Political Economy for Critical Educators and Students
Schools are centers of hope. They are
also, however, huge markets for buying and selling goods, hubs for distributing
dominant ideology and the mechanical skills which finally support inequality,
and, like most arenas where public and private money is mixed, sources
of some considerable corruption. But what keeps school functioning is a
promise made to parents and kids that they will be somehow better off by
supporting schools. Many teachers struggle valiantly to keep that promise,
persevering every day in the face of terrific institutional pressure to
renege. Many other educators succumb to the pressure, default on the promise,
forget that their reason to be is linked to hope and kids. These mis-educators
lead youths to believe that students cannot understand or transform the
world. They contribute to a society growing more hierarchical, stratified
by class, race and sex--a more unjust society that offers too many people
meaningless jobs and war as occupational futures. For educators who are
committed to schooling for a democratic society, who understand at the
outset that there is a relationship between inequality and authoritarianism,
the bridge that links hope and kids is the struggle for knowledge, gaining
and testing for what might be true.
But the academic left in education today
is a clutter of lost intellects in search of outside help. Jean Anyon,
for example, believes that if the rich do not willingly give their money
to schools, all is lost. Anyon has long been one of the courageous few
willing to say that the key denominator in understanding school is parental
income, social class. Her analysis is marginally sound but her solution
is unlikely. Michael Apple, the University of Wisconsin's leading radical,
calls for solidarity with the poor and suggests that a sense of moral outrage,
coupled with organizing around questions of dignity and justice--is the
route toward a democratic society. This just replicates hundreds of years
of failed missionaryism. Henry Giroux, once the leftist guru who said that
too many teachers are clerks of the empire now busies himself with cultural
studies and identity politics, most recently yet another critique of Disney,
rooting inequality in pop-psychoanalysis. Educator favorite Jonathon Kozol
,after writing brilliantly about the levels of inequality in schools, remains
stuck in recommending electoral politics as a way out. No one is a franchised
voter in the most important part of their lives: at work--unless they own
Radical icon Paulo Freire is dead. The
little publishing cabal which grew up uncritically praising a man who spent
his life calling for rigorous criticism, offers nothing but further iconicization
of Freire, who finally came out and said he believed in original sin--a
notion which rather closes critique. Herb Kohl, the enraged author of the
great "36 Children," is still, thirty years later, trying to figure out
how to preserve capitalism and have good schools for everyone. That has
not seemed to work.
Only Patrick Shannon at Penn State has
located the struggle in schools within the context of political economy
in his 1999 book, Reading
Poverty. In brief, the left in education, the centripetal point of
North American society, has nearly no grasp of what is afoot--and hence
no strategy about what to do.
In a society that is more and more unequal,
the traditional labor movement involves but a 12% of labor, and has little
movement to it at all. John Sweeny, the gangster from the Service Employees
Union, has made it very clear his primary goal is, like his predecessors,
to protect the interests of U.S. corporations. The teachers unions, combined
nearly three times the size of the next largest union in the U.S., are
led by people whose salaries are nearly ten times that of a beginning teacher.
The union bosses actively supported the recent oil wars and bombings in
Yugoslavia, and are at once deeply involved in U.S. intelligence schemes
(almost one-half of the AFL-CIO budget is spent outside the U.S.), and
promoting high-stakes standardized testing at home--while they do nothing
about class size, impoverished kids, or school segregation. They promote
racist procedures and standards for entry into the teaching profession
and worry that more than one-half of the 21st
century's students will be kids of color. Schools are growing more segregated
by class and race, and the two teacher unions, divided by a city-suburb
gap, claim that America's schools are internationally competitive. In fact,
there are about five public school systems in the U.S., each reflecting
teaching styles and curricula designed to reproduce the social class of
the kids in the school. The national school system does, for the most part,
what it is supposed to do. For some, like the children of doctors attending
wealthy suburban schools, classrooms may not be so bad--though even for
them it is commonly boring. For kids of the poor and working class, it
is like prison. The teachers unions follow the path of the old craft union
AFL, stumping for nationalism and propping up salaries by limiting job-entry.
This is the strategy that led the organization to be impotent today.
In brief, the left is either actually the right, or it is isolated, a lonely voice. This will change. Circumstances will not allow the vast majority to be stripped of their creativity, denied real hope, forever. Since every form of education is embedded in an analysis of the past, a standpoint in the present, and a call to action in the future, this is a partisan paper that tries to take the side of the majority, in order to build a more equitable and democratic society. I harbor few illusions about stating truth and having it accepted, embodied. What I will try to do is introduce a process to better understand, and therefore act on, the world--a process that is constantly asking for its own examination. This forms a partial foundation for what critical educators can do in school
In a society whose key pillars are all
labeled with signs of inequality, the issue for educators is: What is to
be taught, how--and why? What methods create critically conscious active
citizens, and what is it to be critically conscious? What methods will
best help kids to test rationally for their own truths? What intellectual
compasses can we offer? And, as important, what are the key wedges into
understanding society: what serves as the magnetic north for the compasses?
A society of unequals is most easily ruled
if those at the bottom are unaware of how they got there--or that they
are there at all. A powerful capitalist society, like the U.S.A., can be
quite successful at masking its power as long as its power remains fundamentally
unchallenged. In the most pacified areas, people are instruments of their
own oppression. Schools play a crucial role in such pacification.
I think there are centripetal issues in
capitalist societies, issues that focus all the others. If it was desirable
to pacify a population, it would be valuable to hide those issues, or to
make the people so myopic that they would be unable to distinguish a vital
issue from a peripheral question. This mystification is constructed in
capitalist schools. Students and teachers alike become convinced that they
cannot comprehend or act on the world around them.
The hidden centripetal issues in schools
which cradle inequality and the authoritarianism it requires are: (1) how
value is created, the role of production and labor, (2) how coherent methods
of inquiry are developed and tested, (3) the role of passion and responsible
sexuality, (4) how it is that people are set apart from their productive
lives, active intellectual growth, and creative sensuality. Capitalist
schools must conceal these reasonable questions, and make their answers
I seek to address all of these interrelated
questions, but my focus is on production on the one hand, and alienation,
separation, on the other. I have united this focus under the term political
economy, perhaps to the horror of some who might want a more precise use
of the term. My own hope, though, is that educators might use ideas presented
here to develop their own methods and critique, to test the compass and
to doubt my hypothesis that the issues I address are in fact the magnetic
north. Critical educators are not exhorters. We seek to question and present
a structure of a method which we think helps to unravel the central issues
Political economy is a theory of strife
and conflict which is full of strife and conflict itself. There is nothing
in this arena that is not controversial. I have taken positions on questions
under heated debate among people expert in this field and I have embedded
my positions in the text. Texts in the bibliography offer the earnest reader
views in opposition to mine.
These are times of traitorous hope and
dread of the future. We live on a beautiful planet with rich bountiful
oceans, generous lands, and industrial systems capable of providing all
with not merely food and shelter, but freedom from the fear of hunger,
emancipation from awe of the cold and wet. Our scientific developments
and artistic contributions allow us to imagine a world emancipated from
deadly plague and full of splendid explorations. But our youth enter a
world which offers little but the despair of meaninglessness. Cultural
offerings like art are not a subjects to create and savor, but packages
to be envied, purchased, and eliminated. Few young people can be optimistic
about work. Most jobs in their future will be menial and temporary. Rather
than explanations that make sense of a difficult future, schools tamp down
the expectations of the young, offer irrationalism (nationalism, racism,
sexism, etc.) as answers to problems that are never clearly articulated.
Youths are presented with their own bodies as early tombs, enemies demanding
unavailable food, commanding fear of sexuality and pleasurable desires.
Rhetoric of hope in this era is bound by sham claims of human unity when
every life experience points to disharmony and inequality.
The substance of all our dreams of fairness
and justice are recreated as formless ghosts and sold back to us as treacherous
commodities: revolutionary basketball shoes. Democracy and equality are
mocked: understood as richer than my neighbor, more capable of raising
bribes for politicians, more equal than you. Justice is for sale. The collapse
of some of the world's most advanced civilizations is an advertising spectacle
for the evening news: 180 million people are jobless in China. Culture
is more a magician's feint than a people's carnival: music is segregated
Yet this time of terror and betrayal is
also a time of great promise.
It is not our planet that is unfair. It
is a social system. It is wrong that we cannot love one another fully and
completely, bodily and spiritually, because a social system requires that
we at best envision only the most limited, boundaried, fenced forms of
solidarity among people, that we trade love for relationships with things,
that every relationship is first an economic transaction.
A good earth and malevolent society cannot
be the fruit of any Heavenly decree. What appears before us as bounty harvested
by wickedness is the result of human history, a process that we can understand
and which we can transform. But transformation is not something easily
announced and achieved. Redemption is a process of investigation, action,
reflection, and action once again. It is a process of sacrifice of time
and life. Every educator of any worth knows that sacrifice.
There is much to overcome: those who benefit
from injustice conceal injustice. They present grotesque inequality and
the absence of democracy, fear of loving, as imaginary, or, if real, as
the natural state of things. And, even should this be an unnatural state,
we are urged to wait, either to die or for someone to tell us what to do.
The privileged are practiced deluders. They have a wealth of deceitful
experience, while the accounts of the poor are mainly full of problems.
Time itself becomes a strategic advantage: those with leisure can learn,
plan, and maneuver.
Even so, those with leisure are caught
in a process which they believe is closed, the end of history. In fact
history is open, an endless spiraling trajectory toward the realization
of greater truth and possibilities for justice. Every tangle of life is
now a partisan knot, serving privilege and injustice or equality and democracy.
Things change. This tight knot can unravel.
Transformation is uneasy and uneven. Generation
on generation, our parents and their parents struggled to leave things
just a little bit better. So they did. We are not serfs. We are not slaves.
At the same time, our forebearers tried to learn from those who went before,
their successes and their mistakes. Recently our generations witnessed
the consequences of miscalculations in the fight for justice, the complete
collapse--from within--of the flawed effort called socialism.
We will pick up and begin again. The spiraling
lines of history make the struggle for justice and love irrepressible.
Our task is to try to understand what lies at the heart of injustice and
hatred, and what methods we can use that will not poison us or our goals
as we too make a better world. Above all, it is vital to understand as
much as possible the whole of what it is before us, and that what is finally
of interest to us is change for the purpose of fairness and love, freedom.
Millions of people are cold, hungry, victims
of once-defeated diseases. Millions are dispirited by the failures of past
resistance--and the apparent power of technological war. But hundreds of
thousands of people are already marching, picketing and spreading the word.
People are more linked together than ever before--through communication,
the exchange of goods, and lines of production. Many have a new and more
profound understanding of what is and what must be done--based on the losses
of before. At issue, as always, is not whether there will be resistance
and change, but how much is lost before justice can be won. People will
fight back. We must do so more intelligently than ever before.
One way of unveiling the mystery of a
society at odds with its people is a method first described by Karl Marx
and Frederick Engels: revolutionary communist political economy. Political
economy confronts issues central to life: human creativity achieved through
work and value. The method and its history are essential to untangling
where we have been and where we must go. This short paper is not designed
to replace the original, Capital,
but to make the ideas of political economy accessible, especially to people
Political economy is a theoretical approach
that seeks to strip back the appearances of reality and to get to the essence
of human relations, rather like peeling back the layers of an onion.
Political economy deals with social relations,
as well as things, products, commodities. These things are considered as
they represent real relations relations between people, between people
and the ways they work and exchange goods in order to live, and, ultimately,
between social classes.
Political economy, unique among efforts
to understand and act on the world, makes no pretense of neutrality or
false objectivity. Political economy insists that history and the future
are made by people, and that we can comprehend, make reasonable predictions
about, and change reality. Truth in an inequitable world is a partisan
thing. It is in the interest of elites to obscure reality from the many.
In this contest for the truth, facts take on a partisan character as interrelated
clues toward a greater whole, signals to where the truth might be.
People must interact with, and are a part
of, nature. People transform themselves and their world to survive. Political
economy tries to examine two inseparable processes: the ways these transformations
have occurred historically, and the governing systems which have paralleled
the changes. Political economy studies how societies grow and change. It
recognizes that relations between people in politics and economics cannot
be easily separated. Politics and economics are intertwined. There is little
political democracy without social equality.
The central issues people face is: How
will we survive? How will the generations continue? How can we better understand?
How will we work, procreate, and learn? In what ways shall we choose to
live? Under what conditions? Why?
This leads directly to another set of
questions: What are our circumstances? How did we get here and how did
can we understand the history of change that results in us? How can our
history help reveal how we can understand our world and make it better?
To discover our current situation, we
need a systematic and coherent method to investigate the material world
and the ways it changes. To begin, we need to pull at the onion, tear it
apart and get to its essence. Going to the root of things is the process
of abstracting. It is an abstraction to say that the primary roots of life
are work or production, sexuality and love, and the way knowledge is developed.
Let's say these factors are the magnetic north. They exist and have a powerful
pull. Political economy is both the compass and the knowledge necessary
to use it as a guide to the direction you choose.
A critical process of unveiling and action,
peeling the onion, abstracting, also plays a significant role in making
the future. Our analytical scheme not only seeks to explain where we are,
but influences where we go. Only the outer skin of the onion is easily
apparent. Abstraction, going at the core, seeks to move from appearance
to essence--and back to appearance with a richer grasp.
This distinguishes political economy from
the economics taught in most schools today, the economics which suggests
that the starting point for understanding is "scarcity and choice," and
never wonders how it is that in a society of natural and industrial abundance
that scarcity is an issue. This kind of economics seeks to deal only with
appearances, to obscure the roots of economics in labor and time, and,
in partisan fashion, to split economics from both politics and thorough
examination. Hence, most economics instruction is set up to preserve things
as they are.
