Rioters, in Ferguson and Beyond: “First Responders” to Police-Terror

By Stephen D’Arcy

Many liberals rush to wring their hands and shake their heads whenever rioters rise in defiance against the legal system’s recurring declarations that police are allowed to murder young Black men with impunity. Typically, they adopt a posture of “concern” and “disappointment,” expressing dismay that things have gone so badly awry. “Senseless!,” they cry. “Nobody wins!,” they insist.

But should we join them in worrying about these outbreaks of rioting against the police and the legal system? Or should we celebrate the fact that, in the face of continual criminalization by the state, and forced again and again to grieve for the victims of police-terror attacks on unarmed youths, these heroes remain unbowed and unresigned?ferguson

It is worth noting that, however quick they may be to make pious pronouncements about “non-violence,” the liberals in question are seldom strict pacifists. Often they are only too keen to sing the praises of “humanitarian intervention” by the armed violence of what they call “the international community,” i.e., NATO. No, it is not the use of force that troubles them. What “worries” them is only the use of force by poor people, by Black people, in short, by those who don’t have the government’s permission to use force. It doesn’t seem to matter that most of the time — as in the case of the Ferguson rioters — the oppressed resort to force only defensively, to protect themselves and their neighbours from ongoing attacks by the terrorists-in-blue.

The point needs to be underlined, on infuriating occasions such as this: given that the legal system brazenly decriminalizes beatings and murder when the perpetrators are cops and the victims are Black, defiance and rebellion against that system is a clear cut case of self-defence. In the short term, rioting is the only means available to young African-Americans to defend themselves against the system of police terror that continually threatens them, if not with brutal beatings or murder, then with racist harassment and humiliation.

Ultimately, defeating this cluster of enemies — the police, the courts, the politicians, the 1% — will take more than rioting. It will take sustained, powerful popular movements of the kind that can bring about lasting change: movements that are relentless, escalating, and with a broadening base of participation.

But rioting is not about solutions. It is about stepping up in a crisis, to defend one’s neighbours when an emergency calls for immediate and forceful action. Rioters are the “first responders” who rush to the scene when the state declares openly, shamelessly, that it endorses the murder of unarmed young Black men. The efforts of the rioters are not “futile,” much less “senseless.” On the contrary, the rioting in Ferguson and beyond is an indicator of an important civic virtue: the willingness to rush to the aid of one’s neighbours, in spite of real personal risks, because both the safety and the dignity of one’s community is under attack and stands in need of insistent and uncompromising defenders.

At times like this, who but the rioters will defend what Martin Luther King called the community’s “sense of somebodiness,” i.e, dignity and self-respect, that the police are well-paid by the rich to stamp out? We should celebrate the heroism of the Ferguson rioters; we should emulate them in our own lives; and we should tell our children about their deeds and the values they embody. And then we should follow up on their deeds, by organizing to ensure that in the long run the forces of justice and democracy prevail against the forces of racist “law and order.”

An Exploited, Dominated, and Oppressed Class?

By S. D’Arcy.

In the 19th century, European workers used to refer to themselves as an “oppressed class,” an expression that came to infuse the jargon of revolutionary socialists in that time and place. In the Communist Manifesto (1848), for instance, Marx and Engels analyzed what they called “the antagonism of oppressing and oppressed classes.”

But what did they mean by this term, “oppression”?

In the Manifesto itself, “oppression” (Unterdruckung) seems almost interchangeable with what Marx later, in Capital, came to call “domination” (Herrschaft), a term he borrowed from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. The Manifesto refers to the “slavish existence” of “oppressed classes.” Being “oppressed” is contrasted with “ruling,” so that the counterpart of the oppressed class is the “ruling class” (herrschenden Klasse). The classes referred to by Marx as “oppressed classes” (unterdrückter Klassen) were, in essence, those subjected to rule by others, “a few usurpers,” or what we now call “the 1%.” In his later work, however, Marx came increasingly to emphasize the theme of “exploitation” (Ausbeutung). The working class was an “exploited class,” as well as a dominated one.

Exploited, yes. But oppressed too?

Everyone calls Foxconn workers exploited. But are they oppressed as workers, too?

I think it would fair to say that, in Marx’s work, and in the jargon of 19th century European socialism more generally, “oppressed” meant roughly, exploited and dominated. Accordingly, women were described as “oppressed” because they were exploited and dominated, subjected (as Lenin put it) to a form of “domestic slavery.” Subaltern nations, too, were said to be oppressed, on the same basis: they were exploited and dominated by colonial and/or imperial powers.

But early in the 20th century (not long after the First World War), Marxism as a vital political tradition became increasingly a phenomenon of the Global South. Between the World Wars, revolutionary socialism went into decline in the North Atlantic countries (Western Europe, Canada, USA), just as the influence of revolutionary socialism grew in the “periphery” of global capitalism, in places like East Asia, Southeast Asia, the Indian Subcontinent, the Middle East, North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, and Central and South America. As the centre of gravity within Marxism shifted decisively toward the Global South, it was to be expected that its vocabulary would evolve. One of the ways it changed was that the concept of oppression was used less and less to refer to the working class, as the theme of exploitation came to the foreground of the marxist analysis of class, and the theme of oppression became more and more associated with the position of women, racialized groups, and especially oppressed nationalities.

At times, this contrast between class, as a form of exploitation, and gender, racial and national subordination, as forms of oppression, has been advanced as a clear point of contrast (rather than a subtle difference of emphasis). Some people, within Marxism, have suggested that workers are not “oppressed” as workers, but only as women, as people of colour, and so on, and that they are only “exploited” in their capacity as workers, not in these other dimensions. (Later, other groups were added to the ‘oppression’ side of this exploitation/oppression contrast: disabled people, the elderly, LGBTQ people, and others). Notably, the older, republicanism-inflected concept of “domination” seems to have mostly fallen out of the Left’s vocabulary, with the partial exception of anti-colonial contexts, where it still appears.

But, while we can perhaps understand how this contrast between exploited (but not oppressed) classes and oppressed (but not exploited) non-class ‘identities’ arose, we really should admit that it is founded on a mistake. The mistake seems twofold.

First, some of the groups on the oppression side seem clearly to be exploited. (Here I will confine myself to one example: women.) The fact that the domestic labour of women as women is exploited is well-established by social research (and common knowledge). This is clearly part and parcel of sexism, not just a manifestation of the generalized exploitation of workers by employers. So, locating women (as women) on the oppression side, supposedly in contrast to exploitation, leaving us to acknowledge them as exploited only in their capacity as female workers, seems wrong-headed and “ad hoc.” We know full well that the domestic labour of women, as women (and more precisely, as targets of sexism), is exploited. (The exploitation here is not capitalist exploitation in the narrow sense, i.e., surplus-value extraction by investor-capitalists. But it is an organized, institutionalized system of extraction of surplus labour for the reproduction of labour-power: that is, it is exploited by the capitalist system as a form of unpaid reproductive work.)

Second, the picture painted by the oppression/exploitation duality is mistaken because it depicts workers as exploited but not oppressed as workers. But the subordination of workers  as workers does not only happen at the level of exploitation. Crucially, there are also aspects of oppression in general that bear on “relations to self” (e.g., self-confidence, self-esteem, self-respect, self-knowledge). These positive relations to self are blocked or eroded by class oppression, in a way that directly parallels the processes of oppression imposed on women, racialized groups and colonized peoples. Consider some examples (a very partial list):

  • the erasure of working-class history from the history that is widely taught and celebrated;
  • the systematic disparagement of working-class culture and forms of life;
  • the invisibility of working-class people in high-profile discussions of public affairs;
  • the consistent mis-attribution of workers’ achievements to their bosses (e.g., “Steve Jobs invented the iphone and ipad,” “Starbucks makes good coffee,” etc.);
  • the misrepresentation of workers as passive beneficiaries rather than leading agents of progressive social and legal change;
  • the diminished credibility accorded to working-class speech; and so on.

