Recently, Kasama Project (a post-Maoist organization) released a criticism[1] of what they termed “parasitism theory” (a misnomer for the analysis given by ourselves at Anti-Imperialism.com and other Maoist organizations) and what we term the theory of imperialism. The article, authored by Mike Ely, attempts to challenge much of what has been said regarding the labor aristocracy, global value transfer, and the political economy of imperialism as put forward by the Maoist camp.

We feel Mike Ely has committed many crucial errors in his attempt to criticize the Maoist understanding of imperialist class structures and, in fact, only further reaffirmed what we already understand regarding what we term First Worldism, the socially pervasive eurocentric understanding of the world. In this article, we will engage Mike Ely and Kasama Project, drawing from the article in question and show that, in the words of Marx, if things simply were as they appeared there would be no point in scientific investigation at all.

Before we begin, we will make a simple introduction regarding the premises of our argument and the criticism put forward by Mike. Mike begins with a misrepresentation of the argument in question (implicitly or otherwise). The usage of the phrase “parasitism theory” would imply that we are suggesting a novel interpretation of class society, specifically for the imperialist centers, or that we are suggesting in some way that the whole social body of the First World is parasitic.

This proposition is false. The theory Maoists have put forth is a scientific continuation of the work already established by previous thinkers in the Maoist tradition, in which it was clearly established there are certain sections of the working class, among imperialist nations, which have become complicit in the exploitation of oppressed nations given this enterprise’s benefits to the oppressor nation. This is something Lenin himself addresses in his early statements:

“Imperialism has the tendency to create privileged sections also among the workers, and to detach them from the broad masses of the proletariat. […] [T]he 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; for two important distinguishing features of imperialism were already observed in Great Britain in the middle of the nineteenth century—vast colonial possessions and a monopolist position in the world market.”[2]

Although this is a rather well established fact for anyone who is knowledgeable of imperialism (or at least the Leninist understanding), some are unwilling to complete these given knowns with their obvious conclusions. Lenin was at the very least aware of this:

“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.”[3]

Consider our endeavor to analyze capitalist-imperialism, as it really has happened, to be an expanded volume of what Lenin calls “colonial chauvinism” as it developed over a hundred years and exists today in the form of First Worldism, in a period in which the dominant imperialist powers, organized as a somewhat homogeneous bloc called First World, have military, political, economic, cultural and ideological hegemony over the Third World.

At any rate, we aren’t interested in “Marxist cred”. We could dig in Marxist archives for quotes all day, but we don’t need to in order for our analysis to be true with the science of Marxism. We wish only that our current project be treated not as part of a tradition standing outside of Marxism, but rather an actual and well-founded continuation of the Marxist method. We wish not for the denigration of ourselves or others, but rather for a dialogue with the rest of the communist left on the prospects of revolution and its path in the imperialist centers of the world-system. Regardless of the initial misgivings and misconstruction of our points (which may be in a sense a failure on our part to communicate and relate with other tendencies), we will engage Kasama Project and other Marxist groups who present us with criticism until the clear is made obvious.

First thoughts on Mike’s “parasitism theory”

Mike says:

“We have all run into theories that argue that the working class in the US is a class of parasites that lives off people in the third world. It is argued that workers make more than the value of their labor power — and that this fact proves that they must be living off the exploitation of others. The fact that workers (and even people on welfare) have color TVs, or cars, or air conditioning — is given as proof that they cannot be exploited and that they have made some kind of a corrupt deal with this system at the expense of people all over this world.”

This paragraph reveals the first fundamental problems with his criticism, and frankly with his understanding of what is being criticized. We suggest only what Lenin had suggested a century earlier: the ubiquitous wealth and influence brought with imperialism can and does create a community of interests between the top sections of the working class and the bourgeoisie; no one would rightly suggest that the whole working class of the United States is parasitic. Such an appraisal lacks any nuance and clarity which is the real power behind any correct analysis.

In talking about the value of labor power, Mike also miscontrues the Maoist analysis. By claiming “it is argued that workers make more than the value of their labor power”, Mike reveals a misunderstanding of what we have argued so far: we don’t use the category of labor power, but rather of the abstract labor value added by First World workers vis-à-vis Third World workers. In Nikolai Brown’s article “Calculating the Value of Labor”[4], he calculates (making some facilitating assumptions) that US workers receive in compensation the full value of their labor (not labor power) in addition to surplus value from the exploitation of Third World workers’ labor. Although the analysis presented in Nikolai’s article is not universally accepted among Third Worldists, Mike’s first misrepresentation lies in this line of argument.