In our era, rational political economy
focuses on the study of capitalism, or capital itself, its past and future,
with the possibility of a better world, a more just set of relations among
people on the horizon. Because political economy originates in a careful
study of the material world, and seeks rational explanations rather than
blind alleys of faith, it is an optimistic vision which urges people to
use it as a direction finder, to thoroughly analyze the specific qualities
of their world, every instance studied afresh. Unlike any other view, political
economy calls for a critique of itself in social practice. Don't just believe;
study and test. There are no calls to faith, only study and action.
Political economy insists that what you
do counts. Like any other theory, embedded in political economy is a call
to action, in this case, action on the side of the vast majority of people
in the world, those who must work to live, for the purpose of democracy
Political economy, born from the concrete
study of specific instances, cannot be a closed system. Knowledge grows
ever richer. It follows that there are both common investigative questions
guiding the idea, and unanswered questions always pending. Some of these
inquiries are woven into this paper.
For political economy, the most fundamental human activities are:
1. production (how we work),
2. reproduction, sexuality and love (how we remake ourselves),
3. and the construction
(how we think).
This article focuses on production, though
each activity reflects back on and influences the other, and, from instance
to instance, one may dominate the rest. I concentrate on production, recognizing
the limitation of the absence of a more detailed examination of the importance
of reproduction and knowledge.
Production is a process people initiate
out of life necessity, and which almost silently recreates people who must
engage in it.
has two key elements:
A. The relations of production which in capitalist society have four parts:
1. The form of ownership of the means
of production (land, machinery, etc.), under capitalism: private ownership
and collective production,
2. The way products are distributed.
3. The positions and mutual relations
of the people, which relate to their labor, class, race, and sex.
4. Power-relations of decision-making.
(This may be traced back to sex-gender forms of inequality, and, perhaps,
the central role of sex in questions of production and reproduction. It
appears that the earliest forms of inequality, and patriarchy, come with
the rise of the division of labor (discussed below) in the context of the
development of private property. Decision making power is also connected
to the construction of knowledge, perceiving, defining, and making into
signs, the ways people choose to explain reality.)
discover the relations of production, power, in a community, ask: Who owns
the factories, the land, the mineral rights, the banks, etc.? Who does
the work? Who are unemployed? Why do many work but few own? Who distributes
the goods, handles the products, and who profits from the distribution?
Who holds decision-making power in the work place, the school, the home?
Why? Who has the power to portray inequality as the natural order of things
or socially necessary? Whose values are taken to be second nature, self-evident?
What are the processes in the work place? How is human creativity promoted
B. The PRODUCTIVE
are: nature, people, and material. Geographic space, factories, human beings,
tools, science, labor power; all are productive forces.
Major developments of the productive forces,
significant social and technological changes, generally occur after changes
in the RELATIONS OF PRODUCTION. In other words, today's factory system
and mass industrialization required both an initial base in the productive
forces of the past, and new relations of production. The trigger of change
was a shift in relationships between people. The element which set the
process in motion was a shift in the relations of production--the destruction
of the feudal system by the capitalist class and the rise of nations. .
More precisely, in order for the industrial
revolution to proceed in England, first the workers had to be driven from
the land which provided them with a livelihood. Once this shift was accomplished,
industrial plants could be brought to life with their labor. The new relations
of production established when independent small farmers became jobless
workers made the industrial revolution possible. This did not happen one
simple step at a time, Technological change, advances in industrial production,
intertwined with the movement to the cities from the farms. But the shift
in social relations was decisive.
Still, productive forces set the conditions
for change in the relations of production. A market system and the beginnings
of factories had to be in place before it became profitable to drive people
from the land. Hence, the productive forces and the relations of production
weave into one another. This is a process which requires careful examination,
instance by instance, and, because it is not possible to finally pull apart
the relations of production from the productive forces, the above is not
meant to be a template to be applied to every case.
Let us consider peeling the onion again.
Without the core, there is no onion. But without the layers there is no
onion either. One is imbued in the other. Historically, most political
economists have too neatly split what we will discuss as the BASE and the
SUPERSTRUCTURE. A vulgar or superficial understanding would call the economy
the base: the political system, the prevailing ideology, mass culture,
and so on, the superstructure. The sharp division of interpreting base
and superstructure probably occurred because Marx and later political economists
needed to emphasize the fact that real understanding can only come from
deep study of the material world, arguing against contemporaries that it
is being which finally determines consciousness: that you are what you
do rather than what you merely think or say, and that what you do actually
recreates you. Marx pointed to the base, economic relations of production,
as the beginning point of history, the motive force. Even so, both Marx
and Engels repeatedly said that this is true only at the end of the day,
in the final analysis. Both insisted that it is the relationship
of developing productive forces and social interactions that cause change.
The relations of production and the means
of production refract each other, one refocusing and enriching the activity
of the other.
The base and superstructure split is a
false division, just as it is misleading to define the most important part
of the onion, in every instance, as a core. Surely we must judge reality
based on action, social practice. Power does lie in control of the economy.
But what people think influences action, and there is certainly power in
mass action. The mediating between people and ideas, people and work, are
at the heart of action for social change. Action, however, is not enough.
The failures of socialist experiments throughout the world demonstrate
that action must be informed by critical theory, especially theory about
economics, politics, culture, and social control..
The determinative factors in a capitalist
society are: capital, labor,
and the state (government).
None lives without the other. Each influences and alters the other. Typically,
capital and its production foundations are thought of as the base. The
relations of labor, the government, are considered the superstructure.
Again, this is an insubstantial way of seeing what is more correctly posed
as a profound interaction of relationships. Even so, to enter the conversation
about political economy, because the terms are so widely used, it is necessary
to know what is meant by base and superstructure.
The social BASE
is commonly understood as the productive forces combined with the relations
of production, under capitalism the mass industrial system owned by a relatively
few people, and the class struggle which grows out of this reality. This
is the beginning point, the foundation, for political economy. The foundation
of a historical epoch can be found in its economics--in the final analysis.
But the base is profoundly influenced,
and sometimes overturned, by factors in the superstructure. The superstructure
is inseparable from the base. TheSUPERSTRUCTURE
is made up of the prevailing
ideology and enforcement structures like the law, courts, schools,
prisons, welfare system, health care system, government as a whole, etc.
The base creates the terrain for the superstructure. But the superstructure
reflects back on, and sometimes determines the base. In other words, at
the extreme, ideas do rise out of the base, economics, but ideas can strip
ahead of the base and actually overthrow it--or even retard it. The banker's
profits create real divisions among people. But the mass of people, through
experience, may come to believe that profits are poison--and with this
idea (and the concrete reality that the struggle for profits does drive
people more and more together) develop the unity needed to make revolution.
On the other hand, the position of the Catholic Church, that the sun revolves
around the earth, a feudal belief, held power and retarded science for
The role of consciousness is pivotal for
successful revolutionary activity. The ideas of revolutionaries must not
only correctly reflect an understanding of their terrain, a practical grasp
of organization and power, but must also sweep ahead into a grasp of the
future society. When the material conditions exist to insure that the final
days of a historical epoch are at hand, it is the consciousness of those
who would make change that finally makes that change possible. To wait
for a capitalist crisis in order to attempt to rise up, without building
a mass base for class consciousness, only means that capitalist crisis
will be confronted by people insufficiently informed to make fundamental
Ideas are critical in altering both the
relations of production as well as the productive forces. Technology cannot
advance without a foundation in materials, as well as new ideas.
The unfortunately binary base/superstructure
interpretation is a method of understanding complex realities which are
constantly changing, a bit like viewing a frozen frame of a movie. Political
economy focuses on a precise study of totality of the material world by
examining trends and tendencies---but with specific references. That is,
it insists that neither ideas nor machines are autonomous, like the base
and superstructure or the frames and the film, they are bound together,
really indissoluble. At the same time, in order to grasp the process of
development, it is critical to locate the minutiae of historical workings--the
unique frames of the film. We do not have a movie without motion. We do
not have a movie without the particular frames lined up in a specific way--moving.
So we are studying matter, in motion.
Again, more often than not, the base sets
the stage for the superstructure. The system of ownership of the means
of production is at the core of the political system. But this distinction
cannot be applied mechanically. The base/superstructure distinction, the
dominance of one over another, is only properly rooted in a precise study
of a given situation--every situation taken as new. For example, the rich
often make decisions based on greed. Their motive is more privilege. This
comes from the base of the social system. But sometimes the rich act stupidly,
as in the failed U.S. invasion Vietnam--or Clinton with Lewinsky. Their
actions didn't match reality. The superstructure outran the base.
Political economy is not the study of
isolated statistics but of processes
at work in the real world; matter in motion. Things exist. Things change.
Things are interrelated. Things change each other: for the want of a nail
a horse was lost--and thus a war was lost. Given that things change, it
follows that social systems change. No social system can be above development,
change. Political economy studies the possibilities for change in the world,
the processes which make change for justice possible and likely.
These processes, inseparably tied to nature
and society, comprise the totality of life. If all things are interrelated,
ultimately weaving into each other; it follows that there is indeed a totality,
a whole, of these processes. In order to comprehend and transform any piece
of reality, we need a concept of both the whole and its parts, totality
and our standpoint. What is this? How does it fit in the general scheme
of things? The whole, on one hand, and the parts on the other, comprise
a contradiction: the onion's skin and the core.
All processes are composed of contradictions,
internal tensions, a unity and struggle of opposites: life and death, up
and down, hot and cold, plus and minus, rich and poor, light and dark.
The investigatory task is to investigate the process in its details, in
its specifics, grasping not simply to polar oppositions but also the mediating
spaces in between: twilight, aging, the middle class, lukewarm, etc Each
process holds many contradictions. To understand a process requires discovering
the key, main, tension as well as the specific factors which mediate that
tension. This discovery comes from careful tests in reality, not from merely
theorizing, but also from creating theories about the results of the tests:
practice, theory, enriched practice--using theories developed over centuries
of human experience. This is the system of ideas behind the procedure we
used to discuss the base and superstructure.
Economics is powerful. So are ideas. In
fact, economics is both an idea and a reality. How do the two play against
The study method which addresses how things
change is the study of contradictions and internal motion--called dialectics.
Dialectics implies that the seeds of the future exist in the present. Our
political economy seeks to unravel complex contradictions--in reality--not
just in our sovereign wits. At the same time, political economy locates
hope in a rigorous examination of the world at hand, not in divine intervention
or noblesse oblige.
the division of labor initiated inequality in the earliest days, the fundamental
contradiction in capitalist society is between the collective nature of
production and the private ownership of what is produced.
Millions of people must join together to make, exchange, and distribute
products, but they do not own and have no control over the products they
create. A relatively small number of powerful owners have interests that
are at odds with the overwhelming majority of people who must work.. Social
conflict, classes, domination, resistance, and revolution, germinates in
Some key questions to ask at this point
are: Who does the work? Who gets the proceeds of labor? Why? What conflicts
must arise? Who organizes and controls the productive forces and how---and
why? How can there be justice in a society based on inequality, greed,
and fear? Is everything always changing? Can an idea be an objective reality?
If change is inevitable, is capitalism really the highest and last stage
of human development?
With these questions at hand, and given
that political economy operates from the standpoint of those who work;
it follows that this is a partisan theory of morality and fundamental change.
Political economy suggests that change is built into our social system,
irrepressible, that this system is wrong, and that revolution is morally
and practically the method to alter it.
The contradiction between collective production
and private ownership originates with the historical DIVISION of LABOR.
The division of labor comes from the creation of surpluses, food and materials,
held by a relatively privileged few. These surpluses become private property.
Initially, it appears this division begins
with the assignment of specific sex roles. Pre-capitalist subsistence societies
probably were often divided by sex-classes and more or less egalitarian.
Sharp sex-class lines seem to develop almost simultaneously with the inequitable
seizure of surpluses. Still, even today, work roles of indigenous people,
sometimes matri-focal, are forcefully altered as they connect with the
capitalist world. In any case, the crude historical outline is: general
equality, surplus, private property, division of labor, power struggle,
inequality, power struggle. The division of labor has probably existed
to one degree or another throughout most of history. But under capitalism,
commodity production for profit, it reaches its zenith.
The division of labor has, under capitalism,
two parts: the social division of labor and the division of labor between
workers. The social division of labor refers to the virtually individual
ownership of the means of production and the systems of exchange. For example,
individual capitalists own various parts of the auto industry, oil production,
etc., and engage in life and death competition with one another. The division
of labor between workers refers to the specialization of work under capitalism,
joiners, carpenters, laborers, electricians, etc., all performing a particular
task, none producing an entire product, the commodity at the end of the
line being the representation of the sum of specialized work. The division
of labor in society plays out in the anarchy of international competition,
one capitalist at war with the next, and the despotic system of work where
laborers are stripped of freedom and humanity and, in many cases, of their
intellectual contributions in order to maintain full control over production.
The division of labor which separates
people from their full productive lives and from one another is a wellspring
of alienation which we will discuss below.
Division of Labor leads to Three Major Differences:
1. Industry and Agriculture,
2. The split of Town and Country,
3. Mental and Manual Labor.
In the U.S., for example, it now only
takes one person working on a farm to yield what fifty people once produced.
