A Comment on Connolly on Mill on Colonialism

In 1897, the famous anti-colonial marxist James Connolly chose as the epigraph for his pamphlet, Erin’s Hope: The Ends and the Means, a short passage written by the English liberal John Stuart Mill.

A quotation from J.S. Mill is a somewhat surprising way to begin a pamphlet on, of all topics, the relation between class struggle and national liberation in the context of colonial capitalism. Connolly was keen to develop a version of marxism that could speak to Irish workers locked in a double struggle against colonial domination on the one hand and class exploitation on the other. Mill, by contrast, once argued that colonized people were, like children, incapable of governing themselves, so that “despotism is a legitimate form of government in dealing with barbarians provided the end is their improvement and the means justified by actually effecting that end” (Mill, On LIberty, Chapter 1).

What insight did Connolly find, no doubt unexpectedly, in Mill’s work?

The passage from Mill which interested Connolly enough that he used an extract from it as his pamphlet’s epigraph is, on the surface, about Ireland. But what must have captured Connolly interest in Mill’s analysis is not just that it sheds light on Irish history specifically, but that it sheds light on colonialism as such, insofar as it is intertwined with class struggle. Surprisingly, Mill articulates very well (and thus anticipates) the starting-point of Connolly’s own approach to developing an anti-colonial marxism which integrates class conflict with national liberation in a particular way. (There are echoes of this view, too, in Julius Nyerere’s “Ujamaa” or “African socialism,” among other views, but I won’t pursue that here.)

The key passage is from a text called “England and Ireland.” There, Mill writes:

“Before the Conquest, the Irish people knew nothing of absolute property in land. The land virtually belonged to the entire sept [i.e., clan]; the chief was little more than the managing member of the association. The feudal idea, which views all rights as emanating from a head landlord, came in with the Conquest, was associated with foreign dominion, and has never to this day [i.e., 1868] been recognised by the moral sentiments of the people….[Landlordism remains] always connected with the latest and most odious oppressions of foreign invaders. In the moral feelings of the Irish people, the right to hold the land goes, as it did in the beginning, with the right to till it….The landlords [installed by colonialism] were a mere burden on the land. The whole rental of the country was wasted in maintaining, often in reckless extravagance, people who were not nearly as useful to the hive as the drones are, and were entitled to less respect. These are the antecedents of Irish history in respect to property in land…, for it is not the right of the rent-receiver, but the right of the cultivator, with which the idea of property is connected in the Irish popular mind….[W]hen a people have no means of sustenance but the land, the conditions on which the land can be occupied, and support derived from it, are all in all.” (John Stuart Mill, “England and Ireland,” 1868).

What Mill captures surprisingly well is a complex analysis, taken to heart by Connolly, which can be expressed in four theses about colonialism as Connolly understood it:

(1) that colonialism is a class project of exploitation, not just in addition to but in and through its being a form of national oppression;

(2) that the regimes of exploitation established under colonialism normally displace pre-colonial forms of collectivism and egalitarianism that continue to serve as, at once, a bitter memory of what has been taken away and an ideal of a possible future with enduring appeal;

(3) that the dispossession of land has a dual status of moral injury inflicted in the past, and ongoing structure of harm and endangerment because it cuts people off from their capacity to ensure their subsistence and autonomy; and

(4) that the structures of dispossession do not just subordinate the dispossessed economically and politically, but also lay the basis, or rather preserve the foundations, for an alternative morality, a counter-ethic of solidarity and the sharing among equals of benefits and burdens, which is rooted in the old collectivism, points toward an egalitarian future, and functions right now as a basis for denouncing the parasitism and self-indulgence of the exploiters.

Mill often enough says stupid, and sometimes racist things about colonialism, but here he has really hit on some key points that marxists would do well to take seriously, as Connolly did before us. Regardless of sources, these ideas were drawn into 19th century marxism and remain an important part of our tradition with enduring relevance.

The Dene Declaration (1975)

Note: One of the most important documents in the history of the Left inside the Canadian state, the Dene Declaration of 1975 was ridiculed at the time by the Canada’s ‘Minister of Indian Affairs’ as “gobbledygook” — a sure sign that the Declaration had exposed an area of acute sensitivity for the state, namely, its settler-colonial foundations. Although very widely read in the 1970s and beyond by both Indigenous and settler leftists, in recent decades it has been a bit hard to find on the Internet (or in print, for that matter) the full text (including not just the ‘manifesto’ but also the other, more fully elaborated historical and strategic parts), and I believe this may be the only HTML version of the whole document available at this time. I prepared this version based on the text given in a document entitled IBNWT Land Claim: Handbook for the Northern Claims Group (November 1977). (For some background and analysis of the Declaration and its place in the history of Dene politics and land claims, see Glen Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks, chapter 2.)

The politics of the Declaration are as relevant as ever, and the analysis holds up extremely well in the present context, so it really deserves a wider readership than it has had in recent years. (Click for printable PDF version)



General Assembly, Indian Brotherhood of NWT (Dene Nation), Ft Simpson, 19 July 1975



  1. Historical Introduction
  2. Examples of Specific Declarations
    1. Declaration on Development
    2. Declaration on Role of Native Organizations
    3. Statement on Strategy and Organizing
  3. The Dene Manifesto


