By Freya B.
As Samir Amin aptly notes in his critique of Hardt and Negri’s Empire, in periods of unrest and confusion following the defeat of revolutionary movements, there is a tendency for theories to emerge which lend legitimacy to that unrest and confusion, and which actually portray the resulting opportunism as a viable form of struggle . Amin speaks of course of the autonomist movement and its conception of “multitude,” which ultimately rejects class analysis and frames the vast majority of people in the centers of imperialism (including the petty-bourgeoisie and perhaps even some among the bourgeoisie outright) as being potentially capable of building “counter-Empire.” This view downplays or ignores the fact that most of the “multitude” materially benefits from “Empire.” Among other things, autonomist thinking underlies the vacuous “1% vs. 99%” rhetoric of the Occupy movement. Now it is fair to say that most communists, even in the imperialist core, reject autonomism. Yet a similar opportunism underlies the analysis of most self-proclaimed Marxists in the first world and particularly in the United States.
The endless refrain of the typical communist in the U.S., either explicit or implied, is that we need to redefine the concept of the proletariat. Marx’s conception was too narrow, it is said. After all, what Marx considered to be the proletariat — the most revolutionary class under capitalism — hardly makes up a majority of the population in the U.S. This is certainly true. The hard question we need to ask, however, is why? Why “redefine” what constitutes a proletariat? Do we have any concrete reason, any evidence upon which we should make this redefinition?
Certainly, we cannot in principle be opposed to expanding our conceptions of who is revolutionary in a capitalist world. There were many “Marxists” in the lead-up to the Chinese revolution who felt that the peasantry in China could not help lead a revolution, that the Communist Party should only organize among the industrial workers. Mao Zedong saw through this “left” opportunism as an attitude which ultimately held back revolution. Mao correctly identified that in semi-feudal, semi-colonial countries such as China at that time, the peasants were the greatest potential ally to the proletariat. This was not an arbitrary belief. The early 20th century in China was a time of peasant revolts, and Mao observed spontaneous peasant uprisings where land was seized from landlords and redistributed. Clearly, the peasants had revolutionary energy, an energy that was eventually tapped by the Chinese Communist Party with Mao’s leadership, leading to a successful revolution and the establishment of socialism in China.
Additionally, an idea which was perhaps implied in Marx yet has only been fully elaborated more recently is the notion of the gender division of labor between productive and reproductive work in capitalism. There is a whole host of work which needs to be done to reproduce the worker, i.e. to keep the workers showing up to work each day. Examples include cooking meals, doing laundry, taking care of children, etc. These are costs that might otherwise have to be incurred by capitalists, yet in the drive for greater profit, they have been shifted primarily onto (poor) women. There are thus billions of women around the globe who, regardless of whether or not they are directly involved in the production of surplus value, are nevertheless doing a great deal of necessary reproductive labor, and they do so generally without any pay. These women are potentially revolutionary. We may even note that there are members of the servant class worldwide, whose labor is wholly unproductive, but who nonetheless live in proletarian or proletarian-like conditions because of their subjection to various forms of oppression which are definitely tied to the capitalist mode of production (e.g. sex workers). These strata among the servant class may also be revolutionary.
But in every one of these cases where we might expand our conceptions of who is revolutionary from those of Marx and early Marxists, we do so as a result of concrete analysis of concrete conditions, by using the Marxist method. We come to the conclusions we do because we make real investigation into people’s relationships to the means of production, into the conditions in which people live and work, and into the sentiments that people generally have. This is not what most U.S. communists typically mean when they insist that the conception of the “proletariat” must be redefined. What is meant is that the “proletariat” should be defined in such a way as to include most or all U.S. workers regardless of concrete relationships to the means of production. No justification is given for this, other than an appeal to the abstract principle that the majority of people in a capitalist country must be revolutionary.
What this reflects is an unwillingness to answer the fundamental questions. Who are our enemies? Who are our friends? Seeking real answers to these questions, based on materialist analysis of imperialism today, may lead us to some difficult conclusions. But it is our duty to answer them, because the answers to these fundamental questions are what will guide effective practice. Ultimately we must break from the opportunism and confusion that dominates “left” discourse today in the U.S., which seeks in large part to legitimate the status-quo, and instead move toward a concrete class analysis of the United States.
