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What is the Labor Aristocracy?

By Zak Brown

Introduction: The Necessary Material Conditions

With the growth of the imperialist system, the labor aristocracy has become more important than ever for an understanding of capitalism-imperialism and anti-imperialist politics. Many organizations which recognize themselves in the latter are developing and have developed political lines regarding this strata of society. In this essay, we wish to contribute to the theoretical work required to come to a fuller understanding of the functions and conditions of reproduction of the labor aristocracy.

To begin our analysis, we will say that the labor aristocracy arises from specific social conditions and has not always existed. More specifically, the labor aristocracy is an inevitable outcome of the growth of capitalism and its transformation into imperialism, or international monopoly capitalism. Capitalism, in order to survive, must maintain its conditions of existence: its relations of production.

For Marxists, the process of production within capitalism, necessary for the continuation of human societies (can you think of a society without food?), takes a specific historical form. On the one hand, we have workers, on the other, we have capitalists. Workers are free in a double sense: they are free from owning means of production, and they are free to sell their hands and mind to a capitalist who will employ them. The capitalist, on the other hand, is separated from production, but owns the means with which production is carried out. With the labor contract, the worker sells his labor-power, his ability to do labor, for a given amount of time; however, their labor-power can’t be disembodied from their bodies, which are what ends up being commanded by the capitalist in the production process. The worker then produces a mass of commodity with a value higher than what he has been remunerated with wages; this is the source of profit. In short, without the employment of labor in a concrete process of production (here examined abstractly), there can be no value nor profit.

Understanding the origin of profit is important for a number of reasons.

Firstly, social inequality is revealed as a necessary prerequisite of capitalism, and not as an “unfortunate byproduct”. The dispossessed “lowly” worker must accept a wage for the employment of her labor time as she does not possess the means by which to subsist without it. The so-called “freedom” she has in the matter of accepting the contract is subordinate to the faculties of her material and social body, her objective material conditions. This relationship necessarily reflects upon all the instances of oppression present in our contemporary imperialist social order, oppression here being defined as an unequal economic, political and ideological where one agent or group of agents holds a position of power over the other, often taking a repressive character.

Secondly, the inequality of material conditions is revealed as a prerequisite for the production of new relations of oppression and the maintenance of already existing ones. Inequality is a concrete necessity for the reproduction and function of capitalism. In order for commodities to be produced there must be some class of persons, dispossessed of means of production, which the capitalist class can employ and exploit. This is the unequal function required. In order for the worker to return to their place of employment the next day it is required that this relationship to the means of production (relative to her social existence within the class of workers) must not change. And so therefore the material conditions upon which she is required to sell her labor power for a wage must also not be radically transformed so that she would be disposed towards otherwise. This is the reproductive function of this inequality.

Note: It should be mentioned that, when inequality is mentioned, it should not be conflated with the liberal concept of “inequality” in regard to bourgeois freedom; that is, inequality of participation or representation in capitalist organs of power (e.g. the right to vote, etc.), as this does not speak of the intrinsic social and material inequality which transcends the popular frame of bourgeois superstructure.

Thus we’re forced to speak about the social division of labor within capitalist production as the necessary social condition to the labor aristocracy, a historically specific phenomenon. The labor aristocracy, in fact, exists within the working class as part of the relative population employed in the production and circulation of capital.

The Social Division of Labor

In this social division of labor, economic as well as ideological and political factors are at play. There are strictly economic characteristics we may appraise in abstraction, e.g. the labor contract, but when we’re dealing with the real world there are always political factors which help maintain the social division of labor (such as, for instance, law) and ideological factors which serve the same purpose (such as workers accepting the property claims of capitalists because of a morality they primarily inherit from the system’s ideology). In these aspects of the social division of labor, the labor aristocracy finds a function in relation to the whole scope of capitalist society.

The division of labor is not only technical, it doesn’t just concern the physical problems of allocating labor to different types of concrete production processes (car manufacturing, mineral extraction, etc.). Every different society, be it a slave-holding society like the Roman Empire, a feudal one like Europe in the Middle Ages, or a capitalist one like most of the world today, must organize the technical division of labor in historically specific ways. In other words, every society has to organize its technical division of labor and install relationships between people which define the social division of labor, stratifying people into classes within a labor process according to the configuration of a class society [1]. In capitalist society, the proletariat finds the lowest rungs of occupation in the social division of labor, usually comprising unskilled, low-paid and mundane employment. Those of petty bourgeois standing are found in positions of skilled labor, technicians, and relatively privileged points of employment within the labor process. Therefore it becomes clearly observable that the broad division of labor within capitalism must be understood principally as a social division with the primary function of stratification. The technical production process and its characteristics must be understood as secondary, as it is subordinate to the social forces which condition them: capital and labor.

With respect to the theory of the labor aristocracy, it is absolutely integral to understand the global social division of labor, as a precondition thereof. If we understand this division as merely technical, the possibility of a functioning labor aristocracy disappears and arrive only at certain conjunctions of struggle for which labor failures are blamed. Rather, we should fully comprehend the labor aristocracy as occupying a relative point in the social order as enabled by the division of labor which lends not only base reproductive capacity but also a central function in the relations of production.

