“Exploitation” versus “Privilege” in Class Analysis

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? This is the question taken up by the leftist writer, Bromma, in the book, The Worker Elite: Notes on the ‘Labour Aristocracy’ (Kersplebedeb, 2014)


BC Teachers’ Federation: Defending privilege? Or opposing exploitation?

According to Bromma, none of the struggles described above are “proletarian.” Instead, they are the struggles of a parasitic section of the middle classes, which Bromma calls “the worker elite.” And they are not, according to Bromma, struggles against exploitation, but struggles to defend privilege. Anti-capitalists who align themselves with such workers make a grave error, according to this analysis. “Flattering a failing worker elite with crocodile tears for its lost privileges…leads to disaster for proletarian forces,” above all by fueling right-wing populism (57). Ultimately, Bromma concludes, “the parasitic and patriarchal agenda of this class must be defeated” (75).

The “Proletariat” versus “Privileged Workers”

Bromma’s book is not unusual in its opposition to the struggles of unionized nurses, construction workers, teachers or factory workers, nor the first to single out these workers as “overpaid” and “privileged.” These groups of workers and their unions have always had an overabundance of enemies. What is unusual is that, in this case, the attacks originate from within the ranks of the anti-capitalist Left. Indeed, Bromma’s accusations of privilege and corruption are motivated by the very thing that (from one point of view, at least) seems least likely to pit anti-capitalist activists against workers who fight with their employers: a commitment to the class struggle of the proletariat against the capitalist ruling class.

What turns Bromma’s commitment to class struggle into a hostility toward the struggles of so many workers is the conviction, defended in The Worker Elite, that workers do not constitute a single class, but on the contrary can be divided into three distinct classes: a “lumpenproletariat” of criminals and underground economy labourers, a worker elite of “privileged” labourers, and the proletariat proper, which comprises about 80% of humankind, but excludes many people that would normally be regarded as “proletarians” by most (non-maoist) socialists. The proletariat proper is depicted by Bromma as a genuinely productive class, exploited by others. But both the lumpenproletariat and the worker elite are, like the capitalists, fundamentally parasitic on the proletariat:

[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).

This view will be familiar to readers of books like J. Sakai’s Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat and Zak Cope’s Divided World, Divided Class, among others. Bromma’s book is less an attempt to innovate than to lay out, in accessible, clear language, yet with considerable sophistication and relatively substantive arguments, a concise statement of the case for the claim that many construction workers, factory workers, teachers, and other workers with (especially in global terms) unusually favourable rates of pay, working conditions, health and safety protections and job security, are not only non-proletarians, but indeed are the class enemies of the proletariat and key allies of the ruling class: “The worker elite provides mass acquiescence and mass support for anti-proletarian politics, including settler colonialism, imperialist war, male domination, and genocide” (9).

All of this will be rejected by many leftists, quite emphatically. But why? What’s this dispute all about?

In my view, what accounts for the deep gulf separating the class politics of Bromma and other adherents to this view from the class politics of others on the anti-capitalist Left is a disagreement about how to think about the nature of class. Specifically, should we understand class in terms of exploitation, or in terms of privilege? (For some important background on the use of concepts like “exploitation” and “privilege,” which I can’t detail here, see my article, “The Rise of the Post-New Left Political Vocabulary.”) Whereas many marxists view class through the lens of the concept of exploitation, Bromma instead 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.)

I think we can understand the issues better if we take a closer look at these two approaches: the exploitation approach versus the privilege approach to class analysis.

The Exploitation Approach to Class Analysis

In the exploitation approach, class is understood in terms of the antagonistic relationship between boss and worker, and the “friction of interests” (as EP Thompson put it, deploying a phrase from Balzac) that propels them toward conflict. In this view, workers are regarded as fundamentally productive, in contrast to members of the employer cass who are fundamentally parasitic and unproductive. In some cases, the productivity of workers is a matter of directly generating wealth in the form of commodities (for example, work producing automobiles, food, or computer software). In other cases, the productivity of workers is a matter of establishing or reproducing the necessary societal background conditions for the generation of wealth (for example, the work of teaching, caring for the physical or emotional needs of children, or restoring the health of the sick and injured). In still other cases, productivity is a matter of work enabling what Marx called the “realization” of wealth by facilitating the sale of commodities for cash (for example, shipping, advertising, or retail work). By contrast, the capitalist ruling class is strictly unproductive and parasitic: it extracts wealth from work done by others, by converting its control of productive resources (“means of production”) into relations of exploitation over workers. Capitalism is then a system of exploitation: an institutional structure through which the labour of the many is pressed into the service of the enrichment of the few.