Who are our enemies?
Undoubtedly one of Mao Zedong’s most valuable contributions is Oppose Book Worship. The overarching theme of this text is that the study of books, while it can be important, is no replacement for concrete investigation. Rather than mindlessly regurgitate words and phrases from our favorite authors, we must oppose book worship and instead “inquire into everything” to determine what is really going on in the world. What Mao reminds us when he insists, “No investigation, no right to speak!” is that Marxism is a method rather than a particular set of conclusions. If one begins at the outset proclaiming things to be the case merely because some book said so, before making a real investigation, one is bound to come to wrong conclusions.
Today, it is clear that there are some specific conclusions drawn in Marx’s texts that must be scrapped if we apply the Marxist method to our contemporary world. We can all agree that the world bourgeoisie are still of course our primary enemy. However, an idea contained (or at least implied) in Marx that no longer bears fruit is that workers in a capitalist world are necessarily exploited. Certainly, the vast majority of the world’s workers must be exploited in order to facilitate the profits of capitalists. But is it possible that some workers’ wages have risen to the point where those workers are not only not exploited, but are in fact net-exploiters themselves? A Marxist analysis of today’s world reveals that this is indeed the case. Moreover, in the centers of capitalist-imperialism (e.g. the United States), the proportion of workers who are net-exploiters is very large.
We live in the age of imperialism. Capital is mobile, and it is global; capital moves wherever it will generate the most profit. What this means is that capitalist-imperialist countries such as the United States export capital to the global peripheries (commonly referred to as the “Third World”) in order to take advantage of the cheap labor there and expand profit margins. The low standard of living in the peripheries that enables these higher profit rates is continually reinforced through economic relations between the imperialist core and the periphery, and often through force.
As a result of this capital export, there is a global transfer of wealth occurring between the peripheries and the imperialist core. This is a product both of unequal exchange in trade, and also of the vast differences in wages between imperialist countries and the third world (the ratio is around 11 to 1). As Zak Cope demonstrates in his book Divided World Divided Class, when one analyzes the relations between the core and periphery using Marxist political economy, one finds that there is trillions of dollars worth of value being extracted from the peripheries and appropriated by imperialist countries each year. At the end of the day, greater than 95% of the profits gleaned by imperialist countries can be accounted for by exploitation of third world labor . This is of course an estimate, and an estimate made at the level of all imperialist countries together rather than individual countries. We must also remember to oppose book worship ourselves and not substitute appeals to Cope’s book for real investigation. Nonetheless, the conclusions reached in Divided World Divided Class must certainly inform our investigation of class in the United States.
The United States is hardly an atypical imperialist country; in fact it is the dominant imperialist country. It is fair to say therefore that the vast majority of profits gleaned by U.S. capitalists are accounted for by exploitation of labor in the peripheries. Given that this is the case, is it possible that the high wages in the United States are supplemented by the exorbitant profits extracted from third world workers? This is precisely the case. In order to believe that the high wages in the U.S. are sourced anywhere other than surplus value generated in the peripheries, one would have to believe that U.S. workers are producing many times more surplus value than Third World workers, which there is absolutely no evidence for. In fact, as already mentioned, the evidence points to the exact opposite conclusion. In reality, the high wages and standard of living of U.S. workers cannot be accounted for by the value that U.S. workers produce, and thus can only be predicated upon value produced somewhere else, i.e. in the global peripheries.
To unpack this in more detail, we can invoke the concept of “net-exploitation.” Net-exploitation occurs when the payment a worker receives for an hour of work is greater than what an hour of socially average (abstract) labor produces. For instance, if I am a net-exploiter, I can go to the marketplace with my one hour’s worth of wages, and purchase something that perhaps took three hours of abstract labor to produce. On the other hand, if I was exploited, i.e. if surplus value was being extracted from me by capitalists, it might for example take me six hours of work to be able to afford something that took three hours of abstract labor to produce. The specific numbers are not important here; what matters is that the net-exploiter is paid more in a given time than what socially average labor produces in that time, while exploited workers are paid less. Thus the net-exploiter can afford privileges that are simply not accessible to exploited workers. In plain terms, the net-exploiters receives the product of more labor than s/he expends.