This system of oppressive practices and institutions encourages workers to internalize a negative understanding of who they are, always threatening to undermine their self-confidence and self-esteem, and other positive relations to self. (Of course, workers obviously resist these pressures, too, and push back against them in many ways.) This process has been extensively analyzed in connection with other forms of oppression, including colonialism (see Frantz Fanon, Howard Adams and many others), sexism (see Simone de Beauvoir, Sandra Bartky, and many others), and racism (WEB DuBois, ML King, Malcolm X, Bernard Boxill, and many others). The way in which subordination is instituted and reproduced, and resistance is discouraged and undermined, by the internalization of such demeaning and disempowering understandings of subordinate groups, is quite well-understood. That it operates on the working class is not a new insight. One famous and influential book, The Hidden Injuries of Class, has given detailed attention to the point. But we should admit that, given that we understand how crucial this process is to oppression and how distinct it is from exploitation, that these insights seem effectively to refute the simple picture of the oppressed non-class identity-groups in contrast to exploited classes.

Perhaps we can better see how these notions of domination, exploitation and oppression relate to one another if we set out simple and clear definitions, consistent with standard usage.

Exploitation: the systematic diversion of the proceeds of the knowledge, creativity and effort of human labour to enrich a propertied elite, so that “the labour of the many [becomes] the wealth of the few” (Marx, 1871).

Domination: the usurpation of agency and autonomy, in private or public affairs, so that the life-activity [Lebenspraxis] of subordinates is subjected to the dictates of ‘masters’ or ‘rulers.’

Oppression: the imposition of systematic disadvantage on members of a social group (or ‘identity’), such as a gender, race, class, etc., generating a pattern of unfavorable ratios of benefits to burdens, and impaired opportunities to establish and maintain positive relations-to-self.

Applied to class, it is clear that all three concepts are relevant to describing the position of working-class people. Workers, in a capitalist society, are exploited (because their labour is diverted to investor-profiteering); they are dominated (because at work the boss dictates what they do and how, and in public affairs the employers’ state dictates to them and usurps their autonomy); and they are oppressed (because they assume far more burdens and derive far fewer benefits than the ruling class, and they are encouraged to internalize the demeaning and dis-empowering understanding of their competences and achievements that infuses the dominant ideology).

Does this shift, away from a ‘dualist’ oppression/exploitation picture, have any important political implications? I remain unsure. But at least it might foster an alertness to the complex and multidimensional character of ‘the injuries of class.’ Perhaps, too, it might encourage a greater wariness of the impulse to forget that the very fact of class itself is a grave injury and injustice, something to be abolished at the earliest opportunity: “When the proletariat is victorious, it by no means becomes the absolute side of society, for it is victorious only by abolishing itself and its opposite,” the ruling class (Marx and Engels, The Holy Family).

Dictating the Terms of Social Cooperation: Quick Sketch of a Normative Interpretation of DOTP

According to Marx, “supreme authority” should be vested in a “Council,” operating as “a democratic assembly, [in which] every adult male and female member had a voice upon all questions brought before it” (Ethnological Notebooks, p. 150). And yet, he assigned a central role in revolutionary politics to what he called the “dictatorship of the proletariat” (DOTP), which he suggested would undertake “despotic inroads on the rights of property.”Syntagma-square-assembly

Should we understand the DOTP as instantiating the democratic ideal as he understood it, or as suspending the democratic ideal on a “transitional” or “emergency” basis?

The concept of DOTP has been subject to multiple interpretations.

  1. According to the predictive interpretation, DOTP is an anticipated phase of social development, likely to be instituted by anti-capitalist revolution, the long-term effect of which would be to instigate a “withering away” of state power, because the basis for the state in class antagonisms would diminish as class differences were displaced by post-capitalist egalitarian forms of social organization. On this view, DOTP figures as a stage in an unfolding developmental trajectory, in which capitalist institutions are transformed into post-capitalist, socialist institutions.
  2. According to the strategic interpretation, DOTP is the only pragmatically effective organizational vehicle suited for expropriating the capitalist class and abolishing exploitation and oppression, making it strategically indispensable as a means of laying the basis for communism. On this interpretation, DOTP is a strategic proposal, to be consciously adopted as a vehicle for effecting changes that can’t be effected by means of other, less authoritative measures or organizational forms.
  3. I favour a third, normative interpretation of DOTP. In any legitimate working-class revolutionary process, “the proletariat…must constitute itself [as] the nation” (M&E 1848), i.e., as a democratic public, instituting forms of grassroots-democratic decision-making that embody the normative ideal of “public autonomy,” or what Marx (1871) called “government of the people by the people.” Marx’s account of the Paris Commune makes plain that his embrace of DOTP is founded, not upon a Realpolitik assessment that democratic norms would have to be suspended on an emergency basis by an anti-capitalist revolt, but that, on the contrary, a DOTP would itself constitute a profound deepening and broadening of democratic politics.

This last, normative interpretation of DOTP is rooted in the “social republican” understanding of Marx’s politics, an interpretation that finds much of its support in Marx’s most important text after Capital, “The Civil War in France.” The idea that public autonomy is the core normative commitment of Marx’s politics is not as well understood as we might wish. In part, this is because some Marxists have misconstrued DOTP as a prescription for domination, albeit domination of the reactionary capitalist ruling class.

But, precisely in the first volume of Capital, Marx points us in the very opposite direction. The regime of DOTP is not to be a form of “domination,” but a throwing off, by the people, of the yoke of domination: “the expropriation of a few usurpers by the mass of the people” (Capital, v. I, ch. 32). This is how Marx understood the idea of DOTP. The proletariat would “constitute itself the nation,” i.e., claim the mantle of democratic publicity, and put a stop to the domination of the people by the usurping class of exploiters. DOTP, in Marx’s sense, would be a “negation of the negation”: a “bursting asunder” of the “fetters” that block public autonomy. Thus, in no way can we think of DOTP is a repetition, or replication of the domination (Herrschaft) that we know well from bourgeois politics (i.e., “liberal democracy”). There can be no socialist state, strictly speaking, in Marx’s schema, since a regime of DOTP precludes all recourse to statism and Herrschaft. On the contrary, Marx understands DOTP as the kind of dramatic upsurge of grassroots democracy and popular self-rule that he described in his account of the Paris Commune as a “social republic.”

In a regime of DOTP, the people dictate the terms of social cooperation, in place of the rule of the usurpers. “Dictatorship” in this social-republican sense is not a prelude or transition to democracy. It is democracy, i.e., the “government of the people by the people.”

Are there ‘Good Protesters’ and ‘Bad Protesters’?

(Note: The following first appeared as a blog post at the Briarpatch Magazine website, on 12 June 2014. I re-post it here because its content is related to themes discussed on this blog. Briarpatch offers original reporting, insight, and analysis from a grassroots perspective:

By Stephen D’Arcy

One of the enduring ideas to emerge from the diversity of tactics debates of recent years has been the idea that the activist left should refuse to distinguish between “good protesters” and “bad protesters.” The concern emerged in the wake of the acrimonious infighting among the organizers of the Seattle anti-WTO protests in November of 1999. After the protest, in the course of which black bloc participants had engaged in high profile property destruction (mostly targeting chain retail store windows), organizers argued bitterly about who “belongs” inside the activist left.

9uth december student cuts protests as govt votes

Some critics went so far as to claim that bloc participants were not “real protesters,” but outsiders who had no place in the movement. Unwittingly, or perhaps in some cases strategically (as a device for enhancing their own “mainstream” credibility), these organizers had adopted the rightist trope of the protester as “outside agitator” and “troublemaker,” a supposedly suitable target for police repression, unlike the “good people” whose protests are law-abiding and respectful.

The use of this language by some organizers against others, and the way it seemed to confer legitimacy on the criminalization of some protesters, led many people to highlight the toxic and self-destructive implications of accepting this good protester/bad protester distinction into the discourse of the activist left.

