshit. White people are racist because … racist and we can trace their racism back to antiquity. These writers assure us that if we follow European civilization back to its genesis, we find it was racist from the very beginning; to be white is given as the explanation for being racist and not only does racism enter bourgeois society from earlier epoch, the historical materialist critique of bourgeois society is likewise steeped with racism. The orthodox Marxist opponents of privilege theory have no one to blame for this situation but themselves. After more than 50 years of debate they still have no other explanation for racial divisions among the working class in the US save one:

“The capitalists made us do it.”

Fifty god-damned years and this is still the best the Marxists opponents of privilege theory can come up with.

As a result, the Marxist opponents of privilege theory have been forced to concede ground to privilege theory even on the primacy of classes and class struggle as the motor of history. Classes and class struggle is not the determining motive of history, but simply an influence that “intersects” with any number of other motives — thus the core assumption of historical materialism is sacrificed. But it only begins there: next we find politics is “relatively autonomous” from the mode of production; and not just politics, but culture, law, morality, etc. Finally, we get folks like the wertkritik school who tell us the abolition of labor has no practical implications for political action, because, you see, “It’s complicated”.

Let’s be clear: as an idea, the persistence of racism is no more puzzling than explaining why 80% of Americans hold to the belief in some form of creationism; and, as an expression of material conditions of modern society, racial antipathy is just another division of an almost infinite variety of divisions within the working class  — national, religious, gender, etc.. There is nothing particularly sinister about racism that is not already implied by any other division within the working class.

Even if we take race out of the equation altogether, the remaining divisions within the class are sufficient cause to explain some of the worst instances of recent historical experience. To prove this, we need only look at a circumstance where racial division of the sort that bedevils the US working class played no direct role in events, the rise of Nazism in Germany. According to the autonomist writer, Sergio Bologna, when the Nazis came to power, they did so with a very large base of support within the working class.

“[In] a disturbing development, over the past decade various historians have focused increasingly on what they say was the decisive contribution of sections of the working class to the Nazis’ electoral victories, and they have also documented a massive presence of the working class within the social composition comprising the electoral base of the Nazi Party.”

A study of Nazi membership cards from the period showed that fully 40% of the Nazi membership were drawn from the working class. If it is difficult to offer an explanation why white workers would join the Klan in the 1920s amidst the black migration, what explains this? It turns out that the working class is not monolithic as our Marxist opponents of privilege theory seem to believe — it is heavily fragmented and composed of many layers and strata. And this fragmentation has serious social implications.

Indeed, some historians of the Nazi Germany period have concluded that,

“[The] monolithic concept of working class is sterile, because in their opinion the historian’s job is to analyse all the divisions and differentiations within society, and in particular to analyse all aspects of everyday life, even where they are not principally defined by work or by work relations.”

If we start with the idea of a monolithic working class, our understanding of why the class capitulated to the Nazis provides us no more useful information than the idea all white workers in the United States are racist. All we learn from a monolithic model is that some workers were for the Nazis and some workers opposed the Nazis. Who supported the Nazis and who opposed it seems to be a matter of individual preferences or social attitudes.

So what German historians, and in particular a generation of amateur historians, began to do was drill down into the working class to understand exactly who among the working class supported what and when. In particular, they looked at the working class before the assumption of power by the Nazis to see if they could detect trends. What they got for their effort was a rich, highly nuanced, picture of what it meant to be a worker in pre-Nazi Germany in the 1920s and 1930s.

Materially, the working class was deeply fragmented within the division of labor — with an industrial sector, a very large precarious labor force attached to it, a large section employed in micro-firms, public employees and growing mass of individuals completely cut off from all productive employment. This fragmentation had its political expression in a working class that was divided between the two big proletarian parties — the Social Democrats (SPD) and the German Communist Party (KPD). Closer inspection showed these two parties represented not only different individuals, but also different strata of the working class.

Of the SPD, Bologna has this to say:

“The main thrust of the Social Democratic union had concentrated on the component of the working class employed in the big factories, or in municipal workplaces, where trade union agreements were more or less respected.”