This advance in rural production simultaneously forces people from the
land to the cities which, in turn, become centers for knowledge and industry--industry
which created the tools to make massive farm production possible. At the
same time, those who work with their hands are distanced, physically and
socially, from those who work with their minds. The work of F.E.W. Taylor,
who demonstrated the efficiency (and increased socio-productive control)
of stripping workers of their critical and technical skills to speed production--and
to link rewards to this deepening alienation--is an important milestone
in understanding the division of labor.
This division of labor at once produces
people who own nearly nothing, who must live in a state of constant insecurity
and, at the same time, who are ever more organized into collective production,
dependant on each other. Today, with the passage of farm lands into the
hands of a few (in 1880, 40% of the people in the U.S. lived on self-sufficient
farms; in 1996, 1.4%), there is no land-based safety valve for social upheaval;
the role that huge tracts of land in the U.S. stolen from native Americans
served in the last hundred years.
Within the Three Major Differences, under
1. Agriculture is primary over industry
and within agriculture, grain is basic,
2. Within industry, steel remains key.
3. Mental and manual labor reflect back
on one another, but the surpluses necessary to subsidize mental labor are
created by manual labor. Knowledge, always a social creation, becomes private
property, a commodity like labor power itself.
The Division of Labor underpins private
property, the unequal division of workloads, the unequal division of the
products of labor (goods and services), and occupational specialization
Critical questions you might want to
ask which rise from this section of analysis are: Who has gained, and who
has lost, from the division of labor as it is extended by capital? What
society could be truly powerful without a base in agriculture, an ability
to feed its people? How is agriculture controlled by powerful nations?
How is labor divided in my life? What happens when industrial societies
colonize agricultural societies? What is country life like as more people
move to towns. What is city life like? Is it possible for a nation to build
a strong economy (or military) without a strong agricultural base? Why
is steel key to industry, or grain to agriculture? How deep is sexism,
if the rise of inequality was first reflected in the sexist division of
property? What if the idea that production is central to life is wrong?
What if sexuality, or greed and genetics, or ideology, is central to life?
What are the consequences of this thinking? Is it possible to create a
society where people are not pitted against each other, where each can
work as he or she chooses, where work is an art rather than a burden?
The central focus of capitalist production
is the creation of commodities to produce money, more correctly capital,
for exchange and profit, as opposed to creating products for use. Capital
seeks to transform nature, through work, exchange and distribution, from
use-values to exchange-values. Take for example, water, which by itself
is a useful item, necessary for life. Consider the relationship of water
pollution, caused by the development of industry and agriculture, and the
transformation of water into an exchange value--a commodity that must be
sold in order to continue to exist: Evian.
The value of a capitalist commodity is
set by the quantity of labor
power spent on and historically matured in it, by the working time
dictated, under given social conditions, for its production. This means
the value of a commodity is set by the amount of active work that goes
directly and historically (past labor made the machines) into its production,
as well as the value and time of labor it takes to make it. The value of
a commodity varies inversely to the productiveness of the labor incorporated
in it. The more productive the labor, over time, the less the value of
the commodity. The fewer people involved in the sale and distribution of
onions, the lower the value.
Price and value are not the same things.
Price is the value of a commodity expressed in terms of money. The value
of a commodity expressed in comparison with another commodity is its exchange
value (as compared to its use
value, which means, simply, the worth of a thing for use alone).
Money is now the only universal expression of value that can be equated
to any other value.
People may have once traded one artichoke
for twelve onions. Over time, with many exchanges involving not only onions
but oranges and potatoes, it became easier, necessary, to exchange money.
Then money became the goal of the exchange. The goal of production thus
becomes money, far more powerful in a given historical moment, than production
to create food. Furthermore, the object actually becomes money for investment, capital,
in order to gain power over the process of production. Onions are difficult
to exchange for land or factories. Better to save and invest. People who
control investment capital and/or means of production arecapitalists.
Capital, both an object and a process, is best understood as a relation
of social production, since capital cannot exist without the historical
development of these relations. The appearance is that capital is money
to invest, or a factory owned. The essence is the relations of production
which made the appearances possible.
After taking massive concessions from
the United Steelworkers Union who were promised job protections, the President
of U.S. Steel bought a liquor company and announced layoffs. A reporter
asked how he could do that in good conscience. The employer replied, "I'm
not in business to make steel. I'm in business to make money." Capitalists
have one big concern; the expansion of their capital. Over time, the more
distant capital moves from actual production, the more powerful it becomes.
Investment bankers, at the end of the day, hold power over manufacturers.
is the source of all value. Workers sell their Labor
POWER (labor, virtually any kind of work-effort, is an abstraction,
the root. Labor power is a saleable commodity. It is the potential ability
to work and create exchange value) to add value to commodities for relatively
subsistence wages. In doing so, workers themselves become commodities.
Working people must sell themselves as things, cogs, in order to continue
to exist. And workers often begin to measure their own human value in terms
of the commodities they produce--and to lose sight of the fact that they
produce value in the first place..
Labor power, a potential commodity that
can be sold for a period of time, is only the ability to work. You may
possess labor power and not find work.
Labor is labor power set in motion. The
worker sells not labor, but labor power. The difference between labor power
and labor contains what Marx called the kernel of understanding of a rational
theory of value, and surplus value, as we will see. Here, the abstraction
of labor is traced back to its profound practical application as labor
All of today's means of production were
created by the labor of history.
of production are tools,
factories, equipment, etc.
of production is the level
of the process of production (artisan work, industrialization, etc.) as
well as the relations of production which create and interact with the
process of production. Mode of production refers to the stage of development
of the productive forces, as well as those social relations which are coupled
with that stage. This means, very simply: feudalism = artisan work/serfs/kings;
capitalism= industrialization/working class/parliamentary systems and claims
Workers' labor, in a society dominated
by the division of labor, produces
surplus value. Surplus value is the value created by work over and
above the paid-for value of the worker's labor-power. Or: surplus value
is the difference between the value produced by the wage worker during
the working day and the paid value of her/his labor power. In brief, the
worker is paid for but a portion of her/his work. The remainder, that unpaid
labor, is, roughly, surplus value. Surplus value is retained by the owner
of the means of production. Therefore, surplus value is the source of capital.
In this relationship, capital is the part of surplus value that can re-engage
labor. The owner must return part of surplus value to pay off investments
in interest, rent, taxes, etc. What then remains is profit. Thus, profits
are part of surplus value, but not all of it.
Surplus value is invisible to most people.
People who consider themselves commodities may believe that they fairly
exchange their labor with an employer for pay. Surplus value, though, is
real and systematic exploitation--an unfair trade. Money (capital) is invested
in the means of production. But money and machines cannot produce a saleable
commodity. Labor is required. Labor power (work) is added. A commodity
is produced. The commodity is sold for a price greater than the cost of
the investment and the labor combined. The difference is surplus value.
Businesses which do not create surplus value die. But capitalists, in owning,
are able to exert power, even hidden power, over those who must sell the
most important and formative parts of their lives, their work, in order
In practical terms, workers enter a factory
and contribute to building a commodity, let's say, a Ford Pinto. Ford,
the owner of the factory, pays the workers only a portion of the value
of the Pinto produced by the workers, keeping the rest: surplus value.
The capitalist pays the worker for the time of the labor power, but keeps
the value of the commodity produced.
Surplus value is taken by the owner, capitalist,
who uses (possesses) it for profit, interest payments, taxes, and rent.
The source is labor power--work unpaid.
The capital the capitalist reinvests into
the continuation of the production process has two parts: (1) constant
capital and, (2) variable capital. Constant capital is the value the capitalist
must reinvest in the means of production (factory space, machines, computers,
etc.) to produce commodities. Variable capital is the value that must be
paid to the work force to keep them alive, returning to work. The cost
of constant capital is fixed. The cost of variable capital shifts depending
on the resistance of the workers, the social conditions of the time, etc.
Surplus value is rooted in the relationship of constant and variable capital.
The capitalist at once must reinvest constant capital repeatedly in order
to keep pace with competitors; and the capitalist must find ways to either
speed production, lengthen the work day, or reduce the costs of keeping
workers alive, in order to keep the pump of surplus value primed and performing.
The battle over surplus value, who shall
control and benefit from its increases, is at the heart of capitalist production
Absolute surplus value is created
by speed-ups, lay-offs, pay cuts, longer work days, that is, by increasing
the value each worker creates without increasing the amount of pay to the
worker. This tactic, which can also simply mean reducing pay to sub-starvation
levels, goads uprisings.
Investing in constant capital, which is
the basis of the revolutionary technological advances of capital, produces relative
surplus value. Increasing the amount of relative surplus value, using
technology to reduce labor costs, requires that the owner continually reinvest,
deepening the tie to machinery. This in turn means that the amount of capital
invested in constant capital increases in relation to that invested in
labor--the source of surplus value. And this means that the rate of profit
(profit is a part of surplus value) has a tendency to fall over time. Cleverly,
this process is called the falling
rate of profit.
The persistent drive to increase relative
surplus value means that, over time, there is a tendency for wages to fall
to a point where it is not possible for the work force to also serve its
role as consumers of the products of production. They simply don't make
enough money. This produces a crisis
of over-production. Output goes beyond demand. Capitalists have solved
this problem by destroying both products, and productive forces, in warfare.
Surplus value can be created within a
process in which, really, nothing of real value, or negative value, is
produced. Consider the tobacco industry.
Capitalists can only increase surplus
value by lengthening the work day, by speeding up the labor process, by
technological innovations, or lowering pay to workers. Lengthening the
work day, reducing pay, and work speed-ups always meet worker resistance
and has built-in limits: exhaustion and the length of the day itself, starvation,
human endurance and physical limitations. Each effort to stretch surplus
value is offset by the potential political unity of the workers, itself
usually relative to the number of unemployed or propertyless workers available.
What has made capitalism the most dynamic
mode of production up to now is its ability to alter its methods of production
and to innovate technical change. But each of these maneuvers are always
met by similar moves from competitors, so the profitability available from
changes in technology is only relative, temporary. Hence, at some point,
capitalists must turn back on the creators of value, workers themselves.
But this meets the limits described above. So the process deepens and begins
anew, always at a more profoundly complex stage, rather like a tightening
To reiterate, the money capitalists must
invest in machinery and hard goods isconstant
capital. It remains at a relatively fixed price. The money required
to keep a work force alive varies. It's called variable
capital. Since surplus value cannot be realized primarily from constant
capital (remember surplus value is a product of labor); it must be taken
from variable capital.
The reason that the history of organized
labor spirals out from struggles over the hours of work (the 40 hour week
for example) is that reducing the work day can cut into the production
of surplus value, even if in minimal ways. Nevertheless, there is no necessary
connection between reduced surplus value and reduced hours of work. Fights
to reduce the hours of work go beyond economics, into the desires of people
for a better life--to have something beyond or outside the working day
where alienation (discussed below) is minimized and pleasure is the goal.
People not engaged in the direct production
of commodities like attorneys, social workers, teachers, owners, and so
on, do not directly create surplus value. They live from the surplus value
built up in history as well as in their own time--yet teachers, for example,
are critical to the reproduction of more surplus value. Teachers create
considerable, if peripheral, value. They play a key role in a huge market,
schools (consider the sale of busses, milk, landscaping, buildings, energy
costs, etc.), and provide both skill training and baby-sitting services,
all pivotal to economic advance. In addition, school workers fashion the
ideology of their times (on the one hand nationalism, racism, sexism, etc.;
and on the other hand literacy and some critical thinking skills) and manufacture
hope, false or real, for the future of the children they face. Hence, school
workers forge terrific, supplemental, value. But the funding for schools
comes from the surplus value created by people directly engaged in commodity
There are other people who work and create
nothing of value: people who work in advertising, pimps, stock market traders,
investment bankers, mortgage brokers, for example. These people are fundamentally
The creation of surplus value boomerangs
on those who do the work. Workers control neither the process or products
of their work. Their labor empowers capitalists who use that power to deepen
the oppression of the work force.
Crises in capitalism are typically seen
as rising from two sources: (1)the falling rate of profit (which drives
owners to ruthlessly seek cheaper raw materials, more favorable markets,
and less costly laborers and, (2) overproduction which makes it desirable
to destroy commodities and productive forces. Capital's representatives
have repeatedly solved these problems through war. The left has relied
heavily on these crises to prove that capitalism is not viable, and that
in its womb is revolution: World War I was followed by the Russian Revolution.
The Chinese Revolution paralleled WWII. But it is clear now that crises,
war, and revolution are not enough to truly challenge capital. What is
also needed is a mass conscious understanding of the inner workings of
capitalism, and a mass organization to actualize that common analysis.
Wages mask the creation of surplus value.
The slave has no doubt that the value he or she creates is entirely the
property of the master. But the wage worker usually believes he or she
is fully paid for their labor, missing the reality of surplus value as
truly unpaid labor.
However long the work day, it is always
longer than the time required to produce the value representing what the
worker needs to exist.
Wages pay for labor time having two
1) one part is necessary labor time,
2) the other is surplus labor time
during which the worker produces surplus value.
The wage worker produces the value required
to go on working. But, the worker is not paid for the further value created,
surplus value, for which the owner pays nothing. Hence, in reality, once
the commodity is sold, the owner pays nothing for the necessary labor of
the worker, nor for the surplus labor time, each having been subsumed by
the sale of the product. Moreover, the worker labors first, as a virtual
loan, and is paid later.
So, at bottom, a worker's labor enriches
those who do not work, more exactly those who do not create value, and
who, indeed, make a privileged living from oppressing him or her.
All capital comes from the creation and
expansion of surplus value, which itself comes from labor alone.
The tendency of capitalism is to reduce
wages to the lowest possible level, first by de-skilling labor; second,
by maintaining a large mass of unemployed workers. De-skilling is logical
and necessary. It's indispensable to speed production and to control it.