To be sure, mainstream journalists, editorialists, politicians, and police officers will inevitably reach for the good protester/bad protester contrast, as a way of conceding on the one hand that people have a right to protest, while insisting on the other hand that the most forceful and disruptive forms of protest deserve stigmatization and criminalization. We expect that sort of thing from the authorities and their boosters in the mainstream media. But to allow this sort of thinking into the left’s own way of talking about itself would – as the aftermath of the Seattle protests illustrated – do great damage to the activist left and its capacity to maintain solidarity against repression.

The ensuing backlash against the “bad protester” stigma was, and still is, a healthy, positive thing. It insulates the left, to some degree, from the danger of being drawn into supporting the efforts of the police to crack down on confrontational protest.

But this refusal to indulge in “bad protester” talk also carries with it a danger: that we might too crudely equate the good protester/bad protester contrast with normative thinking more generally (where “normative” means addressing what we should or shouldn’t do). The danger, in short, is that we might mistakenly assume that what needs to be rejected is all reflection and discussion about the merits of protest tactics, including their ethical merits. If we make this leap, embracing an austere amoralism, a collective refusal to think normatively and ethically about our tactical choices, we risk fatally weakening our capacity to learn from mistakes and strengthen our movements by means of critical self-reflection and debate.

Having it both ways

Can we have it both ways, however? Can we both: 1) repudiate the trope of the good protester/bad protester contrast and 2) engage in normative, critical assessment of the merits of different tactics? The answer is yes, we certainly can have it both ways. But we need a bit of clarity about what we’re doing.

First, note something about the “bad protester” idea. It does not take the form of internal self-reflection by movement participants about possible mistakes made within the movement, by some of us, our comrades, so to speak. Instead, it externalizes the (alleged) mistakes, and claims that those making certain tactical choices are not even members of our movement, but outsiders who have no place in the left. It stigmatizes them as “criminals,” “vandals,” and “troublemakers,” that is to say, as something other than co-participants in our struggles for social and environmental justice.

Karl Marx defined “critique” as “the self-clarification of the struggles and wishes of the age.” This idea, that our movements and struggles need to engage in self-clarification, by means of self-critique and internal debate, does require that we raise and debate concerns that we have about one another’s choices. We rightly argue about these things: Was that tactic helpful? Was it needlessly divisive within our own ranks? Was it too deferential to the police? Was there enough consultation with key movement allies? Did it attempt to substitute the boldness of a tiny number of people for the self-activity of a larger group, in whose name the action was taken? This kind of debate – “the self-clarification of our struggles” – is a far cry from any stigmatization of confrontational protesters as “criminals” and “vandals”; yet it is clearly and unflinchingly normative. It is reflection and debate about what we should be doing, and why.

The best militancy

Of course, there are better and worse ways to conduct this kind of discussion, and some ways seem better able to steer us away from complicity with “bad protester” stigmatization. In my book, Languages of the Unheard, I adopted a specific style of normative talk, using the concept of civic virtue as the primary normative framework. The question I addressed is, what is protest like when it is done well, at its best? Why do we admire the protester who exemplifies the civic virtue of “admirable militancy”?

By pursuing this line of questioning, I tried to give content to the idea that some militancy embodies a kind of exemplary excellence, worthy of our admiration and emulation. The best, most admirable militancy, I argued, would encourage those most directly affected to take the lead in securing the resolution of their own grievances, rather than paternalistically usurping their agency. The best militancy would enhance the power of people to govern themselves through reason-guided public discussion (typified by Assembly democracy), rather than exacerbating their domination by intransigent elites and unresponsive systems of power.

This emphasis on articulating an ideal – one which highlights excellence, but also clarifies where we sometimes go astray, succumbing to paternalism or substitutionism – avoids, in my view, the trap of complicity with “bad protester” vilification. A different, and in my view more troubling normative approach, might focus on drawing a sharp line between “permissible” and “impermissible” protest. What would worry me here is that this approach would risk allowing the focus to shift from understanding what makes excellent protest admirable, to the very different question of what people are “forbidden” or “permitted” to do, morally, as a matter of duty. This in turn would encourage us to focus on assigning blame and issuing imperatives.

In moral philosophy, we would call this a difference between a “virtue ethic” of protest and a “duty ethic” of protest. It seems clear that a virtue approach, like the one I have tried to use, is much better suited to help us navigate a course between two errors: on the one hand, a blame-fixated moralism which risks fuelling the vilification and stigmatization of confrontational protesters; and on the other hand, a crude amoralism that disavows the concepts of “better” and “worse” and thereby blocks the kind of “self-clarification of struggles” that enable movements to learn and grow.

Are there “bad protesters,” then, or not? A proper answer to this question requires a bit of subtlety. It is that sometimes resistance to injustice – which is good – can be done in ways that fall short of our best models of protest excellence, and these failures are properly subject to critical scrutiny from comrades, on a peer to peer basis. But when we criticize our fellow protesters, and when they criticize us, for (allegedly) falling short in one way or another, we should view this as one of the learning processes that our movements embrace, to make our protest more potent and more consistent with our egalitarian and democratic principles and aims.

It has nothing to do with drawing a line between “us,” the “good protesters,” and “them,” the “bad protesters,” supposedly exterior to our struggle. It is, on the contrary, a way of clarifying, collectively, how we might better conduct our common struggle against our shared adversaries. In these debates we argue with one another, often sharply and passionately, about how we might do better; we do not argue against one another, as if we were on opposite sides, or as if any of us could endorse the criminalization or demonization of our comrades in struggle.

(Stephen D’Arcy is an activist and parent in London, Ontario and an associate professor in the Department of Philosophy at Huron University College. He is author of Languages of the Unheard: Why Militant Protest is Good for Democracy and a co-editor of the forthcoming collection, A Line in the Tar Sands: Struggles for Environmental Justice.)

INTP Mayhem: A Counter-Meta-Review

(Note: The following 5,300+ word piece is a counter-review, responding to a “meta-review” which replied to my book review of Bromma’s book, The Worker Elite. Most people won’t want to descend this far into the lower depths of this debate. If you’re looking for some reviews of Bromma’s book, this would be a better place to look:

By Stephen D’Arcy

Sometimes I complain that my activity as a lefty blogger is deprived of drama by the fact that nobody ever stops to denounce my posts, even when I take up highly controversial matters, like armed struggle or allyship discourse. I can complain no longer, since now one of my posts — my book review addressing Bromma’s The Worker Elitehas been subjected to a trenchant maoist “meta-review,” which in no uncertain terms lays out the case against “the likes of D’arcy” as a disreputable falsifier of Bromma’s views. The author of this so-called meta-review, J. Moufawad-Paul, posted his reply on his well-known blog, MLM-Mayhem.mao-zedong-statue-chongqing-cultural-revolution-era-relocation-02

On no less than nine occasions, the meta-review makes a point of affixing the label “dishonest,” not simply to “the likes of D’arcy” in general, but to D’arcy himself, that is, myself, or at least my review. According to Moufawad-Paul, “the dishonesty in D’arcy’s review” is so egregious that it “borders on the laughable.”

Supplementing the dishonesty motif with a second line of attack, Moufawad-Paul’s meta-review bluntly raises the possibility that the likes of D’arcy may not have done enough to have “embedded himself in working class struggles” to be a reputable participant in a debate over Bromma’s book in the first place. After all, only someone who has properly “embedded himself [or herself]” can “speak with … concrete certainty” about these matters. “Has D’arcy even been part of a union struggle…?”

Already, this fills me with self-doubt. Maybe Moufawad-Paul is correct when he classifies my writing as “the kind of idealist fluff produced by people who have never organized in a significant manner.”

Resisting the narcissistic impulse to make it all about me, however, I will attempt to feign an unshakeable nonchalance as I breeze past Moufawad-Paul’s polemical tone-setting gestures to fix my attention firmly on those of his points that I regard as earnest attempts to advance more-or-less substantive arguments against my stated views. After all, ritual denunciation is a formal requirement of the genre (maoist polemic), so it would be absurd for me to take any of it personally. Nevertheless, I hope readers (if any) will forgive the fact that my reply consists mostly of direct quotations from Bromma’s book, a maneuver necessitated by the sheer repetitiousness of Moufawad-Paul’s depiction of my review as brazenly and almost laughably dishonest.