Historical Introduction

  1. The situation, historically and today, has been to the disadvantage of the Dene Nation. Industry, and government have said one thing to the people and done another. It is time for us to speak the truth.
  2. Take, for example, the Treaties. The Indian people signed the Treaties in good faith, believing them to be no more than treaties of peace and friendship. When we had doubts and refused to sign, the Government was not above forging signatures. Since that time the Government has said that the Treaties were land cession treaties, and absurdly insisted that we sold our land for $5 a year each.
  3. Our land, first slowly and now more rapidly, has been overrun by explorers, traders, developers and government officials. They are the agents of a European system, and they have come to exploit the land and resources for the betterment of the few who control industry and big business. The nature of the industrial culture that increasingly penetrates the North is such that a few will profit while the majority of the people, whether native or white, are kept powerless.
  4. In the beginning our people saw little harm in letting the early explorers and traders come to the North, for the goods that they brought somewhat compensated for their being here. But more and more people came. The level of interference with the old ways increased. We can no longer let things go on because very shortly we will not be able to live off the land as we have from time immemorial.
  5. We no longer have any alternative but to take over control of developments in the North. We must have the right to decide not only when development occurs, but what kind of development takes place and for whose benefit.
  6. Since the coming of the whiteman, and industrial development, the Dene have been encouraged to join in his system of competition. But this nation has withstood the pressure. We have not adopted this alien system that puts one person against another because we have our own ways of sharing wealth and resources. Always we have taken care of the young, the old and the disadvantaged. We intend to maintain our sharing and egalitarian society.
  7. We are a nation, a people with a long history and a whole culture, a culture which has survived the invasion of our land. Although this is a fact of which all of us are aware — since we are the people of the Dene Nation — we still must make this statement because others do not know or admit of our existence as a nation.
  8. We make this statement because some of our young, being educated in a foreign educational system, are getting confused and are unaware of how they can contribute to our people. Also, some of our people who are becoming involved with industry and government are slowly coming to believe in their ways and are forgetting where they came from. They need clear direction.
  9. We have lost control of our own lands. The present legal system, the Territorial and Federal Government systems, the educational system, the industrial economy — all are foreign and oppressive in their present forms. Real power lies with a handful of large companies who operate with the full co-operation of both the Territorial and Federal governments.
  10. These same companies operate in other parts of the world, in the poor countries known as the Third World. The companies go in and exploit the non-renewable resources of these countries to serve the purpose of making profits for themselves and providing resources to the already rich and developed countries. Some of the people in the poor country get jobs, but they are locked into a factory system and a consumer, society where they are powerless and where they have to strive to better themselves as individuals rather than work for the benefit of the masses of people.
  11. There are many lessons for the Dene to learn from the development of the Third World countries. As colonies of the imperial powers, they everywhere failed to develop. Their prospects necessarily improved to the extent that they were successful in gaining independence. But even after formal political independence, many have had trouble developing because the power of the so-called multinational corporations, with their base in a small number of highly developed industrial societies, has denied their genuine economic independence. Only with tremendous effort from the people can an economy independent from outside controls be built.
  12. Our situation in the North is the same as that of the peoples of the Third World who were until recently subjugated. As aboriginal people within a white society, we are a part of the Fourth World. We have been made Canadians by decree and not by our free choice.
  13. Understandably our first choice would be to be once again a sovereign people. But we are realistic and know the whiteman is powerful. At the same time, we native people are still the majority within the North. We are in a unique situation in North America and we should take advantage of our situation before it is too late.
  14. Our survival as a people compels us to assert our right to maximum independence within Canada. We must develop our own economy and must acquire political independence for the Dene nation within the Canadian constitution. We must be able to govern our own lands and resources.
  15. Thus our land claim must include not only the surface of the land, but the animals, the fish, the birds, the rivers and streams and the minerals underneath. And, most important of all, we must have our own system of government by which we can control and develop our land for our benefit.
  16. Our aboriginal rights are meaningless if they do hot mean the exclusive right to hunt, fish and trap. And that right, in turn, will have little meaning in the long run unless Indian people are allowed to stop the damage to their land that results from present unplanned developments.
  17. Where developments, as in mining, have already taken place, or for future development which we would be prepared to tolerate, we are entitled, as owners of the land, to receive royalties. Thes royalties could be paid cut of the profits of the companies and  need be no burden on the Canadian people. We would, in turn, use these royalties to fund community economic development that will last after the companies have exhausted the non-renewable resources.
  18. We must develop plans to start our ovm economy at the community level. The present colonial pattern of development attempts to integrate us into a wage economy, as employees of companies over which we have no control. We want to strengthen our traditional land-based economy and at the same time create viable enterprises in the communities under the collective control of Indian people. That way our young people will have the chance to remain in the community rather than always having to move away, and even risk losing their identity, to find employment.
  19. We must become involved in the education of our children in communities where Dene are in the majority. Local schools must be controlled by our people. In cases like Yellowknife, or hostels where we are not the majority, we must have involvement — or start our own schools.
  20. Where outside governments have a continuing role after a land settlement, there must be a clear recognition of our rights as a distinct people, particularly at the local level. For example, native communities must have very clear powers with respect to control of alcohol.
  21. In the communities, power should lie with the band council and, in the future, with the Dene Council.
  22. Territorial Council must operate in such a way as not to infringe native rights. The same must be true if the day should come when a white majority in the North successfully demands provincial status.
  23. Without in any way abrogating our rights as the original inhabitants of the land, we recognise that non-native residents of the North who choose to make the North their home and respect our rights are themselves entitled to greater rights, in territorial and local elections, than are those who are merely transient.
  24. Our own native organizations must themselves evolve so as to be able in due course to assume these new functions. In their operations and structures, they must become examples of our ideals.
  25. To achieve all of this will not be easy. There is much work ahead of us, internally and externally. It will take effort from all the communities. A united effort is required on all issues involving the step-by-step achievement of our long term goals of maximum independence for the Dene Nation. Unless we are united among ourselves, we have little hope of winning a struggle so difficult as the one we are now engaged in.
  26. We must unite our people at all levels — between communities, between families, between Treaty, non-status and Métis, between young and old, between the traditionalists and the non-traditionalists, between regions, between tribes, between men and women. We must be prepared to identify and deal with enemies within as as well as enemies without.
  27. We must have strong leadership supported by the communities. It is the duty of leadership to lead the way for development of the people and to support directions. But the leadership must always listen to the people and be prepared to build on creative energy of the people. It must always be accountable to the people through open and honest dialogue.
  28. Although a united front is expected and required from all the communities on issues that have been sanctioned at general assemblies and have survived deliberation at the community level, this does not at all mean that people must remain quiet about those things that are remiss. Quite the contrary. Community people must make it their responsibility to confront our leadership either at the local level or at its highest level in those cases where justice has not prevailed. The more people demonstrate their true feelings and desires to the leadership, the greater the ability of the leadership to avoid errors and to implement what is in priority with local needs and desires.
  29. With strong leadership, we must have clear ideals and goals for our people. The people’s true needs and desires must be reflected in the goals and action. Communities must be thoroughly involved at every level of this total development. At no time should any goal or action be beyond thorough examination and not fit the ideals of the nation. Goals and ideals should be revised by the people as situations change requiring new directions.
  30. Externally, we must again become a people making our own history. We must become actors, not just be acted upon by companies and government. The highway, proposed pipeline and dams, indeed, even the layout of our communities — all are other people’s plans to which we have been allowed at best only to react. We must become actors, planners, in control of development within our communities and our land. We must develop our own plans for development that will benefit our communities and all our people.
  31. To be able to make our own history is to be able to mould our own future, to build the new Indian society of the North that preserves the best of our past and our traditions while enabling us to grow and develop as a whole people. We want to build a society in which there is equality of all Dene people, and a society free of exploitative relationships between people. We are not opposed to change, but it must be on our terms under our control. To assert that right is to assume a great task, one at which we cannot afford to fail.
  32. We know that there are powerful forces arranged against us. That is why we have not hesitated to appeal to others to support us in our just struggle. We ask that there be no major developments, like a pipeline, before a land settlement acceptable to us. We ask that we be allowed, in negotiating with the government toward a land settlement, to put forward our demands as they stand. We ask that our rights as a people for self-determination within Canada be respected.
  33. The great majority of people in Canada are like ourselves in being relatively powerless in the face of big companies and by governments. In the face of our assertion of our rights, the choice that others must make is between ourselves, on the [one] hand, and the outside developers that are increasingly accountable to no one, on the other hand. By joining us in our struggle people can begin as well to liberate themselves.
  34. We, the Dene, must all work together to a successful land claims settlement. This will be a big achievement in itself. It then becomes the means to achieve our real needs. Those needs are a land base and the political controls to determine what happens on our land. Above all, independence within Canada.

