Tuesday, June 21, 2016


Vincent Kelley writes a useful article entitled Class: Its Core Dimensions and Relationships to Levels of Organization, published in The North Star. It's a superior exercise in Marxist theory as it tries to actually describe reality instead of just rehashing ancient texts. Plus Mr. Kelley is a good writer.

In the end, it fails, and mostly because Mr. Kelley begins with a severely truncated toolkit.

Economists usually begin such discussions with the so-called factors of production. Often three ingredients are required: access to natural resources, labor, and capital. But the resource factor is usually subsumed into the other two, so most economic argument starts with how to allocate labor and capital in order to maximize production. This is enshrined in the well-known Cobb-Douglas production function,

Y=AL^{\beta }K^{\alpha }

Here Y is total output (to be maximized), L is the amount of labor used, and K is the capital invested. The other terms are empirical parameters. In particular, alpha and beta represent the relative importance of capital and labor, respectively.

So a cab driver has to buy a car ($30K in capital investment), and then spend hours driving (a labor investment). The result, he hopes, is a good living. And if the driver does not himself buy the car, then somebody else has to lay out the money, and accordingly will want some return on investment, aka profit.

But Mr. Kelley does not acknowledge capital as a factor of production. For him it is unnecessary for a cab driver to have a car--he could just simply start driving anyway. Or equally absurd, the person (even the driver) who purchases the car is willing to lend it out for free, just as a favor. Mr. Kelley says that there is only one factor of production--only labor counts, and nobody should be reimbursed for capital.

His ideal world, where capital is abolished, is one where there will be no taxis, no factories, no roads and no airplanes. I can't imagine what such a better world might look like--it'd be rather like a world without gravity.

Yet the article has some merits. First, he acknowledges that class is a malleable quality--it depends on the class struggle. Or putting it in my own words, class exists only insofar as the people involved recognize that they're in different classes. Or, in Mr. Kelley's language, 
Because class is created through historical class struggle, classes are made and remade over time. For the same reason, they can also be altered and destroyed. Class ideologies can be even more dynamic than classes in economic and political terms since ideology encompasses not only what is but also what was and what could be.
I think this is true, though it doesn't sound very materialist, and therefore odd coming from a Marxist.

And then he makes some odd distinctions:
...the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs in the last several decades has pushed many long-term production workers into the service sector, in which they sell their services to clients as opposed to selling their labor-power to capitalists. This shift of many workers from the occupational proletariat to the occupational petite bourgeoisie has formed a large segment of the U.S. petite bourgeoisie whose material conditions are comparable to or even below the proletariat, even though this segment is not in direct contradiction with industrial capital as it used to be. We call members of this lower strata of the petite bourgeoisie fundamental laborers...
So our taxi driver (even if he just works for the cab owner) is nevertheless not a member of the proletariat. Instead he is a fundamental laborer (aka, service worker) who is "occupationally" a member of the petite bourgeoisie. The distinction is that the cabbie works for passengers more than for the car owner, and is thus not an employee in the way a true proletarian would be.

In Mr. Kelley's view fundamental laborers, while they might be allied with the proletariat, lack the power to shut the mother down in the way that actual production workers can. They're rather like Russian peasants--in Lenin's view useful allies but ultimately irrelevant.

Mr. Kelley could mention that 80% of the American labor force are in service occupations, and only 12% are in traditional manufacturing. The actual proletariat then is already rather small, and is still shrinking fast. Mr. Kelley blames this on foreign outsourcing, when in fact the biggest culprit by far is automation. The day is not far off when only 1 or 2% of the population is involved in manufacturing, similar to the fraction now working in agriculture.

Further, that 12% in manufacturing are not the interchangeable proletarians of yore, but instead are increasingly highly skilled and well-paid workers. These are not people who have any interest in "shutting the mother down."

Beyond this, I'd take issue with his distinction between service workers and proletarians. We'll all agree that the UAW guy at the River Rouge plant is a worker. But what about the salesman at the local dealership? The salesman is the crucial link in the chain--without him the worker's labor is wasted, as is Henry Ford's capital investment. If the cars don't sell, there's no point in building them. So if anybody has his finger on the pulse of the economy, it's the salesman. I don't think Mr. Kelley understands that.

And then: Are McDonald's employees fundamental laborers trained to respond to customers? Or are they instead workers in a hamburger manufacturing plant? Mr. Kelley needs to answer such questions before he makes such dramatic distinctions.

There are bits of Mr. Kelley's article that I agree with. He writes,
To return to our examples, the Afro-American petite bourgeoisie is a largely reactionary sub-class segment because of its attachment not only to what it has but also to what it could have. Hence we observe the fallacious political line of uplifting all Afro-Americans through the development of an Afro-American (mis)leadership class of race leaders who advocate an individualized politics bolstered by explicit or implicit cultural nationalism. This cultural nationalism has most recently expressed itself through the petite bourgeois leadership of Black Lives Matter, which has co-opted the militant struggle of urban poor and working class Afro-Americans into the cultural nationalist paradigm of Afro-Americans “coming together across class.” Similarly, the racist sub-class elements of the American proletariat establish themselves as a reactionary segment of the working class when they support capitalist politicians like Donald Trump in exchange for a promised populism for whites only.
I think this is mostly correct, though (as a Trump supporter myself) I'd be a bit more generous to the Trump people.

The latter position is a result of the petite bourgeoisie’s tendency to fetishize its own, very real, domination under capitalism and equate this domination with a proletarian class location. This line leads to a disproportionate attention on unionized public sector service workers, such as teachers, postal workers, and graduate students as opposed to the largely non-unionized private sector production workers who most urgently must be organized if the workers’ movement as a whole has any chance of challenging, defeating, and finally destroying capital at its origin.
He implies (and I'd agree) that public sector workers are not very useful people (I've used the less polite term parasite). And very few people are more useless than graduate students (a total waste of time and money).

So Mr. Kelley's goal is to overthrow capital. I have no clue what that means. But I enjoyed reading about how we're supposed to get there.

Further Reading:

No comments:

Post a Comment