Speed is won through breaking tasks into simple parts. Control is gained
by stripping workers of their knowledge of the workings of their surroundings.
Critical questions to ask at this point
might be: What is your birthplace in this society, worker or owner? What
is the starting point of surplus value at your work place or home? Do homemakers
create surplus value? What would happen if a key source of income in your
home was lost for a year? How do those who own get their property to begin
with? Who created that property? If it is normal to own land, why not own
air? How much surplus value in the U.S. is created by workers outside the
U.S.? Is leisure time for working people in the U.S. created by the labor
of third world workers?
If schools are funded by surplus value,
what happens to schools when the rate of surplus declines? Who controls
the surplus value that funds the schools? How is it that teachers' wages
now exceed factory wages in the U.S.? What value do teachers and students
create? What is the role of alienation in school? How might educators and
others exert greater control over their work places under capitalism? What
is the role of resistance in overcoming alienation? How do administrators
profit from the division of labor in schools, and how does this division
influence the curriculum and methods of instruction?
Where does the money for state dinners,
smart-bombs, or the world wide web come from? Besides speed-up and deskilling,
what can regularly make for greater profits?
The deception about wages (the fact that
the value of work is never fully compensated), often a self-deception,
lies at the core of human ALIENATIONunder
capitalist relations. Beyond and including the economic forms of oppression,
ALIENATION rises from:
A) the workers inability to fundamentally influence the process or results of production,
B) the fact that the products and the process actually intensify the oppression of the worker,
C) and because relations between things
stand above relations between people. Products are not made for people
to use, but to service greed.
Workers never receive the entire value
of their work. The more they work, the more they fortify groups to which
they do not belong. The more Pintos you make, the richer and more powerful
Henry Ford gets. Workers never control the process or results of their
work. In fact, their work boomerangs on them and makes their enemies powerful.
But this process disguises reality. Many workers believe they are fully
compensated for their work and that they are in charge of the shop floor.
Others, the more alienated they are, believe their condition is a fact
of nature, the way things have always been. Unable to see beyond the disguise
of wages, they mistake decoys for reality and, in the final analysis, act
against their own self-interest. Many other workers sincerely participate
in Total Quality Management programs, founded on the notion of the unity
of interests of employers and workers. A poster from France during the
1968 uprisings nicely sums up this ruse: "I participate, You participate,
We all Participate: They profit." A series of mismatches of ideas and reality
is called false consciousness.
People are alienated, distanced, separated,
actually oppressed, from their own work and hence their creativity. They
are also alienated from one another; owners vs. workers, workers vs. the
unemployed in competition for jobs, and so on. Time spent at work is time
lost from life, not time enriching life. Consumers are even alienated from
their purchases, spending millions on coffins, trendy sneakers, battling
for fashionably dressed dolls. Popular art, marketed as high fashion and
culture, every bit of it for sale, is designed to prove that one does no
manual work--a profoundly contemptuous message to the vast majority of
This set of social relations which create
surplus value also causes people to confuse relations between people with
relations between objects. At work, people see themselves defined by their
pay, not by their social contribution or their relationship to the employer.
In society, over time, people rarely even meet people far outside of their
social class. The future for most people is generally set at birth by the
income of their parents. Men and women routinely size each other up on
the grounds of economic potential, and dispose of one another as used-up
commodities as whims, fashions, or passion shifts. Most importantly. people
do not directly witness the contributions of others to the creation of
value, the human relations that underpin every thing. Instead, people see
the objects themselves, products, and link their fate to possessions rather
than people, owning Nike shoes rather than solidarity with Indonesian workers.
A social act, collective labor, becomes a personal possession--or a closed
mystery. Few people look at their Nikes and think: Indonesian misery.
Indeed, people tend to both commodify
themselves (to equate their human value with their pay or job status) and
Fetishism confuses circumstances created
by people with circumstances of nature. A fetish narrowly defined, is an
object with no special value which is made into an object of worship, an
icon like a plastic Jesus. Broadly, this goes to the usual treatment of
capitalism in history (and economics) as the final, highest, stage of humanity.
Fetishism means people are imprisoned by their unquestioned ideas about
their circumstances, unable to place themselves within a historical process
a special form of alienation and fetishism, is the process of turning human
products, or humans themselves, into things which become independent of,
and govern, life. To worship Mao as a god, or God as a god for that matter,
is a matter of reification. To freeze an ideology into a faith is a process
of reification. To believe a person with a Ph.D. is inherently wise is
to reify both the person and the Ph.D. To see a social system as outside
the bounds of human creation is to reify society.
Some questions for critical work here are: In your school or work place, do the people who do the work control what their labor creates or the methods of creation? What is the impact of constitutional rights at work--or school? What about freedom of speech and assembly? If these rights do not apply at work, the most central part of life, why not? Is it possible to organize work in another way? If people who are alienated do not understand why they are alienated, what kinds of things do they do that furthers or decreases their alienation? What happens to people who are so alienated from their work, burned out teachers for example, that they turn their anger on the process of their labor, perhaps their students, rather than on the process of their alienation? What is the relationship of depression, anger turned inward, and alienation? Why have fights to shorten the work week been so severe? How are pleasure and economics tied together? Are nationally standardized curricula a form of reification---plastic Jesuses with answer sheets? How many people do you know as friends who earn ten times what you earn, or ten per cent of what you earn?
consists of raw materials, instruments of labor, money, and all kinds of
means of life which are used to produce new raw materials, new instruments,
and new ways of living. All these parts of capital are created by labor,
products of labor, stored up labor. However, again, they are privately
Capital is, above all, also a given historical relationship
of production, a relationship between and created by people, determined
finally by who does, and does not, have it.
The key problem with capital is that it
does not consist in accumulated labor (that evolved history of work) serving
living labor, working people today, as a means to a better life for people.
It consists of living labor, workers today, serving accumulated labor,
the labor of history, as a means of conserving and increasing its exchange
Workers labor, not to build on the collective
contributions of those who have gone before for the collective good, but
to create more commodities for exchange (to expand capital), a process
which is not finally in the interest of those who do the work, but in the
interest of those who inherit capital. A relatively small number of individuals
now own the results of the accumulated labor of the past and use that accumulated
labor as a weapon against those who work today.
The division of labor and the resultant
creation of private property gives rise to social classes. CLASSES
are large groups of people:
A) differing by ancestry according
to their places in the historical design of social production,
B) according to the nature of their
connection to the means of production, especially in regard to ownership,
C) according to their roles in the
social structure and organization of labor, which includes their beliefs,
habits, and passions,
D) and to their method of acquiring,
and the amount of the division of social wealth which they control.
Classes are groups of people, one group
able to apportion the labor of another, owing to a difference in their
respective positions in a distinct pattern of social economy.
This analysis, originating in Lenin, does
not say that people who are positioned within social classes understand
their own positions. Nor does it mean people within given social classes
create cultures which are solidly in opposition, that there is no mediation
between classes--or longing to imitate elite cultures. This only means
that beneath consciousness and culture, but always profoundly influenced
by these factors, is the economic and political struggle, rising out of
property relations, which does pit people one against another.
Many labor leaders, and some workers,
adopt the fashions which ruling elites pose, whether in dress or ideology.
Many labor aristocrats dress and dine well, attend church, play golf, and
declare class struggle passe--just like the ruling class they envy. And
their imitation does influence class struggle. But it does not bring class
struggle to an end.
In fact, the history of labor unions demonstrates
that they are incapable of going beyond demands for a bigger piece of a
usually shrinking pie, as opposed to battles for the pie itself. North
American unions deny the fundamental role of class struggle, and its base
in the division of labor and surplus value. As it becomes clear that there
is no way to reform the processes of capital to make them humane, that
there is not alternative but radical change, the unions become ever more
irrelevant. They now represent about 12% of the work force, down from more
than 30% in the early 1970's.
The chief force of history is, at bottom,
the struggle of people to gain control of their work and the products they
create---and those who oppose this process: the class struggle. This trajectory
is wrapped up in the struggle for equality and democracy. At the start,
the working class and the employing class have fundamentally opposing interests.
However, the conditions for this struggle
are fixed by the state of the productive forces and the relations of production
noted above. Again, the productive forces are nature, people, and material.
The relations of production involve: (a) the form of ownership of the means
of production, (b) the positions and mutual relations of the people, and
(c) the form of distribution of the products.
This means that the struggle of people
to gain control of their lives and work occurs on a distinctive stage with
particular conditions. To win a war, it is necessary to grasp the strategy
of the entire war, yet to also know the special aspects of each battle
in regard to the terrain, the enemy, and yourself. The U.S. military never
learned that the war in Vietnam was more than a series of battles, but
an international political campaign involving an infinite variety of tactics.
Even today, the military claims it won too many battles to lose the war.
But lose they did. Engaging in this struggle requires careful study of
particular social realities---within a grand strategy. But this struggle
of domination and resistance continues even without study. At issue here
is the time span, and the losses of those who must resist to live.
Class, race, and sex/gender differences
are folds in the same cloth. While political economy argues that the wedge
into a grasp of history is class struggle, this is not to say that race
and sex/gender are insignificant. In fact, while class is centripetal,
racism and sexism are lashed to the same universe. Race is a socially constructed
idea, not a biological fact. Biologically, there is only one race. But
the idea of whiteness, privilege, actually white supremacy, has always
been tied to either capital's power or skilled craft-industrial work. The
greater the distance one was born from these twin centers, the more likely
one became less than white. There are parallels here in gender definitions
as well. As noted, the initial form of oppression, enforced inequality,
was probably rooted in sexism.
At a certain stage the relations of production
so restrict the productive forces--as well as the human relations created
by the stage of productive forces--that fundamental social change becomes
irresistible. In other words, both social ideas and technological change
eventually move ahead of the governing systems which, over time, tend to
restrict them. These circumstances lay the foundation for social change.
For example, the feudal system of government
shackled what had become, under feudalism, powerful capitalist methods
of production. Manufacture and trade, dominated by the power of rising
capitalists, outstripped kings and a serf-agricultural social base. Hence,
capitalism--represented most strikingly by Napoleon--violently crushed
feudalist governing structures. People were driven from their land. This
created a mass of unemployed workers available for production. Kings and
queens were either slaughtered or put in their newly subordinate place,
and parliaments primarily representing the needs of the new manufacturing
class were imposed on the old methods of rule.
Today, our vast world productive system
does not have to be chained to abundance for a few and scarcity for the
mass of people. Within capitalism, if we take but one example, are built-in
technological advances which carried people to the moon, fashioned the
computer chip, grasped the forces of energy enough to build the H-bomb,
created reliable contraceptives to free sexuality, and nearly obliterated
TB. At the same time, our world is rife with ancient diseases like malaria
which come from inadequate public health systems. Life expectancy is inseparable
from race. Social systems which require inequality retard our human and
material development. Collective production long ago reached the point
where individual ownership stood in the way of technological and social
advances. This tension will not forever endure.
At the core, our productive work ties
us together in processes of exchange, manufacturing, and communication
more than ever before. We are social beings. Knowledge and productive systems,
and reproductive systems, are all collective and social. But our social
system does everything possible to keep us apart, to unite only the rich
for the personal gain of a very few. Capital requires false divisions like
nations, races, classes, and sexual oppression. This will not last.
Political economy, then, sees itself as
a method of analysis of irrepressible social change through the development
of ideas as well as the advance of the means of production. Nothing comes
from nothing. Socioeconomic relations of today contain elements of relations
from the past, as do the methods of production. But quantity turns into
quality. As the means of production and the mode of production develop,
at a certain point radical social change occurs. Again, nothing comes from
nothing. Things and people change. Change develops incrementally, piece
on piece, sometimes even by chance (for the want of a nail . . . ), but
dramatizes suddenly, sometimes spectacularly (a war was lost).
This is no lock-step path. Development
is asymmetrical, uneven. The negative side of the human factor, stupidity
or irrationality, plays a role. For example, many powerful people in the
Detroit area believed the former mayor of the city, Coleman Young, hated
white people. This was hardly true. In fact, Young was close to Henry Ford
II, among other local elites. But, in no small part, this belief caused
the powerful to abandon the city when the auto industry unraveled. Detroit
decayed, looking like bombed out Beirut. Today, with a new mayor who enthusiastically
endorses the Nation of Islam's influences on schools, but who is perceived
as malleable, elites are reclaiming, and rebuilding the city. Perception,
as much as material reality, caused Detroit to fall and rise. But even
with a twisted path, political and economic development remains primarily
moved by the contradiction between those who own and those who do not.
This distinguishes political economy from
dominant theories of economics and politics which split politics and economics,
which simply seek to explain the appearances of reality. Students today
study scarcity and consumption without considering the creation of value
and production. This fetishist doctrine sees a given economic system, actually
tied to bossism and inequality, as the highest possible attainment of human
history--fixed and immune from change--an unnoticed and unquestioned horizon.
At the other end of the spectrum is that group of political scientists
who dream of democracy without considering economic exploitation and inequality,
utopians who now add nothing but a diversion to the debate over social
This is dogmatism,
a stubborn refusal to go to the root of things, and it is hardly neutral.
Rather than seeking to understand change or the roots of life, it merely
seeks to reestablish the status quo, to prove that change is at an end--or
In part because of this dogmatic system
of analysis, labor itself becomes degraded and ignored. The central issue
of life is forgotten, hidden. School textbooks, TV, and films, ignore the
centrality of labor in the process of life--or they attack workers who
are presented as dolts, things, automatons; incapable of analysis, leadership
and rational action and resistance. This is especially true of the trendy
labor film, Roger and Me.