Regarding the observation of “color TVs” as indicative of parasitism, we can only hope these misgivings are in at least a somewhat humorous tone. No one of relevance has suggested owning a car is akin to “some kind of corrupt deal with this system”, but this isn’t to say the living standards of any group are irrelevant to analysis. We want to concretely understand the material differences between the Third and First Worlds and what effect, if any, they carry. It would be more humorous to suppose the vast wealth and luxury enjoyed by the labor aristocracy and petty bourgeoisie in the United States does not in some way influence modern class formations, be it economically, culturally, or ideologically.

He goes on to call such an analysis “moralist” and drawing into question the “pessimistic” characteristics of our position. Although we must admit to finding nothing moralist about an honest class analysis or the pessimism in suggesting the vastly privileged (and historically reactionary[5]) sections of the First World (like white labor aristocrats) would not be jumping for joy at the advent of socialist revolution, a revolution against their material interests.

“Millions of workers are exploited in the US” is a banality

In the article, Mike claims millions of workers are exploited in the US. We think this is a banality: 316,148,990[6] people live in the US. Even if only 1% of the population was exploited, 3,161,490 people would be exploited, which qualifies as millions. We hold a minority of the population, mainly concentrated in the oppressed nations existing within the US, is proletarian.

The problem arises when Mike tries to go into the numbers game. He says “about a third of the working class lives (approximately) on wages at the value of their labor power”. On top of criticizing an argument that wasn’t made (about labor power), there are no statistics, no data to scrutinize, nothing.

But let’s tackle this from Mike’s own logic: one third of the US working class is being paid the value of their labor power or even below… so what does that leave with the other two thirds? Are they making above the value of their labor power?

We will have to reconstruct Mike’s arguments by providing the data his argument requires, in a sense playing chess with ourselves. Using data from the US Census Bureau[7], we can see that the bottom 36% (easiest statistic to find) of households make between 0 and 34,999$ a year; statistically, the closer a households is to 0, the less mean earners it has. This is the data (the average size of the household is around 2 people):

  • 3.52% of households with 0.23 mean earners make under 5,000$;
  • 4.11% of households with 0.36 mean earners make between 10,000$ and 14,999$;
  • 5.89% of households with 0.42 mean earners make between 15,000$ and 19,999$;
  • 5.68% of households with 0.57 mean earners make between 20,000$ and 24,999$;
  • 5.86% of households with 0.75 mean earners make between 25,000$ and 29,999$;
  • 5.44% of households with 0.85 mean earners make between 30,000$ and 34,999$;
  • 5.51% of households with 0.97 mean earners make between 35,000$ and 39,999$.

Given that Mike said they are making the value of their labor power or even below, we can assume that the top income here represents the monetary expression of the value of American labor power, that is, around 40,000$ per household. For Mike, 40,000$ a year means “there are tens of millions of people basically living hand to mouth, from pay check to pay check and able to pay for the bare necessities for themselves and their children”. We will let you judge if this is the case, but we think this is an incorrect assessment.

In relation to this argument, Mike makes a self-defeating point: among the people who are compensated at or below the value of their labor power (according to him), there are many young people who make low wages and can only reach more stable jobs later in life. Among the criteria utilized to appraise the labor aristocracy, there are also the prospects of future advancement and those of a worker’s children. Zak Cope notes[8]:

“The late English historian Eric Hobsbawm usefully proposed that the labour aristocracy be defined in terms of the level and regularity of a worker s earnings; his degree of social security; his conditions of work, and the way he is treated by foremen and supervisors; his political and cultural relations with the social strata above and be­low; his general conditions of living; and his prospects of future ad­vancement and those of his children.”

Why would a young worker who expects to join the worker elite undertake the task of building people’s war, when the current system built on the backs of billions can grant him a better life?

As a last point in this section, we would like to touch on a subject that is sloppily engaged by the First Worldist Marxists: the question of living costs in the First and Third World. A common objection made against Maoist political economy is that living costs in the Third World are lower than in the First World; however, to make this claim it is necessary for one to abandon Marxist economics. Matthijs Krul has written an article on living costs differences between First and Third Worlds, concluding that in terms of labor time, it is much more expensive for Third World people to get by than it is for First World people, as the relative purchasing power of the latter’s wages are much higher when calculated on the basis of the monetary expression of their labor time[9]. To quote:

“The LA Times fortunately has some information in their article of 26-03-2007 on the slum living of illegal immigrants near Los Angeles. They give the example of a family which earns $10.000 a year and pays $360 a month in rent. I’m not sure if this is household income, but I think so. Rent then is 43.2% of their income, monthly and yearly, for the equivalent of an illegal hovel. From Kenya we have info on slum living, assuming the source is accurate, from a Pambazuka News article of 03-07-2007 by Humphrey Sipalla. The cost of rent is here given as KES 2,693 monthly, which is at current exchange rates $34.26 (this just to give an idea). According to the article, this represents 22% of their income, I assume also applies to households. If this is accurate then, the housing cost in a Kenya slum is just under half of what it is for illegal immigrants in California (22% versus 43%). But it would have to be 1/20th, i.e. ten times as cheap, to remove the difference in living costs altogether. Of course rents account for differences in costs as mentioned, but comparing Nairobi to the Los Angeles area seems to me not so unfair as to undo that entirely.”