Examples of Specific Declarations

Declaration on Development

  1. What other people may call development is not necessarily development for Indian people. Only Dene people can say what development means for the Dene nation. For example, many people say that the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline is “development,” but this is not true for the Dene people. The pipeline may not only damage our land, but it might destroy our way of life as a nation. True development can only strengthen our nation and our way of life.
  2. The people of the African country Tanzania were, like the Dene people, also invaded by a white colonial government. Today they are independent and they say this about development:
    “Any action which does not increase the people’s say in determining their own affairs or running their own lives is not development and holds them down, even if the action brings them a little better health and a little more bread.”
    In other words, we cannot, call development any activity which takes away control from  our people. True development must give us more control and greater independence.
  3. True development means  growth in Indian communities … not only economic development but cultural, social, political and spiritual development … and the sum of these is greater than the parts.
  4. True development means building on the past, by strengthening traditional pursuits, by drawing on the community’s experience, and by building on traditional skills.
  5. True development means that development is implemented in a way that fits the Indian way of doing things (which is not the same as the government’s way or the companies’ way).
  6. True development means a process which unites and builds up the community’s sense of self and the sense of self of all its members.
  7. True development means development by the community rather than by outsiders. It means development by the community as a whole wherever possible, rather than by individuals within the community for their own benefit.
  8. True development means not participating, even as workers, in activities you cannot control. If such developments go ahead anyway (such as large resource developments), Indian people, as owners of the resource should benefit from royalties, and the political rights of Indian people (which would be threatened by an influx of white workers) would be protected by entrenching them as part of the land settlement.
  9. True development means learning by doing so that development becomes an on-going, self-reinforcing process.
  10. True development means getting expertise when it is needed in the form of short-term technical assistance without giving up ownership (even of the joint venture variety).
  11. True development means communities cooperating with each other, regionally, and in the Mackenzie District as a whole (unity means power).
  12. True development means long-term planning and setting priorities (since it’s impossible to do everything)
  13. True development means keeping our egalitarian and sharing society. 
  14. True development means setting an example for Canada.

Declaration on the Role of Native Organizations

The following should be the most important goals of our organizations:

  1. To re-establish control of our independent Dene confederacy.
  2. To assert the common identity of our people — Dene concept.
  3. To obtain for every Dene community an adequate economic base to preserve its independence.
  4. To be a vehicle for providing the solid support of the Dene people to band councils, Métis locals, and other Dene groups in their efforts in social, cultural, educational, spiritual, and economic development. To speak as one voice for the Dene people on major political issues, and work with other native organizations.
  5. To fight racism,
    • by helping to overcome the ignorance in white society with regard to Dene peoples,
    • by working to overcome economic inequality,
    • by overcoming cultural and political domination through strengthening Dene culture and independence.
  6. To be an example of our ideals in operations and structure.
  7. To create a continuing dialogue between leadership and the Dene people, so that all benefit and develop using each others understanding and experience.
  8. To establish ties, to support, and cooperate v/ith other movements and efforts which contribute to the goal of independence and freedom for all people.
  9. To build a society in which there is equality of all Dene people, and a Society free of exploitative relationships between people.

We can best achieve these goals in the following ways:

  1. By making a good land settlement our first priority.
  2. By abolishing colonial controls. This means forcing the government to recognize the authority of our chosen political structures, whether the Band Council/Métis Local or Indian Brotherhood/Métis Association. It also means involving ourselves only in developments we can control. Finally, it means reducing our dependence on government funding, because this kind of funding gives the government too much control.
  3. By political and cultural education. It is the duty of leaders and people to learn about our nation and about the nature of the rest of the world — e.g, the oil companies, Canadian Society, colonialism. We should not keep our ideas to ourselves but meet with each other to discuss and exchange our understandings. This kind of dialogue contributes to true development.
  4. By building a communal economy where the benefits of development are shared by the whole community according to need and where no individual benefits at the expense of his community.
  5. By cooperation and sharing between communities in economic development.
  6. By improving communication amongst our people: between leaders and people, between communities, between individuals.
  7. By keeping maximum control in the hands of each community while maintaining a strong united front to the outside world.
  8. By reducing inequalities amongst our people, especially in our organizations. By creating democratic and egalitarian organizations of our own and rejecting the white way with a boss at the top with all the control and workers at the bottom with no control.
  9. By eliminating discrimination because of age or sex. Young and old, man and woman must participate as equals in rebuilding our nation.

Statement on Strategy and Organizing for Achievement of Our Goals

  1. Our goal is maximum independence and self-determination of the Dene Nation within the Country of Canada through a just and equitable land settlement.
  2. The struggle for achieving our goals involves organizing and strategy on two fronts: The external front and the internal front.
  3. Our struggle is like a war, but a peaceful one. On each front there is an enemy. On each front there are allies.
  4. On the external front the enemy is those not a part of the Dene Nation who resist and deny the achievement of our goals such as the government and other people who do not want to see the recognition and self-determination of the Dene Nation
  5. On the internal front the biggest enemy is ourselves, our disunity and lack of organization.
  6. There are also Dene who are the enemy. There are Dene who would betray and are betraying their brothers in the struggle for their goal. These are Dene who work for the enemy against their brothers. These are traitors to the cause of the Dene Nation. We must learn to identify such persons.
  7. There are also Dene who hold back the cause by forgetting who the real enemy is. These are Dene who prefer to fight amongst themselves rather than against the real enemy.
  8. There are Dene who have not yet learned who the real enemy is. It is the duty and responsibility of Dene who have learned to recognize the real enemy to educate their brothers.
  9. The struggle involves then the simultaneous battle on two fronts, internally and externally. While we organize and plan to build a strong organization and unity of all our people we must also organize and plan to defeat the enemy without.
  10. Organizing and planning on the internal front means building unity and strength. It means breaking down that which divides us and educating our people and organizing so as to defeat the enemy without.
  11. In fighting the enemy without we must at all costs keep a united front whatever our differences. We must always keep our differences to ourselves and solve our differences amongst ourselves. We must never fight amongst ourselves before the enemy.
  12. We must accept that there now are real differences amongst us and always will be differences. But if we remain committed to our goal our differences will not defeat us. If we constantly remember that defeating the enemy is more important than our differences, we can solve the problems created by our differences.
  13. Our differences are real. The most serious differences are between the Treaties versus the Non-Treaty and Métis and between the young and the old.
  14. As long as we remember that there are differences between Indian and Métis, but that  it is more important to remain united against the enemy than to fight amongst ourselves, we will be in a position to solve our differences ourselves.
  15. The old people are our strength and wisdom. They are our roots to our history, tradition and cultures. The young people bring energy and knowledge of the enemy to the struggle. They are the link to the future. But the experience of the young people is much different to that of the old people. Often the old people do not understand and respect the young people. Often the young .people do not understand the old people. What we must always strive for is an understanding and respect of the young for the old and the old for the young. Without that understanding and respect, we will fail, for the past will become separated from the future. In fighting the enemy on the external front we must always remember that the way of the European is different from that of the Dene. We must always remember that the situation is constantly changing. Each one of us must bear the burden of keeping ourselves informed on each change so that we can easily adapt and change our strategies so as to defeat the enemy.


