[Marxism] Re: [foil] article by Joaquin Bustelo on ClassConsciousness vs Americanism / White Male( Worker)'s world view
jbustelo at bellsouth.net
Sat Nov 4 22:41:09 MST 2006
Sukla writes: "Confronted with frustrating failures, the easy lure of
identity politics, or some variation, becomes for many of us rather
My article wasn't about "many failures," it was about the non-existence of
the working class in the United States as a class-for-itself, a coherent or
cohering social/political actor or protagonist.
This is not a "lull" or "temporary downturn" but rather a stable feature of
U.S. society on a time scale of decades, in other words, a lifetime of human
political activity. This is not something that can be explained away by
referring to how bad the union leadership is or to the strength of the
Democratic Party. It requires a deeper, more *organic* explanation.
I have posited that this explanation is to be found in male and imperialist
privilege, which in turn is based on the oppression/exploitation of women
and superexploitation of the Third World. And I have argued that there are
mechanisms of exploitation at work that are not recognized by Marxists, that
haven't been analyzed and integrated into Marxist theory, because otherwise
what we have is a political economy that is the mirror image of classical
bourgeois political economy: a very coherent, internally consistent and
self-contained system of ideas which in reality does not have all that much
to do with how the real world works.
We have a Marxist economic theory that says the main mechanism of
exploitation is simply that the bosses buy one thing (labor power) and wind
up with something entirely different (the products of labor). What is
*supposed* to happen when different national markets for labor power
intermingle through the world market is an equalization, a homogenization.
This does not, in fact, take place, not within a single country in many
cases and certainly not across countries. The argument that this is due to
political and military factors can be deployed only for so long until it
must be recognized that among the main mechanisms of capitalist exploitation
is simply armed robbery on an international scale. That, however, pretty
much destroys Marxism as a coherent economic theory, for political/military
deus-ex-machina factors winding up overriding the underlying economic laws
and tendencies of the system.
Therefore I think the subject of the interaction of different national
capitalist markets needs to be studied with an eye to finding the mechanisms
through which taking the products of labor from one sector of the world to
another automatically impoverishes the one and enriches the other. That
would be the Marxist economic theory that would be coherent with what we
observe about the world economy and the course of political and social
struggles over many, many decades.
In addition, if the commodity "labor power" plays such a central role in the
Marxian scheme, then it is necessary to have a closer look at just how this
labor power is produced and reproduced, not just the paid labor that goes
into it, but also the unpaid labor time. It may have been possible/plausible
in Marx's time to lop off the domestic (household/family) economy as
something apart from the system, but that is no longer the case, as quite
clearly labor moves from the family sector to the formally constituted
sector, for example, refrigerators, TV dinners, dishwashers, washing
machines and dryers, not to mention all sorts of cleaning products. The
formal capitalist economy is very much interpenetrated with the
household/family economy and the labor expended there needs to be recognized
and incorporated into the overall description of the functioning of the
economy. This, of course, speaks to the gendered division of labor that
arose before civilizations or class societies but that persists to this day
and is at the root of the oppression of women.
This would be a very fundamental revision of Marxism, but not exactly a
negation of it, but rather an expansion of it much in the way that the
general theory of relativity is an expansion of the special theory. This
would mean a recognition that capitalism rests of three pillars, class,
gender and national oppression/exploitation and not "most fundamentally" on
class from which gender and racial/national oppression arise or derive.
And this obviously grounds what is derisively dismissed as "identity
politics" --the struggle against the oppression of women and against racism,
imperialism and colonialism-- materially in the nature of the system itself,
not as secondary add-ons to class.
And I will add that there is in my thinking a possible fourth pillar of
capitalism, which is the alienation of human society from its overall
material base, the earth, but I haven't fully thought this through on how it
fits as it is in a certain sense extra-social, except that isn't exactly
true (indigenous people, peasants, and many third world people are affected
by this in special ways on top of what is at stake for human society as a
The reason I believe this revision in the way we think about how capitalism
works is necessary is that it corresponds to how the actual struggles
against the system manifest and have evolved. Race/nationality, gender and
class issues do not present separately but together in an organic way.
