By Nikolai Brown

Cope, Zak. Global Wage Scaling and Left Ideology: A Critique of Charlie Post on the ‘Labor Aristocracy.’ Research in Political Economy, Volume 28. (89-129). 2013

Not long ago, a PDF of Charlie Post’s 2010 essay, Exploring Working-Class Consciousness: A Critique of the Theory of the ‘Labor Aristocracy, was circulated around the internet. Though I was aware of the essay, the contorted logic of the abstract stymied my inclination to read further. Post introduces his work as thus:

The notion of the labour-aristocracy is one of the oldest Marxian explanations of working-class conservatism and reformism. Despite its continued appeal to scholars and activists on the Left, there is no single, coherent theory of the labour-aristocracy. While all versions argue working class conservatism and reformism reflects the politics of a privileged layer of workers who share in ‘monopoly’ super-profits, they differ on the sources of those super-profits: national dominance of the world-market in the nineteenth century (Marx and Engels), imperialist investments in the ‘colonial world’/global South (Lenin and Zinoviev), or corporate monopoly in the twentieth century (Elbaum and Seltzer). The existence of a privileged layer of workers who share monopoly super-profits with the capitalist class cannot be empirically verified.” [bold mine]

For Post, the fact that there is “no single, coherent theory of the labour-aristocracy” weakens the case for its existence. This is plainly absurd. “No single, coherent theory” exists regarding capitalism, oppression, and class struggle, yet they no doubt exist (along with all sorts of social phenomenon for which there is no “single, coherent” explanation). Moreover, outside of ‘Marxist’ circles, the idea and existence of the ‘labor aristocracy’ is evident and commonly known, albeit regarding an area of social life not deeply investigated or discussed. Without reading past the abstract, I could only imagine the logical back-flips and national chauvinism Post would employ to build his case against the existence of a ‘labor-aristocracy.’

The manner in which Post frames his argument is significant as well. Post’s arguments are not directed against contemporary Third Worldists but against the ‘theory of the labor-aristocracy’ as outlined in the past.1 By touting the fact that there are many interpretations of the labor-aristocracy throughout history, Post is able to avoid the most rigorous, far-reaching, and recent among them. While First Worldists (such as Post) may attempt to use such arguments against contemporary Third Worldists (such as Cope, myself, and others), they miss their mark, essentially building a straw-man argument against a bygone proto-Third Worldism which is no longer sufficient at explaining global class structures. Significantly, Post ignores many arguments put forward by today’s Third Worldists on the fundamental role of net-exploitation in the capitalist world-economy.

Zak Cope, author of Divided World, Divided Class: Global Political Economy and the Stratification of Labor under Capitalism, wrote a thorough and convincing critique of Post’s miscalculated effort at disproving the existence of the labor aristocracy. Those who have already read Divided Work, Divided Class will be pleased to know this most recent polemical essay is not a mere rehash of the book. Instead, Cope’s critique of Post is more theoretical and discusses Marxism and political economy with more depth.

Cope begins his essay by refuting Post’s premise of critiquing a pre-Third Worldist view of the ‘labor-aristocracy.’ Cope argues,

Post is certainly correct that the position of the labour aristocracy was, and is, precarious and in flux. Indeed, as reflected in hidebound theory, it has been a recurrent weakness of the Marxian position on the labour aristocracy to assume that what Marx, Engels and Lenin sometimes suggested in their fragmentary and century-old analyses were its major characteristics, in particular, its being a thin upper stratum of highly skilled and organised male labour in any given nation, must remain unchanged. In fact, application of the Marxist method demonstrates how the evolution of the labour aristocracy is intrinsically bound up with the historical development of the class struggle as waged internationally, in particular, with the increasing incorporation of super-exploitation into the circuit of capital. (93-94)

Drawing from a materialist perspective, Cope highlights via a quote from Canadian historian Leften Stavrianois the very real, historical link between the base, structure, and super-structure of capitalist-imperialism:

[S]oap, margarine, chocolate, cocoa and rubber tires for bicycles. All of these commodities required large-scale imports from tropical regions, which in turn necessitated local infrastructures of harbours, railways, steamers, trucks, warehouses, machinery and telegraph and postal systems. Such infrastructures required order and security to ensure adequate dividends to shareholders. Hence the clamour for annexation if local conflicts disrupted the flow of trade, or if a neighbouring colonial power threatened to expand. (98)