So what exactly is this function and how does it relate to the labor aristocracy?

As stated before, the primary function is stratification in regard to classes in class society. However, the same could be said of the formal state apparatuses with respect to suppression of a class by another. The difference is that this social division of labor is not directly repressive of one class but rather reproduces capitalist social relations in the base; specifically, it reproduces what we understand as capitalist relations of production. Relations of production being understood as how persons enter into relation with each other in the concrete production and reproduction of society [2]. These relations of production remain the primary determinants of any given mode of production understood concretely; as these relations of production seize upon productive forces to form the ‘unity’ of a mode of production [3]. Thus, in a crude but concise manner of analysis, we might conclude that the reproduction of these relations of production occupies a great importance within capitalism (and all modes of production).

What does this mean for the labor aristocracy?

Specifically, that the primary function of the labor aristocracy is the reproduction of capitalist social relations through its influence in politics, its ideology and its economic standing in a given point of the social division of labor.

The division of labor, especially understood in its primarily social character, can’t be simply reduced to repression and ideology; these alone make us subjectivize consent by explaining it away as the product of repression or delusion. In reality, there are no historical examples of states surviving solely on civil war (i.e. constant repression of subordinated classes) or ideology (i.e. a Huxley-type society where all repression is internal to the individual). Tangible concessions imposed by the class struggle also enter into the daily reproduction of capitalism. In fact, that is the kernel of social democracy and in general most political programs of the capitalist parties. Even fascism benefited sections of the dominated classes by reducing unemployment, providing job security, increasing purchasing power, etc.; this was at the expense of women and oppressed nationalities, but at the benefit of the white male working class, which granted their support to the state. The labor aristocracy is bound up with ideological, political, and economic existence, having an objective material privilege within the social division of labor. Concretely, this means for them better wages, benefits, housing, living conditions, geographical area, etc., the product of concessions granted by monopoly capital.

Where does this posit the material relation of the labor aristocracy?

While being a strata of wage workers, employed for the production and circulation of capital, they maintain a privileged relationship. This most concretely translates into higher wages, greater benefits, etc. which generally reflects a higher standard of living enjoyed by this strata of labor. All of this serves a concrete purpose in regard to the economy; the amount of value flowing into the countries of the First World, where the labor aristocracy is most present, has to be realized and the huge amount of commodities acquired by imperialist countries must be bought by market agents, hence wages, benefits, etc. become in a sense necessary. However, while this economic function exists, the primary purpose of material concessions to the labor aristocracy are meant to solidify it within the social division of labor. In this way, the material existence of the labor aristocracy is concretely reproduced so that its abstract function in regard to reproduction might be extended. This abstract function as well as its concrete nuance is a subject we shall return to shortly.

Up to this point we have only considered the abstract existence of the labor aristocracy considered theoretically in regard to capitalism. Although this method of analysis has abstracted from concrete developments, specifically in regard to imperialism, it remains important as a tool for greater comprehension. First and foremost because it locates the material and social existence of the labor aristocracy as intrinsic to the reproduction of capitalism which grounds our thesis in a fundamental understanding of capitalism, even abstract of the transformative history of imperialism. Second, because this analysis, while abstract, lends great insight into our concrete and contemporary world. Without even examining the labor aristocracy within relation to imperialism, we can observe this same strata of workers in oppressed nations where they maintain the same general function. Thirdly, we must provide at least some abstract theoretical foundation by which we can build upon the previous analysis of Marx, Engels, Lenin etc. on the same subject. However, it would seem as though those previous analysis were limited in their reliance on the observations of specific phenomena which reduced the labor aristocracy to a question of opportunism; although, this too is a subject to address later in the essay.

Even with the great abstract knowledge we have of the labor aristocracy it would be crippling to not examine (and synthesize) the concrete history and experiences of imperialism which has transformed our conception of this strata. In doing so we can provide a real snapshot of the present social order.

As articulated before, the necessary social condition of the labor aristocracy remains the social division of labor within capitalism. Moreover, this social division of labor conditions, reproduces, and provides function to the labor aristocracy. Therefore, it might be concluded that a transformation in this social division of labor would necessarily translate to some parallel process within the labor aristocracy, or at least how we can conceptualize it.

Imperialism has done more than cause unending suffering for hundreds of millions throughout the world. In fact, imperialism has served a specific process in the maturation of capitalism which now dominates the world at nearly every conjunction [4]. The principal function of imperialism, relative to the production and circulation of capital, required that capital be able to circumvent its internal contradictions; in specific, resolving the crisis of overaccumulation intrinsic to capital accumulation. This drove imperialist powers around the world in the export of capital as well as the concrete destruction and oppression of countless peoples [5]. However, imperialism is neither static nor limited by our rudimentary understanding. Imperialism has dynamically transformed the social landscape of the world over the past century leading many to understand the principal contradiction in our contemporary social order to be between imperialism and oppressed nations (of course, mediated by capital). This unequal yet vastly complex combination of social formations, markets, and concentration of monopoly capital describes our contemporary world as one dominated by imperialism. Furthermore, this transformation has not left the division of labor, within or between nations, untouched.

