Review: The Worker Elite: Notes on the Labor Aristocracy

The Worker Elite by Bromma, recently published by Kersplebledeb, is a must-read essay that offers a corrective lens to both normative First Worldism and ‘crude Third Worldism.’ While the book is lacking in a few areas, it offers a clear and concise argument which will likely sway all those not sold on their own ideological pretensions.

Some reviews have made much ado about the author’s stance against a ‘crude Third Worldism’ which posits that the primary contradiction is between the whole First World and the whole Third World. While this might relate to a past Third Worldism of notable historical figures like Che Guevara and Lin Biao, or might occasionally be put forward today for purposes of ‘bending the stick,’ the modern self-identified Maoist (Third Worldist) movements does not uphold this sort of ‘crude Third Worldism.’ Instead, we see the principal contradiction as between imperialism and exploited and oppressed peoples. ‘The Worker Elite,’ for its part, is principally directed against political lines which diminish the significance of divisions in the working class, not against such ‘crude Third Wordism.’ As the author notes in the first few pages, “For the purpose of developing a revolutionary strategy, ‘working class’ isn’t specific enough.” (4)

Bromma substitutes ‘labor aristocracy’ with the term ‘worker elite’, a conscious choice which offers more clarity on the subject. In my own notes on emergent trends in political economy, I have begun looking at the large strata of well-paid workers tied to dominant ancillary and tertiary sectors of the capitalist-imperialist world economy. While my investigation has mostly focused on the underlying economic (relational) factors of the world-economy, Bromma’s exposition of a similarly-positioned worker elite describes important social and political characteristics of the same group.

According to Bromma, the global working class is effectively divided into three: the worker elite, what RAIM sometimes refers to as net-exploiting workers, which is part of a broader strata of middle classes between the proletariat and bourgeoisie; the proletariat, “made up of slave, semi-slave, and heavily exploited workers who generate almost all of capitalism’s profits,” and the lumpen. Here, Bromma is correctly treating the capitalist-imperialist world-system as just that: a series of global economic and social relationships binding humanity into a single world-economy. This itself is a clear break from revisionist tendencies which treat parts of the Third World as separate ‘social-formations’ not subject to parasitic functions of monopoly capital, thus ‘explaining’ vast global disparities in the working class. For Marxists, the fundamental answer to such disparities should be obvious: an unequal distribution of power. (Ibid)

Delving more deeply into the issue, Bromma notes, the worker elite is defined “holistically”:

“Economic advantages are certainly basic in demarcating the class, but historical and social factors are decisive. Above all else, a worker elite is defined by its preferential social contract with the bourgeoisie.” (21) *

The hidden strength of The Worker Elite, one not noted by the author, is its value for understanding current and emergent trends. For a historical account of the development of the labor aristocracy through the 20th century, Zak Cope’s ‘Divided World, Divided Class’ is indispensable. For Bromma, the worker elite is a modern and developing ‘social class’ defined by its preferential relationship with capital vis-a-vis the proletariat. This preferential social contract between the bourgeoisie and worker elite is both a response to and weapon against the proletariat at large.

Thus, as Bromma notes, the worker elite is not simply parasitic in a classical economical sense, but also socially in the sense of riding on the back of genuine proletarian movements. Given this, the worker elite has a contradictory relationship to proletarian struggle: on one hand, it requires proletarian struggles to justify its own existence from the perspective of capital; simultaneously it must work against proletarian struggles to fulfill its function for capital.

Bromma relies heavily on anecdotes to illustrate how this preferential relationship to capital which defines the worker elite manifests globally, not just in First World. The emergence of a worker elite in the traditional Third World, Bromma contends, is tied to both neo-colonialism and the ongoing development of BRIC monopoly capital. It is important to note that by ‘transnational,’ Bromma doesn’t seem to imply that every country or region will have an equal proportion of elite workers within its labor force. Instead, while nation and gender continue to be social qualities informing the formation of such a worker elite, these qualities are less likely to completely approximate the structure of working class disparities.

The Worker Elite notes repeatedly the political role of the worker aristocracy: to supplant revolutionary consciousness in the proletariat with reformist or otherwise muted struggle. One of the ways the worker elite accomplishes this is by acting as a model for the proletariat to aspire to and identify with. This is roughly analogous to RAIM’s use of the term, ‘First Worldism,’ as the manifested impact of the worker aristocracy in ‘leftist’ politics. In highlighting the role of function of stratification of the workers under capitalist-imperialism and challenging those who would dismiss it, Bromma’s Worker Elite continues the activistic trend of modern Third Worldists.

One slight weakness of the Worker Elite is in its explanation of the economic basis of the worker elite. Bromma notes that the worker elite functions as a class of consumers necessary for the circulation of capital. What isn’t particularly clear is how the formation of such a worker elite is crucial in reproducing the persistent periphery-center relationship within the capitalist-imperialist world-system. Via pricing and sales mechanisms, high wages of the worker elite structurally enables the transference of value from the peripheries where it is accumulated as monopoly capital in (sometimes contending) centers.

Likewise, it is odd that Bromma categorizes pigs (military and police) as part of the lumpen-proletariat, given the preferential treatment this group receives from capital, its parasitical relationship to the proletariat, and its self-conscious ‘middle class’ pretensions.

What the Worker Elite doesn’t provide is black-and-white, simple solutions. This may disappoint some whose sole preoccupation is searching out easy directives from higher sources. Indeed, whereas the First Worldists have failed for generations to organize workers they mistakenly assume are part of the proletariat, The Worker Elite helps put in perspective what proletarian revolutionary movements constitute: the organizing of various middle strata, including portions of the worker elite, under the leadership and class aims of the proletariat.

* As Bromma notes, this basic demarcating factor between the worker-elite and proletariat, though not decisive (and the author explains these numerous exceptions), is “a global middle class income [that] probably starts somewhere between PPP $10,000 and $15,000. (Gross wages).” Though Bromma makes clear that, “There’s no magic income figure delineating the boundary of the proletariat,” he also states, “it would also be wrong to think that the dramatic differential in net-income, standard of living, and consumer status…are irrelevant to class being, class consciousness, and class behavior in modern imperialism.” (35)

-Nikolai Brown

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