Above all, dominant texts deny the crucial role of labor and the existence
of class struggle.
for critical analysis here are: Do you believe you belong to a social class
as defined above? Do your neighbors or co-workers? Which one? Is it possible
to move from working class to ruling class? How? How are workers portrayed
in textbooks? Class struggle? What does multi-culturalism, which locates
culture and not labor at the center of life, say about class struggle?
What social class does the president of the AFL-CIO belong to (and serve)?
What is the relationship of racism and class? What is the role of ideas
in social change? If domination inevitably meets resistance, what are the
key things those who would resist need to know? Is social change inevitable--or
irrepressible? If irrationalism is the decision to halt investigation and
turn to faith, to worship ignorance or incoherence, what holds people to
religion in a society based on science? To capitalism? Can we understand
our world? How shall we know if we are right? What is the role of sexuality
in the process of class construction?
In a class society, government, or the
state, is a shield and sword working on behalf of those who hold the key
to power: those who can exert final control over the economy. The state
is a tool, really a weapon, used by the capitalist class to ensure their
privileges and control of the economy. The state includes the courts, the
police, most of the press, prisons, the welfare system, schools, and other
methods to control mass action and ideology.
The state is not a neutral arbitrator,
but an activist on the side of economic elites. Under capitalism, the state
is dedicated to the protection of property rights, not people. The state
is not autonomous from the relations of production. In fact, the capitalist
state is imbued with the relations of production.
For example, during strikes, troops or
police do not beat or arrest factory owners. The press, controlled by owners,
rarely editorializes on the side of strikers, yet serves to confuse people
about what is objective fact, what should be seen as second nature, and
the commonalities of national interest. The welfare system is designed,
not so much for the good of the jobless, but serves as the real minimum
wage, to control the behavior and rebelliousness of unemployed workers,
as well as to serve as a living warning to those who still have jobs. To
use a classic irony: in the eyes of the law, it is equally a crime for
a rich person and a poor person to sleep in a public park. Police do not
stop crime, they organize it, and they locate certain crimes in certain
neighborhoods. The laws they enforce are laws which, first, protect property.
Elections in a class society are the showcases
of claims to democracy. Usually, however, the electoral system is contaminated
by the power of wealth and privilege to control the media, the nominations
systems, simple bribery. In the last resort, the powerful overturn their
own electoral systems with terror, assassination--Allende in Chile for
example. At bottom, in societies divided into competing groups of those
who own and those who do not, the voting choice of most working people
is a question of which party controlled by elites will oppress them the
least, or who will propel the process to oppress them most slowly.
This does not mean, however, that nothing
good happens in school, that no struggle can take place in the government
offices, that no one should ever vote on anything, etc. There are many,
many dedicated, honest, people carrying on work, swimming against the current,
and winning small victories within this system. Indeed, working people
owe whatever democracy exists around them in part to those struggles. Nor
does this mean that powerful owners are omnipotent in their control of
the state. This does mean that the state is not designed to consistently
support the efforts of those who do not own or control the means of production
Owners work in an economic system designed
for an "every person for him/her self" approach that certainly contradicts
even the existence of a state. Yet the state is their creation and acts
on behalf of the most powerful on this contested terrain.
Against the theorists of postmodernism,
the government is not, finally, a potential friend. Still, every instance
must be studied in its complexity. At issue is whether a given action will
lend itself to the process for democratic and egalitarian--revolutionary--change,
not a moral abstraction. What is likely is that those societies which control
more surplus value will have more room for maneuvering within the confines
of the state. North America does enjoy wider freedoms than Rwanda.
In a better world, real democracy must
be linked to real equality, at least in terms of decision-making and the
labor process. This can only be finally obtained through a dramatically
different form of government publicly dedicated to these principles--and
a population fully conscious of them, ready to act; armed, intellectually
Critical questions here are: What are
the best arguments that prove that inequality, a requirement of capitalism,
can be compatible with democracy? To what degree are people who consent
to be governed responsible for their own oppression? How will people who
have only experienced inequality and authoritarianism be able to forge
a society absent these problems? How will people who have always been followers
in their work lives become leaders? Why is it that the U.S. appears so
much more democratic than the countries where U.S. corporations make most
of their money? What is the role of inequality and authoritarianism in
the home? Who does your school board represent? Who finances the campaigns
for your local politicians? If there is, some day, equality and democracy;
why have a state? How do most anarchists, who consider the key social problem
to be government itself, address the question of the economy? What has
been the role of government in promoting/defeating racism and sexism?
Political economy roots itself in history.
The effort to make sense of history using material needs, forces and relations
of production, and class struggle as initial reference points is called historical
materialism. In broad terms, historical materialism sees life traveling
upward in spirals. Those who study the lines of the past carefully are
better able to understand the road underfoot and the swirls of the future
ahead. Political economy, the intellectual scalpel of historical materialism
that goes into the onion, focusing on trends and tendencies, studies the
development of the means and relations of production through these eras:
(A) Communal society in which property
was, for the most part, held in common,
(B) slavery, the first great division
of labor which created new levels of surplus and gradually separated artisan
ship from agriculture, and finalized the shift from communal to private
property. With private property and the division of labor, the basis was
laid for the rise and growth of intense inequality.
(D) wage labor and capitalism .
These are not necessary, required, stages
of development. They are stages of development in specific early capitalist
countries. For many areas, capitalism was imported, usually by force, and
interim stages were swept aside. This is not what must happen. It just
is what did happen in the initial areas of capitalist concentration, beginning
mostly in Europe.
At each stage we see, as a general trend,
rising inequality, the intensification of the division of the collective
work of the many and the private ownership of the few, and increasingly
sophisticated methods of both repression and resistance--both in ideology
and sheer force.
There are only opposing interests between those who privately own and those who collectively produce. But among those who must do the work, it is clear that an injury to one does precede an injury to all. This is the nucleus of the idea of working class solidarity.
Each historical stage (primitive communalism,
slavery, serfdom, wage labor), at once shatters the succeeding social stage,
and carries forward elements of itself into the next historical stage.
For example, while slave systems are now mostly destroyed, slavery continues
to exist in scattered parts of the world. Elements of slavery, in the sense
that surplus value denies the laborer full value for work, continue today,
as do scattered remnants of real slavery. Feudal artisan ship, while hardly
a significant form of production, lingers as a productive force. Religious
groups were a key buttress of feudalism, and organized religion retains
considerable power under capitalism, even though its dogma seems utterly
out of place in a purportedly scientific world.
Now, production becomes more and more
social. Millions of working people are linked through international economies,
but the product of the collective form of labor is usurped by a relative
handful of people, capitalists, who are engaged in a ruthless hunt for
cheaper labor, raw materials, and markets. This frantic search is only
matched by the increasing insecurity of those who do the work. The internationalism
of capitalism is contradicted by the nationalist cries of capitalists who
profit from the ideas which borders, border-lines drawn on maps by profiteers,
create--and the armies they employ.
If we consider labor power as the sum
of the physical and mental abilities of a human being, exercised in production,
then we must consider too the conditions which set this labor power in
motion, how it got its start. Just as certain members of society have in
their hands the means of production, so it is necessary that there be a
class of people forced to sell their labor power--ever more cheaply. As
noted briefly above, this is accomplished by driving people from their
ancestral lands, separating them from valuable skills, and through technological
advances used, not to assist people or create freedom, but to further alienate
them. This process is now especially intense in the southern hemisphere.
Instead of more leisure time, technology
generates work speed-up and job loss.Taylorism,
named after the American F.E.W. Taylor (author of Principles
of Scientific Management) focuses on the use of time and motion studies
to measure and accelerate the labor process, to appropriate the skills
of workers and make them work faster.
centered on conveyor production, single-purpose machines, mass consumption,
and mass marketing, seeks to heighten productivity via technique. The processes
are designed to strip workers of potentially valuable faculties, like their
expertise, speed production, expand markets, and ultimately to drive down
wages. These processes seek to make workers into replaceable machines themselves,
but machines also capable of consumption. Further, Fordism sought entry
into every aspect of the workers' lives, including their homes. A code
of silence in the factories was matched by the Ford Sociology Department,
which entered workers' homes and directed church attendance, soy-based
foods, abstinence, etc.
Some theorists, postmodernists,
became so fascinated by the techniques of production and methods of accumulation
(material and cultural) that they confused these significant processes
with the core of exploitation. When they noticed some methods of production
they wrongly declared to be new, just-on-time delivery systems, and international
symbols of consumption like Nikes for example, they believed the world
had entered a new era: post-capitalism, in which the lynch-pin, the core
issue, is culture, not labor, and that this new era could only be grasped
by deconstructing language, discourses, products of human transactions,
and by putting together new languages describing the new reality.
Postmodernists became so fascinated by
the subtle implications of taking apart the language and format of Disneyland
and the symbolic importance of Mickey Mouse (which are indeed important)
that they forgot (or profited from their forgetfulness) that what made
the mouse possible was Haitian workers paid 20 cents and hour, which in
turn made possible the 96,700 dollars an hour paid to Disney president
Michael Eisner, or the $90 million paid to Disney leader Obitz to get him
to quit. In sum, behind every Barbie doll is indeed the oppression of women
through culture, but the beginning of that is the exploitation of labor.
Right wing postmodernists seek to claim
as theirs the idea that all knowledge is socially constructed. But this
is not new. The Chinese revolutionary Mao Tse Tung said, in the thirties,
"Every idea is stamped with the brand of class". What the postmodernists
hope to prove is the belief that things can exist only in thought, or that
the world is actually incoherent, that is, anything, from consumerism to
racism, can explain the key motive of society. This is wrong. Ideas are
not autonomous from the body. The body exists in a social, class, context,
which is made profound and complex by questions of race and sex/gender.
We are not in a period of post capitalism.
The many still work. The few still own. The main artery of this is still
the exploitation of surplus value. But our post-whatevers still insist
their vision is entirely new, even though it usually leads to very old
deeds of class collaboration, or paralysis disguised as analysis of hegemony--the
total victory of dominant power.
On the one hand, some postmodernists say
anything can happen. For example, they consider the state, government,
to be more autonomous than not in relation to a national economy. This
means that the state stands above, apart from, class struggle. If true,
this means they can establish equality with the vote--surely a surprise
to those who own GM. On the other hand, other postmodernists also say nothing
can happen: people are so contaminated by capitalist culture (hegemony)
that they can never be sufficiently cleansed to make a better world. At
once, as two sides of the same coin, we see the definitions of opportunism
and sectarianism at work. Both rise from the central, and incorrect, belief
that ideas determine reality. For indeed, the real world does create the
impossible conditions that make change necessary, not by wishes but by
concrete study and action.
If we follow Mao's notion, the postmodernists
can reasonably be said to be the whining of the collapsing middle class
whose world really is coming apart. Mostly academics, postmodernists are
the living result of the deep split between mental and manual labor under
advanced capitalism, seeking entitlement from the notion that one stands
above the other. They take the wrong side of the debates of the century:
does consciousness determine being?--do things change? They assert the
primacy of the mind, above and external to the body, and wind up sure of
only their own arrogant minds. Above all, as middle class people being
driven into the ranks of the working class by economic powers they wish
to deny, postmodernists hope to wish away the centrality of human labor
and class struggle to existence, and to elevate their own peculiar skills,
language and shell games, for class struggle.
Capital, all around us like air, still
requires a constant army of unemployed people. This group, typically desperate,
serves as an example to those who are still employed, and can become a
potential stockpile of replacement workers, scabs. Unemployment, in most
capitalist countries, is color-coded and lies at the base of racist ideology
which serves to explain misery as the natural state of a sector of the
working class, designated as not really human.
Economic elites employ a variety of methods
to retain power:
(a) Divide and conquer (racism/nationalism/sexism,
(b) Reward and punish (corruption of leaders,
(c) Cynicism (you can't fight city hall),
(d) irrationalism (life is incomprehensible
so do what you're told; have faith),
(e) demagoguery (obey the chief-god/caudillo),
(f) terror (the Gulf War)
(g) dominant culture (stop reading this;
go watch tv).
Capital wins when people believe their
condition is natural, or incomprehensible, or unassailable. This is the
dominant ideology of capital's schools.
Sheer exhaustion from trying to fill personal
needs against the tide of a system created to deny those needs is another
significant factor. But, while Vietnam is simultaneously proof that these
tactics do and do not always work (the Vietnamese won on the battlefields,
in the political world, and culturally. They lost the long term fight against
capital), elites have been fairly successful in turning many people into
instruments of their own oppression. (Even in Vietnam, the internal taints
of nationalism, elitism, corruption, sexism all finally reversed that heroic
struggle). The ideas of the dominant economic and political system are
anchored in the minds of even those who suffer most under it. Working people
are taught to think with the brains, values, of those who oppress them.
We confuse skills of obedience with liberation: a high IQ will make you
free. The facts of class inequality are there for all to see. But most
people do not see them. It is imperative to do all that is possible to
find a way through this, to learn from the past, yet to expect new mistakes.
Wilhelm Reich formulates the above
process of radical change, and stultification, as follows:
1. Specific developments of production
and corresponding relationships of production,
2. Specific economic interests of a class
3. Corresponding moral demands on members
4. The effect of these demands on the
mass of individuals, restriction in the satisfaction of needs, the production
of social anxiety,
5. Mooring the ruling groups' moral demands
in the mass individual's psyche, permanent reproduction through the internalization
of the demands,
6. Inward acceptance of the morality and
politics of the ruling group, articulation of the ideology by individuals.