By contrast, the KPD had been purged from industry, but had a strong following among the unemployed, who, by 1931, made up 80% of the ranks of that party. The KPD grew rapidly during this period, but at least in part, this growth was representative of the spread of unemployment in the aftermath of capitalist breakdown.

“The unemployed were not a marginal corner of society – they represented 30% of the population. The KPD was thus the strongest organisation of a new social stratum, that of the “long-term unemployed”, which was a potentially explosive mix. This meant that the party had a social power and possibilities for mobilisation which were even greater when one remembers its popularity among the youth of the big cities.”

Thus the KPD organized the fastest growing section of the working class — those cut off from all productive employment — but it lacked the union and political power to materially support them — which was in the hands of the Social Democrats.

Moreover, capitalism had suffered breakdown as predicted by labor theory, but this was not altogether clear to many (if not most) of the most organized sections of the class. Much like in Greece today, with its 28% unemployment and youth employment greater than 50%, no one realized the crisis was now a permanent feature of the mode of production. Assuming the unemployed sections of the working class qualified for any support at all, they could collect a limited, and apparently arbitrarily determined, monetary pittance through the state’s social insurance programs. The social insurance programs were administered by the public employee who identified with the SPD, while the unemployed identified with its hated rival, the KPD.

Thus, in pre-Nazi Germany, there were pronounced material and political divisions among the employed, between employed and unemployed, and then among the unemployed who qualified for social insurance and those who didn’t.

“There was thus an enormous distance between the mentality of an average SPD cadre, who identified (and not just ideologically) with the bureaucracy of the Weimar Republic – and the mentality of the average KPD cadre.”

Not only did the two parties reside in different strata of the working class, they were at war with each other — with the workers and unions associated with the SPD cooperating with the capitalists to drive the workers associated with the KPD out of industry. The social insurance system, which the SPD effectively administered, increasingly exerted social control over the unemployed recipients, which the KPD effectively represented. In both industry and in the state the strata of workers associated with the SPD exercised control over the strata of workers associated with the KPD.

Bologna makes the observation that the control exercised by one section of the working class over the other is critical to understanding the transition to the Nazi regime. In the intra-class conflict, which predated the onset of the depression, one section of the working class was essentially exercising its domination over the other. And the crisis, when it hit, only intensified the conflict between sections of the class:

“The spiralling rise of unemployment gave this apparatus huge powers during the final phase of the Republic. We could go so far as to say that, in the eyes of the ordinary citizen, the only identifiable face of the state was that of the welfare apparatus. The discretional powers of this apparatus steadily increased, and at the same time its function as a ‘benefit agency’ was gradually replaced by a function of ‘gathering information about people’.”

This was not just the increasing power of the capitalist state in the abstract; the increasing power of the state was materially expressed in the increasing power of the SPD aligned welfare office worker over the KPD aligned unemployed worker. One part of the working class was essentially the iron fist being used to smash another section of the working class.

And. It. Had. Nothing. To. Do. With. Race.

The divisions within the working class are almost infinite — to be a worker is to be in conflict with all other members of the class. Since these divisions already exist in reality, they appear in whatever forms history allows them to express themselves. But it is entirely true that the capitalist make use of these divisions. For instance, Bologna makes this observation:

“The final Weimar governments, … were well aware of the controlling potential of the welfare apparatus. They used the lever of the system of … compulsory unemployment insurance … with great cynicism and to calculated effect in order to create a maximum of segmentation and atomisation within the mass of the unemployed.”

The access of the unemployed to social insurance was “progressively altered”; with certain groups of workers arbitrarily excluded or the amount of benefits slashed. The unemployed felt themselves were constantly under threat even in an area of social right which they had funded. Workers even avoided applying for benefits because they did not want to go through the stigma and hassle of collecting. In the crisis of the depression, says Bologna, the bond between the class and its own effective political power was shattered.

Thus when the Nazis took power, the class as such had very little to defend. Laws originally introduced to aid the poor were employed as the basis for measures to introduce forced labour. The social insurance system itself became the “basic building block of the Nazi system.”