The existence of the net-exploiter fundamentally depends upon imperialism. The only way for a population to receive the product of more labor than they expend is if the wages of workers are supplemented by exploitation of the peripheries. We can also see this when we approach from a different perspective. The conception that many First World Marxists have of “socialism” is basically the extension of middle-class living standards to the whole population, indeed to the whole world’s population. This is, however, impossible. If the whole world consumed at the level that the average Amerikan does, we would need several Earths’ worth of resources to sustain the current population. In other words, the way of life of the net-exploiters would be impossible without the subjugation and exploitation of laborers in the peripheries. This is not to say that net-exploiters cannot experience oppression. Indeed, there are many forms of oppression tied to the capitalist mode of production which even net-exploiters do experience. However, in the final instance, socialism is not in the interest of the net-exploiters, because if a socialist revolution happened today in the U.S., the material living standards of the net-exploiters would decrease significantly.
What portion of the U.S. population is made up of net-exploiters? To answer this question, we need to know the abstract value of labor, i.e. how much value socially average labor produces in a given amount of time. Nikolai Brown has calculated that the abstract value of labor is roughly $20,000 per worker per year . This gives us a first-approximation of the size of the exploiting population in the United States: anyone who makes more than $20,000 a year is a net-exploiter, accounting for the vast majority of U.S workers. That is to say, humanity produces about $20,000 of value for each worker every year. The only way for a portion of workers to make more than this value in wages is if workers somewhere else are making less. In other words, the living standards of those in the U.S. making more than $20,000 a year are dependent upon low wages in the peripheries. And this wage differential is continually reinforced through economic relations between the imperialist world and the peripheries, and through force. To be plain: the living standards of most U.S. workers depends upon imperialism. Once again, we cannot expect these net-exploiters to be in favor of socialist revolution, because no more than a relative handful of people will rise up, fight, and potentially die for the institution of a society which would defeat imperialism and thus materially decrease their living standards.
Thus we can begin to formulate an answer to the question: who are our enemies? In the United States, it is not only the bourgeoisie and what is traditionally considered the petty-bourgeoisie who are enemies of the proletariat. In truth. the majority of the U.S. population fundamentally benefits from imperialism and thus they are on the whole enemies of the proletariat at large.
Who are our friends?
Readers may note that our conception of net-exploitation still admits of the possibility that there are millions of people within the U.S. who are proletarian or at least are potential allies of the world proletariat. This is true. For example, a case study of undocumented migrant workers in Los Angeles published in Monthly Review found that men among undocumented workers were making an average of $13,308 a year, and women were making an average of just $6,869 a year. Moreover, most of these workers were involved in productive labor (e.g. working in textile and fabric mills) . Further still, since these workers are undocumented, they do not receive additional benefits from the government, so it is unlikely that they receive much in value beyond what their wages allow. By the standards we have already articulated, these workers are proletarian, especially the women among the undocumented workers. Additionally, in 2011 the percentage of Captive Afrikan workers making below the abstract value of labor was at least double that of white workers, indicating that there may still be a sizable Captive Afrikan proletariat in the United States . Further still, conditions for Onkwehón:we (indigenous “north amerikan”) are disproportionately destitute compared to the general population. Even on casino-owning reservations, the average yearly wage is often in the order of merely a few thousand dollars .
We must also remember that, as Mao Zedong articulated, in oppressed nations, even those who are not exploited can still be allies of the proletariat, and can be united into a revolutionary bloc of classes under the leadership of the latter. The U.S. is a multi-national state, with a number of oppressed nations existing within its borders. The Xican@ nation, the Black nation, and the Indian nations are the primary of these. Millions of people in U.S. experience national oppression, and by and large they count among the potential allies of the proletariat.
In general, we can see that the following groups in the U.S. are proletarians/semi-proletarians or at least count as friends of the world proletariat:
- A small but not insignificant stratum of workers in the U.S. who make less than the abstract value of labor, primarily located in the oppressed nations (e.g. the Xican@ nation, the Captive Afrikan nation, and the Onkwehón:we nations) ;
- Those within the U.S. who may not be exploited but experience national oppression generally.