The Dene Manifesto


     We the Dene of the Northwest Territories insist on the right to be regarded by ourselves and the world as a nation.

     Our struggle is for the recognition of the Dene Nation by the Government and people of Canada and the peoples and governments of the world.

    As once Europe was the exclusive homeland of the European peoples, Africa the exclusive homeland of the African peoples, the New World, North and South America, was the exclusive homeland of Aboriginal peoples of the New World, the Amerindian and the Inuit.

    The New World like other parts of the world has suffered the experience of colonialism and imperialism. Other peoples have occupied the land — often with force — and foreign governments have imposed themselves on our people. Ancient civilizations and ways of life have been destroyed.

    Colonialism and imperialism are now dead or dying. Recent years have witnessed the birth of new nations or rebirth of old nations out of the ashes of colonialism.    

    As Europe is the place where you will find European countries with European governments for European peoples, now also you will find in Africa and Asia the existence of African and Asian countries with African and Asian governments for the African and Asian peoples.

    The African and Asian peoples — the peoples of the Third World — have fought for and won the right to self-determination, the right to recognition as distinct peoples and the recognition of themselves as nations.

    But in the New World the Native peoples have not fared so well. Even in countries in South America, where the Native peoples are the vast majority of the population, there in not one country which has an Amerindian government for the Amerindian peoples.

    Nowhere in the New World have the Native peoples won the right to self- determination and the right to recognition by the world as a distinct people and as Nations. While the Native people of Canada are a minority in their homeland, the Native people of the Northwest Territories, the Dene and the Inuit, are a majority of the population of the Northwest Territories.

    The Dene find themselves as part of a country. That country is Canada. But the Government of Canada is not the Government of the Dene. The Government of the Northwest Territories is not the Government of the Dene. These governments were not the choice of the Dene, they were imposed upon the Dene.

    What we the Dene are struggling for is the recognition of the Dene nation by the governments and peoples of the world.

    And while there are realities we are forced to submit to, such as the’ existence of a country called Canada, we insist on the right to self-determination as a distinct people and the recognition of the Dene Nation.

    We the Dene are part of the Fourth World. And as the peoples and Nations of the world have come to recognize the existence and rights of those peoples who make up the Third World the day must come when the nations of the Fourth World will come to be recognized and respected. The challenge to the Dene and the world is to find the way for the recognition of the Dene Nation.

    Our plea to the world is to help us in our struggle to find a place in the world community where we can exercise our right to self-determination as a distinct people and as a nation.

    What we seek then is independence and self-determination within the country of Canada. This is what we mean when we call for a just land settlement for the Dene nation.

Rosa Luxemburg on Present-Day Capitalism, Colonial Genocide, and Indigenous Resistance

By Stephen D’Arcy

Sometimes, when reading Rosa Luxemburg’s great book, The Accumulation of Capital, published in 1913, it’s impossible to escape the feeling that one is receiving a clear, compelling explanation of the main trajectory of Canadian history — even when she never says a word about Canada. In the passages reproduced below, she walks us through an analysis of how capitalism was in its origins, and is still today, driven (by its relentless drive for profits) to seek control over the lands and resources of Indigenous peoples. When it finds Indigenous societies unwilling or unable to engage in commodity exchange, capitalism “knows no other solution to the problem than violence, which has been a constant method of capital accumulation as a historical process, not merely during its emergence, but also to the present day.”

Luxemburg reminds us, though, that the colonial violence of capitalist settler states does not go unchallenged. “For the [Indigenous] societies, on the other hand, since in such cases it is a question of their very existence, the only possible course of action is to engage in resistance and a life-or-death struggle….” The main conclusion of her analysis is that capitalism, by its very nature, is driven to pursue “the systematic, planned destruction and annihilation of any non-capitalist social formation that it encounters.” Capitalism’s logic, according to Luxemburg, is strictly genocidal.

To convey the outlines of her analysis, I reproduce here a few paragraphs from her book. (Note: some breaks between paragraphs have been added, to make it easier to read online.)

“….[C]apitalism above all wages a constant war of annihilation everywhere against any historical form of natural [that is, subsistence-based, pre-capitalist] economy that it encounters….The economic goals pursued by capitalism in its struggle with societies based on a natural economy…[include attempting] to gain direct control over important sources of the forces of production, such as land, wild game in the jungles, minerals, precious stones and ores, the products of exotic flora, such as rubber, etc….During original accumulation, i.e., during the historical emergence of capitalism in Europe at the end of the middle Ages, the dispossession of the peasants in the U.K. and on the [European] continent represented the most tremendous means for transforming the means of production and labour-power into capital on a massive scale. Since then, however, and to the present day, this same task has been accomplished under the rule of capital through an equally tremendous, although completely different, means: modern colonial policy.

“It is illusory to hope that capitalism could ever be satisfied with the means of production that it is able to procure by means of the exchange of commodities. Indeed, the difficulty for capital in this respect consists in the fact that, over vast expanses of the exploitable surface of the globe, the productive forces are in the possession of social formations that either have no inclination to exchange commodities or, worse still, cannot offer for sale the most important means of production on which capital depends, because their forms of property and social structures as a whole preclude this a priori [in advance]. This goes above all for the land, with all its rich mineral resources underground and its wealth of pastures, forests, and waterways on the surface, and also for the livestock of…pastoral peoples.

“From the standpoint of capitalism, the inference to be drawn here is that the violent appropriation of the colonial countries’ most important means of production is a question of life or death for it. However, since the…social bonds of the indigenous inhabitants constitute the strongest bulwark both of their societies and of the latter’s material basis of existence, what ensues is that capital introduces itself through the systematic, planned destruction and annihilation of any non-capitalist social formation that it encounters.

“This is no longer a question of original accumulation [at the dawn of capitalist development]: this is a process that continues to this day. Each new colonial expansion is accompanied by capital’s relentless war on the social and economic interrelations of the indigenous inhabitants and by the violent looting of their means of production and their labour-power. The aspiration to restrict capitalism to ‘peaceful competition,’ i.e., to commodity exchange proper, as it occurs between capitalist producing countries, rests on the doctrinaire delusion that the accumulation of capital could manage without the productive forces and demand of the [pre-capitalist] social formations, and that it could rely on the slow, internal process of the disintegration of the natural economy….Capital knows no other solution to the problem than violence, which has been a constant method of capital accumulation as a historical process, not merely during its emergence, but also to the present day.