The opposite would seem true. Indeed, the process of imperialism and the global concentration of capital (observed as a whole) would indicate a certain qualitative transformation in the way by which capital is circulated internationally. In particular, there has been a development into what I term the ‘global division of labor’ [6].

Global Division of Labor

The global division of labor is a useful approximation of the process by which the oppressor nations have been subjugated into an unequal relationship of power, being dominated economically, politically and ideologically by imperialist powers.

For example, from 1990-2002, 53% of the increase in manufactured imports to the US came from ‘low-wage nations’ with 58% of total imports in 2006 coming from ‘developing countries’ [7]. In addition, 89% of the world’s ‘trade deficit’ in 2010 was consumed by the United States (roughly $1.6 trillion) allowing the imperialist power to “consume without paying” and thus affording the monopolists and their allies a disproportionate sum of labor, even with regard to differentials in the ‘standard of living’ [8]. All of this coincides with the actual international ‘division’ in the organization of labor processes: specifically the concentration of employment in ‘service-providing’ industries into the more affluent imperialist centers. From 2002-2012 service industries in the United States experienced 0.7% annual compounded growth (in labor) while manufacturing during the same period suffered -2.4% annual compounded loss (in labor); this trend is expected to intensify over the next ten years as the 2012-2022 projections show 1.2% annual compound growth and -0.5% annual compound loss, respectively (although the loss projections on manufacturing might be rosier than actuality, as the estimates came on the eve of the ‘rebounding economy’) [9]. Some of this might be explained as the rise in the organic composition of capital (OCC); however, even this cannot account for the growth of formally proletarian ranks in the peripheral regions which in turn act upon the composition of imperialist countries’ labor. It would be foolishly analytical to posit such transformations as being the inevitable march of the OCC unless we are willing to entirely forget the thesis put forth on imperialism; which is principally a thesis on the exploitative interactions between social formations which introduce changing variables into both the exploited and exploiter.

Now we should not suggest this ‘global division of labor’ with respect to the core regions (the growth in service industries) reflects poorly upon the revolutionary potential there (that service, retail, etc. workers cannot be revolutionary or so on). Rather, we are describing the conditions by which the ‘greater labor aristocracy’ exists as a functional component to a whole entirety of labor formation.

Some might suggest this ‘global division of labor’ can simply be explained by the uneven development of capitalism throughout the world due to imperialism (as well as the prevalence of semi-feudalism in certain conditions). And while this may be true to some extent, limiting the response to only a descriptive account of ‘why’ does not employ the Marxist method in any meaningful way. In fact, it would be the bourgeois economists who would explain away this phenomena as the mere expression of “opportunity cost” in trade. This is the sort of methodology we must reject when attempting to arrive at some fundamental understanding of capitalist-imperialism. Instead, we must investigate ‘how’ this has occurred and to what extent we can understand these material processes which condition our contemporary order.

Truth is, we can’t account for the uneven development of the world’s national economies without understanding their interconnections. The relationship between oppressor and oppressed nations form the basis of the economic relationships installed between countries; how else could one account for the deplorable destitution of West Africa, without recognizing the severe historical importance of imperialism in underdeveloping oppressed nations? How can we understand the relationship between imperialist centers and exploited nations without prioritizing class struggle as the explanation for historical developments of class societies? More specifically, the struggle between capital and labor has assumed a concrete existence in the principal contradiction characterized between imperialist and oppressed nations.

In regard to the global division of labor, how does this relate to the labor aristocracy?

Certainly, the labor aristocracy appears, necessarily, in every social formation of capitalism, even within the most exploited contemporary nations. We have demonstrated this abstractly and given observation to this truth in our modern era. However, it is important to also delineate the development of a globally concentrated labor aristocracy within the imperialist centers. This labor aristocracy within the imperialist centers occupies a distinctly disproportionate section of the formal working class and therefore historically as well as presently exerts its dominance in regard to labor struggles and the relationship between labor and capital [10]. In this sense we might understand the concentration of labor aristocracy within the core in the same way we understand concentration of the proletariat within the periphery. Not simply as a numerical expression of greater magnitude but in its relative size and relationship to the whole social formation. This concentration, be it a ‘result’ of wealth concentration within the imperialist center, serves a functional purpose within this ‘global division of labor’ and imperialism as a totality. In the same way by which the particular labor aristocracy grounded in a social division of labor serves to reproduce capital social relations the concentration of the international labor aristocracy grounded in a global division of labor reproduces imperialist relations toward oppressed nations. This is an instrumental discover to the science of historical materialism as it serves to reorient the understanding of class struggle in our contemporary order as primarily a struggle between imperialism and the oppressed nations. This nuance of a ‘greater labor aristocracy’ provides significant insight into the social-chauvinist nature and function of many popular labor programs within the core. We should extend, however, that this conceptualization of a ‘greater labor aristocracy’ does not suggest some concrete international labor aristocracy one can observe with strictly empiricist material specificity or ‘direct access’. Rather, this ‘greater labor aristocracy’ can be considered a combination of the distinct labor aristocracies within imperialist nations which act in congruence with their respective forms of imperialism. This is important to articulate lest we slip into some false understanding of class formation.

