Interview with Michael D Yates on Labor — Organization, Negotiation, and Education: Begin by Asking Questions about One’s Own Life Circumstances (Part 3)

by Farooque Chowdhury and Michael D. Yates

Michael D Yates
Michael D Yates

The following is the third of four parts of Michael D. Yates’s interview with Farooque Chowdhury:

Farooque Chowdhury: What advice in terms of studying can you give to someone committed to the cause of the exploited?

Michael Yates: The first thing is to begin to ask questions about your own life circumstances. Let’s consider some examples. Suppose you are unemployed, marginally employed, or what is called an “own account” worker, a person trying to make a living by being a street vendor or something similar. Why do you think this is the case? Try to get beyond blaming yourself. Even during the Great Depression in the United States people tended to blame themselves. However, as it became apparent that there were millions of people like themselves, it became clear that other forces must be at work. What might these forces be? If possible, try to find others like you and begin to discuss what has happened to you or why you are living the way you are. From there, perhaps try to find things to read or listen to (online lectures, talks, and so on.) If you don’t have immediate access to such things, maybe visit a library and see what you can find. One of my first books provides some material on unemployment, as well as employment. It is titled Longer Hours, Fewer Jobs: Employment and Unemployment in the United States, published by Monthly Review Press.

An important task for those who seek to change the world is to learn something of the country in which they live. From the perspective of political economy as it applies to the working class and peasant class, all countries share some things in common. We live in a capitalist world, with very few exceptions, and nations are now more connected than ever because goods, services, and labor move across national boundaries through trade and migration. However, each nation has its own history, and what is possible in one place might not be possible in another. For example, in the United States, there are no strong working-class political parties, and the labor movement has been very weak historically — again with some exceptions, for example, during the Great Depression. To imagine that there will suddenly be a great wave of revolutionary fervor and radical change in the US is wishful thinking. On the other hand, consider China. Since the ascendance of Deng Xiaoping to the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party in 1978, China has adopted many changes that signal a shift toward capitalism, albeit with a strong state that still controls much of the nation’s production. The rural communes were disbanded, and a good deal of industrial production is at least partially controlled by foreign capital. Workers are exploited, and rural people have lost not only their communes but many of the socially provided services they once enjoyed. However, there is still a strong memory of the Mao period, which greatly empowered the rural masses. There is a flourishing labor movement and many intellectuals who are still true communists. So, any analysis of China’s likely future has to take these factors into account, as does the current political leadership. China has embraced some strong environmental practices, becoming a world leader in these. Nothing of the kind is true in the United States.

A good book for those living in the United States who want to learn its history is Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. Useful information about many countries in the Global South is published by the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research. A classic work for England is E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class. For China, good starting points are Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China and William Hinton’s Fanshen. For Russia and the Soviet Union, try Ten Days That Shook the World by John Reed.

Most of us must labor for a living. In fact, work is an essential human activity. For most of the 200,000 — 300,000 years of existence of Homo sapiens, we lived in bands of gatherers and hunters. For them, there was no conception of “work.” Members of the group learned tasks as they got older. There was a sexual division of labor, with boys learning certain tasks and girls learning others, though this was not rigid. For example, anthropologists have discovered that women sometimes engaged in long-distance hunting. Tasks — like making a canoe — involved learning to do many things, such as choosing the right tree, felling it, and shaping it into the boat. The same was true of every task. A person learned to do every “subtask,” so that he or she could make the output (boat, weapon, basket, clothes, tools) from beginning to end. Work then was not an alienating endeavor, but an intimate part of life. Collective rituals might surround work, as when a band came together to perform ceremonies that would guarantee a successful hunt. Similarly, there were rules for the distribution of what was produced. General equality was the rule, with certain exceptions, such as someone getting more food when pregnant. Anyone who claimed more than a fair share of something would be mocked or ostracized. Labor and the distribution of the fruits of the labor were collective activities.