Cope’s most significant contribution in Global Wage Scaling and Left Ideology is in the realm of Marxist analysis of political economy, in particular by fleshing out and adding academic weight to Third Worldist understanding of imperialist economics. Though Cope is specifically addressing Post, his critique touches at the heart of what it means to have a revolutionary internationalist interpretation of modern capitalist-imperialism, including the necessity of analyzing political economy as a process which is global in scale:

Whilst most left theorists have for a long time fallen into the habit of gauging exploitation on a national(ist) basis, commonly examining wages in relation to profits in the rich countries (and thereby ‘proving’ that the most exploited workers in the world are those of the developed nations), in the context of global imperialism, value creation and distribution must be examined as an international process. (100)

To expand upon this idea, Cope quotes John Smith’s 2010 The GDP Illusion: Value-Added versus Value Captured, “GDP, which claims to be a measure of the wealth produced in a nation, is in reality, a measure of the wealth captured by a nation.” (100) Global Wage Scaling and Left Ideology also includes an interesting quote from Smith, drawn from correspondence between the two authors: “…workers are paid not for what they produce, but for what they consume.” (119)

With regards to the purchasing power of First World workers, Cope challenges Post’s mainstream assertion that the real wages of Amerikans have been in steady decline:

Post (p. 24) observes that ‘[i]n the United States today, real wages for both union and non-union workers have fallen, and are about 11% below their 1973 level, despite strong growth beginning in the mid 1980s’. By measuring wages against GDP figures and reported profits, Post intends to convince his readership that the living standards of the US working class have been declining and that a renewed offensive against capital would entitle them to a greater share of the wealth they ostensibly create.

However, there are at least two problems with the idea that US wages have fallen. Firstly, whilst wages in the United States have indeed fallen since 1973 as a proportionate share of GDP, in real terms the poor in that country were better off in 1999 than they were in 1975. For example, Cox and Alm (1999) show that whereas in 1971 31.8% of all US households had air-conditioners, in 1994 49.6% of households below the poverty line had air-conditioners. These authors also demonstrate that the United States poor in 1999 had more refrigerators, dishwashers, clothes dryers, microwaves, televisions, college educations and personal computers than they did in 1971. Wages decidedly did not shrink, then, relative to the purchasing power necessary to consume these items. US economists Meyer and Sullivan (2011) have constructed a measure of consumption which challenges mainstream assessments of declining US living standards. They note that most income-based analyses of economic well-being in the United States do not reflect the full range of available household consumption resources such as, for example, food stamps, or lessened marginal tax rates….

Nor, indeed, did US incomes decline relative to the costs of those items necessary to the reproduction of the worker as such (the ‘value of labour power’, in Marxist terms). Thus, between 1970 and 1997, the real price of a food basket containing one pound of ground beef, one dozen eggs, three pounds of tomatoes, one dozen oranges, one pound of coffee, one pound of beans, half a gallon of milk, five pounds of sugar, one pound of bacon, one pound of lettuce, one pound of onions and one pound of bread fell so that it took 26% less of the workers’ time to buy it (ibid, pp. 40–41). (100-101)

Before constructing a broader picture of the world-economy to challenge Post’s own narrow nationalist view, Cope illustrates the basic yet fundamental Marxist economic analyses upon which Third Worldism partially rests:

According to Marx, during the time they are employed, production workers spend part of their day reproducing the value of the goods necessary to their own reproduction, that is, the cost of their own labour power (or variable capital). Marx calls this necessary labour. For the rest of the working day, these workers produce value exceeding that of their labour power, what Marx called surplus value (the combined value of gross domestic investment, the non-productive or service sector and profits). The rate of surplus value (or of exploitation) is the ratio of surplus labour to necessary labour or of surplus value to the value of variable capital. Fundamentally, however, capitalists are not interested in creating surplus value, but in generating profit. Profit, as the unpaid labour time of the worker appropriated by the capitalist as measured against total capital invested, must be properly distinguished from surplus value. In bourgeois accounting terms, profit is simply the excess of sales revenue over the cost of producing the goods sold.