Reich uses this model to demonstrate the
mass popularity of fascism in Germany. He points to the family as the key
transmitter of reactionary values, adopting and passing along the hierarchical,
repressive, "do what you're told" background, especially as it relates
to fear of sexual pleasure. That fascism breeds a perverse death culture,
commonly one that promotes links of sexuality, pain, and death, is significant
to Reich, who sees the capitalist family system as a necessary link to
How subordination is conveyed is not entirely
clear. A top U.S. industrialist once boasted, " I can get one-half of the
working class to kill the other." Taken on an international scale, this
has some historical validity. Nevertheless, where there is domination,
there is insurgency. History is a record of ever more sophisticated efforts
to end social systems which require authoritarianism and inequality; from
Spartacus to you.
Critical questions here are: What underlies
the continuing appeal of nationalism or racism and nationalism? Do white
workers gain from racism? Do black politicians gain from racism? What are
the overriding things workers and their employers have in common? Has capitalism
developed to its peak? Why does divide and conquer work so easily? Should
people organize in separate race/sex caucuses? Is capital retarding social
development? How? If change is inevitable, what role can people play? Are
union leaders corrupted by high salaries? What should be the relationship
of resistance leaders and followers? Why is there unemployment? What is
the role of sexism and the family in building obedience to illegitimate
authority? What are the key things that went wrong with past efforts for
change?What will the next generation
need to know in order to not replace the old boss with a new boss?
Even with a reserve army of unemployed
and with technological advances, the rate
of profit (the percentage
of surplus value which can solely be considered profit--after taxes, reinvestment
for materials, etc.) has a tendency to fall, as demonstrated above. Technological
advances do not long remain the property of a single owner. Hence all owners
must repeatedly reinvest in capital improvements (themselves the result
of stored-up surplus value created by workers). So, while their capital
property increases, unless they are able to simultaneously decrease the
amount paid to the workers, or to increase the hours of work without a
similar increase in pay, profits spiral downward.
Capitalists must find markets, places
to sell stuff where the competition is minimal. They must find cheaper
and cheaper raw material, from fertilizer to iron. They must find people
who will, or must, work for less.
Big fish eat little fish. Capital must
expand or die. Capital concentrates more and more in the hands of fewer
and fewer. What once may have been open competition becomes parasitic monopoly.
Over time, power among the elites passes from those who lead manufacturing
industries to those who control banks, finance capitalists. Finance capitalists,
to expand, must move to monopolize industries and to sharpen competition.
When this occurs between businesses within a nation, it is called intense
competition. When it occurs between national financiers, it often means
Production has three stages:
1. The purchase of the means of production
and labor power.
2. The process of production itself.
3. The sale of finished products.
Each stage is absolutely dependant on
the creation of surplus value. But each stage is also fixed by the sale
of the product. Again, at each stage owners must battle for cheaper raw
material, labor, and markets. Typically, economic elites urge workers in
their home nations into warfare, under flags of freedom or religion, to
protect the elites' potential for earning profits. This battle for shares
of surplus value, carried on an international scale under the banners of
monopoly finance capital, is imperialism. Here, the role of ideology, welding
workers to link their interests to the interests of their employers in
a death struggle for profits, is critical.
For example, when the U.S. invaded the
Middle East during the Gulf War, many people in the U.S. were led to believe
that the war was to protect Kuwait from a dictator. In fact, Kuwait itself
is a dictatorship. The war unleashed on an Iraqi army which clearly did
not want to fight was really an effort to maintain the U.S. interests in
instability in the Middle East, to protect oil profits. Still, many soldiers
trusted their officers and, years later, found themselves suffering from
Gulf War Syndrome, the result of poison gas which their officers told them
would bring them no harm. Many working class youth went to war for Kuwaiti
dictators and oil millionaires. They were little different from the Southern
troops under Pickett at Gettysburg, 130 years earlier. For workers, picking
the wrong allies, those with opposing interests, proves deadly.
Three factors in the latter half of the
twentieth century are of particular interest. The first is the intensified
of capital and the deepening of capitalist exploitation.
Capitalist companies are more than ever
interlocked with monetary interests which sweep across national boundaries,
and technology allows the rapid exchange of information.
In 1983, Ford Motor Company, for example,
was very interested in building specific cars for particular local markets.
The Escort was a different car in England, Brazil, and the U.S. Today,
however, Ford Motors is interested in building a single world car and developing
indigenous managers and marketers to sell it.
Computer technology not only makes the
rapid development of this new auto possible, it offers the ability to track
parts, production, and demand in ways that negate many costly delays. This,
however, is not as new as it might seem. The Ford Rouge plant in Detroit,
employing more than 100,000 workers in the 1950's, did build a just-on-time
auto; everything for the car was made in the plant. What appears to be
novel today is mobility, the ability of capital to quickly relocate in
areas of minimal class resistance or low labor costs.
Technology and globalization do combine to give the employers the ability to take advantage of shifting international wage rates, to move plants and assembly plants, to stay immediately abreast of financial markets, and, significantly, to transmit their cultural values everywhere. Kids in central Guyana want to be Michael Jordan. Interestingly, Ford's current problem is in retaining indigenous managers who will actually stay in their home countries once they are trained.
The globalization of capital may be reflected
in the shift of the nature of warfare. The first half of the century was
marked by two world wars, rising out of the national interests of capitalists.
The second half of the century has been notable for the rise of civil wars,
or proxy wars of imperialism conducted in once-colonial territories: usually
nationalist insurgents under the banner of socialism battling puppet governments
and imperialist puppeteers.
In 1974, near the end of the Vietnam war,
when the U.S. suddenly shifted from a creditor to a debtor nation, the
working class in the U.S. witnessed the collapse of its standard of living
while jobs and production were shifted to the third world. The third world
became more industrialized, proletarianized, and levels of inequality widened.
While much attention here is devoted to the U.S., it must be placed in
relief: the world gap of the rich and poor is expanding even more rapidly.
The rich and poor live in ever more separate worlds. Richard Jolly, author
of the 1996 Oxford Press, Human
Development Report, notes, "Worldwide, 358 billionaires control assets
greater than the combined incomes of countries with 45% of the world's
people." (New York Times 15 July, 1996). In the U.S., CEO's who once earned
about 35 times as much as their workers, now make about 120 times as much.
Faced with nearly stagnant growth (while
per capita production increased dramatically since 1975, productive growth
as a whole remained sluggish in the world economy, less than one-quarter
what it was in the 1920's), and in order to protect and expand their control
of national surplus value, power elites in the U.S. took at least three
paths: (1) they merged corporations and through centralization (and subsequent
decentralization) cut work forces and enjoyed savings. (2) GE's top salesman,
Ronald Reagan, discovered that if he inveigled the key imperialist opposition,
the misnamed Soviet Union, into a dollar for dollar spending game of chicken,
the U.S.S.R. would lose the game. That (along with a decade of grain shortages
and an oil crisis) worked, and briefly limited international competition
(though it only had a modest impact on military spending). (3) The U.S.
ruling class used the government as a club against the North American working
class (whose unions had long tied their members to the interests of their
This latter assault had two key fronts;
(1) the private sector working class and (2) the sectors of the government
that had become known as safety nets, concessions won from the ruling classes
from decades of struggle in the form of public pensions, jobless benefits,
protections around the hours of work and child labor, and welfare. Simultaneously,
elites bellowed to downsize the government programs directed to the mass
of people, yet they expanded government programs benefitting themselves:
the Pentagon budget or the bail outs of Savings and Loan industries, Mexico,
Brazil, or Chrysler corporation. The Chrysler bail-out provides a stark
example. In order to give millions to pull Chrysler out of the doldrums
in the early 1980's, the state of Michigan slashed welfare grants. In 1998,
Chrysler, which had led the cry to "Buy American!" sold itself to the German
The incredible profits of the 1980's were
never returned to productive capacity, but were diluted by lavish spending
or shifted to sheer money speculation. In the early 1970's, 90 per cent
of the available surplus value was pumped back into the productive economy,
10 per cent into speculation. By 1992, those figures were inverted. Personal
and government debt exploded. Total household debts at the end of 1990
stood at 90% of household income. Stocks inflated inside a thin balloon
with no related productive base. Speculation, the farthest profitable site
away from work, came to rule. Cruelty became fashionable and respectable--again.
Typically, the weakest, people in mental
institutions, were hit first, tossed on the streets during the Carter administration
to become part of the homeless population of later decades. Then came assaults
on welfare and unemployment benefits.
Then came attacks on employed workers,
especially industrial workers. In part, the industrial assault was accomplished
by shifting jobs to Third World nations where exploitation is especially
intense. In 1993, service sector jobs outnumbered manufacturing jobs in
the U.S. for the first time. Indeed, according to Doug Henwood, "In 1991,
the product of people in the funeral, insurance, and real estate industries
surpassed that of manufacturing with only a fraction of the work force."
People were driven out of factory positions (the UAW lost ½ million
members in a decade, 3/4 million in all) and into the 7-11, or into despair.
Temporary workers in 1996 make up one quarter of the U.S. work force. On
January 23, 1989, writing in the "Nation", the labor expert William Serrin
wrote that there are 16.5 unemployed or under employed people in the U.S.,
far beyond the usual 5% cited by government officials. Reasonably linked
to massive underemployment is the growth of the prison system, itself often
privatized for corporate profit. The U.S. jails more citizens per capita
than any other nation, 1.6 million. Perhaps more remarkably, there were
15 million arrests in 1995, about 6% of the population.
At the same time the productivity of U.S. workers increased, the gap between the rich and poor in the U.S. became greater than any other industrialized country, and the U.S. now has the smallest middle class. Even college educations are no longer protection against income collapse. The offensive against governmental safety net programs struck more than the recipients. Middle class governmental workers, like social workers, themselves hit the unemployment lines. The only group inoculated against the disintegration of wages in the last twenty years was the 5-7% of the work force with M.D.'s or similar advance degrees. And, contrary to educators' claims, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there is no demand for highly educated skilled workers even on the distant horizon, other than for teachers and nurses. Of the ten jobs most likely to expand rapidly in the early 21st century, only these two, nursing and teaching, require significant schooling.
At least until 1997, there was relatively
little working class resistance to the attack. The unions, in the name
of preserving the North American economy, simply collaborated (and mimicking
corporations, merged), beginning in the late 1960's with the bail-out of
New York city's budget by the American Federation of Teachers and AFSCME,
followed quickly to the sabotaged PATCO strike, and continuing to strikes
at Hormel, Caterpillar, and the Detroit newspapers; all mostly ruined by
internal treachery. The union leadership preached cooperation while employers
engaged the battle. At the same time, those industrial workers who did
have employment, who mostly did nothing while their comrades hit the streets,
who abandoned the "Injury to one is an injury to all" approach for every
man for himself, aged. The average GM assembly plant worker is a male,
in his late 40's. The average Michigan teacher is over 50.
The U.S. work force as a whole, and especially
the industrial work force, is, and always has been, sharply segregated
by race and sex. This is reflected in wages. Black men earn about 70% of
white male earnings, Hispanic women about 52%. And this in turn leads to
segregation in housing, schooling, health care, and, finally, life expectancy.
Two other factors deserve note here: a
rise in official and unofficial irrationalism and an assault on sexuality,
both molding into one another. Postmodernism, the irrationalist position
that the mind stands above and apart from the body, rose with the collapse
of the middle class and the decay of falsely socialist alternatives. Religious
fundamentalism enjoyed a, well, re-birth---booming in the southern hemisphere.
Presidents visited astrologers (Britain's Princess Diana had twenty astrologers
on her payroll. They all predicted a glowing future into the next century).
New laws like the 1997 welfare laws attack sexuality and economically enforced
abstinence. In 1995, the U.S. Surgeon General was fired by the notoriously
promiscuous President Clinton, for advising kids to learn about masturbation.
Magazines depicting naked bodies were banned from military bases. Aids,
treated absurdly as a civil rights rather than a public health problem,
became an international plague and underpinned a retreat into the fear
Rebellions did occur in North American
communities, the largest on April 29, 1992, in Los Angeles, an integrated
rebellion led by youth and directed against, for the most part, the despised
Today, one in four children are born in
official poverty in the U.S. Among black children, this figure is 51%.
Black mothers die in childbirth at a rate four times that of white mothers
(New York Times, June 17, 1999). With the transformation of the welfare
system into forced work programs, these figures will grow, fast. Moreover,
ghettoization has intensified. This means that people of color, but especially
poor black people, are more and more located in expressly designated areas,
areas where there is little of industrial or social value, where rebellion
directed at property may not have a costly impact. A 1999 Harvard report
demonstrates that schools are as segregated as ever, and becoming more
so. It is not especially surprising that the rebellions have grown out
of youth--and hatred of the police, not the labor movement, which remains
both in its own perception and in fact, old, privileged and determined
to retain privilege.
This process is now at work in other industrial nations like Germany and Japan. So, in a sense, the working class is becoming more oppressed and internationalized, at least in economic terms.
In those same terms, the ruling classes
of imperial and colonial nations remain finally dependant on national armies.
So, while corporate interests may weave into the economic and political
systems of other countries, the last resort, force, is still in the hands
of the armed working class (the military) of the home nations of elites.
Nevertheless, most of the workers of the world are still mystified by nationalism.
How thin this support may be is untested in the last twenty years. For
example, if Saddam Hussein was Ho Chi Minh, would U.S. troops have been
willing to fight a protracted war? There are many reports of serious discontent
in the military, though most of it is mobilized by the right wing.