Work in modern capitalist societies could not be more different. If we look at the word “work” and trace its meaning in many languages, we find that, according to journalist Jeremy Seabrook, writing in the Guardian:

Words indicating labour in most European languages originate in an imagery of compulsion, torment, affliction and persecution. The French word travail (and Spanish trabajo), like its English equivalent, are derived from the Latin trepaliare — to torture, to inflict suffering or agony. The word peine, meaning penalty or punishment, also is used to signify arduous labour, something accomplished with great effort. The German Arbeit suggests effort, hardship and suffering; it is cognate with the Slavonic rabota (from which English derives “robot”), a word meaning corvee, forced or serf labour.

The English “work” has an Indo-European stem werg-, via Greek ergon, meaning deed or action without punitive connotations; and Latin urgere, to press, bear down upon or compel. It is cognate with Gothic wrikan, to persecute, and Old English wrecan. Thus, in the word “work,” violence is latent, and it appears in the form wreak, when we speak of wreaking havoc or vengeance. “Toil” derives from Old French, meaning argument or dispute, fight and struggle.

Our labor is done for money paid by our employers, who consider what we do to be their property during the hours we are at work, which for many people extends pretty much throughout the day, as we might be on call all day long. We are monitored invisibly by ever-more insidious technological spying. We do not perform the entire task of making something or producing a service but only a small part of the entire production operation. Our labor is stressful, and we are woefully underpaid. To our employers, we are merely costs of production to be minimized, while or work effort is expected to continuously rise.

Since most of us will have to work, it is important to begin to study it. I have written a book about work that can serve as an introduction for those seeking knowledge about what they do to earn a living, and it might also teach something about how work can be transformed. The labor we do is central to the operation of the economic system in which we live — capitalism. Everything that happens to us at work, always initiated by our employers to control exactly what we do, is aimed at making our productivity is as high as possible, so that the employers’ profits are as large as possible. As the book shows, this leaves us as workers profoundly unhappy and alienated in multiple ways, from the goods and services we produce, from the equipment we use, from our coworkers, and even from ourselves. The book’s title is Work Work Work: Labor, Alienation, and Class Struggle. It is available from Monthly Review Press.

Your own study of work will be aided by a reading of an essay by Leo Huberman: “How to Spread the Word,” Monthly Review, December 1967. Huberman was one of the founders of Monthly Review magazine and Monthly Review Press. But he was also a labor union activist and educator. In his classes, he posed a series of simple questions for his worker students:

“Where do you work?

“Why do you work?

“Does the person who owns the factory [substitute your own workplace if you don’t work in a factory] work?

“Have you ever seen the stockholders of the corporation working in the plant?”

Huberman then says, “You all agreed you had to work in order to live; now you tell me there are some people who live without working. How come?” Huberman continues,

“Then there are two groups of people in our society. One group, to which you belong, lives by…? And the other group to which your employer belongs lives by…?”

After some discussion of these questions, Huberman asks more questions:

“Have you always had work?

“Mary says her plant was closed down for over a year. But she works in a textile mill. Didn’t people need the shirts her mill turned out? And Henry’s refrigerator plant, he tells us, was shut down for five months; didn’t people want refrigerators anymore?

“You mean to say that even though people needed shirts and wanted refrigerators, unless the owner made a profit, he closed up?

“What you are saying, then, is that in our system of production, goods will be produced only if there is a profit?

“Was that always true?

“Why don’t they make shirts, and refrigerators, and washing machines, and autos for themselves now?”

Huberman discusses the answers to these questions, and then he asks a few more:

“The owners of the means of production, the employers, are also called capitalists. Which of the two groups, workers or capitalists, have more power? Why?

“What gives them more power?

“Which group has the most power with the government?”

Try to answer these questions as best you can. You are bound to start thinking about your own work. Perhaps show these questions to another worker. Not only will you begin to grasp some important aspects of your own work, but by asking another person to ask them, you are, as Huberman says, “spreading the word,” which is the only way change can come about; that is, if larger numbers of people begin to reach the same conclusions about their labor then, because of what they have learned, seek to do something about all of this.