Attempts such as coming up with "unifying" class issues across national/race
and gender lines would be seen for what they have proved to be in practice:
a disemboweling of class that empties it of much of its content. Nor is it
true that such efforts are race or gender neutral or have no "identity
politics" -- they are an expression of white male identity politics.
People argue that this preserves the class issues as such. I think the
observed reality is that it negates class, at least, that is what has
happened in the U.S.
It does no good to rail against "identity politics" and how it should not
trump class politics because what we are confronting is the reality that
"identity politics" HAS trumped class politics in the case of Anglos in the
U.S. so thoroughly and completely that you can't really talk about a class
or labor movement in the United States, the class as a whole DOES NOT EXIST
for any practical political, social or trade union purpose.
I belong to an organization --Solidarity-- that has, I think it is fair to
say, more consistently engaged in "from below" trade union work with the
rank and file than any other left group, going back now three decades or
more, if you include the predecessor organizations. A central aim in
Solidarity's rank-and-file strategy is the recomposition of a layer of trade
union militants, an advanced layer.
One indication that in reality this has not been happening is that I have
yet to meet a single worker who has joined the organization directly out of
this work. nor have I seen any convincing evidence that the recomposition of
an advanced layer is anything other than sporadic episodes that dissipate as
quickly as they arise.
For a long time socialists argued that given the exceptional WWII boom, that
was to be expected. But the end of the overall rise in living standards
associated with that boom had taken place by 1970; it is silly to keep
insisting that the sort of economic situation that U.S, workers have faced
for three and a half decades will sooner or later lead to a wave of mass
radicalization or struggles, for it clearly has not.
Given this reality, many argue that a crisis of the system will sooner or
later force the capitalists to drive down the standard of living of working
people. That may be, but it tells us nothing about what to do today when
that circumstance does not obtain and we should remember, that basically the
status quo has been preserved with a great deal of stability for many, many
This problem has sometimes been addressed as one of "American
exceptionalism" but I increasingly believe that the United States is not the
exception but rather the most advanced expression of a trend to be observed
by and large in most if not all the imperialist countries.
The result of refusing to recognize *what is* will mean more of the same for
the American socialist movement. Apart from the ISO, pretty much the rest of
the socialist organizations are facing their expiration dates. They are
being held together by radicals from the 1960's and early 70's, who
increasingly are not in a position to continue shouldering the central
responsibility for the groups.
Despite all this, there are a series of social and protest movements in the
United States, but given the lack of a cohering presence of a working class
movement, they often exercise strong centrifugal pressures in activist
milieus. This is a problem because the struggle for social change is
essentially a political struggle, it is very nice to say "another world is
possible" but that "other world" needs to be presented as a coherent and
immediate alternative, at least in a transitional way (i.e., as a series of
immediate steps that begin opening the war to transforming society in that
direction), and in reality I don't seen a great deal of progress in that
Obviously the sweeping re-elaboration of Marxism that I raise would have
implications for the socialist and anti-imperialist movements in the
colonial and semicolonial countries but apart from some observations about
Latin America, with which I have some familiarity, I'm not in a position to
discuss intelligently what these might be.
My theses or hypotheses is very much grounded in the realities of the United
States and what these reveal about the actual character of the system and
the struggle against it overall.
That said, I would challenge very much the idea of privileging white/male
thought and culture in the way that Sukla proposes: "whether we like it or
hate it, the values of Renaissance/Enlightenment - putting humans at the
centre of the social universe, dislodging divinity, and legitimisation of
parity amongst the humans all across the board, will have to be the
foundational element, albeit to be developed further, of an emerging
universal morality and social order but not of course without a
panoply/multitude of cultural expressions."
I think that on the contrary, Mahatma Gandhi nailed it when he replied "I
think it would be a good idea" to a reporter's question about what he
thought of Western civilization.
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