Sunday, May 29, 2016

Why Marxism is important and why it should not be abandoned---Part Three

(This is our third and final entry in this series exploring why Marxism is important and why it should not be abandoned and examining some criticisms we have received. Please read the first two posts and come back to check on changes. We value your opinions and hope to hear from you.)

Let’s wrap up and make some concluding notes:

1.       “Class” is as much process as it is category. Classes exist only in relation to one another, and those relationships form across time and have meaning and consciousness attached to them. At a given moment, or as shorthand, we might describe a working-class by looking at statistics in the industrial, service and administrative sectors or by measuring the different forms of capital present and the appropriation of surplus value or by studying how labor power is reproduced and under what conditions. These studies tell us a great deal and give us a functional means of understanding our reality and proving certain points. They will most often show the terms of understanding between the classes and show likely paths to conflict. On the other hand, the cultural, political and social contexts of class are really best measured in struggle, and it is here that preconceptions must be abandoned in favor of a methodology which understands that it is people who “make their own history, but (that)they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selectedcircumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmittedfrom the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare onthe brains of the living.” The subaltern approach either dispenses with one definition of class or the other or misapplies both; in either case, a historically-grounded methodology is missing.

2.       An illustration of how tricky these questions are arises when we talk about baristas and so-called “unskilled” workers. Hanna Brooks Olsen recently wrote an interesting article entitled Service Work Is Skilled Work. Get Over It. She makes the case that many jobs which are considered unskilled require real and learned skills. I’m convinced by some of her arguments but not convinced by others. Industrial work and skilled trades have not disappeared so much as they have gone elsewhere, continuing automation presents a choice between impoverishment and economic crisis or building a socialistic and cooperative society, skilled work should not be equated with necessary work and there is no reason to believe that service work will not undergo the same kinds of changes that industrial work has undergone since Frederick Taylor was brought into the picture.

We have never doubted that service workers are workers and that they are among the most exploited workers. In Salem we have four main components in the working class: service workers, healthcare workers, government and social service agency workers and agriculture workers. Manufacturing and high tech are not strong features of the local economy here. These workers have particular needs and a class- or self-consciousness which is different than workers engaged in industrial production, and their levels of organization and their unions and our local politics and the region’s culture reflects this. In fact, we can break it down further and speak of “consciousnesses” since there is not yet a common class consciousness which cuts across the four sectors and work relations are mediated by gender, race, and ethnicity, matters of sexual preference and gender identity and age to a great degree.

But does this mean that baristas, say, will be the revolutionary subject and lead the revolution here? I don’t think so. The service workers and others are key social forces, most of these jobs are skilled or semi-skilled and, at least for now, essential. But these service sector and government jobs exist in large part because someone somewhere else is working in industrial production and creating the surplus value needed to make the service economy viable. Moreover, the point of radicalization for service workers can’t be that their jobs are different than others, but that they are strikingly and increasingly similar. The subaltern approach will focus on the differences while we focus on the evolution and consequent similarities of the work.

Where the subaltern approach does work is in its interest in the reproduction of labor power and its insistence that so much real work vital to capitalism is unpaid labor---homemaking, for instance. It is not that this work stands alone as distinct economic activity, but that it is joined to production, distribution and administration in hundreds of ways which we have not paid sufficient interest to and which are constantly under the scrutiny of capitalist managers seeking to automate that work and make it more productive.  

3.       A strong point for us remains that we live under conditions of monopoly capitalism. This is most often taken to mean that monopolies control production, distribution and administration in society, and that’s true enough. But what is also true is that “monopoly capital” means that the capitalists monopolize how production, distribution and administration are carried out---that they leave no room in society for alternate forms of production, distribution and administration. To the extent that this is true and realized, then, a problem specific to the workers and people prioritized in subaltern movements exists: they can’t organize and negotiate through the traditional trade unions, the social movements have limited power and influence and they can’t sustain alternate economies. Bitcoins, barter, service exchanges and the like don’t meet these needs. Subalternism then either leans towards a reformist strategy,surrendering its revolutionary content, or gives up entirely. I project, instead, that these workers constitute reserve and potentially radical forces and that they are a necessary part of a classwide battle for socialism as allies of waged workers.

People who want to study these questions in greater depth should start with this article by Adaner Usmani which appeared in Against The Current in July of 2013.

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