This approach to thinking about class tends to encourage those who adopt it to look favorably upon the struggles of workers generally (including the struggles of highly paid workers, with sometimes atypical levels of job security, and so on). When workers are able to secure improvements in the terms of their employment, either through struggle (such as strikes) or through a favourable bargaining position (such as labour shortages), the higher wages or benefits that accrue to them are usually depicted by those on the Left as “gains” or “victories” in relation to the employer-class. Generally, an exploitation approach to class encourages an understanding of the advantages of higher pay, pensions and improvements in workplace health and safety as outcomes to be fought for, welcomed, and then defended, even if for the time being only some workers have made these gains, while other workers have not.

The Privilege Approach to Class Analysis

We can contrast this with the privilege approach. 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.

Consider two groups of workers. The first group consists of non-unionized migrant workers seasonally employed in agriculture, paid at or near (or even below) the minimum wage; the second consists of unionized, stably employed nurses working at a hospital, with relatively high status, pay and benefits. An exploitation theory of class encourages us to highlight the commonality between these two groups of workers, noting their shared antagonism to the class of employers (including private investors and high-level managers in both the private and the public sector). But a privilege theory of class encourages us, on the contrary, to note the differentiation between these two groups, and the fact that the first group is shut out of the benefits and advantages — the “privileges” — of the second group. In particular, the privilege approach will encourage us to focus on ways in which the second group may have access to some of those advantages due, at least in part, to such factors as membership in a favoured racial group (whites), a favoured gender (men), a favoured legal status (citizens as opposed to undocumented people), or the fact of residence in an imperialist country.

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.

Evidently, Bromma’s use of “privilege” as the primary concept in class analysis is a symptom of a much wider transformation of the political vocabulary of the activist Left in North America, in which the New Left political vocabulary of the 60s and 70s (with its emphasis on “systems” of exploitation and oppression and the possibility of “alliances” among anti-systemic movements, grounded in supposed cross-difference commonalities among “the people”) has increasingly lost ground to what I have called the “post-New Left political vocabulary” of today’s activist Left (with its emphasis on “intersecting axes of privilege,” and other barriers to the construction of broad alliances of the exploited and the oppressed). The privilege-focused, post-New Left vocabulary generates a much more suspicious stance toward proposals for broad-based alliances across differences.

Dangers of Giving Up on the Exploitation Approach

Is this shift toward a privilege conception of class a welcome development? Whatever the pros and cons of adopting a ‘privilege’ conception of racism, sexism, and other social hierarchies and antagonisms, I am convinced that this approach is unhelpful when introduced into class analysis. There are two basic reasons: one theoretical, and the other practical.

Theoretically, a privilege conception exaggerates the importance of distribution, and tends to obscure the importance of production. To be sure, writers like Bromma and Cope claim to be highlighting a difference between a productive class of proletarians and an unproductive parasitic class of ‘labour aristocrats’ in the ‘worker elite.’ But Bromma bases this claim largely on the difference between the wages and working conditions of the two (supposedly distinct) groups. If the wages and benefits of autoworkers in Detroit were, in the next 20 years, to fall to a quarter of what they are today, Bromma would no doubt re-define them as proletarians. But that, surely, is not the key variable for understanding the class structure of capitalism. Instead, what matters is (1) the exclusion of most people from control over means of production (workplaces, machinery, patented processes, etc.), which forces them to seek paid employment (as bearers of commodified labour-power) in the labour market, and (2) their consequent subordination to bosses in the workplace. How much pay or benefits they can extract, by means of such measures as union organization and strikes or political mobilization leading to expanding welfare state provisions, bears on our understanding of the of prevailing distribution of wealth. However, it tells us little about the basic structure of capitalism as a system production, and therefore it can’t be the basis for a plausible analysis of capitalism’s class structure.

Practically, the implications of the privilege approach to class analysis are even more troubling. By singling out the most organized sections of the labouring population, with the most potent capacities to organize strikes, including general strikes, or indeed to launch mass protest movements; by depicting this group of workers as the class enemy of the “proletariat,” to be not supported, but “defeated” by the proletarian struggle; and by stigmatizing gains won through strikes or reform campaigns as “corrupt” and “anti-proletarian” — the “privilege” approach can be fairly described as actively hostile to unions, and either indifferent to or enthusiastic about the disappearance of hard-won advantages that some workers enjoy: pensions, job security provisions, health and safety protections, restrictions on child labour, and so on (all of which Bromma describes as privileges available exclusively or disproportionately to the worker elite).