In any case, capital is at once globalized
and brutalized. International competition is ever more intense and the
levels of available surplus value in every country are in steady, if uneven,
decline. The decay of available surplus value in the U.S. has hardly hit
as hard as it has say, in Grenada. Even so, it is important to underline
that this is an analysis of trends and tendencies. Many people have made
gains in the midst of this. Most have not.
factor, at least in imperial countries, an eruption
of the size of the work force and a rapid shift of women into the commodity
producing work force, a shift from what was once mostly reproductive
labor to directly productive labor. The international work force actually
doubled since the mid-1970's. Many of these workers were women, once workers
in the family home, pushed into the labor market for survival. In the U.S.,
since 1975, the number of women in the work force has increased from 17%
to slightly over 50%. On the one hand, many women who have entered the
work force have felt empowered by their experiences and, perhaps out of
this sense of empowerment, have contributed to the understandings of the
working class about the nature of exploitation and the possibilities for
On the other hand, the movement into commodity
producing work, caused by the continuing decay of once powerful capitalist
economies, has deepened the exploitation and alienation of both men and
women. It now takes two people working to produce the income of one person
at work twenty-five years ago. And the hours and intensity of work, let
alone the insecurity over potential joblessness, have sharpened the crisis
of capitalist family relations, with more than one-third of marriages now
ending in divorce. This is not to argue that divorce is wrong. It is plainly
an indicator of internal tensions. Women are now exploited in another dimension,
at home and work. Beyond dual exploitation, this lends finally to the fact
that women, attacked on two interconnected planes, at work and beyond work,
are better positioned than ever to struggle for change. Women and men as
well are simultaneously besieged through work and freed by work.
The movement from home to work is less
true for women of color who have been wage-earners for generations. Even
so, the move to work undermines the material basis for false divisions
of the sexes, and properly shifts the view of many women from the family
or husband as provider to the ruling class as a source of oppression.
The persistence of racism is yet another
factor within the crisis of the old imperial nations. For example, despite
the repetitive attacks on affirmative action in the U.S., it remains that
the most numerous beneficiaries of affirmative action have been middle
and upper-middle class white women. Wages of the black population have
hardly moved in relationship to the white population during this period.
Racism, the institutional denial of the humanity of a group of people based
on their skin color, pervades every aspect of every capitalist society
(consider the rise of neo-fascist movements) and draws the sharpest responses:
the integrated Los Angeles rebellion of 1992.
factor is the breakdown
and desperation of capitalism in nations whose imperial powers never matched
the U.S. Much of the world, especially the southern hemisphere, is
in a massive depression. The International Labor Organization reports that,
in 1995, one billion adults were unemployed, up from 820 million in 1994.
This represents about one-third of the world's work force. Idle time is
the crux of human life in most of the world. From the former Soviet Union
to Guyana, capitalism is in a profound crisis of massive unemployment and
social collapse. Education. legal, social service, health, monetary systems,
and infrastructure systems like roads are all in varying stages of disintegration.
Areas of North American cities can easily be considered pockets of the
third world. TB rates, unemployment, collapsed schools, permanent joblessness,
police repression, all combine to create a striking third world atmosphere--even
where all the delights of cable TV are immediately available. Organized
decay in some countries is simply no longer possible. There is little or
no organization to the crises, rather a real chaos--and massive deaths.
This internal crisis is built into capitalism, though it is difficult to
predict the location or nature of the next catastrophe. Crises in capitalism
are both permanent and instantaneous, slow boils spilling over in different
The internal crisis of capital most frequently
experienced in the 20th century is the crisis of over-production.
This occurs because products are not produced for use, but for cash. When
the social nature of production meets the private ownership of production,
in ever more intense ways, it leads to a crisis of over-production. This
takes place when the mass of commodities produced can find no market, when
the wages of workers are driven to such a minimum that they cannot buy
what they themselves produce: full market places with no buyers. Hundreds
of thousands of people now face choices like whether to buy food or to
buy the fuel to boil the water which will otherwise poison them. As in
the depression thirties, farmers are once again dumping milk to raise prices.
Even at its most successful, capital leads to crisis.
The old imperial powers appear tactically
strong, strategically weak. That is, they still maintain armies and enjoy
the support of their national populations. But their economies are weak.
They are beset with internal and external problems for which there are
no resolutions. More precisely, the U.S., China, perhaps the former U.S.S.R.
have precarious economies and menacing armies. Japan and Germany have strong
economies and weak armies. How long will this continue?
These trends demonstrate, on one hand,
that society can indeed produce much more than it does, but on the other
hand that the social system is retarding both the maximization of production
and its use by those who do the work. The crux of all of this is that people
are becoming ever more social beings. But the social relations developed
through production, work, exchange and communications are all violently
ruptured by the absolute need for greater profits. Rather than uniting
humanity, only the rich are united in the drive of greed. The individualist
relations of production handcuff the social productive forces. But within
this process also grows the international organization of workers in industries,
and the arming of working people in armies.
When capital enters crises, it frequently
embraces fascism. Fascism has been called monopoly capitalism in decay.
But capitalism has always been coupled with fascism, although the fascists
might not appear in the presidential palaces of some capitalist countries.
For example, slavery in the U.S. held the seeds of fascism. U.S. investors
profit handsomely from neo-fascist governments in other countries. The
fascist experience is worth examination.
1. Fascism is the unchecked rule of the
rich--a full-scale assault on poor and working people. Parliamentary institutions
are usually set aside. Wealth issues direct orders, frequently through
a populist leader. Wages, the social safety net, working hour laws, labor
laws; all come under legal (and extra-legal) attack. The stick dominates
Even between capitalists of the same nation,
Fascism in its early stages has been popular
among masses of people deluded by irrationalism, nationalism, racism, and
sexism. These ideas are key to the construction of fascism. But, "war means
work" for some, which may also explain its initial popularity.
Fascism requires and is built on the support
of capitalist elites. Henry Ford, the Dulles family, the Catholic Church,
and the German Krupps among many others, were early supporters of fascism.
2. Fascism and capitalism are inseparable.
Both are modern systems. There has never been a form of capital that was
not built on a fascist base--from slavery in the U.S. to today's varieties
of imperialism. All major capitalists have fascist ties. Hence, while fascism
may not be the dominant form of capitalist government, elements of fascist
ideology (biological determinism, rabid nationalism, etc.) and fascist
organizations (sectors of the police, KKK, skinheads, etc.) are always
present. No capitalist government has ever required a revolution to institute
Fascism does rise up in capitalist crises,
the moments when the struggle for production reaches a point when the workers
can no longer purchase the products they produce, a crisis of over-production
and declining profits resulting in an intense battle for cheaper labor,
raw materials, and new markets; that is, war.
However, neither war nor capitalist crisis
is a pre-condition of fascism. Consider Saudi Arabia. In addition, it is
possible to live under fascism within a nation that is not itself entirely
fascist, that is, to live as a jobless black youth in Sao Paulo--or Detroit.
3. Fascism deceptively calls for the national
unity of social classes, class-collaboration, but actually promotes the
division of people by race, sex, culture, nation or religion. Fascism was,
under Mussolini and later Hitler, conceived as the "corporate state": all
the resources of the society were directed toward the support of corporate
profits. In order to motivate warriors and bolster profits, fascism conceals
the real and insoluble tensions between those who own and those who work.
4. Fascism frequently is employed as a
strategic base for war. Shifts in government toward fascism grow with war
preparations. In the U.S. consider the internment of Japanese citizens
during WWII. In Canada, consider the War Measures Act.
5. Violence and terror, made tolerable
by racism and sexism (ideas which view people as sub-human) become public
6. Fascism relies on mysticism, a culture
which turns to superstition, irrationality (celebrations of misogyny, the
organized celebration of repressed sexuality, death, and hopelessness)
serving to explain a carnival of systematic despair, and retards science
and social production in order to mask its own decay. Indeed, fascism is
There is no consistency to fascist ideology,
other than to preserve capitalism.
7. Fascism is virulently anti-communist.
Communists, who have been the only consistent anti-fascist fighters, are
always among the first targets of fascism.
8. Fascism has only been defeated internally
(primarily by the actions of indigenous national resistance), perhaps,
once: in Albania. However, resistance movements have changed fascism and
halted its birth.
9. There is evidence that combined ideological
and physical struggle causes fascism to retreat. There is nothing inevitable
about fascism. It is a political movement, reaching from productive forces
into the mass consciousness, and can be combated physically and intellectually.
10. If these factors are true, then it
seems truly successful resistance to fascism must be based on a conscious
class analysis of society, an internationalist perspective that attacks
imperialist war, a multi-racial, organized mass approach (as opposed to
ephemeral coalitions based on sex, race, religion, coups, counter-terror,
etc.), willingness to use violence, and the grasp of the critical role
of ideology in combating fascist/ capitalist practice. At base, the target
is international capitalism, not merely fascists.
The general tendency of capitalist relations
is to press down the average wage to the minimum. This tendency is frequently
met by a worker organization and resistance. And the resistance today takes
a nationalist character, for the most part. Workers in the U.S. are wholly
tied to the notion of supporting U.S. capital, at the expense of the rest
of the world's workers, in order to make gains.
Moreover, resistance to the devaluation
of wages fights only effects, not causes. It is one thing to call for a
fair day's pay, another to call for the eight hour day, another still to
call for the abolition of the wage system (as did the U.S. Industrial Workers
of the World in the 1920's), and another still to fight beyond economics
toward democracy and equality.
The wage system itself is not the central
source of inequality and authoritarianism. If we want to look for the source
of privilege, it begins with the distribution of surplus value.
If we look at surplus value closely, we
can divide it into two parts: surplus
labor time (the time spent
in the production of surplus value), and surplus
time (the time free of the
time used creating surplus value). As Paul Sporn has noticed, no revolution
or reform movement has addressed all of these central problems of economics:
1. The control, use, and distribution
of surplus value,
2. The use made of the division of labor,
3. The distribution and control of surplus
labor time among the population,
4. The distribution of surplus time among
The first problem would be solved if the
working class, not merely in rhetoric but in fact, owned all the collective
facilities (apartments, hospitals, schools, roads, etc.), all of the means
of production and factories, all the land, mines, and raw materials, etc.
This means that the working class must be culturally and politically sophisticated
enough to carry this forward in terms of decision-making, distribution,
and production itself. A significant section of the working class--probably
a majority--must be fully social beings, conscious of their role as class
activists, even before truly fundamental change occurs. Many, many people
must be able to break free of the authoritarianism and contempt for theoretical
work which only represents the influence of their masters. Honest leaders
must clearly define their relationship to the masses of people in egalitarian
ways, while the people must understand that historically this relationship
is like a fake lighthouse beacon, designed by looters to cause shipwrecks.
False leaders have repeatedly sold inequality and authoritarianism to the
mass of people on the grounds of the common good, higher production, or
better days in the future.
In past socialist efforts toward equality
and democracy, like the Russian and Chinese revolutions, leaders relied
heavily on an idea called the THEORY
OF PRODUCTIVE FORCES. At
base, this is a belief that in order to obtain social symmetry, harmony,
first there must be abundance. In particular, this theory asserts says
that social change is solely rooted in technological change, advances in
the means of production which must go before change in the relations of
Hence, the goal of revolutions guided
by this idea became production, national economic development--and every
aspect of the revolution was subordinated to this goal. The theory of productive
forces was rooted in the idea that social change absolutely requires, first,
a complete turnover in the means of production, industrialization. In practice,
in order to speed development, former ruling class experts were returned
to power in the factories. Party leaders, over time often these same experts,
were reified, made icons. Educational systems, egalitarian and experimental
immediately after revolutions, became centers of rote learning. The leaders
of parties which boasted of equality in fact became privileged classes
themselves. In short, to hasten industrialization, the revolutionaries
recreated capitalism, seen by many honest people as the necessary stage
before equality, and called it socialism.
The theory of productive forces denies,
on the one hand, the current reality of capitalism as a world-wide system
and, on the other hand, the key role that the relations of production,
especially the part played by ideas adopted by masses of people, can play
in social change. Instead, the theory of productive forces mechanically
expects industrialization to create equality, abundance to lead to fairness
and justice. History has demonstrated this idea to be mistaken. Inequality
and authoritarianism do not form a good base for equality and democracy.
Socialism failed, became capitalism under red banners.
The second, third, and fourth problems,
the use made by the division of labor, the distribution of surplus labor
time, and the distribution of surplus time, are critical factors which
have also subverted previous attempts at democracy and equality. These
can be answered by rotating work, redistributing surplus labor time and
surplus time. In the past, the theory of productive forces required experts--the
division of labor. This in turn relied on the potential efficiency that
may come from industrial specialization. So all of the surplus labor time,
that time spent on the alienated production of surplus value, was solely
distributed to the working class. Surplus time, that time free of the need
to create surplus value or to recreate the workers' life, has always been
overwhelmingly distributed to those who produce no commodities: party bosses
in many cases. This means that workers are denied both the opportunity
to reflect on their circumstances and the chance to enjoy the surpluses
Socialism failed for many reasons beyond
the theory of productive forces: corruption, sexism, elitism, racism, caudillo
leadership, authoritarianism. opportunism, sectarianism, re-institutionalized
inequality, etc. In each case, the
failure of the socialist society was primarily internal, although external
capitalist pressure certainly played a role.