It may be enough if I can attempt to do two things in this reply:

  1. First, I will try to re-affirm a point which I think can be established beyond any doubt (that The Worker Elite regards South Korean auto-workers, Californian nurses, and French tire-factory workers, among many others, as privileged workers, and precisely by virtue of being so privileged, as excluded from the ranks of the proletariat, and indeed as adversaries of the proletariat and allies of the ruling class).
  1. Second, I will show that one of my supposed acts of dishonesty, of which I am so repetitiously accused by Moufawad-Paul, consists of making a claim that my meta-critic himself affirms (that The Worker Elite rejects the possibility of doing class analysis without giving any central role to the concept of privilege, since Bromma’s class theory refuses to concede, to the likes of me, that we can understand the proletariat without deploying, at the very heart of our analysis, this “non-economic” notion, as Bromma calls it).
  1. Are Seoul autoworkers, California nurses, and French factory workers members of the proletariat, or not? And, if not, why not?

This line of questioning goes right to the heart of the matter taken up by the meta-review. I claim in my review (a) that Bromma regards the “workers” in question as non-proletarian, i.e., members of a class other than the proletariat, a “middle” class with interests that are in conflict with those of the proletariat, and (b) that Bromma bases this judgment on the claim that these employee-groups derive what Bromma calls “privileges” from their access to a share of wealth exploited from actual proletarians, which in turn creates a material basis for the predictable and de facto alliance between these workers and the capitalists who grant the worker elite their “privileged” status. If I am correct in both of these claims, then it would seem that – whatever my personal failings – Moufawad-Paul’s suggestion that I have both clumsily misunderstood and, even more so, dishonestly misrepresented Bromma’s position begins to appear ill-supported by plausible evidence.

Let me begin at the beginning. Moufawad-Paul says this: “The way in which D’arcy begins his review feels quite dishonest. He lists a series of bottom-up union movements based on significant demands and claims that The Worker Elite is treating these struggles as ‘the struggles of a parasitic elite attempting to defend its unearned privileges.’” When he says this, Moufawad-Paul is replying to the following question posed at the beginning of my original review:

“If a group of unionized nurses in Oakland, California, goes out on strike, to oppose their employer’s attempt to gut their pensions and benefits; or a group of autoworkers fights with the police in Seoul, South Korea, over an employer’s plan to lay off members of their union; or if a group of tire factory workers in the French city of Amiens holds a manager hostage, to negotiate better severance packages for laid off workers — should these actions be understood as “proletarian” struggles against exploitation, which ought to be actively and vigorously supported by the socialist Left? Or are these, on the contrary, the struggles of a parasitic elite attempting to defend its unearned privileges, which have been gained largely at the expense of the actual proletariat by means of a corrupt bargain struck with the capitalist ruling class?”

Now, Moufawad-Paul seems, in this exchange, to cast doubt on my suggestion that The Worker Elite regards the union activity of nurses in Oakland, autoworkers in Seoul, and tire factory workers in France as non-proletarian struggles. If so, it would be an odd and also false (but no doubt scrupulously honest in intention) way of characterizing the content of Bromma’s book. In the case of Korean autoworkers, Bromma comes right out and says that they are members of the worker elite: “Decades ago, Japan was a trailblazer in institutionalizing a large Asian worker elite. But today it is far from unique. Heavy capitalist investment in the South Korean shipbuilding and auto industries has been accompanied by the growth of a worker elite roughly modeled on those of the West and Japan. In 2001, the average compensation costs for manufacturing workers in South Korea was almost $19 (US) an hour, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics” (pp. 37-38). Benefitting from years of “tough labor battles,” Bromma says, “unionized Korean autoworkers” now enjoy a “middle class standard of living” (p. 52; emphasis added). And these Korean autoworkers are not the only labourers who are consigned by Bromma to the ranks of the “worker elite.” “At the cultural, political, and demographic heart of the worker elite are male workers who do blue collar manual labor — teamsters, construction ‘hard hats,’ firefighters, machinists, well-paid manufacturing workers, etc.” (p. 18). Presumably the tire-factory workers in France fit precisely in this group: “blue collar manual laborers,” such as “machinists, well-paid manufacturing workers, etc.” It hardly needs to be added that nurses and teachers, too, fall in the “worker elite” class, and not in the proletariat. After all, they tend not to live in the kind of dire poverty that typifies the proletarian condition as understood in The Worker Elite. “A privileged standard of living,” Bromma says, “is a basic characteristic of worker elites,” and this “includes preferential social benefits – health insurance, pensions, vacation time, sick leave, unemployment insurance, etc. Economic privilege may also take the form of better education, home ownership, or greater access to infrastructure and services (transportation, the internet, indoor plumbing, etc.)” (p. 19). Helpfully, Bromma adds this: “Similarly, an exemption from child labor – something which is entirely ‘normal’ in the proletariat – is a characteristic of worker elite households” (p. 20).

So, I hope we can take this as basic factual information: Bromma depicts autoworkers in South Korea, nurses in the USA, and tire factory workers in France as members of the worker elite.

Why, then, does Moufawad-Paul say that my review’s opening question (about whether we should support the union activities of these groups as proletarian struggles against exploitation, or take our distance from them as struggles of a parasitic elite to defend their privileges) “seems quite dishonest”? Moufawad-Paul explains himself as follows:

“While it is true that Bromma is trying to examine the existence/persistence of a ‘parasitic elite’ in the working class, at no point is this author arguing: (a) that all union struggles are determined by this parasitism; (b) that this parasitism has to do with ‘unearned privileges’.”

Here I must object. First, Bromma is certainly not examining a parasitic elite “in the working class.” On the contrary, Bromma explicitly rejects the term “working class” as a misleading, unscientific term, because it conceals the antagonisms between what are in fact three distinct classes. The “worker elite” is not a fragment or layer within a class. It is a distinct class in its own right, according to Bromma. Bromma writes: “In fact, what is generally referred to as the working class isn’t really a single class at all, but a family of three separate classes: the proletariat, the worker elite (‘labor aristocracy’), and the lumpen working class (‘lumpen-proletariat’),” and “each has its own specific class interests and politics” (p. 4).

With that said, let’s return to the objection: Moufawad-Paul denies that Bromma believes “(a) that all union struggles are determined by this parasitism; (b) that this parasitism has to do with ‘unearned privileges’.”

Since assurance from the likes of me will hold no weight in this context, let’s look at what Bromma actually says on these points. “[I]t is an undeniable fact that the worker elite is an intrinsically parasitic class. The treasured privileges of the worker elite are funded by the ongoing capitalist exploitation of the proletariat; by the oppression of nations and women; by war, genocide, and rape of the natural environment” (p. 11). These are what I meant when I said, “unearned privileges.” Bromma observes: “That middle class status doesn’t come about because of greater skill, either. Within modern imperialism, technical education and skills are themselves privileges” (p. 12). I believe that Bromma is very clear: the relatively (in global terms) high rates of pay, the pensions, benefits, and exemption from sweatshop conditions, that characterize the “worker elite” are regarded by Bromma as flowing from that class’s “intrinsically parasitic” position: these “treasured privileges of the worker elite are funded by the ongoing capitalist exploitation of the proletariat.” I have indeed depicted Bromma as arguing that struggles to establish or defend these beneficial terms of employment, these “treasured privileges,” are rooted in a “parasitism” that “has to do with ‘unearned privileges.’” Since I stand accused of being a serial fabricator of misrepresentations of Bromma’s view, I can only invite readers to judge the meaning of some relevant passages from Bromma’s book and draw their own conclusions.

“[The] class nature [of the worker elite] is fundamentally determined by its privileges” (p. 12.)

