Working class and the power of capital

Can the Working Class Change the World

The working class, if it decides to win in class struggle, has to assess the power of capital. Without this assessment, the struggles the working class carries on against capital turn to adventurism or capitulation or puerile disorder. Consequently, the struggle lurches in a political wilderness, or, resorts to individual heroism, formulating programs that reach the level of utopia, produce something called misspent energy, and discard the essential work of political education, organization and planning. Michael D. Yates, in chapter 5 of his recently released book – Can the Working Class Change the World? – conducts the important task – an assessment of the power of capital.

Michael D. Yates, director of Monthly Review Press and former Associate Editor of Monthly Review magazine, presents an assessment of the power of capital on a global scale:

“Labor unions, labor political parties, and peas­ant organizations have, indeed, changed the world. Yet they have not succeeded in defeating capital and moving the world on to a radically democratic and fully egalitarian trajectory. Capital is still firmly in control of production, distribution, and politics. Most of the world’s income and wealth is monopolized by a small number of persons and global corporations. The advances made by the working class, broadly conceived, have proven short-lived and vulnerable to capital’s power. The Soviet Union is no more, and China has moved rapidly toward a full embrace of capitalism. Social democracy is on the ropes in the Global North and has been thoroughly defeated in Great Britain and the United States. Even at its peak, social democracy did little to help workers and peas­ants gain control of their workplaces and land or to force a much greater equalization in the distribution of wealth. Greater income equality happened, but it is wealth that matters most.”

The assessment may sound caustic to some persons/ideologues as it adds:

“If social democracy has never led to a full-scale assault on capi­talism, what reason is there to believe that it ever could? Today, it is impossible to believe that there will be a recovery of even the modest political and economic project that labor unions and polit­ical parties once embraced and helped bring to fruition. This leaves a stark choice. Either continue to accept capitalism as a given and try to squeeze whatever crumbs capital might be willing to let fall from its table or radically change direction and begin to build a global movement that can transcend capitalism once and for all.”

He also reminds readers:

“During the massive protests in Europe in 2011, […] social democrats were remarkably silent.”

Does this silence tell a bit about social democracy’s collaboration with capital? Does it show that the silent “warriors” are actually a part of the political wing of the dominating capital in those economies? Today, the working class has to find answers, in specific terms, not in general terms, to these questions if it is to organize its radical political march.

The assessment may shower shame on some, while, to the revolutionary political forces, may sound a bugle to class war by the exploited. This, the call to class war, is entirely political, entirely class-based, entirely under the leadership of the working class, and entirely free from NGO-politics – a politics designed to secure capitalist-imperialist politics by theoretically, politically, and organizationally disarming the working class.

The labor educator presents a brief view from a number of countries in this chapter:

“[F]rom Latin America to India, left-cen­ter political parties have often espoused policies that would help workers and peasants, but they have seldom delivered. Instead they have been mired in the same appeasement of capital, favored export-led development, given subsidies to foreign capital, and failed to heavily tax the wealthy or implement serious land reforms. This has been true of Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Nicaragua, and India, among many other nations. Corruption has been a common denominator in these places too.”

Corruption has now turned into a tool for expropriating and appropriating entire peoples in entire societies, which is ultimately paid by the working class as it is the working class that produces wealth. Corruption has turned into a tool for primitive accumulation, and a political tool for subjugation. Imperialist capital, multilateral financing organizations and the armaments industry, all take a role in this plundering.

Michael Yates presents a hard fact missed by some observers in the camp of the people:

“Ironically, the only gov­ernment that has not gone on an austerity binge is Japan.”

The reason behind this is that in Japan, there has been a weakness of some part of global capital. It should not be forgotten that Japan’s economy became so weak the economy experienced what has been called a period of lost decades. It’s a highly developed capitalist economy, which finds many persons get lost, economically speaking, every year. Where’s the weakness, where’s the strength, and what’s the tact of this capital?

Professor Michael Yates also presents a labor union-reality from Japan:

“[M]ilitant labor unions were crushed by post–Second World War governments, aided by the United States occupation and an alli­ance with Japanese organized crime. Unions in Japan are typically company-controlled, and social welfare is not very generous.”

Unions, not only in Japan, in many countries are organized/controlled/manipulated/crushed by capital by employing hoodlums, lumpen elements appearing to be members of the working class. It’s a power of capital to take the initiative. Even, literature on unions mostly goes silent on the issue – employing hoodlums. A more important issue, quite often absent in working class literature, is the role unions should take while confronting capital, and the relation between union and politics of the working class. It’s a neutralized and/or sold-out leadership sitting at the head of the working class, a leadership devoid of any revolutionary politics.