To put it quite simply, the labor aristocracy within the core, specifically the whole of this ‘greater labor aristocracy’ is maintained through the process of a significant value transfer. The process by which value is transferred from one bloc to another via a transposing difference, regarding geo-socio magnitude, from where value is created to where it is realized. The point of ‘value added’ in this continuum of value transfer might be considered the point of super-exploitation, or the point at which the rate of exploitation is higher than the average rate of exploitation [11]. Although, it is worth noting that this transfer may take place without the ‘necessity’ of super-exploitation via unequal trade and currency swap, something which Dr. Zak Cope addresses more concisely in his work on the subject [12]. In whatever form, this value extracted is then realized in the form of super-wages within the core or peripheral labor aristocracy. Meaning that this higher strata of the formal working class indirectly receives benefits from the super-exploitation and oppression imposed by imperialism or the process of capital circulation within their own social formation.

This is important to note for a few reasons. First, because we must come to intelligible comprehension of the way in which the labor aristocracy functions by relation to the labor process abstract of the division of labor. Second, this allows us to draw conclusions regarding the ‘essence’ of this labor aristocracy without even formally examining its social existence. If what we understand to be true is indeed so (regarding the exploitation of value, super-exploitation, super-wages, etc.) this would posit a real insight into the features of the labor aristocracy. Particularly so because some understandings of the labor aristocracy (and reactionary strata in the working class as a whole) could be reducible to ‘false consciousness’. The idea that this strata is simply manipulated by the force of false consciousness and derives no material inclination from the imposition of capital is simply false. While the instructive force of ideology should not be understated (we shall address this later) the primary social being of a subject is derived from its social existence in the last instance. And even if this case were true, ideology exists materially and therefore is supplanted into concrete practices (some being economic). It would be flawed to assume ideology is a reflection of social relations rather that ideology might be considered a reflection of how we understand our social relations, not as they “really are” [13]. This approximation of social relations through consciousness in ideology provides a significant space for class struggle in the arena of ‘thought’. However this note is only supplementary to the thesis being put forth in this essay. What we must understand with great certainty is how the material existence (read: material privilege) of the labor aristocracy provides material substance for its social and thoroughly political agency.

Now that we have established the social and material conditions by which the labor aristocracy has thrived we must analyze the forms by which it expresses a social existence. Meaning, we must make some abstract notes about how the labor aristocracy ‘behaves’ but also where about it functions with respect to the whole totality of capitalism.

Social Existence in Political Agency

The primary ‘social being’ of the labor aristocracy might be determined from its political existence; more specifically, from the political alliance between the labor aristocracy and the ruling capitalist class be it the comprador bourgeoisie of the periphery or the monopoly capitalists of the imperial centers.

In fact, it was the political incidences of opportunism among the English working class which originally drew notice from Engels to which he wrote Marx:

“…the English proletariat is actually becoming more and more bourgeois, so that the ultimate aim of this most bourgeois of all nations would appear to be the possession, alongside the bourgeoisie, of a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat. In the case of a nation which exploits the entire world this is, of course, justified to some extent.” [14]

It is important to note that the phrase ‘labor aristocracy’ does not appear in any of Engels or Marx writings, even those regarding issues of this “bourgeois proletariat”. This can largely be attributed to the socio-historical point at which both wrote. Early in the development of capitalism, it was difficult to immediately discern these circulative motions especially before imperialism which help to delineate our understanding of the labor aristocracy. Therefore, while it is important to understand the historical context of the labor aristocracy in regard to Marx and Engels, we must also recognize our current thesis as being valid insofar as a scientific rupture from previous undeveloped conceptions of the same notion. The labor aristocracy of Marx and Engels was an opportunistic movement among the working class towards an alliance with the bourgeoisie in regard to a ‘collective exploitation’ of the ‘entire world’. Their notion is inadequate for a number of reasons. First, because it supposes the labor aristocracy simply as a movement towards opportunism and reaction not as a solidified strata existing concretely in a class. This reduces the political being of the labor aristocracy to simple opportunist politics which misunderstands the real existence and function of this strata and confuses it for a ‘false consciousness’. Secondly, the idea that the labor aristocracy exists somewhat abstract to the circuit of capital as well as the entirety of social apparatuses forbids any concrete theory of how to ‘resolve’ this contradiction. A proper dialectical analysis would postulate this transformation of the proletariat into ‘bourgeois proletariat’ or the solidification of a labor aristocracy is an internal process of capital circulation not one abstracted from it. This fundamental error on the part of Marx and Engels prevented a correct understanding on the part of the labor aristocracy and its function within capitalism. However, this error is understandable in regard to social context and therefore we should posit our conclusions as in line with the original epistemological method of Marx and Engels.

