These days, at the centres of capitalism, it is en vogue for leftists to attack Lenin’s theory of the labour aristocracy. Some marxist critics, feeling like they know better than the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution, would like to remind us that Lenin’s theorization of a term bandied about by Engels showed no understanding of what Engels meant in the first place––indeed, the same critics said much the same about Lenin’s theorization of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Others would just have us believe that this theory is utterly erroneous and that Lenin, regardless of his influence, was wrong when it came to labour aristocracies, super-profits, and maybe even imperialism. These denials, usually vocalized by a privileged group of leftist academics at the centres of capitalism, are either rhetorical or a grand act of obfuscatory sophistry but still part of the zeitgeist at the imperialist centres. Where the rest of the marxist movement still believes in the theory, though perhaps in various ways, a bunch of privileged marxist “experts” in the so-called first world would have us believe otherwise. Do these experts protest too much? Maybe… Social circumstances are always enlightening: the difference in analysis between marxists at the centres and marxists at the peripheries might be just as important as the difference in analysis between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat––but I digress.
In any case, since asinine attacks on the theory of the labour aristocracy are now common amongst a sector of leftists who live in the centres of imperialism, it is about time that someone like Zak Cope wrote Divided World Divided Class, a book which re-theorizes Lenin’s notion of the labour aristocracy from a thorough political economic perspective. Indeed, Cope’s book is the antidote to Charlie Post’s somewhat recent bullshit and unscientific attacks on the theory. The fact that Cope doesn’t cite Post is only proof that a rugged political economist like Cope doesn’t take the rhetoric of Post, which demonstrates no political economic awareness and is little more than a hatchet job filled with straw-person and red herring fallacies, very seriously. Cope, after all, not only spends hundreds of pages tracing the historical emergence and meaning of the labour aristocracy, but he also expends appendices of economic data that thoroughly demonstrates the point. Best to be scientific when you have to deal with rhetoricians who live at the centres of capitalism and don’t want to admit that they’re part of a movement that might be affected by imperialism!
Before writing some asinine comment about how you reject the theory of the labour aristocracy and thus don’t like Cope’s book, do yourself a favour and buy the book now so at least whatever critique you plan to level is not some straw-person and ill informed complaint, as is typical for so many of us internet leftists!
Cope really does provide the first full-fledged political economy of the labour aristocracy. Amin has talked around this issue, especially in the re-issue of The Law of Worldwide Value, but even that wasn’t about the labour aristocracy per se. To date, there has not been a single and thorough book of political economy dedicated to the general theory’s efficacy––not from those who support the theory, not from its detractors––and so Divided World Divided Class is an extremely important book. If anything, it should reignite a debate that some leftists at the centres of global capitalism, terrified at being classified as ideologues of a labour aristocracy, have been hoping to avoid.
Due to this fact, Cope’s Divide World Divided Class is monumental: it is a fully unified work of political economy about the theory of the labour aristocracy that synthesizes all of the analyses, along with quantitative data, in one book. It proves without a doubt that there is such a thing as a labour aristocracy, that the working class movements at the centres of capitalism benefits from this labour aristocracy, and that all talk of its non-existence is little more than banal sophistry, an act of extreme denial.
Unfortunately, in its effort to prove the existence and persistence of a labour aristocracy, Cope lapses into an undialectical and unnuanced understanding of qualitative phenomena. Absorbed in the positivism of political economy, he overlooks the necessity to grasp the theory of the labour aristocracy according to the scientific method of historical materialism––that is, like so many political economists, he is not a very good dialectical materialist.
Here, it is important to return to Lenin’s approach to the theory. Lenin might not have been a positivist political economist, but he was a dialectical materialist interested in making sense of his global conjuncture. And when Lenin spoke of a labour aristocracy and imperialism he was indicating two interrelated facts: i) because of imperialism and the fact that the working-class movements at the centre were bribed by “super-profits”––that their material interests might not necessarily be invested in proletarian revolution––revolution was more likely to happen (and it did happen) at the “weakest links” of global capitalism; ii) because of the higher level of economic development, based of course on imperialist exploitation, at the “developed” centres of capitalism, revolutions at the peripheries could only sustain themselves if revolutions also happened at the centres.