“For the [Indigenous] societies, on the other hand, since in such cases it is a question of their very existence, the only possible course of action is to engage in resistance and a life-or-death struggle….Hence permanent military occupation of the colonies, indigenous uprisings, and expeditions to crush these are the order of the day for any colonial regime. These violent methods are here the direct consequence of the clash between capitalism and the natural [subsistence] economic formations that represent constraints upon its accumulation.

“The means of production and labour-power of these formations, as well as their demand for the capitalist surplus product, are indispensable to capitalism itself. In order to wrest these means of production and this labour-power from these formations, and to convert them into purchasers of its commodities, capitalism strives purposefully to annihilate them as independent social structures. From the standpoint of capital, this method is the most expedient, because it is simultaneously the one that is most rapid and most profitable…. British policy in India and that of the French in Algeria represent the classical examples of capital’s application of this method.”

[Source: Rosa Luxemburg, The Accumulation of Capital (1913), Chapter 27]

It’s probably worth adding to the above passages the following paragraph, in which Luxemburg draws attention to a commonality between the anti-capitalist struggles of European workers and the anti-colonial struggles of Indigenous and other colonized people around the world:

“The bourgeoisie, clearly affected in their class interests, scented an obscure connection between the ancient communist survivals that put up stubborn resistance in the colonial countries to the forward march of the profit-hungry ‘Europeanization’ of the indigenous people, and the new gospel of revolutionary impetuousness of the proletarian mass in the old capitalist countries. When the French National Assembly was deciding the fate of the unfortunate Arabs of Algeria in 1873, with a law on the compulsory introduction of private property, it was repeatedly said, in a gathering where the cowardice and bloodlust of the conquerors of the Paris Commune [anti-capitalist workers’ revolt] still trembled, that the ancient common property of the Arabs must at any cost be destroyed, ‘as a form that supports communist tendencies in people’s minds.'”

[Source: Luxemburg, “Introduction to Political Economy” (More precisely, p. 163 of The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg, Volume I: Economic Writings I)]

The Limits of the Organizing Model


(The following is the text of a talk I gave at a recent conference, in June 2017. The fact that it was written for oral delivery accounts for some of its features, e.g., the minimal references, etc.)

In recent years, Jane McAlevey, the influential labour organizer and labour studies academic, has mounted a vigorous case for what she calls “the organizing modelof movement-building. The key features of the model, and the arguments she makes on its behalf, are drawn from reflection on her experiences over many years in trade union organizing. McAlevey is quite insistent, however, that this same model is the only model — literally, the only one — that can effectively contribute to movement building more broadly, that is, not just in trade union struggles, but in workers’ struggles against racism, colonialism, sexism, police violence, environmental destruction, and so on. She regards the organizing model, in short, as the exclusive and all purpose model for rebuilding all anti-systemic movements very generally.

What is striking and provocative in her claim is not so much the idea that the organizing model she proposes could help these movements, as part of a larger repertoire of movement-building approaches. That seems uncontroversial enough. What is provocative is her claim that only the organizing model can build real power for social movements, and everything else is bound to fail.

Of course, since some of the most high-profile social-movement upsurges of the past several years, including Idle No More, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and even the Arab Spring, were what she calls “mobilizations,” not organizing projects, her bold claim has the remarkable implication that none of these movements either were in fact effective, or even had the possibility of being effective, at building oppositional social power.

BLM, OWS, and INM: Real or Pretend Power?

McAlevey does not shy away from explicitly drawing out and defending this conclusion. When asked about Black Lives Matter and the early wave of anti-Trump protests in the early months of 2017, she says: “All that protest stuff is good for activists, but if we are trying to expand the universe of people who identify with making progressive change, we ain’t close to the numbers we need.” On her website, she adds that “movements like Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter lack an organized base, and therefore are unable to build the power to effect meaningful change.”

More provocatively still, in her book No Shortcuts, she makes it clear that she classifies the kind of power that is generated by these surging waves of street protest as instances of what she calls “pretend power,” which is to say, a dramaturgical or staged presentation of apparent influence. Pretend power contrasts with what she calls “actual power,” which is the tested capacity to extract reluctant concessions from even determined adversaries.

Mobilizations of pretend power, even on a large scale, as in the case of the anti-globalization movement of the early 2000s, she says, accomplish little or nothing: “I used to go to more anti-globalization protests, direct actions and other things when I was young, but I just stopped.” Pulling no punches, she explains why: “It looks great, we congratulate ourselves when we have a huge direct action, but it adds up to nothing.”

This gloomy sense that mobilizations, even on the mass scale of “a huge direct action,” will inevitably “add up to nothing,” resonates with many people who have found themselves working through what has become an all too familiar cycle of protest upsurges, in which a rapid rise is followed by a relatively short-lived peak of activity, ending with an equally rapid decline and near total disappearance. The sense that spontaneous or self-activating protest upsurges, like Occupy Wall Street, Idle No More, and Black Lives Matter, may have a time-limited life-span of a couple of years before they lose their steam, leaving little or no ongoing movement infrastructure in their wake, has encouraged a fairly widespread mood of disenchantment with instances of mobilization that don’t convert into organization-building more or less directly. Seeing how little these upsurges leave behind leads many people to consider, in reflecting on their own activity, that their tireless efforts to build the protests were, to some significant degree, wasted.

McAlevey has a diagnosis ready-made to appeal to this mood of disenchantment. The problem, she argues, is that the model being pursued by movement participants is deeply flawed.

McAlevey makes the point by sketching two models of movement building, the mobilizing model and the organizing model. (She contrasts these with a third model, less important either to her or to me, called the advocacy model, closely associated with staff-led NGOs relying on a passive donor base and/or foundation funding.) Since her depiction of the “mobilizing model” is so saturated with dismissiveness and polemical caricature, it would be pointless to recount what she says about it, but it is worth looking for a moment at McAlevey’s organizing model, to see what it would mean to generalize it and put it at the very centre of our movement-building efforts, in environmental, feminist, anti-racist and other movement building activity in the broad workers movements.

In this talk, I want to argue that, in spite of the many strengths of the organizing model, and the real plausibility of McAlevey’s claim that the model can be a potent asset in the context of trade union movement building, there are strong reasons to doubt the generalizability of the model to other workers’ movements, such as movements against police violence, movements for climate justice, movements against sexism and Islamophobia, and so on. The key barrier to generalizing from union activity to social movement building generally is that the organizing model requires, as one of its central principles, that organizing be restricted to what she calls “bounded constituencies,” such as individual workplaces, or specific houses of faith, like a church, a mosque or a synagogue. This, in turn, makes the organizing model structurally impervious to, that is, impenetrable by, decentred influxes of popular self-activity of the sort that unfold during spontaneous protest upsurges.