Once again, on the revolutionary subject

Mike says:

“This is a significant class — and one capable of tremendous force if mobilized around transformative politics. It is multinational, and has millions of white working people within that grouping (often called “poor whites”). At the same time, it has, for well known reasons, a higher representation of African American, Latino and immigrant workers than the population as a whole.”

Here we don’t disagree much with Mike, but we should add some nuance to his thoughts. Clearly, there is a significant class, a potentially revolutionary force, living in North America. There is no disagreement here. However, we are rightfully critical of those who posit an historically reactionary strata as being the revolutionary subject. Mike makes mention of “poor whites”, and quite deliberately so. Perhaps he’s expecting us to claim that there are no proletarian whites, which is obviously untrue. There are many proletarians. Millions in fact. Millions of potentially revolutionary white workers. But in the scope of the hundreds of millions of white suburban labor aristocrats, petty bourgeoisie, and aspiring bourgeoisie, what is that really? We are much clearer than Mike on the question that proletarian leadership within a prison house of nations such as the US necessarily means proletarian leadership of oppressed nations and oppressed genders.

The latter point is whitesplained away by Mike, who argues the North American proletariat is “multi-national”; this is the same mistake the likes of Howard Zinn have made in portraying the different working classes of the oppressed and oppressor nations in the US as a uniform mass, when this is obviously not the case. To pretend that national oppression and the necessary national liberation struggles meant to answer them don’t in some way bend our understanding of class formations is right opportunism. Pretending there are no contradictions among the people, when clearly there are. Does the proletariat consist of many nations, oppressed and oppressor? Certainly. Is that dividing line of oppressor and oppressed nation important in the scope of revolutionary struggle? Incredibly.

This is why we in the Maoist camp consider national liberation struggles so important, particularly in North America. Because the proletariat in North America is overwhelmingly made up of oppressed nationalities, national liberation opens the field for proletarian leadership within the struggle for national liberation. The contradiction between classes, the capitalist and proletariat, becomes heavily mediated by the contradiction between the oppressor white-settler nation and the New Afrikan, First Nation, Chican@, and Boricua peoples who account for much of the proletariat in North America.

We are not forgoing white proletarians like some cruel academic observers, but we are not engaging in whitesplaining opportunism either. We want a socialist revolution in the First World, that means first and foremost national liberation for oppressed peoples living inside, the liberation of the Third World within the First World.

The worker elite is, by and large, “getting surplus value”

In the subsection “workers aren’t getting surplus value”, Mike states:

“There is also something to clarify: If (for historical and social reasons) a worker or a section of workers are (for the moment) making wages above the value of their labor power — that is not money that comes (somehow, directly) from the exploitation of workers elsewhere. It merely means that (for historical reasons) the ruling class is forced to pay some strata of workers more out of the accumulated value created by the working class. Workers are (overwhelmingly, with very few exceptions), in virtually all of the strata of the US working class, paid considerably less than they produce.”

The same misconstrued point Mike made at the beginning of his article makes a comeback. It may be true that being paid above the value of one’s labor power doesn’t imply receiving super-wages containing value extracted from other workers, depending on one’s understanding of Marxist political economy. It is however true that being paid above the value of one’s labor requires one being paid with value extracted from other workers.

The latter is in fact a reality for the majority of the American working classes, and it is part of the economics of the labor aristocracy (particularly among white-settlers). For the sake of investigative rigor, we are going to make a case of our own despite the fact Mike himself hasn’t provided much evidence for his claims. We are going to estimate the magnitude of labor embodied in the US economy from the oppressed nations internationally, drawing from the method used by Zak Cope in Divided World, Divided Class, with some slight modifications. Primarily, the objective is not to arrive at a monetary expression of value transferred to the US, but to estimate the labor embodied measured in worker-years. This makes the process more straightforward and forgoes the use of cryptic equations.