Thus, the price of production of a commodity does not directly correspond to its value within a single industry or group of industries (Marx, 1977b, pp. 758–759). Rather, as capital is withdrawn from industries with low rates of profit and invested in those with higher rates, output and supply in the former declines and its prices rise above the actual sums of value and surplus value the industry produces, and conversely. As a result, competing capitals using different magnitudes of value-creating labour ultimately sell commodities at average prices. As a result, surplus value is distributed more or less uniformly across the branches of production. An average rate of profit is formed by competing capitals’ continuous search for higher rates of profit and the flight of capital to and from those industrial sectors producing commodities in high or low demand. Overall, where one commodity sells for less than its value, there is a corresponding sale of another commodity for more than its value. (105)

The transfer of value from the Third to First World helps explain the widespread incorporation of unproductive and parasitical labor into local imperialist economies and provides the basis for the ability of First World firms to pay wages far above full labor value while skill securing profit at normal rates. From the vulgar First Worldist Marxist position, this merely seems impossible.

Like many First Worldist critiques of Third Worldist anti-imperialism, Post cites high rates of investment between trilateral and OECD countries relative to the Global South to somehow ‘disprove’ imperialism. This position ignores the functionally intertwined nature of imperialism. Economically speaking, there is little difference between Western Europe, the US and Canada, and Japan, as they are so highly invested and involved in each others local and international economies. However, as Cope rightly notes, “Post’s citation of the low level of global fixed capital formation that takes place in the global South, moreover, suggests a misunderstanding of the purpose of imperialism, namely, to siphon and extort surplus value from foreign territories.” (109)

Likewise, Post’s claims about foreign direct investment ignore the quality of such investments, as Cope aptly notes:

FDI flows are purely quantitative and say nothing about the type of economic activity they are connected to. As such, mergers and acquisitions, merely representing a change in ownership, should be distinguished from ‘greenfield’ FDI in new plant and machinery. Whilst intra-OECD FDI is dominated by mergers and acquisitions activity, between 2000 and 2006, 51% of all Greenfield FDI was North–South. (110)

Of course, this is significant because,

Post’s acceptance of capitalist accounting figures at face value, that is, without critiquing their real world significance in terms of average socially necessary labour and surplus labour (Cope, 2012), can only lead him to the absurd positions that (a) the world’s largest capitals have practically no interest in the Third World and (b) that the most exploited workers in the world (i.e. those whose higher productivity supposedly generates the biggest profits) are also the world’s richest. Thus, in an article for the Trotskyist Fourth International, Post writes that ‘global wage differentials are the result of the greater capital intensity (organic composition of capital) and higher productivity of labour (rate of surplus value) in the advanced capitalist social formations, not some sharing of ‘‘super profits’’ between capital and labour in the industrialized countries. Put simply, the better paid workers of the ‘‘north’’ are more exploited than the poorly paid workers of the ‘‘south’’’. Post shows complete disregard for the massive infusions of capital which result from global surplus value transfer and the all-too obvious facts of Northern working consumption goods being the product of super-exploited Third World labour. For Post, the North’s purportedly greater ‘capital intensity’ and its workers higher ‘productivity’ may as well have dropped from the sky. (111-112)

This last sentence is important. If one were to believe the snake-oil of First Worldism, one would have to believe that different organic compositions of capital between the First and Third World are simply incidental and have no relation to the history of imperialist exploitation. In reality, advanced productive forces are a form of capital derived from exploitation. That is to say, as is often the case, highly developed productive forces are accumulated and concentrated in the First World as a result of the super-exploitation of the Third World. Moreover, it takes a certain amount of chauvinism to ignore the social role of various forms of physical capital. As Post would have us believe, a cobalt mine in central Africa, an export manufacturer in Goangzhou, an electronics retailer in Cleveland, and a recycling depot like Guiyu are all one in the same.