My basic claim is that no model of movement building that refuses even to attempt to integrate people who flow through movements during protest upsurges can be sufficient, on its own, as a basis for a broad anti-systemic movement-rebuilding strategy.

The rest of my talk makes this case in three steps:

  1. First, I recount the core features of the organizing model itself, highlighting the importance of bounded constituencies in the model.
  2. Second, I briefly note four features of the dynamics of social contagion as they play out in spontaneous or self-activating protest upsurges, which both make these upsurges a precious resource that we ought to try to capitalize on in our movement-rebuilding strategy, and make it impossible to do so within the confines of the organizing model, restricted as the latter is to what McAlevey calls the “target rich environment” of bounded constituencies.
  3. Finally, third, I sketch the elements of a competing, self-mobilization model that I think should supplement the organizing model, as part of a complex and differentiated approach to rebuilding anti-systemic workers’ movements.

* * *

The Contours of the Organizing Model

OK, so what are the basic contours of McAlevey’s model? The first, and in my view the most important feature of the organizing model is that it operates always in what McAlevey calls a bounded constituency (see No Shortcuts, pp. 13-14). A bounded constituency is a spatially confined location, where a substantial but not indefinitely expansive number of people come together and interact regularly, such they all could change their lives for the better if they were to use collective action to extract concessions from elites. The primary paradigm instance of a bounded constituency is a workplace. Other examples mentioned by McAlevey include a public school, a social housing complex, and a racially segregated neighbourhood.

What this is meant to exclude is unbounded constituencies, such as workers in general, or precarious workers, or women, or students, or migrant workers, or trans workers, and so on.

With this crucial point in mind, let me lay out the basics of the organizing model in seven basic points, which for simplicity I will describe — somewhat superficially, I admit — as if they were sequential steps.

  1. First, identify a bounded constituency of people, the members of which could be motivated to make some positive change in their lives via collective action.
  2. Second, identify the natural leaders within the bounded constituency and recruit them to the organizing process.
  3. Third, collectively begin to map out the power structure of the bounded constituency, and its relation to the wider community, to reveal sources of worker power, such as internal or external resources from which they can draw support or strength, such as money, influence, or disruptive capacity.
  4. Fourth, use the identified natural leaders to recruit an ever-widening circle of participants into the organizing effort, by tapping into their networks of influence, aiming always to win over a majority of members of the bounded constituency.
  5. Fifth, conduct a series of ‘structure tests,’ such as getting a majority of members to sign a petition supporting some demand, in order to fine tune the identification of actual leaders and to gauge whether or not the support of a majority, ideally a supermajority, has been secured.
  6. Sixth, once the majority or supermajority is formed, build up the confidence of members by getting them to take actions at gradually increasing levels of risk.
  7. Finally, seventh, cap off the organizing project by launching a struggle — classically, a strike — that tries to impose high enough costs on an adversary that conceding to organizers’ demands becomes the only rational option.

This is the organizing model, in a nutshell. As far as it goes, I’m happy to embrace it. But whether it goes as far as McAlevey thinks it does is another matter. My concern is that it is structurally impervious to the influxes of large numbers that are typical of spontaneous protest upsurges.

Logic of Spontaneity

The word spontaneity entered the marxist lexicon by way of German idealism, deriving ultimately from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, where spontaneity (Spontaneität) is contrasted with receptivity (Receptivität). In effect, spontaneity is a synonym for another term popular with German Idealists, “self-activity” (Selbsttätigkeit). Here, “spontaneous” doesn’t mean unintelligible, random, or undertaken without forethought or encouragement. The spontaneity of workers who move into struggle during sudden upsurges of protest is contrasted with the receptivity of workers who take action in the manner of following instructions from organizers. (Luxemburg, scornful of worker receptivity, compares receptivity to soldiers following marching orders, a disastrous model for the workers’ movements to emulate, in her view.)

In contrast to the receptiveness of a bounded constituency to being organized, which follows a logic of growth by addition, the spontaneity of protest upsurges follows a logic of growth by social contagion. The dynamics of this logic of social contagion can be summed up in a schematic, broadly intuitive way, in terms of four features:

  1. First, social contagion is sporadic, rather than continuous and uninterrupted.
  2. Second, a social contagion’s emergence is sudden, rather than gradual.
  3. Third, social contagion unfolds in a relatively unforeseen, rather than in a pre-planned manner.
  4. Fourth, social contagion is self-organizing, rather than orchestrated by organizers.

(It is probably worth including a warning, here, against the danger of being seduced by the organizer’s fallacy, the belief that, because a protest involving masses of people was organized, it must be the case that the cause of the mass participation in the protest was the prowess and diligence of the organizing activity itself, as if it were a unilateral achievement, like deploying pawns in a chess game, an activity in which the organizers are imagined to be unilateral protagonists. In the most extreme expressions of the organizer’s fallacy, some people suppose that they have generated a mass movement by deploying on twitter a carefully crafted #hashtag.)

It’s a familiar fact about spontaneous protest upsurges, when they follow this logic of contagious enthusiasm, that they generate, or rather consist of, dramatic influxes into movements of people, activity, and passion, and that they tend to generate broad social ferment, in the sense of expansive and high-profile public controversy and debate (over matters normally ignored or marginalized in mainstream media and official politics, like police violence or poverty or the social harmfulness of the financial industry). I shall treat it as axiomatic — in part because today I don’t have the time to substantiate this intuition with detailed arguments — that this array of features makes spontaneous upsurges a rare and precious resource with which to build social movements, on the condition that the surge of self-activity can be harnessed and integrated before it dissipates.

If so, it should count against the organizing model that it closes off movement builders from engaging in a substantial way with these influxes of people and energy. Because these upsurges happen outside of the bounded constituencies targeted by the organizing model, namely, because they originate in spatially diffuse and socially differentiated sectors of the broad working class (Marx’s “immense majority,” the “mass of the people”), rather than originating in a specific workplace or church, say, the organizing model has no way to engage with them. An upsurge like Black Lives Matter, for instance, does not allow for winning over a majority of people in the unbounded constituency, because it is indefinitely expansive; it doesn’t allow for structure tests, because there is no way to engage with everyone in the constituency; and there is no way to map the power structure of the constituency, because it is too expansive and indeterminate. The model just doesn’t apply to such scenarios.

As a result, what the model prescribes, what it celebrates and trains organizers to do, is to ignore these upsurges. That is why McAlevey is so content to be dismissive of upsurges of movement activity that most leftists regard with much more enthusiasm.

This raises the question, however: what is the alternative to the organizing model? Now, McAlevey claims that the main alternative to her model is what she calls the mobilizing model, a model that she describes in the most unflattering terms. But I will offer a different account of a model of movement-building that takes mobilization seriously, which I will call the self-mobilization model.