“There’s no magic income figure delineating the boundary of the proletariat…. As we have discussed, non-economic factors are decisive in the definition of worker elites. And privilege may look different in different societies” (p. 34).

“Most of the profits that pay for worker elite privileges have come historically from colonial theft, extortion, and exploitation” (p. 36).

“Their principal economic concern isn’t survival, but maintaining and enhancing their middle class status” (p. 35).

“The more reforms the proletariat demands, the more opportunity there is for the worker elite to appropriate those reforms and turn them into privileges. Ripping off the proletarians’ struggle, the worker elite succeeds at their expense” (p. 17).

“In fact, union membership is a typical badge of worker elite status. Every day in every part of the world, worker elite unions negotiate corrupt deals with capital and trash the interests of the proletariat” (p. 62).

“Proletarians can use unions to fight oppression, to strengthen their unity and combative power. Worker elites can use unions to achieve and solidify privilege…. All these differences are political, but at the most basic level they reflect differing class agendas” (p. 62).

“The proletariat must defeat the hegemony of the worker elite’s organizations, and battle to control its own…. This multifaceted struggle will only be successful if it is understood as a deep conflict among distinct classes with different material interests, rather than as just an abstract question of program, political line or ideology” (p. 63)

“Korean auto assembly workers …still have a reputation for struggling hard against corporate attacks, including a current wave of casualization. But the terms of conflict have changed dramatically. The workers are now defending elite jobs” (pp.68-69).

“Class struggle is going on every day inside the [so-called] working class. It’s time to choose where our class loyalty lies – with the proletariat or with its minders in the worker elite” (p. 75).

“Flattering a failing worker elite with crocodile tears for its lost privileges – like the right-wing populists do – leads to disaster for the proletarian forces” (p. 57).

“The worker elite also likes to define itself as a champion of the underdog, holding the front line against the rich. This is a dishonest and self-serving narrative. In fact, the worker elite as a class embodies accommodation with the bourgeoisie and betrayal of the proletariat” (p. 52).

“[I]t is an unavoidable fact that the worker elite is an intrinsically parasitic class. The treasured privileges of the worker elite are funded by the ongoing capitalist exploitation of the proletariat….The ruling class diverts a portion of the wealth that it [exploits]…to cultivating and maintaining worker elites, which in turn are persuaded to abandon and attack the proletariat and other enemies of capital….Its prized middle class status comes from a preferential social contract, approved and paid for by the bourgeoisie” (11-12).

“The parasitic and patriarchal agenda of this [worker elite] class must be defeated” (p. 74).

On the basis of passages like these, and many more like them, I suggested at the start of my review that Bromma, in The Worker Elite, takes the view that struggles like those of US nurses to protect their pensions and benefits, of Korean autoworkers to protect their job security, and of French factory workers to secure generous severance packages, were all struggles of a privileged elite – outside the proletariat – acting to defend its unearned privileges. Was my summary of Bromma’s view “quite dishonest”? Was it even mistaken? Was it less accurate than Moufawad-Paul’s claims (1) that Bromma is investigating parasitism within the working class, rather than between antagonistic classes, or (2) that Bromma doesn’t believe that parasitism is the leading variable determining the behavior of “worker elite” unions? I leave it to the reader (?!) to judge.

But notice: I actually quote Bromma on the points in dispute, whereas – and this strikes me as an extraordinary fact – Moufawad-Paul’s “meta-review” does not quote a single sentence (let me repeat it: not a single sentence!) from Bromma’s book. We are asked to believe that he has read the book that he so insistently claims that I have misrepresented, and without hesitation or qualification I take him at his word on that score. But at no point is a single sentence, much less the dozens that one might expect, marshaled as evidence that my interpretations are mistaken. Instead, the sheer repetition of magic words like “dishonesty” and “misrepresentation” are offered in lieu of textual citation and quotation.

With this observation, I turn to the second point that I hope to establish here.

  1. Can we understand the specificity of the class position of the proletariat without deploying the concept of privilege (as I claim), or not (as I suggest that Bromma claims)?

On this point, I’m optimistic that all parties – the likes of Bromma, the likes of Moufawad-Paul, and the likes of D’arcy – can converge toward a shared understanding of where they disagree. I believe that the Bromma/Moufawad-Paul position on this specific question is that, in order to properly understand the specific class position of the proletariat, we must take note of the fact that some working people (namely, the worker elite) gain access to privileges, in the form of benefits funded by the exploitation of other, less well-paid workers (namely, the proletariat). If we fail to note this, according to (as I claimed in my review) Bromma and (it seems) Moufawad-Paul, we will mistake some non-proletarians for members of the proletariat. This, in turn, would be disastrous, at least according to Bromma as depicted in my review, because it would obscure from the proletariat itself that those teachers, construction workers, nurses and autoworkers – far from being allies (much less members) of the proletariat – are adversaries of the proletariat and allies of the bourgeoisie (the capitalist ruling class).

I don’t know whether Moufawad-Paul would agree with Bromma that nurses, teachers, construction workers and autoworkers are, to the extent that they act in accordance with their class interests, class enemies of the proletariat. Possibly not. But there can be no doubt that Bromma believes this.

Bromma writes: “The worker elite…continuously attacks, restricts, and undermines the proletariat’s struggle for freedom. The predominantly reactionary role of this privileged class flows directly from its material interests” (p. 75).

“Along with their fellow middle classes, the worker elite everywhere makes defense of privilege their top priority” (p. 55).

“[T]he labor elite is always looking to augment its privileges, and will routinely betray the proletariat to gain more” (p. 54).

“When the worker elite wishes to employ the proletariat for leverage, its ‘anti-establishment’ aspect and rebellious rhetoric may come to the fore…At the same time, true to its fundamental class nature, the worker elite will work to control, manipulate, and eventually defeat such rhetoric” (p. 46).

“It’s time to choose where our class loyalty lies – – with the proletariat or with its minders in the worker elite” (p. 75).

But while Moufawad-Paul can’t plausibly substantiate any doubt that Bromma thinks of the worker elite as aligned with capital in a class struggle against the proletariat, which the proletariat must defeat, there is a further, slightly more subtle point to be addressed. Was I misrepresenting Bromma when I said that The Worker Elite uses “a privilege approach to class analysis”?

Here’s the relevant passages (describing the privilege approach to class analysis) from my review:

“In the privilege approach, class is understood as a location in a system of differences, but not primarily, or at any rate not exclusively, as a two-way antagonism between boss and worker. Just as important as the boss/worker conflict, from this point of view, is the antagonism or differentiation between differently located groups of workers. The differences between them — that is, the ‘privileged’ position of some working people, which sets them apart from other workers — may very well, according to this approach, necessitate that we treat differently positioned workers as constituting different, antagonistic classes: a privileged class of elite workers that benefits from unearned advantages that are denied to members of the genuinely ‘proletarian’ class of workers.… In contrast to the exploitation view, the privilege conception of class encourages us to view advantages or gains made by some (but not all) groups of working people, not positively, as ‘victories for our class,’ but rather negatively, as unearned advantages, subsidized by the continuing impoverishment of the lower paid, less advantaged workers.” (Quoted from my review of Bromma.)

Now, Moufawad-Paul could not credibly cast doubt on my attribution to Bromma of the view (1) that the worker elite is not part of the proletariat, (2) that it isn’t in the proletariat because it has special privileges to which the proletariat is denied access, and (3) that these privileges are subsidized or “funded” (as Bromma puts it) by the impoverishment and exploitation of proletarians, which (4) renders the worker elite a parasitic class. This analysis, as I have established here by means of extensive quotation, is clearly a key theme in Bromma’s book. But what Moufawad-Paul does want to dispute is that we can usefully distinguish between an exploitation approach and a privilege approach to class analysis.