“Large numbers of the poor and the marginalised were thus defined as “anti-social” on the basis of information gathered by the welfare offices and amassed in their personal files, and they were then slotted into a machinery of selection which was not only a process of racial selection, but also a process of social selection. The majority of those interned in camps at the start of the Nazi regime consisted of these so-called ‘anti-social elements’, who were subsequently to be termed … ‘alien to the community’”.

With the assumption of power by Hitler, the whole of this apparatus fell into the hands of the Nazis. This social democratic structure of support that increasingly expressed the divisions within the class, in turn became the machinery of holocaust. The trade union, which organized the employed sections of the working class and had already participated in purging its own, immediately capitulated to the new Nazi regime.

The first official May Day in Germany was hosted by the Nazis, who invited the SPD to join them in the celebration. Even assuming the Nazi regime was the direct rule of the bourgeoisie, it is clear this rule owed its initial victory to the divisions within the working class.

Privilege theory, since it points to the divisions within the working class in the United States, raises some troubling questions for the class struggle. These questions cannot be put off by attempt to fob off racism or sexism and other forms of conflict within the class to some alien class ideology. Even if we assume racism is wholly an invention of the capitalist class, how this ideology manages to find purchase — and its continuing influence — within the class remains to be explained. The orthodox Marxists opponents of privilege theory offer no explanation for how this is possible.

4. Privilege theory, racism and competition within the working class

The argument that the victory of the Nazis resulted as much from the divisions within the working class as from the rule of the capitalist class and its state is difficult for most Marxists to accept.

For Marxists, the divisions within the proletariat are one thing, while the rule of capital is another, separate, thing. The relation between the two is rarely discussed and, if at all, only in relation to the effort the capitalist class makes to employ the divisions of the proletariat against it. In this very limited, naive, context, the divisions within the class are ascribed to the domination of the bourgeois class and its ideology. If finally the Marxist must accept that there are divisions within the proletariat like racism, nevertheless he does this only to insist these divisions are part of a strategy of divide and conquer pursued by the other class. The idea that the divisions within the class have material causes apart from the efforts by the capitalists to exploit them, is seen as some sort of anti-working class hysteria.

affirmative-action-in-america-is-a-total-failure

Based on this error, we get the further error that Marxists understand the divisions within the proletariat only as expressions of bourgeois consciousness. The working class is said to be divided because it is under the influence of the ideas of the other class. Unless these bourgeois ideas are driven from the class and replaced by working class consciousness, it will remain divided. However even this is problematic, since this true working class consciousness, socialism, doesn’t arise from within the class itself, but is brought to it from outside.

Thus, as Tad Tietze protested, if Marxists accept the argument of privilege theory it becomes hard to see how the ideas of the proletariat can change at all. And this is a true complaint against privilege theory, since within the Marxist conception of the proletarian class its ideas not only cannot change, essentially the working class has no consciousness at all and merely absorbs the dominant ideology of the ruling class. Absent an intervention from outside the class, the class remains totally under the thrall of a bourgeois consciousness.

If in “orthodox” Marxism the class is conceived of as an inert mass passively absorbing the consciousness of the surrounding bourgeois society, with privilege theory, this inert mass “inherits” its consciousness from its parents, i.e., from history. For privilege theorists, there is no such things as a bourgeois consciousness at all, but only a single unchanging consciousness stretching back to antiquity and even to pre-history. If we trace the genesis of every sort of privilege to its beginning, we find they appear in history well before the bourgeois epoch. The forms these privileges take may be altered by changing circumstances, but they persist almost unchanged.

Thus all privilege theory tells us is that privilege itself violates the bourgeois morality of the privilege theorist. As Ignatin argued, in a perfectly bourgeois society, there would be no black unemployment “premium” — white workers would be compelled to give up their places in production until the percentage of white unemployed equaled that of black unemployed:

“For, make no mistake about it, with the U.S. imperialist economy stagnating or even contracting, the ending of white supremacy, the ending of the privileged position of white workers means fewer jobs for white workers, fewer skilled jobs, poorer housing etc. – if it goes no further than that. For it is obvious that if the rate of unemployment among Negroes is lowered from around 25% where it now stands to about 8% (which is “normal” in this period of imperialist decline for workers not suffering from national oppression or “favored” by white supremacy) then the rate of unemployment among white workers must be increased from the 5% where it now stands (by virtue of their white- skin privileges) to the 8% which is “normal”. And likewise with the proportion of skilled and unskilled jobs held by Negro and white workers, and so forth.”

