Mike Ely and myself share many commonalities. We desire a better world, understand this can only happen through socialism, and have confidence that such a socialism can only emerge via class struggle and revolution.
Between these areas of unity, we have many differences, largely stemming from different analyses of class structure in modern society.
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.
For brevity, I’ll try to deal with Ely’s mischaracterizations of Third Worldism and misunderstandings of political economy one at a time.
The Value of Labor Power
As Ely correctly notes, the value of labor power is based on the value necessary to make that labor power available: in other words, the exchange value of the requirements (physical and social) for the reproduction of the working class.
However, what Ely doesn’t note is that prices and values deviate from one another. Typically, commodities are sold for a price above full value when possible. This goes for things such as homes, clothes, food, and consequently, labor power. That is, whereas the price to maintain said labor-power is higher than the same on the world market, that standard price for labor power is above the value of labor-power.
Such deviations function in the world-economy to transfer value from one sector to another, from one region to another, from one country to another, etc.
‘Massive Surplus Value Produced in the First World’
Mike Ely claims that it is demonstrably provable that the vast majority of surplus value accumulated in imperialist centers is produced there. Nowhere does he cite evidence for this dramatic claim. Instead, this reveals a dramatic misunderstanding of political economy on his part. Amusingly, one must ask if Ely also believes a massive portion of the surplus-value accumulated by banks is due to the exploitation of tellers, security guards, janitors, and loan agents?
Sleight of Hand Racism of First Worldism
Ely makes the typical claim that income disparities is largely due to different skill levels. As the argument goes, underwater welders (or whatever) spend years of training and tons of resources becoming underwater welders, which is made up for by a higher wage. Yet this begs the question, on what basis are skills and training apportioned? For Ely, the question seems inconsequential except as an explanation of income differentials. In reality, these questions themselves are political, representing struggles of power between different groups. In reality, people’s lack of valued skills is not a cause of low wages, but instead is due to oppression within the capitalist system.
On Moralism and Emotionalism
I have an ambivalent attitude toward moralism and emotonalism. On one hand, as part of seizing power, the proletariat must necessarily create new notions of ethics and morality. Like Che said, love and hate are constituent parts of revolution. On the other hand, I find it to be a poor way to engage in sustainable revolutionary organizing in the First World; classes are not moved by morality, but use morality as covers for their own interests.
That said, I don’t find Ely’s comments about moralism very pertinent to the discussion. In fact, in my own critique of Kasama from January of 2013, in which I describe their line as ‘idealist-opportunist,’ moralism is left entirely out of the picture.
Who is Moralizing Who?
Though Ely presents Third Worldism as a moralistic argument, which it is not, he himself is more than happy to moralize about tens of millions of workers in the US living hand-to-mouth.
While we don’t deny this sort of strata exists in countries like the US, we don’t see the existence of this minority as evidence for the inherent revolutionary qualities of the vast majority of people, “workers” included, within the US.
An Interest in Overthrowing Imperialism
As Samir Amin notes, while plenty of people have a long-term interest in overthrowing capitalist imperialism, such implies a restructuring of First World economies away from an individual consumptionist model predicated on unequal relations with the Third World.
This is not the same as the pressing sectoral interest of the section of workers whose livelihoods are predicated on those systems of oppression.
Who’s Who In the US Working Class
Since Ely is convinced the working class in countries the US is largely exploited, it is worth asking: what portion of income-earning people in the US does Ely consider part of the “working class?” In reality, many people in the US work within tertiary or ancillary sectors of the economy which are ‘socially necessary’ under a particular epoch (imperialism) yet are questionably involved in the production of use-value. Are private security guards, for example, part of the working class according to Ely’s line? Managers? Lockheed Martin employees with six figure incomes? Etc? Or, are the prevalence of these types of professions indicative of a rentier section of the economy predicated on actual production by other sections of the working class?
RAIM, in referring to the portion of the population which owing to its favorable social position is able to draw in surplus-value without directly owning capital, is generally referring to it as a section of the entire US population (and not just a portion of narrowly or broadly defined “workers.”) Therefore, it is worth asking, is an employee with nearly a six-figure income part of an’exploited’ ‘working class’ according the Ely?
In my own opinion, being a worker subject to the whim of capital, a boss, etc, is a form of oppression and is the direct means by which surplus value is exploited from the working class. This, however, implies that not every worker is exploited. Thus, we might have workers (security guards, sales people, bartenders, accounts, bill collectors, the guy who writes you a ticket in a private parking lot, etc) whose labor is principally directed for the transfer of surplus value, not its creation.
Back To Prices
It has already been shown how much of the First Worldist accounting of the creation of surplus value ignores distortions bound to the prices of commodities that are traded on the international market such as the cobalt and precious metals in the computer you are looking at. Yet again, Ely conveniently ignores ‘actually existing Third Worldist’ literature in favor of strawmen criticisms of Third Worldism.
Ely trips over himself
Hilariously, Ely admits the integrity of the theory of the phenomenon he hopes of disprove, stating:
“There are some upper strata of workers (in the U.S.) that are paid far above the value of their labor power — and (conceivably) above the value of what they produce. I.e. there may be some section of workers that isn’t exploited at all. But if these exist, it is a relatively small number under very specialized conditions.”
Unfortunately, Ely’s cognitive dissonance on the issue does not allow him to name reality. If these workers are earning a wage and are “not exploited,” from where originally comes the value on which they subsist and socially reproduce? Semantic issues about “net-exploiters” and “parasites” aside, from where does this value come from?
Cutting to the Chase
“I am pointing out (quickly in a sketch, I understand) that it is basically wrong to describe the U.S. working class as parasitic, as living off the exploitation of the third world, as if tens of millions are not exploited.”
For all I know, “tens of millions” of people in the United States are exploited. By let’s not be liberal by using an exception to disprove a rule. This hypothetical tens of millions is a minority of working-aged people in the US. Whether this minority is capable of, first, independently uniting as a class and, second, independently leading the political charge to seize power are entirely different questions.
We Certainly Agree on One Thing…
…The need to organize for revolution in the US. However, we have a different conception of what this means. Ely presumes issues related to political-economy and class structure can be tucked out of sight behind marketing campaigns to woo embourgeoified workers. It is ironic that Ely, who markets himself as non-dogmatic and open to new ideas, would take such a stale, dogmatic line on the “working class” (as if his is not the same line as 95% of nominally Marxist organizations in the US). While there is a grain of truth to the idea that the rug of social privilege is being swept from under the traditional labor aristocracy, default First Worldism masquerading as Marxism – an idealist-opportunist analysis which ignores history – certainly won’t be capable of adjusting itself into anything but reformism and ‘socialist’ evangelism, at best.
We are certainly open to discussing class structure and emergent trends in the world-economy. However, we insist on a starting-point beyond a cookie-cutter ‘workers vs. capital’ paradigm and cliche strawmen arguments leveled against Third Worldism.