I hesitate to describe a sincerely advanced political position held by some people on the Left as “reactionary,” so I will simply say that this conception rests on a view of what it means to be pro-proletarian that I find highly suspect. Its widespread adoption on the Left would, I fear, have the effect of badly disorienting workers’ movements and the Left. (I have offered what I regard as a much better way of understanding the material basis for the decline of militancy and anti-capitalist politics among various groups of workers, in the article, “Why Rebellion is Rare, or Why Solidarity Matters.” There, I analyze workers’ acquiescence in capitalist domination in recent years in terms of what social scientists call “collective action problems.”)

For the time being, Bromma’s view seems to be a marginal one on the Left. Most people who identify as leftists continue to regard unions favourably, more or less, and fear rather than welcoming the dissolution of the advantages that union struggles and political mobilization have made available for some workers. But, given how rapidly and thoroughly the problematic (interpretive framework) of privilege has come to pervade the discourse and the strategic thinking (such as it is) of the activist Left in recent years, one can’t help but wonder how long the exploitation approach to class analysis can continue to shape the politics of activists, especially in Canada and the United States (where the post-New Left political vocabulary is now most entrenched).

The exploitation approach is a kind of residue or remainder of an earlier incarnation of the anti-capitalist Left (above all, its marxist variants). Increasingly, many younger activists have begun to embrace a more individualistic analysis of colonialism, patriarchy and racism, preferring to talk about these oppressions in terms of individual privilege rather than in terms of large-scale systems of institutional power. Will the same shift lead, sooner or later, to the displacement of the exploitation approach to class analysis? It’s hard to say. But no doubt the prospect of such a transformation is a real danger, to be discouraged if possible by vigorous attempts to insist on a conception of class that is crucially linked to the analysis of capitalism as an exploitative system of production.

4 thoughts on ““Exploitation” versus “Privilege” in Class Analysis

  1. This is a really great and necessary intervention into contemporary Left politics. Really terrifying, resentment-fueled stuff. I’m curious – how exactly does Bromma substantiate the claim that benefits captured by unionized workers are ‘subsidized’ by lower-paid precarious sectors or labourers residing in underdeveloped areas?

    I mean, even if this were the case, shouldn’t the strategic focus of the Left be on upward leveling rather than downward leveling? And what exactly constitutes a wage characterized by ‘unearned privilege’? Receiving a wage above that which would be provided by a pure market? It seems to me that there’s an assumption here of a zero-sum game that implies that benefits for some workers necessarily result in costs for others. Leaving aside the question as to rather this is empirically true or not, surely this kind of thinking is the opposite of anti-capitalist.

    Firstly, there’s an assumption that the ‘privileged’ strata of workers will automatically side with capital, and so what ought to be a political or strategic calculation is stripped of any consideration of agency and reduced to a (highly questionable) structural determination. And secondly, assuming that agency can play role, surely a better anti-capitalist strategy for unions (and the Left generally) would be, instead of leveling downward so that all workers are equally remunerated within the limits of capitalist accumulation (bringing some up and some down), to level upward, bringing increasing sectors of the working-class into the so-called ‘privileged’ strata and so putting pressure on the ability of capitalists to accumulate, revealing the limits of the ability of capitalism to provide for human need.

  2. My own thought would be that if you reconcile/acknowledge post-industrialism and the service economy, then privilege actually makes sense in some way. Privilege, it seems, addresses the ability to consume (you use ‘distribute’). Worker exploitation, though, is a power dynamic that disadvantages those without capital – those who cannot produce or do not have the pre-existing resources to produce. I think that privilege is an evolution. It’s nowhere near complete, it’s simplistic in some ways, and it fails to address multiple issues, even when intersectionality comes into play, BUT it, like feminism, is an evolving process.

  3. “Economic conditions had first transformed the mass of the people of the country into workers. The combination of capital has created for this mass a common situation, common interests. This mass is thus already a class as against capital, but not yet for itself. In the struggle, of which we have noted only a few phases, this mass becomes united, and constitutes itself as a class for itself. The interests it defends become class interests. But the struggle of class against class is a political struggle.”

    …Though I disagree with the position of anti-proletarian workers posited by Bromma, perhaps this can be seen in the class in itself / class for itself distinction. Both workers are of the proletarian class in themselves, however perhaps one group is not for other dissimilar parts of ‘itself.’

  4. “Economic conditions had first transformed the mass of the people of the country into workers. The combination of capital has created for this mass a common situation, common interests. This mass is thus already a class as against capital, but not yet for itself. In the struggle, of which we have noted only a few phases, this mass becomes united, and constitutes itself as a class for itself. The interests it defends become class interests. But the struggle of class against class is a political struggle.”

    …Though I disagree with the position of anti-proletarian workers posited by Bromma, perhaps this can be seen in the class in itself / class for itself distinction. Both workers are of the proletarian class in themselves, however perhaps one group is not currently ‘out’ for other dissimilar parts of ‘itself.’

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