With the development of imperialism the demarcation of this labor aristocracy became more visible. The political identity of this strata within bourgeois society sharpened as monopoly capital scoured the earth in search of super-profits. Great sections of the working class within Europe began to fawn over the political alliance between the privileged workers and their ruling classes in hopes to collectively benefit from the national oppression in imperialism. Lenin, in his seminal work on imperialism, noted this in particular:

“Imperialism has the tendency to create privileged sections also among the workers, and to detach them from the broad masses of the proletariat…the tendency of imperialism to split the workers, to strengthen opportunism among them and to cause temporary decay in the working-class movement, revealed itself much earlier than the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries.” [15]

He would later make a sharp condemnation of this privileged trend and socialist parties who based themselves on such “petty bourgeois conditions” in his speech to the Second International:

“The industrial workers cannot fulfill their world-historical mission of emancipating mankind from the yoke of capital and from wars if these workers concern themselves exclusively with their narrow craft, narrow trade interests, and smugly confine themselves to care and concern for improving their own, sometimes tolerable, petty bourgeois conditions. This is exactly what happens in many advanced countries to the “labor aristocracy” which serves as the base of the alleged Socialist parties of the Second International.” [16]

We should note as well that Lenin’s understanding of this labor aristocracy went ‘deeper’ than that of his predecessors. In fact, he anticipated what is now understood as a ‘material impediment’ of objective conditions due to the growth of this labor aristocracy from the processes of imperialism. Meaning precisely that the working class movements of the imperialist center are necessarily damaged by the prevalence of this privileged relationship:

“The class of those who own nothing but do not labor either is incapable of overthrowing the exploiters. Only the proletarian class, which maintains the whole of society, has the power to bring about a successful social revolution. And now we see that, as the result of a far-reaching colonial policy the European proletariat has partly reached a situation where it is not its work that maintains the whole of society but that of the people of the colonies who are practically enslaved. . . . In certain countries these circumstances create the material and economic basis for infecting the proletariat of one country or another with colonial chauvinism. Of course this may perhaps be only a temporary phenomenon, but one must nevertheless clearly recognize the evil and understand its causes….” [17]

While Lenin never lived to see the present state of transnational monopoly capitalism and rampant imperialism we might intuitively predict his reaction would not be pleasant. If Lenin spoke of a “colonial chauvinism” “infecting” the working class nearly 100 years ago then it’s not too much a leap to conclude he would speak quite frankly regarding the pervasiveness of the labor aristocracy within the imperialist centers.

While the idea of a labor aristocracy is certainly not novel within the intellectual history of the left our present thesis concerning the function and reproduction of this strata necessarily contends a rupture from old forms of thought. Not as though the theoretical foundation for the labor aristocracy cannot be delineated within the scope of Marxism rather a more nuanced, contemporary, and correct understanding must take into account the relevant observations of this era unavailable to previous thinkers. The process by which we synthesize new practical knowledge with the correct theory of previous instances gives birth to new and more correct theory which in turn guides a correct practice. The principal task at hand, at least regarding the labor aristocracy, must be to develop a critical and correct analysis drawing from the synthesis of new data with revolutionary theory.

Integral to this new understanding of the labor aristocracy is a thorough comprehension of the social ‘being’ of this strata configured through capital social relations and the ideology thereof.

As mentioned above, the political existence of this privileged section necessarily takes upon a definite role. The political alliance between the labor aristocracy and monopoly capital, within the core, has formed the basis of imperialist relations legitimized by the active acceptance of such actions by the “bourgeois proletariat”. The labor aristocracy, in this political sense, functions as a ‘default consent’ to the aggressive and militaristic character of imperialism. Whether through public support campaigns, donations, advocacy, elections etc. the labor aristocracy remains one of the primary accomplices to the imperialist exploitation of the world through the political-ideological state apparatus. This is not to say that the proletarian masses (non-labor aristocracy) cannot be socialized into the ranks of imperialist footmen. In fact, history has shown that even the most exploited and oppressed working elements can be made a subject to the ideology of capital especially in the case of war. However, the difference being that the reactionary political expression of the labor aristocracy is reproduced materially and primarily at the base through its relationship in the social division of labor as well as the realization of value. This solidifies the labor aristocracy as a concretely privileged strata of the working class whose basic material interests rest alongside that of the bourgeoisie. In contrast, the reactionary political consciousness found in some working class elements is largely superstructural, interpellated through the ideology of the state or some deviant opportunism. The material relation of the proletarian masses does not necessarily posit them in alliance with monopoly capital as it would with the privileged labor aristocracy. This is a critical point of departure we must make if we are going to understand the faculties which compose the working class as well as its privileged elements.