In this way Ignatin anticipated decades of conflict over affirmative action and other measures to address black working class poverty. In the ideal bourgeois society, no worker could get more than average wages of the class as a whole. The vision of an ideal bourgeois society explains the tendency of privilege theory advocates toward bourgeois reformism as well as their marked tendency to treat various privileges on par with the conflict between capital and labor.

The same white skin privilege that results in much higher black unemployment than white, or more African Americans in prison per capita than whites, also accounts for the relative absence of black executives in the boardroom. In a society that fully conform to bourgeois notions of equality, equal percentages of whites and blacks would be unemployed, in prison and managing Wal-Mart.

This thoroughly bourgeois notion of equality overlooks the fact that in bourgeois society the members of society establish their relations through competition. The product of labor is by no means “fairly” apportioned among the members of society, but is determined by the constant conflict within society, in which every advantage of the individual is brought into play. In Capital, Volume 3, Marx provides a glimpse into this feature of bourgeois relations during times of crisis:

“A portion of the old capital has to lie unused under all circumstances; it has to give up its characteristic quality as capital, so far as acting as such and producing value is concerned. The competitive struggle would decide what part of it would be particularly affected. So long as things go well, competition effects an operating fraternity of the capitalist class, as we have seen in the case of the equalisation of the general rate of profit, so that each shares in the common loot in proportion to the size of his respective investment. But as soon as it no longer is a question of sharing profits, but of sharing losses, everyone tries to reduce his own share to a minimum and to shove it off upon another. The class, as such, must inevitably lose. How much the individual capitalist must bear of the loss, i.e., to what extent he must share in it at all, is decided by strength and cunning, and competition then becomes a fight among hostile brothers. The antagonism between each individual capitalist’s interests and those of the capitalist class as a whole, then comes to the surface, just as previously the identity of these interests operated in practice through competition.”

The argument Marx made in that passage applies not just to the capitalist class, but to all classes within bourgeois society. It does not matter whether we are speaking of pre-Nazi Germany of the 1920s and 1930s, or the US today, the result is still the same — members of the working class employ all means at their disposal to avoid absorbing the crisis of capital.

In “good times”, i.e., during periods of capitalist expansion or during war, black folk find new opportunities to sell their labor power on improved conditions — although, as Ignatin points out, never on par with white workers. But when crisis explodes, the black worker finds her conditions of labor deteriorate all the more rapidly than her white counterpart.

What distinguishes the working class from the capitalists in this regards is not the competitive struggle among the members of the class, but that this struggle is not over the division of the spoils of the exploitation of the workers; rather, and perversely enough, the workers are locked in a life or death competition over the right to be exploited. The “privilege” enjoyed by the white worker is only the right to sell her labor power in preference to her black counterpart. The perversity of the mode of production is most clearly expressed in the fact that the wage slaves fight among themselves like animals for the right to be slaves.

If privilege theory never goes beyond the bounds of bourgeois equality, precisely in this way it demonstrates the limits of that equality: every worker should have the equal right to be a happy, productive slave.

Of course, the argument here is not as bizarre as I make it out to be. In a society founded on wage labor, the subsistence of the vast majority rests on their ability to sell themselves into slavery daily. If nothing else, each slave should have the equal right to satisfy their needs in this fashion as members of a class of slaves.

The suspicion and hostility of individuals thrown together from diverse backgrounds and forced to compete gives rise to the most fantastic ideas that naturally take the form of the obvious differences among the individuals: race, national origin, religion, language, culture, skin color, gender. To state any or all of these fantastic ideas may be older than capitalism, simply means the individuals seek to make sense of the purely accidental nature of capitalist social relations through now outmoded conceptions.