Moufawad-Paul writes: “What Bromma is actually saying is that exploitation (yes, D’arcy, exploitation) is what determines the stratification of the working-class at the centres of capitalism and elsewhere, thus producing a measure of privilege for some workers due to the greater exploitation of others. The entire analysis [of Bromma] is driven by a theory of exploitation, which is treated as something that generates differentials of privilege, and so the entire ‘privilege vs. exploitation’ narrative concocted in this review [by the likes of D’arcy] is off-the-mark. Are there workers who are more exploited than other workers, and are there workers who benefit from the exploitation of their counterparts? This is one question The Worker elite attempts to address.”

Other than the part about my review being “off-the-mark,” I agree with this comment, at least most of it. I say in my original review that Bromma’s worker elite is “parasitic” precisely because it benefits from the exploitation (yes, meta-critic, exploitation) of the proletariat. I say this at least twice. The first time I say it is when I quote Bromma’s claim that “the treasured privileges of the worker elite are funded by the ongoing capitalist exploitation of the proletariat,” and that “the ruling class diverts a portion of the wealth that it [exploits]… to cultivating and maintaining worker elites, which in turn are persuaded to abandon and attack the proletariat and other enemies of capital….Its prized middle class status comes from a preferential social contract, approved and paid for by the bourgeoisie” (Bromma, p. 11-12, here presented as quoted in my review.) The second time I make the point is when I write: “Bromma…views class mainly through the lens of the concept of privilege. (I say ‘mainly,’ because Bromma does make use of the concept of exploitation, but it has a secondary role, largely to support the book’s analysis of ‘worker elite’ privilege).” Thus, I do acknowledge that Bromma uses the concept of exploitation in the “worker elite” class analysis. However, I say it has a “secondary role.”

Is the role of the concept of exploitation really “secondary” in Bromma’s approach to class analysis? And is the concept of privilege really primary in that approach? What Moufawad-Paul claims — I think — is that these two concepts are not really separable: that, in order to analyze class exploitation properly, we have to use the concept of privilege. Although I disagree on the substance of that claim, I take heart in the fact that, by taking this view, Moufawad-Paul has come around to endorsing the interpretation of Bromma (as insisting that class analysis needs to foreground privilege) that I offered in my review. In other words, Moufawad-Paul seems, unless I’m up to my old tricks, etc., to be saying that, for Bromma, you can’t analyze class with using the concept of privilege. This is, very precisely, the view that in my review I dubbed “the privilege approach to class analysis.”

That privilege approach does not reject exploitation. But it denies that two groups of workers that are both exploited by the capitalist class in the same general way (as wage labourers, employed via the labour market to work for capitalist firms) are just for that reason members of the same class. According to the privilege approach, a further crucial question has to be asked, before we can analyze the class position of these two groups. Is one of the groups privileged, in the sense of gaining access special advantages, like health insurance, pensions, a living wage, job security provisions in a collective agreement, etc., privileges which (according to Bromma) are “funded” by capitalist exploitation of the other group of workers? If so, then these are not two ‘layers’ or ‘sections’ of one class – the proletariat. Instead, one of these groups of employees are proletarians, and the other – the privileged group – are not proletarians, but members of a “middle class,” a “worker elite,” which has interests that are antagonistic to those of the proletariat.

I take it that this is the view that both I and Moufawad-Paul attribute to Bromma: that we can’t analyze class positions without deploying, at the heart of our analysis, the concept of privilege. I call it the “privilege approach.” I concede that my terminology is not that of either Bromma or Moufawad-Paul. But I certainly do not concede that I have in any way misrepresented Bromma’s view. I have not, for instance, made Moufawad-Paul’s apparent mistake of thinking that Bromma regards the worker elite class as simply having “non-proletarian consciousness.” No, clearly Bromma regards the worker elite as a different class, whose interests are antagonistic to those of the proletariat, quite apart from their “consciousness.” When Bromma calls the worker elite “an intrinsically parasitic class,” the idea is not that they have “non-proletarian consciousness.” It is that they benefit from the exploitation of the proletariat, and that they have therefore a material interest in maintaining the subordination of the proletariat, in collaboration with the capitalist class. The conflict between the proletariat and the worker elite, Bromma says, is “a deep conflict among distinct classes with different material interests, rather than…just an abstract question of program, political line, or ideology” (p. 63).

Having established that my attribution to Bromma of the view that we can’t do class analysis without using the concept of privilege (as a necessary supplement and corrective to the concept of exploitation, which might make a construction worker or a factor worker seem like a proletarian, which would be disastrous according to Bromma), I want to draw the discussion to a close by underlining the point where we disagree. I believe that exploitation is not co-central (alongside privilege) in Bromma’s class analysis (which I think is what Moufawad-Paul is trying to say), but firmly consigned to a secondary role.

Since my testimony is tainted in this setting by the profusion of dishonesty charges, I will — as above — mostly just quote Bromma’s statements on this issue.

To say that “privilege” is primary and “exploitation” is secondary in someone’s approach to class analysis is to say this: that economic factors, e.g., exploitation, are not treated by them as decisive variables in assigning a group of people to a class, and that non-economic factors, notably privilege, are instead treated as the decisive variables. I regard this as, if not an obvious way to interpret “primary” and “secondary,” at least a non-eccentric way to interpret these terms. If this makes me dishonest, in the maoist frame of reference, then so be it. I take my stand here: I claim that anyone who regards privilege, not exploitation, as the decisive variable in assigning a group of employees to a class, thereby treats exploitation as secondary, and privilege as primary.

Having said that, I can get right to the point: Bromma comes right out and says that economic factors, e.g., exploitation, are not decisive in class analyis (specifically, in determining the boundaries of the proletariat), and that privilege is instead decisive.

Let’s look at Bromma’s words:

“There’s no magic income figure delineating the boundary of the proletariat…. As we have discussed, non-economic factors are decisive in the definition of worker elites” (p. 34).

But which “non-economic factors” are “decisive”?

Bromma replies: “[The] class nature [of the worker elite] is fundamentally determined by its privileges” (p. 12).

Bromma adds, even more bluntly: “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. In short, entitled middle class workers” (p. 5; emphasis added).

Note two things about this passage: first, it the “institutionalized privileges [which] set them [the worker elite] decisively apart from the proletariat.” Hence, if it is dishonest for me to say that according to Bromma privilege is decisive in setting industrial and white collar workers in places like Korea or Canada apart from the proletariat, how much more dishonest must Bromma be, since Bromma has inserted these very words into the opening pages of the book! Second, note, too, that Bromma accepts, indeed introduces, the summary formula: “entitled middle-class workers.” Was that my mistake? That I said “privileged” instead of “entitled”? Was this my “quite dishonest” “misrepresentation”? If so, then, once again, Bromma is the worse offender, since the label “privileged” is applied to the worker elite again and again in the pages of The Worker Elite, as I have shown, and by no means only in the quoted passage about how “institutionalized privileges set them decisively apart from the proletariat.”

Even Moufawad-Paul himself insists, re-stating the point that I had attributed to Bromma both in my original review and in this rejoinder, that the class location of the “worker elite” is determined by “a differential of exploitation that produces a differential of privilege” (Moufawad-Paul). This formula demonstrates the key point: that exploitation gains its importance precisely because it generates what Bromma calls the “non-economic factor” which is “decisive”: “institutionalized privileges [which] set [the worker elite] decisively apart from the proletariat.”


Needless to say, I could go on. And on. If nothing else, I have proven that. I had thought that it would be fitting to make the length of this counter-meta-review exceed the 75 pages (with large font and photographs) of Bromma’s book itself. I even imagined a scenario where I would include the entire book within my counter-meta-review, one quoted passage at time. But I have a job and kids, so for now, I will cut it short, with the teasing promise that I may add further instalments, if the appetite of readers for a more thorough examination proves too great to ignore.