It is fairly easy to dismiss Post’s absurd denial of the effects of global wage scaling as part and parcel of the chauvinist legacy of Trotskyism. However, Post’s essay encapsulates arguments also put forward by a wide variety of nominal leftists, including so-called Maoists. During its 23 year existence, the Maoist International Movement coined the term crypto-Trotskyism to the reflect a prototypical slavish and chauvinist regard for the labor aristocracy and First World mass petty-bourgeoisie. Today, those who reject the sense of entitlement among globally-privileged workers refer to this revisionism as First Worldism. Today’s Maoist (Third Worldist) movements reject and oppose not just opportunistim and reformism on the part of Trotskyist groups like the ISO, but also the First Worldism promulgated under the banners of ‘Marxism-Leninism’ and ‘Maoism.’

Cope accurately describes how First Worldism, despite its claims to the contrary, does not advance revolutionary movements in First World countries but does serve to obfuscate the materially-derived limitations to and potentials for their development:

The failure on the part of the left to rigorously examine the structuration of the international class structure by imperialism, as evidenced by the global contradiction between production and consumption highlighted above, has in no small measure added to the serious difficulties facing the socialist movement, both historically and today. Socialist movements in the metropolitan countries have tacitly accepted the global division between imperialist and exploited nations by obfuscating and divaricating from the issue of international surplus value transfer. Working class internationalism and the struggle against racism and colonialism within the imperialist countries are both sacrificed at the altar of narrow appeals to material self-interest on the part of the wealthiest sections of the ineluctably global workforce. Historically, such economism has its corollary in a deeply conservative reformism and chauvinist acceptance of the status quo ante, such that imperialist governments have been and are permitted to carry out virtually any act of aggression and penal repression against foreign countries and minority communities without fear of widespread national opposition. Metropolitan labour’s dependence upon imperialism for its existence as such – that is as labour whose affluence is predicated upon the maintenance of the core-periphery divide – clearly precludes the possibility that its conservatism is based purely on intellectual myopia.

One could go further in this regard. Certainly, it is the structure of classes which inhibits the natural development of revolutionary working-class movements in the First World. On the other hand, First Worldism, i.e., ‘left-wing’ obfuscations and apologisms for structural divisions of the working class, does actively set back the proletarian movement world-wide. One must only ask the question of why Amerikan workers, whom Post believes are among the world’s most exploited, are so much better off than workers in Cuba, who are ostensibly liberated under a socialistic society. By falsely claiming that First World workers are among the world’s most exploited (and not simply the world’s most historically privileged), Post’s First Worldism creates an image where ‘First World-style’ capitalism is better than socialism, or at least offers a far higher material standard of living. By seeking to understand political economy internationally, including an honest appraisal of global class structures, Communists develop more realistic and creative strategies for global socialist struggle along with more egalitarian visions of Communism itself.

Taken as a whole, Cope’s critical response to Post is another nail in the coffin of First Worldism. Not only does Cope tackle many of Post’s ‘arguments,’ he effectively underlines the importance of Third Worldist critique of global political economy. Within the anti-imperialist movement, the struggle against First Worldism goes hand and hand with the struggle against reformism, narrow nationalism, social chauvinism, and dogmatism. Global Wage Scaling and Left Ideology further fleshes out the Third Worldist repudiation of First Worldism, offering a potent theoretical attack against the one of today’s most prevalent forms of revisionism. Alongside Divided World, Divided Class, this latest entry by Zak Cope is part of a growing chorus for rectification of radical and revolutionary movements.


1 “Despite its diverse forms, all of the variants of the labour-aristocracy thesis agree on two key-points. First, working-class conservatism is the result of material differences – relative privileges – enjoyed by some workers. Workers who embrace racism, nativism, sexism, homophobia and pro-imperialist patriotism tend to be those who earn higher wages, experience more secure employment, and have access to health-care, pensions and other forms of the social wage.8 Second, the source of this relative privilege (‘the bribe’) is a sharing of higher-than-average profits between capitalists and a privileged labour-aristocracy.” (Post 6)

Join the conversation! 1 Comment

  1. […] In a recent post on Kasama, Ely attempts to grapple with some of the notions of Third Worldism, often constructing a strawman Third Worldism that seems simple to refute. Ultimately however, he offers nothing new or inspirational. Rather, his critique of Third Worldism is one in a long line of dogmatic defenses of First Worldist Marxism. […]

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Debates and Polemics, Imperialism, Marxism, Political Economy, Reviews, Theory

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