The nature of class relations are such that racism does not require any manipulation by the capitalist class at all, but this fact is, first and foremost, only an expression of the nature of the relations themselves: In labor theory, bourgeois production relations do not even require a capitalist. The capitalist in labor theory is solely a personification of a set of material economic relations in which, in the most developed form of the mode of production, the capitalist class itself has been rendered entirely superfluous to the mode of production and is reduced to a class of unproductive speculators.

To ascribe inner working class conflicts to the other class does nothing at all to advance our understanding of the nature of relations within the working class and, therefore, of what it takes to advance its association. It is not, as Marxist seem to think, bourgeois consciousness actively created, managed and spread by some Bilderburg-type group of conspirators. Ideologies like racism are abstract, fetishized products of the material conditions of the existing mode of production.

Chris Cutrone made comments on my series on privilege theory and Marxism which I think are highly relevant and deserve to be addressed. I print his entire comment below, followed by my response.

COMMENT BY CHRIS CUTRONE:

“Reduction of hours of labor” is not necessarily the reduction of surplus value overall, since that surplus value is not to be calculated based on extension of laboring hours past the value of reproduction of labor power. Marx described “capital” as the emergence of “relative” as opposed to “absolute” surplus-value: in other words, the realization of the value of past, “dead” labor as opposed to living, present labor.

The mid-20th century saw the overall reduction of laboring hours not only in the advanced capitalist countries and not only among those countries most privileged workers, but across the board in every country, relative to today. Marx recognized the simultaneity of unemployment and overwork that results from attempting to mediate the value of capital though the commodity form of labor.

Surplus value in capital is not in terms of hours worked, but in terms of the accumulation of “dead labor” in capital, which is highly socially mediated, what Marx called the “general intellect” of technology (including social organization) and scientific knowledge. It is that which needs to be reappropriated in socialism, not merely working hours reduced and surplus-value thus eliminated. No: surplus-value and its social ramifications will remain in accumulated capital.

Moishe Postone calls the disparity between the two — capital and wage-labor — the “shearing effect” of contradiction in the social role of the surplus value of capital.

It is difficult for us in the present to appreciate the mid-20th century circumstance of labor, in which which per capital people worked the least and produced the most than in any other era of capitalism, the present included. The reintroduction of long hours and intensified activity — absolute surplus-value as opposed to relative surplus-value — is a perverse effect of social regression and decomposition. It is an expression of crisis of the value in capital, which has been on-going in this sense since the 1970s,

But the mid-20th century “regime of accumulation” (David Harvey) was also an expression of the crisis of value in capital.

What happened was that the prior crisis was shunted into a “full employment” and high-consumption regime, which itself then went into crisis, a crisis that was expressed by demands for equality from blacks, women, and the postcolonial countries, whose demands were shunted into neoliberalism.

While the demands for social equality do point to the abolition of labor-as-value, this has been true, according to Marx, since the 1840s. The 19th century also had a differentiated labor market and workforce, without this becoming an obstacle to the working-class’s struggle for socialism.

It is only from the standpoint of the present, after neoliberalism, that the working class appears in retrospect to have been always fatally politically compromised by inequality among its members, first and foremost between the employed and unemployed (or, between the regularly and more gainfully employed and the more irregularly and less gainfully employed).

It seems in retrospect — but only in retrospect — that the project of “proletarian socialism” or socialism achieved by the wage-laborers was always doomed to failure. But we should not allow the present to blind us to past historical political possibilities that may still be with us, however more obscurely today than back then.

*****

MY RESPONSE TO CUTRONE’S COMMENT

CUTRONE: “Reduction of hours of labor” is not necessarily the reduction of surplus value overall, since that surplus value is not to be calculated based on extension of laboring hours past the value of reproduction of labor power.

JEHU: I would agree with this and I accept your correction on surplus value. I was compressing two things — profit and surplus value — in order to make a point, but ended up with an unacceptable formulation.