I should probably end with the question that began my original review:

“If a group of unionized nurses in Oakland, California, goes out on strike, to oppose their employer’s attempt to gut their pensions and benefits; or a group of autoworkers fights with the police in Seoul, South Korea, over an employer’s plan to lay off members of their union; or if a group of tire factory workers in the French city of Amiens holds a manager hostage, to negotiate better severance packages for laid off workers — should these actions be understood as ‘proletarian’ struggles against exploitation, which ought to be actively and vigorously supported by the socialist Left? Or are these, on the contrary, the struggles of a parasitic elite attempting to defend its unearned privileges, which have been gained largely at the expense of the actual proletariat by means of a corrupt bargain struck with the capitalist ruling class?”

Bromma, clearly, takes the second view: that such struggles are those of a parasitic elite attempting to defend unearned privileges, which it secures by way of an alliance with capital against the proletariat. This is an interesting claim. If it were convincing, it would have far-reaching consequences, many of which Bromma makes explicit (e.g., that we would have to choose which class we want to support in the class struggle between proletarians and the worker elite, including the construction worker chosen to illustrate that supposedly parasitic elite on the cover of Bromma’s book). That it advances, in clear and unflinching detail, such a provocative and interesting claim is reason enough to read Bromma’s book. Contrary to Moufawad-Paul’s suggestion, I don’t urge people to avoid reading the book. But let there be no doubt about this: I think Bromma’s central claims are mistaken. To the extent that they become more influential, I would think this a bad thing. But it has never occurred to me to suppose that dishonesty was needed to debunk those claims. We have marxism, i.e., “social scientific socialism,” to do that, and misrepresentation would only get in the way.

The Intractable Marginality of the Activist Left

Strikes are only one form of struggle, and perhaps less and less important as the years pass. But the disappearance of strikes — documented in the accompanying graph — is not an anomaly. It reflects a pattern of diminishing overall levels of oppositional social mobilization. Although there aren’t (as far as I know) statistics on it, it is obvious that levels of social struggle generally, in the Canadian state, are lower now than at any time since written records have been kept. There was, to be sure, an upswing during 2011-12, which saw important outbreaks of Indigenous protest (INM, pipeline and fracking struggles, etc.), the Occupy movement, and the Quebec student strike, but this partial revival of large-scale popular protest proved to be short-lived. And there are still, as always, ongoing forms of low-intensity resistance, punctuated by occasional outbreaks of popular defiance and rebellion. Overall, however, the aggregate level of oppositional social struggle in recent decades has been disastrously low.strike-levels-over-time

Since participation in social-movement struggles is basically the only setting (other than a few university courses and a few tiny and isolated leftist groups and collectives) where people have the opportunity to learn about leftist ideas and strategies, the radical Left is trapped in a position of intractable marginality, lacking any plausible path to “mainstream” relevance, i.e., any capacity to secure a meaningful role in shaping the ideas of large numbers of people or wielding any substantive influence. In this sense, there has been a deep and broad collapse of what Marx called popular “self-activity” (“Selbsttätigkeit”) — a terrifying lack of self-organized struggles of broad masses of people for social and environmental justice. We lack, therefore, the expansive pool of social antagonisms and conflicts upon which the Left could in former decades rely for infusions of enthusiasm, critical insights about the nature of the systems we oppose and how to defeat them, and what Rosa Luxemburg called “the forward-storming combative energy” of broad popular movements.

First of all, this collapse of self-activity has to be acknowledged as an accomplished fact. Blaming the activist Left for its own marginality is like blaming the dead fish when a pond dries up after years of catastrophic drought. The pathologies of the Left — chronic sectarianism, exaggerated levels of self-doubt (self-hatred?) about the utility of leftist politics, incapacity to engage with a broad public outside of leftist subcultures, the near total shift of focus from organizing against systemic racism and sexism to obsessing about racist or sexist utterances by celebrities or public figures as these are debated on social media, and so on — these are all symptoms, not underlying causes, of the fact that the levels of social struggle are so low that the Left has no context, no “habitat” (so to speak) in which to operate on a healthy basis. Inevitably, it shrivels up and loses its former vitality and dynamism. It is cut off from everything that once nourished its growth and vigour. To be sure, we can offer the usual self-critiques. But let’s not allow our thinking to be unduly clouded by naive hopes for a tiny and isolated, yet healthy and dynamic activist Left. This is a deeply incoherent expectation.

Second of all, we really should try to develop a healthy respect for our own utter dependence, as radical leftists, on events that remain almost entirely beyond our control. By its very nature, the radical Left can only play a constructive role if there are broad-based popular struggles with which it can engage, and by which it can be transformed. But it can never — and certainly not now — manufacture such struggles by force of will or by sheer organizing prowess. It has to wait, more or less helplessly, for relevance to be thrust upon it by events (even if it is condemned to be incapable of admitting to itself how limited its capacities really are — after all, who likes to admit to being helpless?).

But this respect for our dependence on levels of popular self-activity that we cannot effectively generate by our own devices also entails some guidelines about how to think about the challenges we face. The struggles on which alone the Left can base its regeneration will not come from the radical Left itself. But the Left itself has to cultivate a capacity to recognize them when they do appear. This was something we learned during the emergence of the Occupy movement. It took weeks for some ‘old school’ leftists, and months for others, to recognize it as an important social struggle. (Many still doubt this.) One recalls the reaction of 1950s leftists to the emergence of Students for a Democratic Society and, a few years later, the Black Panther Party. Many leftists of the previous generation did not even recognize these as key opportunities for the Left to secure a new importance and relevance for radical politics, which it largely lost during the 1950s. Instead, they insisted that these upstart organizing initiatives were “doing it wrong,” i.e., too distant from the the way the Left looked in earlier decades. When a healthy Left re-appears in the context of future broad-based movements, it will be because it puts into practice the old Boshevik slogan: “Study the old, create the new.”

And yet, even the Occupy movement remained far too small in scale, compared to the levels of popular self-activity that would be needed to offer the radical Left a new viability for its project of destroying racism, sexism, colonialism, and capitalism. So our eyes have to be fixed on any signs of broad-based popular mobilization, especially when it reaches beyond the ranks of radical “scenes” and “subcultures,” whether these be anarchists punks, marxist grad students, or loose networks of ‘social justice’ advocates on twitter or tumblr. That, however, is the scary part of all this. This idea that the Left has to wait for something (1) that doesn’t now exist, (2) that the Left can’t create by its own efforts, and (3) that seems only likely to emerge from struggles of a sort that happen less and less often, and seemingly on an ever smaller scale. It’s terrifying, of course. But it’s the only reality we have, and we have to begin by acknowledging it.

Ideally, we will draw the crucial lesson from these developments: that struggles are precious, and that broad-based struggles that draw in hundreds of thousands of people from outside the ranks of our activist scenes and subcultures, are especially precious. Only these can save us. On the other hand, our very predicament — our intractable marginality — makes it perhaps more likely that we’ll draw the opposite conclusion: that most people are ‘sheep,’ or that they are ‘not the real proletariat,’ but a privileged elite that stands in our way, etc. Our marginality, in short, makes it likely that we will remain largely oblivious to our need to be rescued by a hoped-for resurgence of broad-based mobilizations reaching, and indeed orginating, well beyond our own ranks. The actually existing radical-activist Left tends to respond to adversity by digging in its heels, insisting all the more confidently that it already has all the answers it could ever need, if only people would listen.

Still, looking on the bright side, the irrelevance of the activist Left limits the damage that its pathologies can do. When large-scale, sustained, and broad-based popular mobilization returns — as surely it must, eventually, albeit not necessarily soon enough to avert catastrophe — the scenes and subcultures of today’s activist Left will be swept away and replaced in the same way that those of the 1950s Left were swept away and replaced in the 1960s. But what can we do, today, that will leave something useful behind for those who will one day cast aside our present-day fixations as they build something that we remain unable to foresee?

What is Social Republicanism?

workers-republicBy Stephen D’Arcy

Politics is about the establishment and exercise of public power. Sometimes, this power is bound up with the state form, but sometimes it is not. John Holloway, for instance, has drawn harsh condemnation from the state-friendly sections of the Left for having proposed a politics that would consist, not of “taking the reins” of the state, but something crucially different: popular empowerment through self-organization from below, or as he would say, politics as the workers’ movement’s “potentia” (power-to), in contrast to the state’s “potens” (power-over).