An obvious place to start looking for contributions of oppressed nation workers’ labor to the US economy is in the realm of trade. The US imports a significant quantity of goods from peripheral and semi-peripheral countries, as a quick glance at where our clothing and other personal affects are made reveals. To begin with, we looked at the economies of every peripheral/semi-peripheral country the US trades with significantly. About 4% of the nominal product of these countries is exported to the US. If we were to follow IMF reasoning, this would imply that roughly 4% of the 2.5 billion workers in these oppressed nations (about 100 million workers) are involved in the production of good exported to the US. We might be tempted to say from this that the 100 million workers in the oppressed nations, involved in the production of commodities for the US, perform 100 million worker-years annually (with a worker-year representing a year of labor in the abstract) and that all of this labor is contributed to the US economy.

The problem with this reasoning is that it assumes that all the value contained in exports from oppressed nations to the United States is value added in the oppressed nations. Our critics will be quick to point out that this is false. In truth, workers in the oppressed nations, especially in exporting sectors, are often working with materials and means of production imported from the United States and other imperialist countries. Imperialist countries export capital and take part of the product. Thus, some of the value embodied in the goods that oppressed nations export comes from elsewhere.

We will here make a couple of assumptions which are very generous to Mike’s case. First, we will assume that all of the value contained in imperialist country capital export comes from imperialist country workers. Second, we will assume that all of the value contained in imperialist country capital export is transferred to oppressed nation exports. These assumptions are mostly made for the sake of making our calculation feasible but it will also give us a very conservative estimate of the value added by oppressed nation workers to their exports. Thus these assumptions, if anything, bias the calculation toward Mike’s case.

According to Zak Cope’s calculations, when subtracting the contributions of capital and intermediate goods shipped in from outside the oppressed nations, the value added in oppressed nations to exports is reavealed to only be about 35% of the total value of the exports[10]. Using this to modify the original estimate of labor embodied in exports from oppressed nations to the US (100 million worker-years), we wind up with 35 million worker-years of oppressed nation workers’ labor contributing to the US economy annually.

Initially, 35 million worker-years may not sound like much in comparison to the total labor that ostensibly happens in the US (there are around 150 million workers in the United States). However, virtually all of the 35 million worker-years of oppressed nation labor in the service of the US is productive labor, labor that adds value, as it is involved in the production of commodities (there is a very small amount of service sector export from oppressed nations but it is basically negligible).

How much of US labor is productive labor? We’ll employ Shaikh’s and Tonak’s definitions here[11]. Labor that is involved in personal consumption (e.g. services), distribution (excluding some transportation), and social reproduction is non-productive in the sense that it does not produce value. Subtracting these sectors of the US economy, we find there are around 21 million workers in productive sectors. These 21 million workers perform 21 million worker-years of labor in the abstract annually. We now have an easy comparison.

graph

This estimate of course does not include other means of value transfer to the US, like returns on FDI in oppressed nations (the more traditional capital export route) and debt receipts. It is also notable that the US consistently runs a considerable trade deficit, whereby it is able to effectively consume goods produced elsewhere without losing anything in return. A thorough analysis would of course take all of these things into account, but for our purposes it is not necessary to go further (and risk boring readers to tears) for we have already shown that investigation into this topic reveals that Mike’s claim that the “overwhelming majority” of value realized in the US is produced within the US is false. Our estimate is rough, but it can serve as to show orders of magnitude (i.e. does labor performed in the oppressed nations account for a majority of value realized in the US or not?).

(Tables utilized can be found here: Value transfer to u.s.)

Inequalities within the US working class

Mike says:

“There are some upper strata of workers (in the US) 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.”

As we’ve already discussed, a very large sector of US workers are not, in fact, exploited. We may now delve into the inequalities present within the imperialist class structure of the United States itself in order to address Mike’s new point: the sectors of the population that aren’t exploited exist under “specialized conditions”. This is indeed the case, if “specialized conditions” indicate specialized occupations.

By browsing data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics[12]), we can see that the vast majority of the American workforce makes median wages above 15$ an hour (to use a yardstick coming from the famous demand of the Fight For 15 movement). The occupations which pay less than this yardstick are ones involved in food preparation, farming, fishing, forestry, personal care, building and grounds cleaning and healthcare support, which only account for a few million people in the workforce. The vast majority of Americans are employed in those “specialized conditions” Mike indicates.

On the American “accumulation of surplus value”

Mike states:

“One of the claims of the “parasitism theory” is that workers are not exploited in the US (or that perhaps only a few of them are, and they are mostly immigrants brought in from without)…And, of course we understand (and work hard to expose) that the US is not a benevolent superpower…Still, it is also worth pointing out (and documenting, of course) that the surplus value gathered to itself by the US ruling class is overwhelmingly from production within the US It is not the case that most profit is made externally by US based capitalists as a class. The US is a massive manufacturing center (even after all the rust-belting and outsourcing). There are many millions of workers being exploited in countless different streams of production. And vast amounts of surplus value is accumulated here — from the working people here.”