I would make certain additional points to clarify what I think we are dealing with: First, at some definite point in the past (my guess would be the period from the Great Depression and culminating in the the 1970s depression), production based on value broke down because value (socially necessary labor time) itself broke down. We are now talking about two contradictory measures of socially necessary labor time: there is the labor time socially required for the production of the commodity (socially necessary labor time in the narrow sense) and the labor time required for production of the commodity in its capitalistic form (the total labor time of society). These two labor times can no longer be resolved (as before) through the crisis.

Second, what we see in its place is a permanence of crisis, expressed in the separation of the value of the commodity from its price, or, more generally, the separation of socially necessary labor time from the total labor time of society. This is, in turn, expressed in the separation of commodity money from fiat currency, or, the separation of the chief functions of money as a universal measure of value and as medium for the circulation of commodities. These two functions can no longer be carried out by the same object, but have devolved on different objects — a commodity money and a state issued fiat currency — that are themselves no longer linked. Which is to say, with the collapse of production based on exchange value commodity prices no longer have any standard.

Third, we now also have to make a distinction between surplus value and profit. While it is entirely true that surplus value is not to be calculated based on extension of laboring hours past the value of reproduction of labor power, profit is possible only at the  point where total hours of labor of society are extended past the socially necessary labor time required for the production of labor power.

CUTRONE: Marx described “capital” as … the realization of the value of past, “dead” labor as opposed to living, present labor.

JEHU: I would also agree with this, with the caveat that between the socially necessary labor time of society and total labor time of society there is a duration of labor time that is superfluous to society in both forms. This labor time is a duration beyond both realization of the value of the past and living labor. I think this was the argument Postone made.

CUTRONE: The mid-20th century saw the overall reduction of laboring hours not only in the advanced capitalist countries and not only among those countries most privileged workers, but across the board in every country, relative to today.

JEHU: Yes. I would agree with this as well. The massive destruction of the productive forces in World War II made this possible.

CUTRONE: Marx recognized the simultaneity of unemployment and overwork that results from attempting to mediate the value of capital [through] the commodity form of labor.

JEHU: Yes. But are you suggesting there is nothing that can be done about this? Of course, if left unchecked, capital will indeed produce a mass of superfluous workers, but there is no need to leave capital unchecked — even if it cannot be overthrown. I have serious doubts about the mainstream Marxist interpretation of what we are seeing in post-war unemployment, since, clearly, “the economy”, (i.e., the total labor time of society), is not growing without state intervention. This is not just a problem of an industrial reserve — it now appears that jobs are no longer being created without state intervention. Why, rather than “stimulating job creation”, can’t hours be reduced — especially since unemployment only intensifies conflict within the class.

Further, reducing hours of labor is not a one time measure, but can be employed whenever the crisis threatens to intensify — as capital reduces the need for labor, the now freed labor time can be converted into disposable time for the majority.

CUTRONE: Surplus value in capital is not in terms of hours worked, but in terms of the accumulation of “dead labor” in capital, which is highly socially mediated, what Marx called the “general intellect” of technology (including social organization) and scientific knowledge.

JEHU: I would agree with this as well, but point out that superfluous labor is also “dead” (unproductive) labor, i.e., it is labor that does not produce value, that no longer counts as variable capital. An increasing mass of living labor begins to fall under this heading, if I understand Postone and Kurz correctly.

CUTRONE: It is that which needs to be reappropriated in socialism, not merely working hours reduced and surplus-value thus eliminated. No: surplus-value and its social ramifications will remain in accumulated capital. Moishe Postone calls the disparity between the two — capital and wage-labor — the “shearing effect” of contradiction in the social role of the surplus value of capital.

JEHU: I am not sure I see the distinction here: the reduction of hours of labor and the reappropriation of the productive forces are simply two sides of the same coin — disposable time for the majority of society for self-activity and self-development. Additionally, so much of the remaining labor time will go into replacement of the means of production that is used up and to expand it — and so further free up more disposable time.

CUTRONE: It is difficult for us in the present to appreciate the mid-20th century circumstance of labor, in which per capital people worked the least and produced the most than in any other era of capitalism, the present included.

