On The Existence of the Labour Aristocracy [Fw from Socialist Register]

Richard Fidler rfidler at cyberus.ca
Fri Feb 21 19:25:39 MST 2003

[Sorry about the staircase. Here it is again, reformatted]

Mac Stainsby, who must be lurking on the Marxmail archives these days,
posted something by our Anthony in Colombia to the Socialist Register
list a couple of days ago. It prompted this comment by Dennis Pilon, a
professor at York University in Toronto. (I am just the messenger
here. -- R.F.)

This new twist on the term 'labour aristocracy' - that essentially a
majority of all the workers of the north comprise a kind of
'aristocracy' in relation to the poor within their own countries and
working people everywhere else - is not well thought out intellectually
and ill-advised politically.  Historians used 'labour aristocracy' to
distinguish leadership cadres from rank-and-file or skilled workers from
unskilled workers, particularly in the period around 1880 to 1930.  At
best, the term helped elucidate some of the difficulties in furthering
union democracy or why it was so hard to move beyond craft unionism.
But at worst, the term fueled a particularly mechanical application of
Michel's 'Iron Law of Oligarchy' (organizations always become elitist
and undemocratic) or a simplistic condemnation of union leadership.  I'm
not sure 'aristocracy' was ever much of a good metaphor for the labour
problems it was trying to capture.  While it has served as an evocative
way of expressing the frustrations and inequalities amongst working
people, the idea of an 'aristocracy of labour' has always been prone to
distortion and a too-literal reading.  It's kind of like the old
pluralist idea of a 'labour elite' - labour has never, and never will,
form an elite on par with real elites: the wealthy, industrialists, etc.

So, given what I've spelled out above, I'm not crazy about a
resurrection of the term 'labour aristocracy', and certainly not in the
form set out by 'Anthony' below.  If concepts are to be meaningful - by
which I mean that they might help us understand and help convey the
complexity of the situations we face on the left - then they have to
have more than schematic applications.  Anthony makes a number of
assumptions - none of which are substantiated - and then offers his
'labour aristocracy' thesis to explain complex worldwide events.  I'm
afraid I don't buy it.  Let's review some of his points in more detail.

Anthony asserts: 1.  It is unassailable that there exists a privileged
layer of workers whose short term interest is in maintaining the status
quo 2.  He claims many or 'possibly a majority of workers' in
imperialist countries have "a three bedroom house, a car - or two,
electricity and the appliances that go with it, a university education
for[their] children, a high probability of a pension, affordable medical
care and dental care" 3.  And given that a majority of these privileged
northern workers have all this, they "have strong reasons to fight to
keep things as they are" 4.  However, he allows that though these
'privileged layers' have a 'conservative stake in the status quo', this
does not necessarily determine how they will respond to any given
political situation 5.  In fact, he suggests that whether any given
labour aristocracy 'sides with the capitalist class, or with the
oppressed masses' is an open question 6.  He then he asserts that the US
labour aristocracy is the most important in the world in terms of
'numbers, economic power, and potential political power' 7.  And
finally, he suggests that "[i]f the labor aristocracy of US imperialism
supports the war, it will happen. If the labor aristocracy of the United
States opposes the war, it will not happen."

All in all, a pretty remarkable set of propositions.  But they either do
not withstand empirical scrutiny or border on obvious.  Some responses:

1.  Yes, Northern workers on average have higher standards of living
than workers elsewhere.  So what?  What does noting this factoid tell us
about anything?  The implication of Anthony's analysis is that these
workers self-consciously know that their 'privileges' come at the
expense of third world workers and the poor in their own communities,
and that they must fight to keep them.  But surely Marxists know better
than this.  The standards of living for first world workers were the
product of class struggle and political concessions extracted from
powerful nationally-based ruling groups over a century and a half, aided
by complex historical events like war and the Cold War.  Neither is it
clear that workers themselves understand their 'privileges' this way.
Whenever anyone bothers to actually ask workers what they think, they
provide much more complex responses than the Archie Bunker stereotypes
fueling both right and left pundits.

2.  All the empirical evidence I've seen suggests that Anthony's rosy
view of privilege cannot be substantiated.  Workers wages have remained
stagnant for most for the past three decades, working hours have
increased, indebtedness has increased, healthcare costs are prohibitive
in the US, even for those workers with coverage, and rising in other
OECD countries due to drug patent laws, studies show declining levels of
WC kids going to university because of rising costs, and very high
levels of working people have no dental coverage.  The three bedroom,
two car myth is just too laughable.  These claims should be founded on
some effort at research, rather than anecdotal asides.

3.  It stands to reason that in the absence of any other options, you
will probably defend what you've got, especially given the declining
conditions for working people over the last three decades.  This doesn't
prove that northern workers are 'fighting to keep things as they are'.
There is plenty of evidence that northern workers would like to change a
lot - protect the environment, raise corporate taxes, keep public
services etc. But they face real barriers to getting what they want -
increasing costs of political organization, monopoly media, increasing
time pressures from work and public service downloading, etc.  In other
words, the conditions affecting working class behaviour are complex.
The 'privilege' line is designed to reduce this complexity in favour of
easy judgement and oh how workers are found wanting.

4.  Cutting the 'conservative status quo' line, I think any Marxist
would agree that political consciousness does not flow automatically
from class position.

5.  When are real people ever faced with such stark choices as 'siding
with the capitalist classes or the opressed masses'?  If only political
engagement were so simple and easy.  The reality of most working
people's lives is that they feel relatively powerless to do much about
the world, and, if they vote, they probably vote for the best of the
worst, with a working class pragmatism borne of suffering through
constant disappointment and unexpected troubles.  Its all right to talk
of socialist utopias, but most working people have got to worry about
how to pay for this or that and find a spot of happiness in between.  At
risk of 'discussing the Socialist Register and its articles' Jenson and
Ross sketch out some of the contradictions of real working class
politics in nice piece in SR in the mid-1980s.

6.  I can agree that the US WC is potentially very powerful.  But
empirically the US WC is and has always been very weak.  Its union
density and political organization has lagged behind the rest of the
western world. And this strikes at the heart of the whole 'labour
aristocaracy' line and why it doesn't help us much right now - it makes
a cohesive group out of what is in reality a largely atomized group, it
imputes motives and actions to a group that it is not clear they possess
or are acting upon.   The 'labour aristocracy' of the north is a
sociological reduction, it is aggratitive phantom - it doesn't exist in
the real world.  The real world of working people is of largely
alienated, atomized family groups, with some community connections
perhaps, amid shrinking union densities and weaking political cleavages.

7.  To say that if the US WC opposes the war it will not happen is just
an empty assertion.  What people want or don't war is largely irrelevent
in the absence of organized political power.  And that is the job of the
left. Instead of attacking working people with a kind of guilt trip
about thier 'privilege', the left could stand to offer a bit of
understanding to the complex problems that working people face.
Reciprocity works.  We take seriously the horrors of a class society for
working people, even in our relatively privileged north, and we'll build
the basis for a solidarity that can reach out around the world.

 A big part of the problem with Anthony's 'labour aristocracy' thesis is
that is starts from the abstract and then tries to stretch a rather weak
thesis over a vast empirical reality.  This is the opposite of marxist
method.  We must begin from the concrete, the material, from evidence,
and build our concepts in constant critical contact with them.


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