To be pedantic, surplus value isn’t accumulated, capital is. The correct Marxist sentence is the accumulation of capital, not the accumulation of surplus value. Surplus value is extracted; to rephrase Mike, then, vast amounts of surplus value are extracted from the working people in the United States.

We have previously established this isn’t the case, and that the majority of American workers don’t in fact produce surplus value. We aren’t quite interested in determining which individuals or how many Americans are and aren’t proletarians; what we’re interested in is trends. We have established most Americans aren’t exploited because America’s class structure is marked by the imperialist exploitation of the Third World. This is the economic and material basis for further investigation into the politics, ideology, and culture of the labor aristocratic and embourgeoisified population; we can’t possibly continue explaining centuries of reactions by repeating the mantra of false consciousness until the end of times.

Imperialism: tangential or foundational?

Mike says:

“This does not mean that the extraction of superprofits from abroad is not an important part of imperialism (and an important part of the stability wealth and power of US imperialism). It is. Imperialist powers go to war with each other over better access to the profits outside their own borders. And the dominance of the world system brings with it great power to structure world financial markets, currency policies, production circuits and more — in ways that make production inside and outside the US more profitable.”

Playing all sides at once is very difficult, even for the best of opportunists. Here Mike provides us with anti-imperialist rhetoric with no real bite. Sure, super-profits are important, Mike says. But what does that mean? Super-profits are not just important, they are the driving force behind world imperialism. By relegating imperialist exploitation of oppressed nations to a secondary role, Mike presents imperialism as a secondary pool of wealth which pales in comparison to the massive surplus value produced by the First World proletariat.

We hold the super-exploitation of the Third World to be not merely tangential, but rather foundational for imperialist economies, as we have demonstrated; they wouldn’t exist without it. The de-industrialization of the First World, the rise of guard labor, the transformation of the industrial economy to a post-industrial, service-based economy, the embourgeoisification of most social strata are incomprehensible phenomena without understanding their economic and material basis in Third World exploitation. So it’s not a question of super-profits just being appealing because of higher profit rates, but rather it’s a question of the survival of the First World mode of life, entirely built on the exploitation of the Third World. This is why we speak of parasitism. This is why Lenin spoke of parasitism.

The function of concessions

Mike states:

“Investment in oppressed areas is sometimes more profitable (i.e. the rate of profit is often higher) — which is why some areas of industry and production are drawn out of imperialist social formations. But the amount of surplus value is mainly from within the US And so when some sections of the workers achieve concessions (at certain moments, through certain struggles), that doesn’t mean (in some moralist or direct way) that they are being paid or bought off by being handed blood money from workers around the world. Mainly the concessions are made by adjusting how much surplus value is extracted from them — while such concessions are made more bearable (for the imperialists) by their ability to recoup in other arenas of their system.”

Mike is quick at dismissing our points as “moralism”, even though they are far from being so. In fact, the argument provided by Maoists is that because the imperialist class structure is in its entirety dependent on the super-exploitation of the oppressed nations, concessions for First World people are bought with the exploitation of Third World people. This has a strategic importance: as the storm centers of revolution in the Third World advance and undermine imperialism, the bourgeoisie will not be able to rule in the the old way.

Lenin remarked:

“The fundamental law of revolution, which has been confirmed by all revolutions and especially by all three Russian revolutions in the twentieth century, is as follows: for a revolution to take place it is not enough for the exploited and oppressed masses to realize the impossibility of living in the old way, and demand changes; for a revolution to take place it is essential that the exploiters should not be able to live and rule in the old way.”[13]

From this stems the concept of strategic confidence in the international balance of forces[14]. Maoist global class analysis concludes that the majority of the world’s people will benefit from the demise of imperialism, and that their active struggle against it is going to make the bourgeoisie not capable of maintaining its First World regime of social pacification on the backs of the Third World.

To return to the question of concessions, we must ask ourselves what their purpose is, if not social pacification.