However, the political-judicial ideological state apparatus is arguably not the principal ideological state apparatus nor the point where the labor aristocracy is most ‘alive’. This may seem to contradict what was said earlier regarding the political character of the labor aristocracy being a primary expression of its social ‘being’. Yet, there should be some distinction here between political as a reification of class struggle and contradictions, and political as the formal political-ideological state apparatus. When delineating the social existence of the labor aristocracy the ‘political’ we speak of is the former in question. At this point, we can reflect upon Engel’s comment regarding a “bourgeois proletariat” when speaking of this political character. Engels was not implying that this proletarian strata was somehow literally bourgeois or even insofar as being in formal political compliance with some bourgeois political party. Rather, he was indicating this group had been made subject of bourgeois ideology drawing them into a political alliance with the capitalist class and therefore composing the “bourgeois” political character of this actively exploited “proletariat”. In the same vein, we are able to explore the political existence of the labor aristocracy within ideological state apparatuses besides that of the formal political-ideological. For example, the workplace is a strong point of ideological contention within capitalism (and arguably all modes of production) giving to its identification as an ideological state apparatus. Within the workplace, the division of labor finds its social character in the micro-interactions, specifically those ideological instances, between members of the labor process. The labor aristocracy usually composes that set of workers who uphold (broad) capital ideology and even actively promote it amongst the workers. Even outside of the ballot box, the work meeting, or the political campaign, these privileged workers are neck deep in their political alliance to the bourgeoisie. They are the interpellated subjects of capital working tirelessly to reinforce the social relations which provide their own existence as well as the survival of the capitalist mode of production. Furthermore, their concrete relationship to the social division of labor reproduced, materially, in their super-wages provides as a precondition for their own subsistence (read: privilege) the extension, expansion, and domination of capitalism.

Briefly on their ‘super-wages’, it should be noted the labor aristocracy is not petty bourgeois in the technical sense; although, it might be observed much of the labor aristocracy particularly in the imperialist centers maintain conditions which might be described as petty bourgeois. The super-wages of this labor aristocracy afford them conditions above that of the proletarian masses such as (granted, with a degree of variety) home ownership, vehicle ownership, retirement funds, better schools and neighborhoods, better working conditions, advanced benefits, and in an entirety a qualitatively ‘better’ standard of living. However, the labor aristocracy does not participate in the direct exploitation of labor-power nor does it own the means or instruments of production. Their privilege and social condition is derived from their material relationship to the realization of value not necessarily the exploitation thereof. This is how the labor aristocracy is able to maintain conditions often comparable to that of petty bourgeoisie while still being employed as a wage laborer.

Ideology and Social Reproduction: Interpellation as Mediation

Returning to the original premise of the previous pages, the social ‘being’ of the labor aristocracy necessarily reflects its abstract function in the circulation of capital. Abstract in the sense that the consciousness of the labor aristocracy is aggregate in relation to its concrete social conditions. It is more accurately a reflection of how the labor aristocracy conceptualizes this social relation than how it ‘actually’ is. Yet, the social consciousness and respective configurations of the labor aristocracy are as varied as they are intricate, interconnected, and accumulated. We could spend hours analyzing the economic configuration (disproportionate consumption, consumerism etc.), social configuration (familial-ideological apparatus, “social conservatism”, heteronormativity, racism, ableism, gender politics etc.) and political configuration (electoral consciousness, political-ideological apparatus, “civil duty”, etc.). Not to draw away from the depth or importance of such an analysis, but the task at hand requires a level of concision to the point which the aforementioned configurations deserve their respective social spaces for analysis. All of which might hopefully be addressed in the future.

The summation provided in the analysis above should provide reason for our classification of the labor aristocracy. The classification of the labor aristocracy as a materially solidified and privileged strata of the working class whose primary function is the reproduction of capital social relations in the capitalist mode of production. Why is the primary function not the expansion of value like the rest of the working class? Simply by analyzing the objective data available we can discern that the labor aristocracy could not possibly produce all of the value it realizes. Therefore, the only function intuitively possible, absent of some undiscovered internalized contradiction, would be a reproductive function. And not in the concrete sense of reproducing the means or instruments of production (although, some labor aristocrats may be employed to such ends) but in the abstract sense of reproducing the social relations which drive the capitalist mode of production. Specifically, the relations of production wherein the worker enters into production so that she might survive and her labor-power exploited to produce value in commodities sold for a profit. This is just one instance of the totality of capital production/reproduction which dominates our social formation to a near entirety. However, this instance of the relations of production forms the microcosm by which we can observe all oppression related to the endless expansion of capital and extrapolate this relationship into the whole of class society.

The process of reproducing specific relations of production is generally understood as a function of the ideological state apparatuses. This is fundamentally true. As Althusser outlines in his On the Reproduction of Capitalism the process of reproducing certain relations of production is supremely important to the longevity and consolidation of capitalism; as capitalism cannot continue to exist without the indefinite reproduction of the relations of production which determine the mode in the base [18]. He indicates that this reproductive function with regard to social relations is critical to the maintenance or transformation of class society with great focus on the potential of ideology. Some may even contend that this insight in regard to ideological state apparatuses (ISA’s) would prevent us from considering the labor aristocracy as being reproductive of any social logic. The argument being that this function derives from the concrete expression of ideology in specific apparatuses which cannot be approximated in the social existence of any given class.

This is correct to a minor extent.

