Gabriel Kuhn's Blog

Middle-Class Workers?

By Gabriel Kuhn

A review of bromma, The Worker Elite: Notes on the “Labor Aristocracy” (Montreal: Kersplebedeb, 2014). Originally published by Alpine Anarchist Productions.

There is something admirable about small radical publishing houses unabashedly releasing material that seems out of sync with a new generation of activists trained in postmodern thought and language, politicizing Miley Cyrus and the Simpsons, and discussing elusive multitudes of oppression and resistance. Who cares about the “labor aristocracy”, or similarly outdated Leninist concepts?

Luckily, at Montreal’s Kersplebedeb one doesn’t seem to care too much about the latest trends in revolutionary rhetoric and refuses to abandon questions mandatory for any revolutionary theory, such as class society, its developments, contradictions, and transformative potentials. The Worker Elite: Notes on the “Labor Aristocracy”, fresh off the presses and written by bromma, a retired industrial worker who once gave up a life “in the bubble of the intelligentsia” to move “into the factories”, is the latest case in point.

The Worker Elite is a concise analysis of the role that the most privileged sectors of the working class play in global capitalism. Using historical references (the New Deal), statistics (“purchasing power parity”, or PPP, calculations), and case studies (the auto industry), bromma illustrates how “the worker elite – a small minority of workers – continuously attacks, restricts, and undermines the proletariat’s struggle for freedom” (p. 75).

The worker elite is defined as one of “three separate classes” comprising the working-class “family” (p. 4). It is not “a thin layer of trade union bureaucrats and craft workers. Rather, the worker elite is a mass class, comprising hundreds of millions of middle class workers around the world whose institutionalized privileges set them decisively apart from the proletariat.” (p. 5) The proletariat itself “is made up of the slave, semi-slave, and heavily exploited workers who generate almost all of capitalism’s profits” (p. 4). Finally, there is the lumpen, “a parasitic class made up of people who live outside the web of ‘legal’, above-ground production and distribution” (p. 5). According to bromma, the “tree main functions” of the worker elite are to serve “as an active buffer between the ruling class and the proletariat”, to form “a class of mass consumption”, and to supply “labor to capitalist enterprises” (p. 8-11).

There is not much point in reproducing bromma’s arguments in detail here. The book is short (90 pages) and I encourage everyone with an interest in these matters to check it out themselves. I want to emphasize, however, that this is not merely an exercise for Marxist nerds stuck in a romantic proletarian past. It is crucial reading at a time when many on the left embarrass themselves by explaining the strong working-class support for neofascist parties in Europe with “delusion” or “false consciousness”. This support is simply a result of certain sectors of the European working class acting in accordance with their “objective interests”. The Worker Elite not only explains how this happens but also why it does not contradict the anti-proletarian character of neofascist movements.

There are three aspects related to bromma’s theses that I would like to see discussed further:

1. The general distinction between the worker elite, the proletariat, and the lumpen seems strongly based on economic categories. I do think that social and cultural categories demand more attention, not least because they overlap with the economic ones. In terms of personal income and standard of living, many people in the circles I move in are poor by European standards; their material lives are a long shot from those of the worker elite. Yet, due to their (upper) middle class backgrounds, they know doctors, lawyers, and a whole bunch of rich people. These are family or childhood buddies, and they are able to provide free access to health care, legal advice, holiday homes, and more. Even if most of my friends decide not to take much advantage of this, it is an inherent part of their existence and it’d seem problematic, to say the least, to count them among the proletariat. Likewise, the cultural elite will always view the worker elite with contempt; if members of the latter have more bling, it just confirms them being “stupid materialists”. In short, class hegemony cannot be traced to hard economic facts alone, and I think this also seeps into the relationship between the worker elite and the proletariat, rather than just defining the relationship between the bourgeoisie and the working class(es).

2. While I agree that “the contradiction between the worker elite and the proletariat isn’t just a question of rich country workers versus poor country workers” (p. 20-21), I guess I still maintain a stronger antiimperialist perspective. For example, I do find PPP comparisons interesting, but they convey none of the privileges that come with unequal exchange, skin color, and citizenship. If you’re part of the First World’s worker elite, you can work for six months and spend the rest of the year living it large in India or Thailand. Many of my friends have done this. If you’re part of the Indian or Thai worker elite (perhaps having a higher PPP wage than most First World middle-class workers), you can’t do the same in reverse. To begin with, you won’t get the papers required to stay. Secondly, currency exchange rates will prohibit you from maintaining the standard of living you are used to. Thirdly, racism will put you at the bottom of the social strata, not at the top. Similarly, a European proletarian can still vacation in Africa, while an African proletarian might drown in the Mediterranean trying to reach European shores. I think these differences remain at the very heart of late (?) capitalism.

3. It might be due to stubborn anarchist sympathies, but I wouldn’t write off the lumpen entirely when it comes to revolutionary politics. I am neither an “insurrectionist” nor an “illegalist” (or what Marxists like to call an “adventurist”), but when we talk about subverting bourgeois ideology and culture, there are elements in the world of the lumpen that must not be disregarded. Living (only partly, of course) “outside of the system” requires creativity, determination, and endurance; qualities that are needed in any revolutionary endeavor, even if there is nothing revolutionary about the world of the lumpen per se.

“The main force for revolution will come from within the working class.” (p. 2) This, I suppose, remains the starting point.

(May 2014)

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