First of all, we must say that concessions are part of the reproduction of labor power; the reproduction of labor power requires a political strategy on the part of the state meant to reproduce the social division of labor. The state machinery must take into account the relationship of forces between the ruling class, its allies, and the dominated classes and groups, as well as the latter’s way of resisting bourgeois hegemony and repression. In reproducing the relationship of domination, the bourgeois state grants concessions meant to bring social peace among classes and groups. Giovanni Giolitti, a 20th century Italian prime minister, said Italy’s imperialist economy will be developed “not by shooting the workers, but rather by instilling in them a deep affection for our institutions so that we ourselves and not the socialists will be seen as the promoters of progress and as the ones who are trying to do everything possible in their favor”.[15]

Mike also makes a significant error in his articulation which helps provide further evidence to our position. He claims the granting of concessions does not mean the labor aristocracy is being handed “blood money from workers around the world” but then goes onto say “such concessions are made more bearable…by their ability to recoup in other arenas of their system.” Is that not exactly the thesis put forth in the Maoist camp? That the super-exploitation of the periphery and oppressed nations helps account for the relative wealth of the imperialist regions, including the disproportionate concessions made to some workers? Mike is simply restating our position in an abstracted form in order to not confront the question of the labor aristocracy.

As a final remark on method, we think Mike’s attempt at portraying the mass of workers as not “bought off” reveals a sort of anarchist epistemology according to which the vast majority of the population is oppressed by an overarching system, polarizing the conflict (as he says in the comments following the article) in the 10% who are oppressing, and the 90% who are being oppressed, a formulation reminiscent of the Two 90/10s concept put forth by the RCP-USA.

This is not a Marxist appraisal of the question, however; a Marxist understands the strategic purpose of the state (which is in the last instance a relation of dominance between classes, not an overarching entity/oppressor) as organizing the ruling class and settling matters among its sections, and disorganizing the classes who have a stake in the overcoming of the system.

In Mike’s appraisal, it seems he limits himself to the Althusserian conception of “ideology plus repression”, with those being the two main categories of analysis, whereas we think this isn’t enough. In this way, and operating on an anarchist epistemology, Mike subjectivizes the reasons for consent and locates them in trickery or repression or love for the power that oppresses. This goes against the historical record. Even the most despicable of regimes, the fascist regimes of last century, had to promote positive gains for sections of the population in order to disorganize the classes with an interest in overcoming the system by elevating the standards of living of one section against the other. There is always a material substratum to consent.

In “Hitler’s Beneficiaries”, Götz Aly explains:

“The Third Reich was not a dictatorship maintained by force. Indeed, the Nazi leadership developed an almost fearful preoccupation with the mood of the populace, which they monitored carefully, devoting considerable energy and resources toward fulfilling consumer desires, even to the detriment of the country’s rearmament program.”[16]

And also, from the same book:

“Nothing less than massive popular greed made it possible for the regime to tame the majority of Germans with a combination of low taxes, ample supplies of consumer goods, and targeted acts of terror against social outsiders. The best strategy in the eyes of the public-opinion-conscious Nazi leadership was to keep all Germans happy.”

This is what Samir Amin calls the social-democratic alliance[17]:

“My basic thesis is that this new division of labor ushers in the era of the social-democratic alliance in the imperialist centers. This alliance takes the place of old alliances based on dying classes, such as the peasantry and the old petty bourgeoisie. The alliance is often strengthened by the division of the working class into two sectors. The first is national and relatively privileged; it is the base of social democracy. The other is almost completely excluded from the system of privileges; it consists of immigrants, minorities subject to discrimination (blacks and Hispanic minorities in the United States, for example), young people, and women (especially temporary workers). […] The natural complement to the social-democratic alliance in the center is the external alliance of the imperialist bourgeoisie with the exploiting classes of the periphery, either feudal and comprador classes or the dependent industrial bourgeoisie, depending on the era. On a world scale, this hegemonic bloc clashes with the bloc of national liberation forces, the composition of which varies with the class structure of each peripheral country. The reproduction of this international structure involves imperialist ideological hegemony. It also involves the material corruption made possible by the superexploitation and looting of the periphery and by the economic impact this has on the center (full employment and combined growth of wages and productivity). This ideological hegemony makes it possible to extend electoral democracy to the working class, which had been impossible in the preimperialist stage. Nationalism, in its former national chauvinist guise or in its current panoccidentalist form, sustains this hegemony.”

For Maoists, glossing over the divisions and disorganization of the masses serves no purpose. Strategy and tactics require a concrete appraisal of social forces, they require a social cartography of the terrain of struggle; the latter can’t be mapped if we insist on mythologizing the working class.

Maybe it could be argued that Mike is just incredibly nuanced and this can account for his seemingly contradictory rhetoric. However, this would also require an absurd amount of effort on behalf of the reader (and is likely a very generous presumption). It would seem as though Mike wants to adopt many characteristics of the Maoist camp but only when it comes to ‘going through the motions’ of Maoism. Those ritualistic phrases, practices, and attitudes we all adopt to express our alignment. Although, the difference is that where our understanding of imperialism actually informs our positions, Mike seems content to maintain a rightist and opportunist understanding of America while paying lip-service to anti-imperialist politics.