But Cope, perhaps following the erroneous line of third world marxism, seems to assert that it is impossible for revolutionary movements to develop at the imperialist centres because, positivistically following the data of his analysis, he does not appear to believe that there can be revolutionary movements in the global metropoles. For in these spaces, according to Cope, the working-class is so thoroughly bought out and invested in imperialism that there can be no proletarian movement. Nor does he seem to care about a praxis that anticipates capitalist crises at the global centres––those moments where even the general labour aristocracy is reproletarianized––so he doesn’t appear to care about a praxis at the global centres that would build the subjective forces capable of dealing with objective circumstances. Indeed, his comments about praxis seem to indicate the third world surrounding the first world in a global peoples war solution, simplistically tendered by third worldist “maoism”, though he doesn’t precisely make this claim. In two words: revolutionary abdication.
As mentioned in an earlier post, this kind of “third worldism” represents the very chauvinism it claims to reject. To accept that there is no point in making revolution at the centres of capitalism, and thus to wait for the peripheries to make revolution for all of us, is to abdicate revolutionary responsibility––it is to demand that people living in the most exploited social contexts (as Cope’s theory proves) should do the revolutionary work for the rest of us. Even worse are the “third worldists” (and Cope is not one of these) who think they can theorize this revolution even though they benefit from first world privilege, who malign these “third worldist revolutions” for not following their theoretical line, and thus foster a division between theory and revolution: the third world will make revolution, the first world dedicants of third world revolution will provide the proper theory of this revolution––the mental and manual division of labour is thus reproduced. And Cope, where he attempts to indicate praxis without demonstrating that he is practically involved with any significant political project (a general problem with first worldism which has always ended up promoting political abdication), justifies this banal third worldist end game. Indeed, while the labour aristocracy is predominant a the centres of capitalism, this does not meant that possible revolutionaries at the centre have no other duty but to wait for third world movements to do the revolutionary work for them; nor does it mean that this labour aristocracy should not be understood contextually, that it does not articulate itself in very particular ways with its own gaps and fissures…
And yet these are only tangental problems, a product of Cope’s positivism that is no less positivist than every modern political economy, and it is still clear that he has proved the existence of a labour aristocracy despite the angry mutterings of any “first world” polemicist who would think otherwise. If the rest of the political economy universe, marxist or not, is going to play a positivist game, then you might as well do the same. (Indeed, the only political economist I have ever encountered who has been able to escape this positivist game and practice dialectics is Samir Amin… and, by the way, he also believe in the theory of labour aristocracy!) The problem, though, is it okay to be a positivist that rejects the very existence of a labour aristocracy and celebrates so-called “first worldism” while, at the same time, it is not okay to elevate “third worldism” by the same positivist logic. Eurocentrist political economy, after all, is contingent on a lot of unquestioned assumptions; its third worldist counterpart, even if it is just as thorough (if not more so) in its research, is less acceptable.
In any case, Cope is extremely thorough in proving the existence of the labour aristocracy, the privilege of workers at the global centres due to the exploitation of workers at the global peripheries, and even more thorough in explaining why phenomena such as racism is a product of the material fact of imperialism rather than, as I have also complained, “simply presumed to conflict with the real interests of all workers and, thereby, to be a set of ideas disconnected from material circumstances.” (p. 4) He is able to cover a lot of territory, and provide a lot of data––so much so that if anyone reads this book and continues to lapse back on opportunistic rejections of the theory of the labour aristocracy I would bet tempted to suspect that they are living in racist denial.