Ideology, while being expressed in the ISA’s, is not intrinsic to some metaphysical ‘essence’ of the ISA’s. The process is rather more specifically expressed in the struggle taking place between the representatives of certain classes at the point of any given ideological state apparatus. This analysis on one hand allows us to dispel some of the rather crude (and shallow) determinism on behalf of Althusser by recognizing class struggle as the motor of transformation (even in ideology), and on the other hand explain as to how the labor aristocracy might assume this role as reproductive agents of capitalism. Consider, for example, the capitalist class and the circulation of capital. Can we consider the capitalist class as an organic unit the ‘body’ of capitalism? Certainly not. In fact, the capitalist class can degrade, transform, fluctuate, or entirely change form (think of ‘collective capitalists’ – bodies of cooperatives, etc.) and still capitalism lives on. This is because the ‘essence’ (to be crude for a moment) of capitalism lies in the abstract circuit of capital taking upon concrete forms: M-C-M’ the basic money-commodity-money (prime) transformation [19]. The capitalist class serves to “conduct” this process and therefore embodies the command of capital in nearly every conceivable instance. However, the capitalist is only a representative of this circuit of capital, capital exerts its power onto the ‘living’ world through him [20]. In a similar way we understand the labor aristocracy. The reproduction of capitalist relations of production are not synonymous in a functional sense with the labor aristocracy. Rather, the ISA’s are capable of interpellating subjects for this purpose with great liberty. However, in th same way that the capitalist serves to represent the circulation of capital, the labor aristocrat serves to reproduce the relations of capital; primarily doing so in the base, where ideology is truly the most ‘active’.

With the correct application of dialectics we might also advance our knowledge of the labor aristocracy. Specifically in how it relates to other classes and within the working class as a whole. The process by which we do so involves understanding the “identity” of an aspect in any given contradiction. For example, we can understand the “identity” of the proletariat as an aspect in the contradiction with the bourgeoisie, provided we have knowledge of the bourgeoisie. We can understand that the antagonistic nature of this contradiction derives, at least fundamentally, from the exploitative nature of the bourgeoisie; that this then indicates the proletariat must be exploited for the two to be in contradiction (antagonistic). Using the same dialectical logic we can understand the labor aristocracy as it relates to the non-labor aristocratic proletariat. While the two cannot be in antagonistic contradiction, as the condition of resolution does not require the overthrow of one by another, the contradiction definitely maintains a real albeit non-antagonistic character. The labor aristocracy, as a social whole, desires to maintain its relative privilege to the proletariat as a whole. The proletariat, who is non-labor aristocracy, as a social whole, desires to overcome the bourgeoisie. The labor aristocracy will not venture greatly by its own accord to upset the relationship of classes fearing the abolition of its own relative privilege. This necessarily causes contradiction between the two. Yet, we should also understand the contradiction between the labor aristocracy and the bourgeoisie (abstract, for this instance) has two natures, one which is antagonistic and the other non-antagonistic. On the antagonistic nature, the bourgeoisie still stratifies the labor aristocracy in wage labor which necessarily means some level of oppression (alienation, repression, what have you) as well as maintains political hegemony. This can only be resolved through the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, making the nature antagonistic. However, the contradiction also maintains a non-antagonistic nature in the relationship to value realization by which the bourgeoisie maintains “control” however the labor aristocracy maintains privileged access and a point of negotiation.

Ideology and Determinism: The Conclusion

As mentioned earlier, we cannot be deterministic in how we assess the relationship of a class to ideology or how ideology moves unless we wish to fall into some revisionism or fatalism etc. Throughout the essay we have spoke as though class relationships are static, their nature unchanging and wholly determined. This is a failure which is to some extent unavoidable in the context of raw political economy. However, it should be noted that the scope of class society is dynamic, even in the mode of production all parts are in motion and the contradictions, processes, conditions, forces are always changing. While in the abstract sense we must understand the function of a strata such as the labor aristocracy, its social, political and economic existence (not to entirely separate the three, but different configurations of a totality), we should make room for the concrete process of class struggle; the motor of all history. The masses must be the source of change if capitalism is to be defeated in a real sense of tangible social transformation. This requires that our theory guides the masses into a knowledge which empowers them as agents of change; specifically empowering the oppressed and exploited peoples whom we have understood as the revolutionary subject. Even the labor aristocracy should not be considered a monolithic feature of imperialism, an unpenetrable layer of capital logic which can only be circumvented. Recall that the peasantry has been a historical ally of the working class in semi-feudal conditions, and the petty and even national bourgeois in the instance of national liberation. Despite the relationship to capital the petty bourgeois maintains, they too must be drawn into the sphere of the proletariat in alliance against monopoly capital if revolution is to be successful. The point of this essay is certainly not to address revolutionary praxis, however there is no such thing as ‘philosophy for the sake of philosophy’ or ‘science for the sake of science’ this illusion of objectivity is merely a guise for the infiltration of ideology. The fact remains, the labor aristocracy may be ‘won over’ in alliance with the oppressed and exploited against monopoly capital if contradictions are handled correctly and the theory behind practice equally as correct. The social ‘being’ of the labor aristocracy is certainly determined insofar as its concrete existence and its abstract function as reproductive to capital as a social relation. However, this does not imply the political consciousness of the labor aristocracy cannot be elevated beyond its social ‘being’ through the power of a proletarian ideology.