A Self-Mobilization Model

The model begins with an acknowledgement that, when upsurges of popular spontaneity or self-activity occur, a movement-building strategy should try to consolidate the influxes of people, energy and social ferment that these upsurges generate

It further assumes that, to consolidate and integrate these influxes, movement-building cannot restrict itself to engaging with bounded constituencies like workplaces or houses of faith, or even neighbourhoods, but must be receptive to the way people self-mobilize via assembled constituencies, which are neither permanent and spatially localized like bounded constituencies, nor indefinitely expansive like unbounded constituencies. An assembled constituency, which forms around a movement like Black Lives Matter, the Arab Spring, the Gezi Park Revolt, and so on, is a temporary, spatially diffuse collectivity forged spontaneously (that is, by self-activity) through common struggle.

Self-Mobilization Model

The model further recognizes the differentiated, pyramid-like structure of these assembled constituencies (see the pyramid graphic), which have a widest layer at the base, consisting of a pool of sympathizers, who wish the movement well, but do not try to support it actively; a somewhat narrower pool of supporters, who lend moral or material support, without actually participating in movement activities; above this, there is a narrower group, the pool of participants, who attend events and actions or public meetings, but do not engage as agitators or organizers for the movement; closer to the top of the pyramid, there is a still narrower group, the pool of agitators, people who work to create entry points into movement activity and avenues of integration into the movement, so that as many supporters and sympathizers are drawn into participation as possible; at the top of the pyramid-like structure is the pool of organizers, who try to draw agitators and participants into permanent, membership-based social movement organizations (which may or may not follow McAlevey’s model), working on the issues at the centre of the mobilization.

In light of this picture, the self-mobilization model of movement building tries, in advance of upsurges of popular spontaneity, to build movement infrastructure with graduated commitment-requirements at the entry points. By that I mean that people can be engaged at multiple levels, not only at levels that presuppose willingness to make a strong commitment, attend organizing meetings, or take on substantial risk (as in the organizing model). People are always welcome to engage, even if their commitment levels are very low. At the same time, they are also welcome to engage at high levels of commitment, too. Basically, the model prioritizes the construction and maintenance of permanent “invitations” encouraging sympathizers to become supporters, supporters to become participants, participants to become agitators, agitators to become organizers.

The model further involves creating accessible avenues of integration, at every level of engagement. This means that the movement offers flexible, differentiated forms of sustained connection with the movement, suited to multiple levels of engagement: people can join a social media network, they can subscribe to a newsletter, or get involved in a working group, or receive training in political skills, join a reading group, or — importantly, but not exclusively — they can connect with and join a membership organization working on issues related to the mobilization. The point is, though, that they do not have to go to an organizing meeting or joint a membership organization as the price of entry into the movement.

Next, the self-mobilization model (that is, agitators who embody its principles) will try to generate a sequence, ideally an escalating sequence of empowering experiences of the possibility of achieving political efficacy through collective action, allowing people to learn in practice how popular mobilization can exercise power by means of disruption, and generate social ferment and debate around issues that may have long been ignored.

Finally, a crucial, but particularly difficult part of the self-mobilization model is that it requires that, even when the sporadic upsurge dissipates, the orientation of movement receptivity toward popular spontaneity, must be maintained, and the infrastructure of movement-receptivity has to be kept alive and accessible.

* * *

This “self-organization model” is certainly less well-developed, and probably less useful and important than McAlevey’s organizing model. I am very far from wanting to make the kind of bold and emphatic claims for the self-mobilization model that she makes for the organizing model. (On the contrary, I insist on a pluralistic and flexible approach to strategy, for reasons rooted in the logic of strategic interaction very generally, not just in this case.) Even so, I do want to insist that some such alternative to organizing, which takes sudden, broad-based, decentered upsurges of popular protest activity seriously as a precious resource from which movement-building work can draw strength, vitality, and crucially, scale.

On this last point, I couldn’t agree more with McAlevey’s insistence that today’s movements suffer, above all, from a disastrous failure to establish and maintain the capacity to operate on the scale needed to threaten intransigent elites and unresponsive systems of power. Where we disagree, obviously, is that I see protest upsurges as a crucial opportunity to, as she sometimes puts it, “scale up” our movements so that we can win.

Six Questions About Your Class Location that EverydayFeminism.com Isn’t Asking You to Think About

By Steve D’Arcy

Nurses strike at Mills-Peninsula hospital, 2011. (Photo by Justin Sullivan)

Nurses strike at Mills-Peninsula hospital, 2011. (Photo by Justin Sullivan)

If, like me, you read a lot of the articles passed around on social media that address issues of social injustice and oppositional politics, then you may have seen the recent piece on “class privilege,” posted on the popular liberal-feminist site, EverydayFeminism.com (hereafter, “EDF”). The article, written by Carmen Rios, has been widely circulated, but also widely criticized. It’s called, “Did You Do Any of These 6 Activities Today? Then You’ve Got Class Privilege.” 

Although the attempt to bring “privilege” discourse to bear within class analysis does have its defenders within marxism, most marxist readers of the EDF article would agree that the politics of the article represent a kind of inversion of marxism, or a marxism-in-reverse. For instance, whereas marxism describes most forms of full-time paid employment as “exploitation,” the EDF article describes having a full-time paid job as, in and of itself, a form of “class privilege.” And whereas marxism regards 6-8 hours of sleep per night as one of the costs of reproducing labour-power, from which employers benefit but for which workers aren’t paid, making it, too, a form of exploitation, the EDF article says that getting 6-8 hours of sleep per night is also “class privilege.”

Other markers of class privilege, according the article, include being able to purchase fruit and vegetables from a neighbourhood grocery store, spending money on a babysitter while going to job interviews, or being able to take public transportation to work. All of these, according to the author of the EDF piece, are signs that one is “damn lucky, y’all.” In this way, the article depicts the condition of most working-class people, at least in the marxist sense of “working class,” as that of a privileged elite, the fortunate beneficiaries of advantages denied to others, whereas marxism depicts the working class as an oppressed, exploited and dominated class.

A Counter-Listicle — Six More Questions

The article in question follows the standard EverydayFeminism.com formula: a privilege listicle — a privilisticle, one might even say. Did you do this today? If so, then you’re privileged, folks! Did you do that today? If so, then you’re damn lucky, y’all.

Although I feel reluctant to do anything that might contribute, even inadvertently, to the pervasiveness of this already ubiquitous genre, I do want to respond to the EDF privilisticle class analysis with six questions of my own. These questions, I think, would serve much better as a basis for thinking about how one’s work situation locates one within the class structure of modern capitalism.  