JEHU: Can you clarify this for me, because it is not clear to me what people are producing and what constitutes their labor in this context? I am not saying I disagree, but, in the context of this discussion it is ambiguous. I cannot tell if you are referring to value production, use values or both.

CUTRONE: The reintroduction of long hours and intensified activity — absolute surplus-value as opposed to relative surplus-value — is a perverse effect of social regression and decomposition. It is an expression of crisis of the value in capital, which has been on-going in this sense since the 1970s,

But the mid-20th century “regime of accumulation” (David Harvey) was also an expression of the crisis of value in capital.

What happened was that the prior crisis was shunted into a “full employment” and high-consumption regime, which itself then went into crisis, …

JEHU: If I could rephrase this slightly, I believe you are saying at the time of the Great Depression, society had no choice but to reduce hours of labor. Because this path wasn’t chosen, instead we saw the expansion of the unproductive expenditure of labor time, particularly in the staggering growth of the state sector and the military. Harvey’s so-called “regime of accumulation” is a misnomer, since this “regime” is nothing more than the accumulation of superfluous labor, i.e., labor that no longer counts as variable capital. All that is being accumulated here is Postone’s superfluous labor — Harvey’s formulation does nothing to improve on Postone. Since living labor is being employed unproductively, the expansion of capital in the United States has all but halted (relatively) since about 1979 and in absolute terms since the late 1990s.

Further, I am not so sure I would accept your formulation that  “the prior crisis was shunted into a ‘full employment’ and high-consumption regime” in this context — it is ambiguous at best. It turns out that there was a deliberate efforts by the state to prevent any discussion of fewer hours of labor in the United States, with an eye to military competition going into, and consolidation of its gains coming out of, World War II. This included a deliberate push for longer hours of labor beginning with the effort by the Roosevelt administration to prevent 30 hours legislation in the 1930s and efforts by the Truman administration in the 1940s to extend hours of labor by deliberately provoking the cold war with the Soviet Union.

CUTRONE: … a crisis that was expressed by demands for equality from blacks, women, and the postcolonial countries, whose demands were shunted into neoliberalism.

JEHU: I must say that I am disturbed by how you formulate the above statement. There was indeed a demand for equality, but this demand emanated from the black, women, and the postcolonial working class itself, not “from blacks, women, and the postcolonial countries”. The way you formulate the statement makes it appears as if the demand for equality stands outside the class. This is precisely the error Ignatin pointed to in his original paper: the inability of Marxists to grasp the proletarian character of the demand for social equality.

Another way to say this: blacks, women and the workers of the post-colonial countries are every bit as much a part of the working class as white male workers residing in the advanced countries. We need to stop classifying their demands in such a way as to make it appear they are standing outside the class — insofar as raw number count, they are the working class. Which is to say, proletarians are overwhelmingly women of color residing in postcolonial countries.

CUTRONE: While the demands for social equality do point to the abolition of labor-as-value, this has been true, according to Marx, since the 1840s. The 19th century also had a differentiated labor market and workforce, without this becoming an obstacle to the working-class’s struggle for socialism.

It is only from the standpoint of the present, after neoliberalism, that the working class appears in retrospect to have been always fatally politically compromised by inequality among its members, first and foremost between the employed and unemployed (or, between the regularly and more gainfully employed and the more irregularly and less gainfully employed).

It seems in retrospect — but only in retrospect — that the project of “proletarian socialism” or socialism achieved by the wage-laborers was always doomed to failure. But we should not allow the present to blind us to past historical political possibilities that may still be with us, however more obscurely today than back then.

I am pretty sure you could not defend this statement for even one minute. It would requires you to throw out not only Marx and Engels (in particular, the problem of the English working class) , but Lenin and just about all worthwhile classical Marxists writings. At best, we could say there has never been a necessary obstacle within the class to the struggle for socialism. The divisions within the working class are not of the sort that exist between the class and the capitalists. Further, saying the demand for social equality has pointed to the need for abolition of wage labor since the 1840s, is not refutation of my statement that it does so now — that is just a way of dismissing its significance.


original source: parts 1234567

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