Are labor aristocrats evil?

Mike says:

“What I am arguing here is something more specific: That the fight waged by workers for a bit of stability in their lives, for enough money for a trip, for collective bargaining, for relief from ugly foreman harassment on the plant floor, for minimum safety conditions in the mines or slaughterhouses… such efforts are not (as they are sometimes portrayed) some corrupt and cynical demand for a bigger cut of the superprofits of imperialism. That is a flattened, distorted, and cynical portrayal of far more complex contradictions that exist all around us.”

Are labor aristocrats evil? Of course not, at least for the most part.

The labor aristocrats who go around consciously conspiring against the world’s oppressed are few, even though they exist. We know that the reality of capitalist-imperialism is not one of a massive world plot. Very few things are ever so simple and explicit. What is clear, however, is that the relative achievements in the way of ‘concessions’ by major trade unions in the US has not created some base of revolutionary action. In fact, the most powerful unions such as the SEIU and AFL-CIO stand firmly in support of liberal politics which barely caress the face of even moderate reformism.

None of this detracts from the survival struggles of the working class within the United States. We are not suggesting that workers should not struggle to advance their material conditions; something so integral to the experience of working people should be expected and embraced for the power it commands. But, we should not delude ourselves that these concessions are tantamount to anything more than concessions. These concessions can become more than just concessions but this is only within the frame of correct revolutionary organizing. A frame that Kasama seems to presume rather than construct.

Let’s not confuse ourselves here. Basic living struggles can become revolutionary, or even inspire more radical discourse in other planes of struggle (for example, minimum wage to whiteness, gender oppression etc.) but this is only possible with the direct action of revolutionaries. We cannot expect every fast food strike to spontaneously create radicals and revolutionaries from thin air. This sort of co-option from right-opportunists has lead to nothing but endless tailing. Our job is not to tail. Put quite simply you need eggs to make an omelet and waxing rhetorically about how much you support an omelet won’t crack the eggs.

(Mis)understanding the value of labor power

Mike says:

“What is the value of our labor power? Well, the exchange value of a commodity is (generally) related to the socially-necessary labor time needed to produce that commodity. And the value of labor power (i.e. of workers selling themselves) fluctuates around the socially necessary labor time needed to present that labor power to the capitalist (i.e. historically, the social dynamics of capitalism tend to force the wages of workers close to the minimum survival wage — i.e. the cost of bringing each worker back to work (food, rest, transport, clothes) and the cost of reproducing the working class itself (the money needed to raise the next generation of workers, i.e. raise their kids).”

There is a thick scent of Lassalle to be found in Mike’s analysis. It’s simply not true that wages within capitalism tend towards the “minimum survival wage” and, in the case of capitalist-imperialism, especially within the imperialist regions, nothing could seem more untrue. The vast network of consumer items and culture within the United States in particular has shown that wages are for more significant than the method by which every worker reproduces themselves physically. Wages are a way of reproducing labor power, both physically and socially. Therefore, it shouldn’t seem surprising when wages, benefits, and relative privilege is utilized in a way by which the ruling class can divide the workers and soften the contradictions of class society.

Another problem in Mike’s analysis is that his discussion of labor power seems to be limited to the US and its internal labor market.

In a previous article on anti-imperialism.com, Nikolai Brown said, commenting on John Smith’s work[18]:

“Smith talks at length about Apple products and makes strong comparisons between different workers involved in their production and distribution. According to cited research on the 2006 30Gb iPod, Chinese assembly workers working on the iPod made 6 percent of counterpart US retail workers, 3.2 percent of the wages of US production workers, and 1.8 percent of the wages of US professional workers working for Apple directly. Whereas the production and sell of the model accounted for around 14,000 jobs in the US and 12,250 jobs in China, the total wage-bill for the former was $719 million and the latter $19 million. Under these conditions, Apple purchased the iPod from oversees manufactures for $144.40 and sold it at retail for $299. The 52 percent of ‘gross profit,’ or $154.60, is divided between the profits of Apple and its distributors and the wages paid to its US workers. More importantly, this $154.60 is mistakenly accounted and understood as value added within the United States.”

The labor power of imperialist country workers is reproduced internationally and hence so is its value, as the means of subsistence necessary for the reproduction of the working class are mostly produced in labor processes going on in various countries tied together by global commodity chains. We will use the data compiled by Andrew Kliman[19] and assume that the entire labor share of American workers in GDP is required for their reproduction.

compensationgraph-kliman

Around 60% of US GDP can be accounted for by the working class and, under this assumption, it is equivalent to the total value of US labor power. While mainstream economics asserts GDP is a measure of value added (or value produced) in a country, from a Marxist perspective it actually measures the value realized in a country. If we assume Zak Cope’s calculations are correct, 95% of OECD profits can be accounted for by super-exploitation of non-OECD countries[20]; for the sake of facilitating our presentation, we’ll assume US profits follow the same percentages.