At some point in your studies, you will have come across references to the capitalist economic system, which has now taken over production, distribution, and much else in most of the world. This is perhaps the most unfortunate development that has ever occurred in human existence. It is the economic system that has truly perfected the exploitation of a large class of people by a much smaller class of people. In the gathering and hunting societies discussed above, there was no exploitation because there was no class of people who controlled the resources that everyone needs access to if they are to survive. In the societies that followed, however, a small exploiting class arose, one that could compel the rest of the people to work and produce as surplus that supported the controlling group. Still, though, in these exploitation-based societies before capitalism, those who worked knew who their exploiters were. The exploitation was transparent. In slave-based systems of production, enslaved people knew who their masters were. The enslavers wielded both economic and political power; they not only owned the plantations, but they also made whatever laws there were. In feudal societies, noble lords controlled large tracts of land, while peasants (serfs) worked their own small plots of land. In return for this plot, they had to pay rents in kind (that is, in part of what they produced) and in labor on fields set aside for the lord. They knew the identity of their lords, and they knew that the law of the manor (the estate of the lord) was set by the lord. Their exploitation was obvious in every bushel of grain they delivered to the lord and every hour they toiled on the lord’s fields.

With capitalism, the system’s exploitive essence is hidden by the fact that we buy and sell in markets. We buy a shirt by paying for one with cash, a credit card, or even with the swipe of a smart phone. We don’t know who made the shirt or under what conditions. The market acts like a veil hiding the production of the shirt. We sell our labor in much the same way. We apply for a job and accept a job offer. It appears to be a fair transaction. We see, for example, that teachers in a certain area receive a certain average wage. Our prospective employer tells us that this is the going wage, and we accept the job offer. It appears to be an equal exchange. After all, this is what the market tells us is the wage for teachers in this area. No one takes responsibility for it. When we start the job, we may feel that something is not right, that, somehow, we should be getting more money or working less hard. But we don’t know exactly what is going on. It is essential, then, that a person who wants to be a champion of the working class needs to know how the economic system works.

The best approach is to start with readings geared to beginners. I don’t recommend any simple-minded books or articles, only those that can take what are complex subjects and put them in a language understandable by working people. Unfortunately, around the world many workers and peasants cannot read, so a first step in such places is to organize literacy programs. I am no expert in this, but the example of Cuba is worth looking into. Do a Google search for Cuba’s Literacy Campaign for things to read. There is also an interesting course developed around the literacy campaign. In a society with widespread illiteracy, especially in the countryside, the revolutionary government headed by Fidel Castro established a vast campaign to teach the people to read. It began in 1961 and within two years, almost everyone was literate.

If we assume literacy, a book I wrote might be useful. It is titled Naming the System: Inequality and Work in the Global Economy. It delineates the primary features of capitalism, and it compares two theories of how it works. The mainstream approach, the one that you will see praised every day in the mainstream media (but which has little to do with the reality most of us experience) is compared to the radical approach, which, as you will see, aligns much more closely to the everyday lives of workers and peasants.

After you come to understand the basics of capitalism, you can move on to more complex readings. The greatest classic here is Karl Marx’s Capital. The first volume (there are three in total) is where to begin. It is not an easy book, so get a guide to go along with it. A good one is Michael Heinrich’s An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital. You might want to read The Communist Manifesto before Capital cowritten Marx and Frederick Engels. It is a much easier read, and also tells us important features of capitalism. In it is a famous statement: “All that is solid melts into air.” In capitalism, change occurs rapidly, and old ways of doing things disappear, replaced by new ways dominated by money. In fact, market transactions dominate our lives from beginning to end.

Once people begin to work, start to read, take some actions to improve their circumstances, a natural process of experience, study, more experience, more study, and on, takes place. Always test your ideas about action and study with others, so that life becomes a collective experience. You will discover new readings, and you will be well on your way to becoming an organic intellectual, a person who comes from or becomes a member of the working class whose knowledge and actions catch the attention of others. A leader, in other words. And if you have done things properly, this leader will be humble, one among many, and at the forefront — but always a member of the group first and foremost.

The interview was first posted in MR Online ( on February 16, 2024.

Farooque Chowdhury writes from Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Michael D. Yates is author of numerous books on unions, conditions in the working class, and the labor process.

Reprinted by permission of Monthly Review Online. (c) Monthly Review. All rights reserved.

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