Additionally, we may be able to count on a small stratum of class traitors from the exploiting classes in the U.S. to ally themselves with the exploited masses of the world. However, the primary base of the allies of the proletariat will be found in the above mentioned groups.
It is important to know who and where our friends are, even if the number of friends in the U.S. is not large enough to potentiate the overthrow of the bourgeoisie on Turtle Island (“north amerika”) outright in the near future. This is because, even in imperialist countries such as the United States, we need a mass base to be effective in carrying out important tasks. As Nikolai Brown has noted on this website, the primary tasks for us in the First World include organizing a mass movement to undermine imperialism where we live and thus help support revolutionary movements around the world. Additionally, we must work to start building subjective conditions that will be conducive to future domestic revolutionary struggles (especially national liberation struggles) . We should add to this that we must build a mass movement to oppose the fascist tendencies which are likely to emerge in the U.S.
As Andrew Kliman demonstrates in his book The Failure of Capitalist Production, the overall rate of profit in the United States has been falling since the 1950’s and has never recovered. This falling rate of profit was the ultimate source of the last economic crisis, and certainly now in this economic “malaise,” profit rates show little sign of going up. What can be expected as a result is widespread austerity in an attempt to salvage profit margins, some of which we are already seeing. This has potential to re-proletarize segments of the U.S. population, but it also has a very frightening potential. Members of the Euro-Amerkan nation, with its long settler-colonial history, are unlikely to turn to communism as response to being removed from their position as net-exploiters. When a population that has essentially never known anything but prosperity at the expense of others faces dethronement from that position of privilege, extremely reactionary movements tend to emerge. It is likely that many Euro-Amerikans will turn to fascism in the coming years, just as a significant stratum of workers did in Germany and Italy after WWI, and just as some workers are today in parts of Europe. To prepare for this, we will need a strong communist movement in the United States, and we simply will not be able to build this movement if we do not know who and where our friends and enemies are.
While more thorough investigation is needed to come to a truly concrete class analysis of the U.S., hopefully this article provides insight about where to look and what to look for. In general, the number of enemies within the United States is much larger than most first world Marxists are willing to admit. Nevertheless, there are friends of the world proletariat to be found in the U.S., largely in the oppressed nations such as the Xican@ nation, the Black nation, and the Indian nations. Although they are not the majority of the population, our task is to organize among the oppressed in the United States to undermine Amerikan imperialism and support proletarian struggles around the world, to build subjective conditions conducive to future revolutionary movements, and to counter a rising fascist movement which is likely to emerge in the United States in the coming years.
- Samir Amin, Empire and Multitude. http://monthlyreview.org/2005/10/01/empire-and-multitude
- See Zak Brown’s summary of Cope’s work, Evidence For Global Value Transfer, http://anti-imperialism.com/2013/08/12/evidence-for-global-value-transfer/
- Nikolai Brown, Calculating the Value of Labor. http://anti-imperialism.com/2013/02/19/calculating-the-value-of-labor/
- Richard D. Vogel, Harder Times: Undocumented Workers and the U.S. Informal Economy. http://monthlyreview.org/2006/07/01/harder-times-undocumented-workers-and-the-u-s-informal-economy
- U.S. Bureau of the Census, Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2011. http://www.census.gov
- Onkwehón:we Rising, The Material Reality of Onkwehón:we Existence in Modern AmeriKKKa. http://onkwehonwerising.wordpress.com/2013/11/03/the-material-reality-of-onkwehonwe-existence-in-modern-amerikkka/
- Readers may note that I did not include white workers in this list. While I recognize that there are white workers who may be exploited or live in proletarian-like conditions, they are very few in number. Moreover, even poor white workers, given the Euro-Amerikan nation’s long history of settler-colonialism, tend to be very reactionary. The fact that some poor whites who could be radicalized probably exist does not mean that they are a primary base for building communist mass organization in the U.S.
- Nikolai Brown, Dear RAIM, What to Do in the First World? http://anti-imperialism.com/2013/07/01/dear-raim-what-to-do-in-the-first-world/