We might conclude the labor aristocracy as a concretely existing strata of the working class located both abstractly in the mode of production and concretely in its contemporary establishment (especially a disproportionate existence in the imperialist centers). The social condition by which this strata subsists can be found in the social division of labor and its position therein; as well as its unique relationship to the realization of value. However, we cannot consider the labor aristocracy to be petty bourgeois in class composition as it is neither owns the means of production, instruments of production, nor exploits labor-power in the production of commodities. The labor aristocrat still finds himself well within the ranks of wage-laborers despite his often significant but relative privilege. The function of the labor aristocracy might be understood as primarily being reproductive of capital social relations, specifically relations of production, as it mediates the circulation of bourgeois ideology between the ideological state apparatuses and the working class in the base.

References

[1] Althusser, Louis. 1971. On the Reproduction of Capitalism: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses. Verso Publishing; 2014. p. 34-37. note: the summation of Althusser’s work in the cited selection forms the kernel of the work at hand. His fourth section on the chapter entitled ‘What is a Mode of Production?’ called ‘The Social Division of Labour is the Reality Behind the Technical Division of Labour: Production, Exploitation and the Class Struggle in Production’ might be considered a textual introduction to the present essay. Interrogating the social relationships within production and locating this social character of technical formations provides the groundwork for any investigation into the labor aristocracy. In specific, our duty here is to examine how social relations “radically determine all the seemingly ‘technically’ relations of the division and organization of labour” (p. 34).

[2] Ibid. p. 27. note: Althusser makes use of the relation of agency here in production, “when all the members of a social formation are agents of production, or between the agents of production…”.

[3] Ibid. p. 20-21. note: Althusser utilizes ‘unity’ here in the dialectical sense so that we might draw analysis from the thus dynamic relationship the productive forces and relations of production assume.

[4] Lenin, Vladimir. 1916. Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. VII: Imperialism as a Special Stage of Capitalism. note: I use the term ‘maturation’ here to allude to, as Lenin calls the “historical place of this stage of capitalism in relation to capitalism in general”. History not in the sense of teology but how we observe the transformation of capital as a social relation to circumvent the very internal contradictions it delineates.

[5] Ibid. note: as Lenin outlines in his five points on the ‘features’ of imperialism, the export of capital is definitive (as he calls it “exceptional importance”). “(3) the export of capital as distinguished from the export of commodities acquires exceptional importance.”.

[6] Smith, John. 2010. Imperialism & the Globalisation of Production. University of Scheffield. note: the cited piece is a relatively popular PhD dissertation which draws upon empirical data and ‘world systems’ analysis to draw conclusions regarding the globalization of production and so on. The findings presented have thus been articulated here in regard to a ‘global division of labor’ as a corollary to this ‘globalisation’.

[7] Ibid. p. 223.

[8] Cope, Zak. 2013. Divided World Divided Class: Global Political Economy and the Stratification of Labour Under Capitalism. p. 321.

[9] United States Department of Labor, United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2013. Employment by Major Industry Sector. note: table used in data collection numbered 2.1

[10] Cope. 2013. p. 264-270.

[11] Cope. 2013. p. 182-184

[12] Cope. 2013. p. 327-328

[13] Althusser. p. 181. note: Althusser’s thoughts on the ‘reality’ of ideology, “Ideology represents individuals’ imaginary relation to their real conditions of existence”.

[14] Engels, Friedrich. 1858. Marx-Engels Correspondence. 7 October, 1858.

[15] Lenin. 1916. VIII: Parasitism and Decay of Capitalism.

[16] Lenin, Vladimir. 1920. Preliminary Draft Theses on the Agrarian Question for the Second Congress of the Communist International.

[17] Lenin, Vladimir. 1920. Thesis on the Fundamental Taks of the 2nd Congress of the Communist International

[18] Althusser. 1971. p. 144-147. note: in describing how relations of production are reproduced he makes the claim, “All Ideological State Apparatuses without exception contribute to the same end: the reproduction of the relations of production, that is, of capitalist relations of exploitation.”

[19] Rühle, Otto. 1939. Karl Marx’s Capital. Part 2: The Transformation of Money into Capital; Chapter Four: The General Formula for Capital. note: Rühle’s abridgement of Capital is one of the best tools we have today in understanding the general motion and laws of capital accumulation.

[20] Ibid. note: Rühle sums this perfectly, “Thus the conscious representative of this movement the possessor of money becomes a capitalist. His person, or rather his pocket, is the point from which the money starts and to which it returns. The expansion of value, which is the objective basis or main-spring of the circulation, becomes his subjective aim. It functions as capital personified and endowed with consciousness and a will.” Although I take aim at his use of ‘conscious’ as certainly the capitalist is likely unconscious of his ‘real relations’ in that sense but the statement is true nonetheless.

Join the conversation! 2 Comments

  1. […] article, “What is the Labor Aristocracy?” is awesome. It is a definitely somewhat heavy with technical terms, though that doesn’t […]

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  2. […] countries’ wealth. Not to mention that these civil rights are only available to the labor aristocracy–rarely to the oppressed nationalities or the poor within an imperialist country–and so […]

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