The professor of labor economics brings to notice this aspect: “[L]abor unions and political parties did little histori­cally to build rank-and-file democracy and competencies or to engage members in radical, empowering education and actions [….].For some of the same reasons, workers are forsaking labor unions, and union den­sities continue to fall, everywhere.” Actually, this absence of practicing rank-and-file democracy and educating members is a demonstration of capital’s power, the power to corrupt, the power to inactivate as practicing democracy at grassroots level of union and political education enables union members to engage in combat with capital.

The power of capital to influence and control is evident as “[i]n the stronger social democratic parties,” writes Michael Yates in the chapter, “the trends are the same, moving steadily rightward, harming the working classes of their respective countries in an effort to ward off attacks from conserva­tive political formations. While these parties once administered the social pact between labor and capital in such a way that social welfare spending and working-class security increased, today, with capital abandoning the labor-management accord, they too are deserting what was once their chief constituency.” The story is re-told by the economics professor: “In Great Britain, the Labour Party long ago abandoned its com­mitment to the working class.”

In a number of countries, the reality is no less bad: Individuals – either a bunch of blackguards or a band of betrayers to the class – usurp union leadership with a posture of being busy with “activities related” to the working class. And, in some countries, these are simple fortune seekers, careerists, and a new breed of predators, living by union money and money from dubious sources.

The professor cites the rising trend: springing up of the far right, anti-immi­grant, neo-Nazi and neo-fascist forces redrawing the political map of countries beginning from northern, eastern, central, southwestern Europe to the other side of the Atlantic. The development was, Michael Yates writes, “unimaginable even two decades ago.” He informs us of a more alarming fact: “For some of the same reasons, workers are forsaking labor unions, and union den­sities continue to fall, everywhere.”

This development shows a few aspects of capital’s power, and limits of power:

(1) Capitalism, specifically a faction of capital, finds no alternative other than resorting to an ideology and politics, which is nothing but backward, and harmful to its existence. For example, capital’s exploitation of cheap labor – migrant labor – is driven out. The migrant labor is a part of the reserve army of labor. This reserve army of labor could have worked as a bargaining chip with the labor in capital’s own yard. Capital is failing to exploit cheap labor, although it is always running at fatal speed to maximize its profit, and exploiting cheap labor is one of the ways to maximize profit.

(2) The faction/part of capital resorting to acts harmful to its own interest is powerful enough to influence at least a part of labor and, in the field of politics, a part of electorates.

This reality related to capital simultaneously exhibits its power and weakness.

“Labor and politics”, a section in the chapter, tells a few bitter truths, which is hidden by the mainstream, a major source of information for the commoners. The facts include:

(1) “Organized labor [in the United States] has tied itself to the Democratic Party, which by no stretch of the imagina­tion can be described as a labor party. It has, in fact, abandoned whatever concern it had for working people, believing instead that a coalition of highly educated suburbanites and traditionally Democratic minorities gives it the only chance to gain state power.”

(2) “Yet, despite this, the AFL-CIO and most of the member unions contribute tens of millions of dollars and untold hours of phone-banking, house calls, and social media work to get Democrats elected, no matter how conservative these politicians are.”

(3) “In 2011, for example, Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO president, and James Hoffa, Jr., head of the Teamsters union, were sharply critical of then-president Barack Obama and the Democratic Party for catering to business and ignoring the working class. Forget for a moment that these labor leaders have been far removed from the working class for a very long time, and Hoffa, who is an attorney, never did a union job like those his members do every day. Their reproaches were well founded.”

(4) “Yet, when Obama ran for a second term, [Trumka and Hoffa] were all-in with the rank and file’s money and time. Hillary Clinton, who, if anything, was even more pro-capital than Obama, got the endorsement of Trumka and nearly all AFL-CIO unions.”

(5) “The unions shunned Bernie Sanders, a left-liberal who actively courted those who do society’s work. The Democratic Party treated him like a pariah, whose candidacy was wrecking it. Clinton tried to tar him as pro–Fidel Castro, when, to his credit, he refused to denounce Cuba during a debate.”

So, Michael Yates writes:

“An independent labor politics rooted in militant action is as far removed from the think­ing of U.S. labor chiefs as can be imagined. They will do anything to maintain a mythical seat at power’s table, seemingly oblivious of the truth that no one at that table sees them sitting there.”

This is an evidence of power of capital. This power to corrupt and control a part of labor leadership is much powerful in a number of countries in the periphery, although capital in those peripheral countries is not as powerful as its kin in the advanced capitalist economies. Here lies a contradictory condition of capital, and a task for the political forces claiming to be for the working class.