Errors arose from every conceivable discipline
within the socialist world. From flawed Soviet philosophy, for example,
we can learn that truth is never located within a central committee, but
in social practice--the material world beyond the central committee. This
is the reason that a "from the people to the people" method of policy making
is wise. From psychology we can learn that sexuality and the family play
a role in both teaching rebels--and employee-subordinates. From education,
always the canary in the mine of any society, we can learn that the denial
of freedom and experimentation is a signal of poison from within. The key
point is not to mourn the mistakes of 150 brief years of political economy,
but to learn to comprehend and overcome the mistakes and divisions that
were finally used to demolish socialism. At the heart of these failures
was, at once, questions about how to defeat inequality in surplus value
and labor time and how to transform alienation, separation, exclusion,
into solidarity, unity, self-actualization.
Meszaros, in his gigantic, Beyond
Capital, offers clarity on key props for the status quo, what he calls
mediations of capital:
A) The nuclear family
B) Alienated means of production
C) Fetishist (as opposed to humane) production objectives
D) Labor structurally divorced from control
E) Capital's nation status
The uncontrollability of the market.
To which Joel Kovell adds
H) The Fragmentation of Labor (labor organizationally pitted against
itself) with these main aspects described in Meszaros:
1) Within any particular section of labor
2) Among different groups of workers in the same nation
3) Between the national labor groups
4) Metropolitan labor vs. 3rd world labor
The employed vs. the unemployed.
mediation is imbued in the other, each sustains the other, each carrying
the powerful DNA of capital into new generations.
the real target must be the capital system as such, as a whole, with all
of its mediations and Meszaros suggests urgency because he thinks capital
is reaching its limits--particularly through its destruction of the world
now, what is the way out?
offers some clues: what he calls mediations between today and the defeat
of capital as a whole.
1) Reestablish the necessarily international character of the communist movement.
2) What he calls socialist pluralism, common action around a totality of demands none of which taken alone is necessarily socialist (Like jobs, education, health care, etc.) but which taken as a whole cannot be met by capitalism.
3) Points to the historical role of workers councils--a sign (as Lukacs says) that the class consciousness of the proletariat is on the verge of overcoming the bourgeoisie outlook of its leaders. Where the we/they dichotomy can be dissolved in practical action--especially in the labor process.
Rejects the economic determinism of capital whose standpoint proclaims
itself as the highest obtainable stage of human evolution and suggests
that the structural crises of capital may be immanent, sufficient to sustain
anti-capital break through.
like Marx, Meszaros offers the conditions for what he calls an epochal
shift--a revolution-- but far too little on the way through.
The absence of a coherent organizational scheme is a serious flaw in Meszaros,
as is the incipient nationalism that undermines some of his analysis. That
he does not address racism in any depth, that he believes fascism is not
an option for modern capital, that there is no recognition of the Chinese
contributions to radical theory and practice, all this sums up to a very
limited sense of what comes after capital.
Any serious effort toward social and political
equality must address the issues Meszaros notes which all mesh into one
another. While I have focused on economic and political questions, it is
also true that cultural matters about creativity, truth, beauty, and love
cannot be torn away from these mostly economic questions. As capital squeezes
down, the world is reducing essential human experiences and replacing them
with what Debord has analyzed as spectacles: backyard football for the
super bowl, the professionalization of art, music, even sexuality. People
are being stripped of significant points of power, free time and collective
community for example. But people are also growing more cornered and aware
of the absence of reform alternatives. Many people are revisiting the need
for fundamental change, and considering the possibilities.
In fact, the reason to fight for change
is more related to freeing people to live in a harmonious world where their
creativity and love can be unleashed than to build more electrical plants.
And political change can be shipwrecked on matters of sexuality or revenge.
A movement cannot be sustained on class hatred alone. Che Guevara was profound
in his nearly flippant comment, "It may seem absurd, but the true revolutionary
is motivated by love." Even so, at the heart of these factors remains an
analysis of the material world, its existence and the process of its changes.
The surgical tools for this are dialectics, historical materialism, political
economy. Our probes into the changing material reality, if this is correct,
can dig out the seeds of understanding that we need to forge the future.
One more critical question: Political
economy insists that every situation be studied anew. Given what is above,
how would you create a template of questions to study the relations of
power in your community--or any community? Your questions will live longer
than the answers.
In sum, political economy seeks to carefully
examine the onion's leaves and core, to abstract from appearance to essence,
to unmask SOCIAL relationships which are frequently portrayed as relations
between things. It seeks to display the real, though hidden, workings of
society in its interrelationships, seeing that all movements are interrelated
and interpenetrating rather than disjointed and disconnected (where does
supply and demand come from, for example?) In addition, political economy
demonstrates that people are sometimes engaged in processes about which
they are barely conscious and, surely, absent a scientific analysis of
what is up, a process which is out of their control.
Wages, profits, inequality, unpaid labor;
these are not the natural state of things. They are the background to historical
struggles between people. Poverty did not rise from the mists. It's the
result of social practices which can be changed.
For workers, the production relationship
consumes their working and creative powers without replenishing them, burns
them up as if they were kindling and leaves the individual worker much
poorer. Workers and poor people are set in apparently ruthless competition
against one another and taught in societies which preach common good but
practice the greed of every person for him or herself. Hence, people are
alienated from their creation and work, from other people, from nature,
and from themselves.
Their products become the property of
non-productive capitalists. Every segment of life becomes dominated by
the requirements of, not people, but the products of people--or the enemies
of most people. Man-made matter comes to dominate humanity. Money, an abstraction
of value, rules people, the creators of value.
Given that the privileged are unlikely
to charitably give away their lifestyles, and given that they have used
ferocious forms of violence in the past; it is probable that only violence
will set aside the system they will kill to protect. Few working people
want violence. Indeed, the history of working people is really a history
of forgiveness toward those who have lived well off their misery. But it
is important to distinguish the content of violence from its form, that
is for example, the violence used by anti-Nazi partisans from the violence
of Nazis. One is designed to preserve a system which requires violence.
The other seeks to end the reasons for violence.
To unseat a powerful, ruthless, well organized
adversary requires serious counter-organization. But, for those who desire
a better world, counter-organizing, turning the methods of rule against
elites, is not enough. For example, it would be wrong, and history proves
it is wrong, to duplicate a hierarchical, authoritarian group to defeat
capitalism. It's contaminating the well. Any organization for serious change
must incorporate goals and practices which make every member a leader,
every leader a follower, in all-for-one solidarity. Capital has been remarkably
successful, even among rebels, in promoting the comforting idea that it
is better to rely on someone else for analysis and action. A key contradiction
of political economy is the problem of those who would resist trying to
see outside and beyond their surroundings. But how can an egalitarian resistant
group defeat an enemy that doesn't have to debate the next move? Moreover,
any revolutionary group must arm its members with ideas which empower them
to unravel the sources of inequality--and arm them permanently with weapons
to ensure its defeat, even after a victorious shift in power. Beyond that,
there must be a two-pronged struggle about the questions of warfare. While
harsh treatment of real enemies is sometimes understandable, we must understand
that random ruthlessness blows back. And in our own ranks, poor and working
people must love and be loved if they are to take the risks to think clearly
and win. There must be a sense of a solid home base; even if that is just
Hence, capital appears to have a number
of advantages, a significant one being that there are nearly infinite ways
to defeat democratic egalitarians, but only a few ways for egalitarians
to defeat capital. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to believe that people
will resist force, find their way through the barrage of decoys---ideology
and seduction-- until they win. There is no alternative. Today, capital
has nothing but war and sideshows to offer the overwhelming majority of
people, and capital provides a meaningless and unconscious existence to
Resistance and the struggle for change
are rational ways to respond to the intense alienation of life under capitalism,
but resistance must be illuminated by an understanding of the terrain and
the ideology which is designed to veil it. It is difficult to stop thinking
like employees and begin to think like liberated free people, long before
real democracy or equality is tasted.
This is reflected in movements which insist
that something other than an analysis rooted in the understandings and
actions of labor, can finally bring and end to authoritarianism and inequality.
This includes analyses which begin, as starting points, with race, culture,
nation, sex, and religion--the varieties of multi-culturalism and post-modernism.
The only analysis which goes to the root of human existence, which can
sweep across false divisions, is an analysis that begins with the understanding
that, at the beginning is production, class conflict, reproduction and
sexuality, and the construction of knowledge, and sees the ways each interrelates
to cause change in our world. Labor is the common unifying factor of all
Even so, social practice, struggle--connected
to study--is the beginning point of new ideas and the hope for a world
in peace and harmony. Those who seek change must be both on the streets
and in the libraries. At the core, those who wish to understand and transform
reality, those who realize they we are superior to our circumstances, need
to take up the banner of Bread and Roses: we want friends, good work and
good lives: fairness, equality, democracy, and justice. We want to be able
to love one another.
The ghettoization of the cities, the corruption
and aging of the working class, the real privileges perceived and enjoyed
by most North American industrial workers, the dislocation of factories
away from areas of likely rebellion or potential community support for
struggles, the treachery of union police agents, racism and sexism, all
mitigate against tactics designed to rely on the present North American
working class to make serious change in
the near future.
Very few communities will have the power
to locate their cadres based on organizational need. Most change groupings
will have to work with people where they find them. Thus, because of lack
of power and resources, some people will wind up in industrial, or industry-peripheral
jobs. Many of these people will end up in unions, most of them in the U.S.
in the AFL-CIO. The bogus left, leftover from the past, is busy on all
fronts, from the Trotskyist Solidarity group, to the once anarcho-syndicalist
revolutionary union, the Industrial Workers of the World, are busy trying
to reform the AFL's affiliates--to call for union democracy and more resistance
on the job. These people have never grasped the relationship of reform
and revolution, and mis-lead working people into deeper involvement in
organizations, the major unions, which are only useful to capitalists in
assisting them control the workplaces. It is not possible to reform the
AFL-CIO, whose structural roots support the fragmentation of labor, and
whose psychological foundations are missionary work on one hand and promoting
an, "I paid my dues and someone should fix things for me," mentality on
the other. There is no need for a more democratic or active union movement.
Even if successful, which is highly unlikely, such a movement would only
deepen worker alienation. Better to organize workers councils, which sweep
across industries, crafts, and communities, to supplant the AFL and make
it even more bankrupt--and to fight it when necessary--to set aside the
fragmentation of labor described above.
But this is not 1930. The central location
of life in the U.S. was once the factory and the community which surrounded
the industrial base. The shift of much factory work to the colonial world
and to rural North America, at least in geographic terms, makes successful
class warfare difficult. While some key plants may potentially immobilize
some corporations, this alone actually just isolates class solidarity and,
given the likely actors, hardly points to anything beyond relatively modest
demands for reform.
Today, geographically, politically, and
socially, the focal point of North American life is the school.
Consider the breadth of school. There
are 15,274 public school districts in the United States. In those schools
are 41,838,871 students, 2,431,008 teachers. In addition there are about
1,400,000 non-teaching school workers such as bus drivers, cafeteria assistants,
aides, mechanics and skilled trades people. Private schools house another
5,193,213 students and 354,638 teachers. Public school enrollment increased
about 1.8 million since 1987. 2.5 million kids graduated from high school
in 1991, another 2.5 million will graduate this year. The cost of education
in 1992 was $5,097 per student, a bundle. (National Center for Education
Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, 1992 quoted in Education Week,
Add to this total of nearly 44 million
people directly affected by the public schools, the myriad of people whose
income depends on school work or profits: book publishers (and bookmakers),
builders, accountants, restauranteurs, social workers, food surplus workers,
middle-class volunteers, clothing salespeople and manufacturers, landscapers
and developers (school districts spent $9.6 billion on construction projects
in 1990--Education Week, 2-19-92) and finally, about 20 million people
in the private school system. (NEA Research, 1990)
It's a lot. Neither the military, the
tax system, nor welfare programs are more pervasive than school. And school
sucks. Still, all these numbers, this incredible massed quantity of buildings,
money, land, people, and publicity, combine to form a huge spectacle of
education slammed daily into the public consciousness, a hollow spectacle
full of magic and mythology drawn from long remembered experiences, but
a phenomenon of limited substance and of real use, absent subversion, to
but a tiny minority of citizens.
People with limited resources and plans
for change should focus on North American schools, the key instrument for
bourgeoisie social control. Inside the schools, a continuing presence is
won through base-building with teachers and other education workers, through
ties with parents, and through the special organization of young people
into their own sections of work---guided mostly on their request.
At issue then is: Why is school there?
What value do schools create and who pays? What is schools' goal for kids?
Why are we teaching like this? What is to be known, and how is that related
to how it comes to be known? What are the fundamentals of organizing people?
What should they be organized into? The future reform battles in school
should focus on the curriculum (teaching kids lies using methods which
tell children they are not agents of history), class size (which also unites
kids, parents and teachers), and the taxation system which should be restructured
to tax non-productive wealth. But the central issue of good teaching is
the revolutionary destruction of capital and the creation of a community
where people can at last love one another--each and all. This is a humble
and humbling project, as is good pedagogy. To make social change is to
recognize wrongs and potentials, and to understand that our knowledge of
the total situation is always incomplete, yet sufficient to know that change
must be made.
Any organization, and here one is finally
proposed, must adopt a multitude of strategies and tactics, all within
the grand strategy described above. Moreover, it must be a multi-tiered
organization with public and non-public sections (and members often interchanging
roles). The history of the early soviets would be helpful here, as would
the details of, say, China's Long March and the failures of the Cultural
Revolution--and all of socialism for that matter.. The relationship of
leaders to followers must be openly recognized as a continuing tension--resolved
from collective analysis of material reality. Democratic centralism is
a mere reification if it is not linked to particular social tethers on
specific grounds, democracy being the dialectical link to new leadership
and understanding, centralism being the link to survival--once always weaving
with the other. The guide is equality and democracy not as abstractions
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Rich Gibson is the program coordinator for social studies education at Wayne State University in Detroit.
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