Arguably, one of Holloway’s contributions to marxism has been to remind us that the state form is only one way of organizing public affairs. In a state, public power is organized in the form of (1) structures of professional coercion, like police, prisons, and standing armies, (2) structures of bureaucratic administration, e.g., ministries and departments in which professional ‘public servants’ are organized in a command-and-control hierarchy, so that lower level administrators implement directives issued by higher level administrators, and (3) structures of representation, e.g., parliaments and other sorts of elected legislatures, staffed by professional politicians, who legislate ostensibly ‘on behalf’ of the broad public.

Historically, many people on the Left, even many marxists, have imagined that the state form could play a liberating role. Their proposal has been to create a “workers’ state” or a “socialist state.” The professional army would be a “red” army, the ruling party would be a “communist” party with “professional revolutionist” politicians, and the bureaucracy would be “socialist” bureaucracy.

On the other hand, many leftists (including Marx himself) have suggested, on the contrary, that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes” (Marx, 1871). After all, they point out, the state form is designed, from top to bottom, to preclude popular empowerment, and to rigorously police grassroots participation in public affairs so as to domesticate and channel it in ways that insulate elites from public accountability and popular control from below. The state form’s pervasive reliance on “professionalism” (of the army and police, of bureaucrats, and of politicians) signals its strict rejection of active participation by ordinary working-class people in directing public affairs. By definition (and the relentless confirmation of historical precedent), in a state, the broad populace is to be administered and governed, rather than being the government. The role of “citizens” in the state form tends to consist of voting, on the one hand, and obeying the law, on the other. Marx, in particular, contrasted the state form with what he called “the dictatorship of the proletariat,” which was not to be a form of “domination” (Herrschaft), but a throwing off, by the people, of the yoke of domination: “the expropriation of a few usurpers by the mass of the people” (Capital, v. I, ch. 32).

But if there is to be a politics – an establishment and exercise of public power – that repudiates the state form, what form could it take?

One answer, favoured by Marx himself among others (Connolly, Luxemburg, etc.), is that a non-statist post-capitalist polity would take the form of a social republic.

Marx’s main example of a social republic is the Paris Commune of 1871, a revolutionary regime in the city of Paris, which defied the official state and established what Marx called “a working-class government,” until it was suppressed by armed force and tens of thousands of its participants were murdered by the French state. Although the Commune identified itself as a “social republic,” Engels said, no doubt rightly, that “the Commune…had ceased to be a state in the proper sense of the word.” It was not a state, but it certainly embodied a politics.

This example of a non-state politics, corresponding more or less to Holloway’s notion of replacing the potens of the state with the potentia of popular self-organization, draws our attention to a theme in the marxist tradition that hasn’t received the notice that it deserves: the theme of “socialist” or “social” republicanism. Many of the “classical” marxists, including Marx, James Connolly, Rosa Luxemburg and others, aligned themselves explicitly with republicanism. And Marxism may fairly be regarded as one part of the (much) wider republican political tradition, as noted by historians of republicanism, like Quentin Skinner and Alex Gourevitch.

Nevertheless, as Marx well understood (and explicitly discussed), there are many different understandings of the meaning of “republicanism.” The qualifier, “social,” is particularly important. But even the term social republic is susceptible to multiple interpretations. We saw, in the 20th century, the creation by revolutionary means of a broad range of republics, both avowedly non-socialist (e.g., the Islamic Republic of Iran and the “postcolonial” republics of India and 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties) and avowedly socialist (e.g., the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the People’s Republic of China, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, and the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, to name only a few). Which (if any) of these corresponds to Marx’s conception of a “social republic”?

If we try to clarify the concept of republicanism, or social republicanism, by turning to the lively debates about republicanism in recent years within political philosophy, we find that the concept of a social or socialist republic seldom if ever comes up. Instead, all of the attention goes to the notion of civic (not social) republicanism.

In order to make a start on remedying this defect of the recent debates on republicanism in political philosophy, I want to outline a coherent, and in my view attractive conception of social republicanism, as a normative ideal of anti-capitalist politics, implicit in the republican tradition represented by Karl Marx, James Connolly, Rosa Luxemburg and others. (This, by the way, is the normative conception implicit in my book, Languages of the Unheard.)

Social republicanism can be expressed in the form of eight core principles.

  1. (A Regime of Public Autonomy) That no regime of governance is legitimate except to the extent that those subject to that regime effectively govern themselves through reason-guided public discussion, as (for example) in popular assemblies, workers’ councils, traditional Indigenous self-governance practices, and other forms of public autonomy that are appropriate to the context and culture of those involved.
  2. (A Social, Not just a Political Republic) That not only narrowly political (state) institutions can threaten or usurp public autonomy, but so can any unresponsive system of power, including markets, bureaucracies, formal or informal relations of colonial domination or exploitation, inequalities of income or decision-making power (as in the workplace), and structures of racial or gender subordination.
  3. (Autonomous Counter-publics) That the establishment or safeguarding of public autonomy may require the organization of autonomous counter-publics, to insist on and defend the legitimate interests and rights of (to borrow Nancy Fraser’s jargon) “subaltern collectivities,” both within specific organizations (e.g., women’s caucuses in unions, etc.) and in society as a whole (so that autonomous social movement organizations are embraced by social republicanism as constituent features of any social republic, considered as a regime of public autonomy).
  4. (Civic Comradeship) That the participants in a regime of collective self-governance ought to cultivate relations of civic comradeship with one another, acting only in ways that are consistent with giving due weight to the dignity of each and the welfare of all, in keeping with the principle of solidarity (“an injury to one is an injury to all”).
  5. (The Socialist Civic Virtues) That the demands of public autonomy on the one hand, and civic comradeship on the other, require the cultivation and exercise of what Luxemburg called “the socialist civic virtues,” including willingness to confront injustice with militancy and to support fellow workers and civic comrades with solidarity, cooperation and mutual aid.
  6. (Jurisdictional Contestation) That wherever public autonomy is absent from the domain of law and public policy, republicans are committed in principle to a practice of jurisdictional contestation, counterposing the insurgent democracy of oppositional political forms (popular assemblies, traditional Indigenous political processes, insurgent legal systems, etc.) to the heteronomy (domination) of the official political process, with which social republicanism normally engages only with a view to hastening its subversion and overthrow.
  7. (Prefigurative Socialization) That, in the same way and for the same reasons, wherever public autonomy is absent from the domain of production and distribution, social republicans are committed in principle to a practice of prefigurative socialization, counterposing the economic democracy of community-based, egalitarian cooperative economics and the “solidarity economy” to the colonial domination, class exploitation, and ecocidal destructiveness of the capitalist system that social republicans undertake to destroy.
  8. (Defence of the Social Republic Against Usurpers) That, as a corollary of its commitment to civic comradeship among equals in a self-governance regime, social republicanism is committed — in the absence of such a regime, or in the event that the social republic is attacked by its enemies — to support all democratic and egalitarian struggles to establish and maintain the self-rule of what Marx called “the mass of the people” (die Volksmasse) in contrast to the ever present danger of the (re)assertion of rule by what he called the “few usurpers” (wenige Usurpatoren).

This normative ideal – social republicanism – contrasts starkly with the quasi-liberalism and conciliatory attitude toward capitalism typical of “civic” republicanism. And yet, due to its concern to reject domination, to uphold civic solidarity, and to demand the exercise of civic virtue, this conception is located squarely within the broad republican tradition.

The fact that social republicanism is not a statist, but an anti-statist view, is no doubt its most controversial feature. For some, the idea of a politics that dispenses with the reassuring bossiness of the state and its officials is unsettling. This is the dizziness of democracy, the vertigo of public autonomy: that our liberty has to be our own act, that our emancipation can only ever be a self-emancipation. Scary or not, it is upon this idea that social republicanism stands or falls.