If the vast majority of US total profits can be tracked back to the exploitation of the Third World, and because profits go into capital formation and hence this same dynamic applies for past labor as well, we can easily say the US working class’ labor power’s value itself necessitates parasitism; the US working class’s reproduction itself is bound up with the relations of parasitism imperialism imposes on the world.

“Parasitism theory” and the question of revolution

“If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out that’s not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made. And they haven’t even pulled the knife out much less heal the wound. They won’t even admit the knife is there.” – Malcolm X

We and Mike don’t disagree on the need to do whatever is possible to create opposition to imperialism everywhere we can with the First World, and do so in a way to lead to revolution; that is precisely the goal RAIM sets for itself and hopes to carry out in a united front with other communists and whoever can be united. We do however think Mike’s glossing over the imperialist nature of the US class structure is counter-productive for communists; we wish to follow the principle of “going lower and deeper among the masses”, and without a compass we can’t know where lower and deeper actually is.

  • Klaas V. and Zak Brown

Sources:

[1] Mike Ely, “Working class exploitation in the U.S & the error of “parasitism” theory”, https://kasamaproject.org/threads/entry/working-class-exploitation-in-the-u
[2] Vladimir Lenin, “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism”, Chapter 8, https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/imp-hsc/ch08.htm
[3] Vladimir Lenin, as quoted in Eric Hobsbawm’s “Revolutionaries”, Chapter 12, “Lenin and the ‘Aristocracy of Labor”
[4] Nikolai Brown, “Calculating the Value of Labor”, http://anti-imperialism.com/2013/02/19/calculating-the-value-of-labor/
[5] J. Sakai, “Settlers: the Mythology of the White Proletariat”, https://www.indybay.org/uploads/2005/10/28/sakaisettlersocr.pdf
[6] United States Census Population Clock, http://www.census.gov/popclock/
[7] Table H-9 Race of Head of Household by Median and Mean Income, US Census Bureau, https://www.census.gov/hhes/www/income/data/historical/household/2011/H09AR_2011.xls
[8] Zak Cope, “Divided World, Divided Class”, Introduction
[9] Matthijs Krul, “On the Living Costs in the Third World”, http://mccaine.org/2009/01/17/on-the-living-costs-in-the-third-world/
[10] Zak Cope, “Divided World, Divided Class”, Chapter II.2
[11] Anwar Shaikh and Ahmet Tonak, “Measuring the Wealth of Nations”, Chapter 2, “Basic Theoretical Foundations”
[12] Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Occupational Employment and Wages – May 2013”, http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/ocwage.pdf
[13] Vladimir Lenin, “Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder”, Chapter 9, http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1920/lwc/ch09.htm
[14] MIM(Prisons), “Strategic Confidence in the International Balance of Forces”, http://prisoncensorship.info/news/all/US/1654
[15] Giovanni Giolitti, as quoted in Jonathan Strauss’ “Monopoly Capitalism and the Bribery of the Labor Aristocracy”, http://links.org.au/node/30
[16] Götz Aly, “Hitler’s Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State”
[17] Samir Amin, “Class and Nation: Historically and in the Current Crisis”, Chapter 1
[18] Nikolai Brown, “Review (Part 3 of 3): John Smith, “The GDP Illusion: Value Added versus Value Capture”, http://anti-imperialism.com/2012/11/06/review-part-3-of-3-john-smith-the-gdp-illusion-value-added-versus-value-capture/
[19] Andrew Kliman, “More Misused Wage Data from “Monthly Review”, http://www.marxisthumanistinitiative.org/economic-crisis/more-misused-wage-data-from-monthly-review-the-overaccumulation-of-a-surplus-of-errors.html
[20] Zak Brown, “Evidence for Global Value Transfer”, http://anti-imperialism.com/2013/08/12/evidence-for-global-value-transfer/

Join the conversation! 2 Comments

  1. […] a majority) of wage workers in the United States and the “First World,” mostly white, are not exploited in the Marxist sense of pay received versus value […]

    Reply
  2. […] (Readers interested in the arguments put forth in The Worker Elite may also be interested in the attempt by Mike Ely of kasama to engage with what he calls “parasitism theory” [parts one and two], and this useful rejoinder by the comrades at anti-imperialism.com) […]

    Reply

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