The power of capital to corrupt and control a part of labor leadership is again brought to notice by Michael Yates:

“Yet there are many examples of unions treating minority and female members in a discrimina­tory manner. In the United States, craft unions once refused to accept African Americans as members (they were barred from admission by the unions’ constitutions), and racial disparities still plague unions in terms of holding union office and access to jobs. Women are woefully underrepresented as union officers.”

A fatal practice by a part of leadership – discrimination in union themselves – in the service of capital! And, this is a power of capital, a power that needs to be assessed by labor for identifying the approaches, attitudes, viewpoints, “friends”, and forces that it needs to neutralize.

The chapter discusses the emergence of and set back in socialist blocks, and impact of revolutions in Russia and China on the world. “In the Global North, especially in the advanced capitalist econo­mies of Europe, the fear of a left-wing labor movement compelled capital to recognize and deal with workers affiliated with social democratic parties and governments. These parties were not radi­cal; they neither foresaw [nor] favored the overthrow of capitalism. They might appear socialist from the vantage point of the United States, but that sets a low bar. Their political programs assumed the indefinite continuation of capitalism […]”. This is also capital’s power.

This power seems, at moments in history, all-powerful. So, “a sense of political powerlessness”, writes Robert B. Reich, “is on the rise among citizens in Europe, Japan, and the United States”. (“How capitalism is killing democracy”, Foreign Policy, October 12, 2009) In the peripheral countries, the major portion in the world of capital, the reality is, generally, more than the “sense of powerlessness”. A specific, country-by-country, assessment of political participation by people in the political process arranged by dominating capital and imperialism will show that there’s no scope and space for participation by people in those countries.

Everyday developments in the political arena in those countries stand as witness to the claim made above. The reason behind this is the state of capital, backed by imperialism, in those countries. Reports, etc., of organizations/agencies/donors on their so-called democracy initiatives in those countries bear another evidence that supports the claim.

Why is there a sense of powerlessness among citizens in the advanced bourgeois democracies? Why this absence of space for political participation in the peripheral countries? Professor Dani Rodrik of Harvard University points out a fact: “If we want more globalization, we must either give up some democracy or some national sovereignty.” (“The inescapable trilemma of the world economy”, Dani Rodrik’s weblog, June 27, 2007) No doubt, the globalization professor Dani Rodrik mentions is capitalist globalization. It’s like taking a toll; the toll of de-democratization, or, non-democracy; the toll of infringement/trampling of sovereignty.

Robert Reich’s assessment provides an answer to the questions made in the paragraph above: “By almost any measure, global capitalism is triumphant. Most nations around the world are today part of a single, integrated, and turbocharged global market.” The same is found by Mark Blyth, Eastman Professor of Political Economy at Brown University, as Blyth writes, “capital markets and capitalists set the rules that democratic governments must follow.” (“Capitalism in crisis”, Foreign Affairs, July/August, 2016)Martin Wolf, chief economics commentator at the Financial Times, London, also tells about this power of capital: “Today’s capitalism is global. [….] Left to themselves, capitalists will not limit their activities to any given jurisdiction. If opportunities are global so, too, will be their activities.” (“Capitalism and democracy: the strain is showing”, Financial Times, August 30, 2016) All these observations are from the mainstream, not from Marxist-Leninist literature.

The working class has to identify capital’s power in every area of life including workplaces, unions and politics if it is to meaningfully encounter capital.

All these, the tales of capital’s power, remind the observation made by Marx:

“In Western Europe, the home of Political Economy, the process of primitive accumulation is more or less accomplished. Here the capitalist regime has either directly conquered the whole domain of national production, or, where economic conditions are less developed, it, at least, indirectly controls those strata of society which, though belonging to the antiquated mode of production, continue to exist side by side with it in gradual decay. To this ready-made world of capital, the political economist applies the notions of law and of property inherited from a pre-capitalist world with all the more anxious zeal and all the greater unction, the more loudly the facts cry out in the face of his ideology. It is otherwise in the colonies.” (Capital, vol. 1, Progress Publishers, Moscow, erstwhile USSR, 1977)

Today, in many countries the process of primitive accumulation continues with barbaric force. It’s capital’s power, indeed! In countries, it’s medieval in appearance, and in others, it’s modern. It continues with imperialism’s active participation. It continues mainly in the Global South, the area imperialism considers its backyard. The working class has to dissect this reality while getting ready to charge it. Michael Yates assists in the assessment of capital’s power with his book.

Farooque Chowdhury writes from Dhaka.

Note: This is part 6 of a series introducing Can the Working Class Change the World?. Countercurrents, and Frontier, Kolkata have already carried parts 12  3, 4 and 5.




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