But where Cope really shines, and what makes me hope that he will write another book dedicated only to this issue, is in his analysis of fascism. This is only a side-point of his book, something that appears at the end, but it might even be more monumental than the fact that he has economically theorized the labour aristocracy. Indeed, the fact that he uses the theory of the labour aristocracy to make sense of the emergence of fascism in Germany, and then draw out a theory of fascism from this analysis in order to chart the rise of modern fascism, is extremely intriguing; it needs to be a book in itself.
Trotskyists have badly theorized fascism as a petty-bourgeois phenomenon. Maoists have more correctly made sense of it as a monolothic capitalism. But Cope knits these analyses together through the theory of the labour aristocracy:
“Fascism is the attempt by the imperialist bourgeoisie to solidify its rule on the basis of popular middle-class support for counter-revolutionary dictatorship. Ideologically fascism is the relative admixture of authoritarianism, racism, militarism and pseudo-socialism necessary to make this bid successful. […] Finally social-fascism offers higher wages and living standards to the national workforce at the expense of foreign and colonized workers. As such, denunciations of “unproductive” and “usurer’s” capital, of “bourgeois” nations (that is, the dominant imperialist nations) and of the workers’ betrayal of reformist “socialism” are part and parcel of the fascist appeal.” (p. 294)
As regular blog commentator “jordachev” indicated in a comment on another string which ended up being about a discussion of the rise of fascism, there have been other marxist theorist who have noted that the Nazis were “actually able to appeal to a lot of what some would call the ‘labour aristocracy’, e.g. the highly skilled professionals, clerks, etc.” Cope synthesizes these analyses of the rise of national socialism, binding them to a more thorough theory of the labour aristocracy and fascism:
“First World socialists (whether communists, social democrat or anarchist) tacitly accept that domestic taxation affords the welfare state benefits of the imperialist countries without examining whose labour pays for the taxable income in the first place. By singling out ultra-rich elites as the source of society’s problems and tailoring its message to the middle class and labour aristocracy, First World socialism becomes First Worldist left populism. The latter is distinguishable from its right-wing variant only by its less openly racist appeal and its greater approval of public spending. […] As capitalism makes a transition from a social democratic welfare state to a corporate security state, it finds itself confronted with the need to dispense with the formal laws and political processes of bourgeois democracy. Typically, the labour aristocracy… provides a patina of democratic legitimacy via elections and union organizing to the increasingly repressive police bulwarks of monopoly capitalism. It enables fascism by neglecting to challenge imperialism as the source of its relative prosperity and even its basic needs for health and shelter.” (p. 296-297)
While it is true that there are communists and communist organizations in the first world who do not “tacitly accept” welfare state discourse––and who definitely base a praxis round how social democracy at the global centres is only possible because of the greater exploitation of the peripheries––Cope is right in noting that it is the general state of affairs. Indeed, most revolutionary communist organizations at the centres of capitalism (which are usually not part of the “mainstream left” in these contexts) have had to fight against a general opportunism and economism––finding ways to openly break with this ideology much to the distress of the surrounding left––in order to even begin organizing. Moreover, the above quotation is extremely relevant in light of the recent #occupy furor that has now evaporated despite all the proclamations to the contrary: this movement did single out the “ultra-rich elites as the source of society’s problems” (the so-called 1%) and tailored “its message to the middle class and labour aristocracy.” So Cope is even charting these confused attempts to resist capitalism’s current crisis at the centre––which are often still square within petty-bourgeois territory and sometimes little more than evidence of a struggle to reclaim what the labour aristocracy might be losing––into the possibility of an emerging fascism… But this is only how the book ends, where he takes the theory of the labour aristocracy, and it is intriguing and important enough to demand a sequel.
All of this is to say that if you’re a marxist political economist who is also an anti-imperialist, you should get your hands on Cope’s Divided World Divided Class. (Go buy it. Now. Here: I’ll even give you the link again!) I know that I will probably be going back to it, again and again, as a reference for my ongoing academic work.