Labour aristocracy

Ben Courtice benj at
Wed Feb 5 17:20:40 MST 2003

Wow this debate sure went on a lot. I guess I don't have the time that some other comrades here do. I'm just getting on to my next comment on Tom's original questions, while everyone else seems to have finished the discussion (for now) or even been shot down in flames (DMS)

Jose Perez wrote:
The exploitation of the third world clearly has something to do with it. But
that isn't the origin of the differential. The American bourgeoisie
originally had little choice but to pay more than its European counterparts
because the availability of land for farming throughout much of the 1800s
tended to set a floor to wages that was much higher than in Europe. That's
what made the U.S. a magnet for immigrants throughout the 1800's, before the
rise of the modern imperialist system. There was always, apparently, a hefty
wage diferential.
To posit a relationship of actual economic exploitation **between** workers
would require, I believe, an extensive top-down revision of Marxist
economics, something unwarranted when the phenomenon of privilege and a
labor aristocracy has been analyzed and succesfully integrated into Marxism
without any need for such wholesale revisons.
Just for the record, I don't think first world workers, or the labour aristocracy, actually exploit other workers. They just benefit from the relations of imperialism, and thus take (or support, or at least acquiesce to) opportunist political positions. (more on that below).
As to the first paragraph of Jose's; yes, a similar situation existed in Australia. The higher employment creates better conditions for workers to secure higher wages. The passage from Mandel that I cited originally points out that subsequently, the development of imperialism produced a similar phenomenon in all imperialist nations.

Just to repeat Tom's list of questions: 

*what is the mechanism by which surplus value from super-exploiting the 3d
world working class, or women in the west, or American blacks, ends up in
the bank accounts of the labour aristocracy?

*how do the bosses prevent the "flow-on" tendency noted above from
spreading this outside the aristocracy?

*who is part of this aristocracy, and who is not? It should be possible to
give some rough outlines for the Australian or American work force. 

*Are relatively privileged workers in (say) Indonesia part of an Indonesian
aristocracy? If so, what do we make of the fact that they are probably
worse off than many Australian non-aristocrats?

*what is the evidence for a correlation between political consciousness (eg
quiescence and non-quiescence) and your place inside or outside the

The post where I replied to the first question indicated that workers in the first world are better off because they benefit from being in the "metropole" or whatever term you prefer, where labour is more productive, unemployment is lower, etc. and the economics I cited back this up (thanks to the late Ernest Mandel). Tom says "Ben says it's all workers in the west" -- but I didn't mean that, I mean all "western" workers are better off for being in the west, not *every individual* but in general.

How the labour aristocracy is structured depends on the state of the class struggle and (another facet of it) the strength of the imperialist power in question. Lenin pointed out that in Marx and Engels' time, when Britain had a colonial monopoly, the labour aristocracy was very big. Lenin reasoned that in the epoch of imperialism, the labour aristocracy had become a general phenomenon, as with "bourgeois workers' parties". (more on them later!). However, as well as being generalised across the imperialist nations, the labour aristocracy was only a small section of the working class. 

That is, the working class isn't homogeneous, only a (generally) small section receive significant benefits from imperialism. Exactly which section this is changes with time. For example, in Lenin's time one could point to skilled tradesmen in industry. The blights of craft unionism which were very strong especially in the US are a good example of this section defending its skilled monopoly. In modern times, with a greater relative homogenisation of skills, the division between permanent and casual workers is another such division. So in regard to Jose's post suggesting the standard of living has been rising in the US: I can well believe that, but of course not all sections of the working class have enjoyed that. Remember Mike Moore's film "Roger and Me" about the dying auto town Flint? and the dear departed David Schanoes made (for once ;-) ) a reasonable point with the statistics he cited to "disprove" Jose -- I think both have elements of truth.

How the labour aristocracy relates to opportunism: it is the material basis for opportunism in the labour movement. That is, opportunism (reformism, if you prefer, Tom) exists (for example in Indonesia) independently of any real labour aristocracy. That's why reformism is far less stable/strong in Indonesia. For a local example, I think back to my time in the Federal public service, which began just before Howard was elected, in 1995.  Over this period the public service structure changed (actually starting under the Labor government, think of the destruction/privatisation of the Department of Administrative Services, enterprise bargaining, etc). Where I worked (Tax), the lower level employees -- clerical assistants, etc -- were hived off into data processing pools (casual workers), call centres were set up, and the more "professional" tax law experts and so on generally carried on as before. For the union, this represented a threat: membership loss. Previously, under the Labor government, union activists had a somewhat corrupt career path by which they could become part of the management in a way, in various "consultative committees", "change co-ordinator positions (well paid!) and so on. Many of the workers put up with this, union politics was the activists' thing, leave them to it, they look after us etc. When the Liberal government tried to cut the union out of the picture, the union bureaucrats found it hard to mobilise people in the union's defence, because the people who were really under attack (the lower levels of the public service) had not been defended by the union leadership, and the people who the leadership looked to as a base were not so significantly under attack. 
That's my reading of it anyway.

Trying to equate the labour aristocracy and the labour bureaucracy leads one to the economist position of presenting the workers as a spontaneously revolutionary, or militant, mass, held back by only a thin line of officials. On the other hand, without the corrupt political leadership, why would we care about a labour aristocracy? 

Lenin never reduced the labour aristocracy to monetary privilege: "the political institutions of modern capitalism -- press, parliament, associations, congresses, etc -- have created *political* privileges and sops for the respectful, meek, reformist and patriotic office employees and workers, corresponding to the economic privileges and sops." (Imperialism and the Split in Socialism)  Consider the path to trade union career in Australia, versus in Indonesia. In Australia, many union officials sing The Red Flag thus: "The working class can kiss my arse, I've got a union job at last!" (well, that's their attitude anyway). In Indonesia, activists such as Marsinah and Dita Sari are assassinated, beaten and imprisoned. 

Regarding the idea (supported, I believe, by Tom) that the nature of trade union officialdom creates opportunism: I think this is an anarchist theory not a Marxist one, in the end. Ed George (I think?) pointed out to the difference between, the Protestant workers of Northern Ireland -- who cling to the state for their relatively better status -- and the UK Miners, who recognised that it was the struggle of their union which gave them their better status. the MUA in Australia is another example, although the currently opportunist leadership is probably a sad indication of how militant unions can be transformed (not completely!) into more conservative ones by resting on their previous victories. Backed up by militant workers, a union official need not "sell out" (unless you consider any compromise a sellout). Backed up by passive labour aristocrats, or by demoralised highly exploited workers, a union official can be expected to succumb to opportunism, if they hadn't to start with.

While the labour aristocracy may provide the basis for opportunism, this is not an absolute law, but a general tendency. Individuals or groups within the labour aristocracy, or at least the skilled sections of the workforce, are often more receptive to radical ideas precisely because of their situation: better educated, more free time, etc. I think the socialist movement in Australia de facto recognises the existence of a labour aristocracy by not orienting to labour struggles first and foremost (there aren't many), but to "social movements" like antiwar campaigning, environmental politics, refugee solidarity and so on. These campaigns to some extent bypass the conservatised labour bureaucracy, and radicalise people who may be, in industrial/union terms, quite conservative. Of course, if socialists had a bigger impact in the unions, these movements could then in turn be stronger, with union support -- the relationship is dialectical.

Really have to go to work now. Hi ho hi ho. But that mostly finishes what I had to say. Hope it's of some interest?

Ben Courtice

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