  1. Are you an employee, hired to work by an employer/boss who is better paid and more powerful than you and your co-workers?
  2. Does your employer — or an authoritative manager acting on behalf of the employer — get to tell you and your co-workers what to do, and to punish or fire you for insubordination if you refuse?
  3. Does your employer benefit whenever you and your co-workers can be made to do more work for less pay?
  4. Is there a market for the kind of work you do and the skills you use in doing it, so that if you were fired or quit, others would compete to be hired as your replacement?
  5. Could you and your co-workers improve your pay, benefits, and working conditions, by banding together to exert collective pressure on your employer to make these concessions, no doubt grudgingly?
  6. Finally, would you and your co-workers benefit if public policy-making and the design of leading social institutions were reoriented to prioritize social and environmental justice, and political and economic democracy, rather than maximizing profits and capital accumulation?

If you answered yes to all six of these questions, then — like most people — you’re probably a member of the global working class. That’s bad news, because it’s an exploited, oppressed, and dominated class. The good news, though, is that, with some luck and hard work, it’s a class that can abolish itself.

{For some qualifications and points of detail, see the Appendix, below, which discusses the difference between “proletarians,” and the broader category of — in the jargon of the Old Left — “toilers” (or “the 99%”).}

Is a “Divided Class” Still a Class?

But here’s where the issue of privilege comes in. The oppression, exploitation and domination imposed on the working class hits some people rather harder than others. In one notable recent case, some US workers were revealed to have laboured under conditions of employment that were unusually unfavourable to them, compared to many other US workers. At least until a recent class action lawsuit led to promises of reform, these workers produced clothing for Abercrombie & Fitch, Target, and the Gap in “numerous garment factories on the island [of Saipan, a Pacific island governed by the USA],” which “hired impoverished Chinese women” under contracts that “included special recruitment fees intended to put the signer into debt and then require the person to work two to three years to pay off the debt. Factory rules prohibited workers from engaging in basic activities such as dating, getting pregnant, going to church, or criticizing their employers. Workers who broke the rules or tried to quit were threatened with fines, deportation, and imprisonment.” Even basic labour standards like the federal minimum wage were not in place for these workers, because Saipan was exempted by US law from these “floors” or minimum standards. (I could give even more extreme examples of hyper-exploitation in the global economy today, but I want to focus on US workers here.)

Many other workers, in other parts of the USA, have much more favorable terms of employment than those women migrant workers. For instance, consider the 3.1 million working Registered Nurses in the USA. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, these RNs enjoyed a median annual salary in 2012 of $65,470 (which, at time of writing, is almost $90,000 in today’s Canadian dollars), while the top 10% of RNs, at least some of whom must be workers, were paid “more than $94,720” (which is just over $130,000 Canadian dollars). Moreover, according to the Houston Chronicle, most RNs receive “medical, dental and vision” insurance, plus “retirement savings…available primarily through 401(k) and 403(b) plans….Vacation, paid holidays, sick days and personal time off are also common.”

None of this will come as a surprise to the author of the EDF article, or for that matter, to the authors of books like The Worker Elite (Bromma) or Divided World, Divided Class (Zak Cope), both of whom have an analysis of class privilege that partly overlaps with, but is by no means identical to, the one sketched by Rios in the EDF article. Neither will anyone be surprised by the fact that many of these differences in rates of pay, extent of benefits, and degrees of autonomy or on-the-job respectful treatment, are correlated to some significant extent with one’s location in the socio-political hierarchies of race and gender, or one’s place in the imperialist world order.

The Friction of Interests

The question is, how should we think about these differences? Should we adopt Martin Luther King’s view, that the deployment of race (or gender, etc.) to differentiate access to money, power and respect has from the beginning been “a political stratagem employed by…[business] interests…to keep the…masses divided” and to keep wage rates and levels of political influence of all workers lower than they would otherwise be, by always reminding the white worker (for example) that, “no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man”? Or is King being too “class reductionist,” when he advances that sort of view? It’s an important debate. But rather than trying to answer it here, I want to underline the point where King’s position and that of the EDF article are most fully at odds with one another.

What King wants us to see, and the EDF article apparently wants us to ignore, is what has sometimes (since Balzac) been called the friction of interests between employer and employee, boss and worker. It is this friction of interests that my six questions attempted to focus particular attention upon. Is there a power struggle and a conflict of interest here, and if so, where? My six questions suggest that the basic and fundamental conflict and power struggle in the world of work is not between workers who can take a bus to work and workers who have to walk to work. Instead, the conflict is between the employer class and the working class as a whole (including those who can’t find work and those who are dependent on working-class incomes). This conflict is multi-dimensional: a struggle over time, over money, over respect, and over security. But whereas employers are systematically advantaged whenever their employees are granted less time, money, respect and security, better-positioned workers do not (systematically) benefit from the deprivation of their fellow workers. On the contrary, the existence of an especially low-paid, especially disrespected sector of the work force tends to lower the standard overall, exerting a downward pressure on the pay and benefits of even the best paid workers.

For example, if there are hospital workers paid the minimum wage, persistently disrespected and disciplined on the flimsiest pretext, there is no mechanism to transfer the advantages denied to those workers over to another, better-faring employee group, like the same hospital’s RNs. No, instead the forms of power and monetary savings gained at the expense of that first group of workers tends to be used as a basis for chipping away at the standards of pay and benefits that the RNs have previously enjoyed. “What makes you so special?,” the employer will say to the RNs. “If these other workers can make do with less, why can’t you tighten your belts for the common good?” And, if this strategy works, the lowered RN pay and benefits will in due course be used by the boss against the lower-paid workers themselves: “What? Do you expect to be paid almost as much as we pay the RNs, with their years of special training?

Solidarity Isn’t Discovered, but Forged

And this brings us right back to King’s analysis. King’s point is that, to understand the antagonisms between Black and white workers, we need to see ideologies and practices of white supremacy as ways that wealthy and powerful elites dole out differential access to power, income and respect to different groups of people as a “stratagem” of governance and social control, “engineered” (as he put it) to strengthen the bargaining position of the wealthy and powerful, and to weaken the prospects for a potent, well-organized response from workers. The appropriate reaction to this stratagem, he assumed, was not to catalogue all the differences between those who get more or less access to this or that advantage, but to forge bonds of solidarity and common struggle, based on a shared understanding of the potential benefits that a solidaristic response makes available to all workers.

This word — the verb, to forge — doesn’t get nearly enough use in the political discourse of the broad left today. Solidarity doesn’t exist, like a material object, the way tables and chairs do. Solidarity is the confidence we can sometimes have that others, sharing with us a common enemy and a core of overlapping aspirations, will have our back when we find ourselves under attack, or when we need their support to win a crucial struggle. We don’t stumble upon solidarity when poring over statistics; we won’t find it by comparing our pay stubs with that of the worker down the street. We forge it in common struggle, and when — as so often — we find it faltering under pressure or dissolving after periods of disuse, due perhaps to sectionalism or short-sightedness, or simply because liberal individualism always threatens to eat away at the collectivist values of the left that were painstakingly built up in the struggles of earlier generations, we can only restore solidarity by reinvigorating the practices and commitments of mutual aid and mutual defence that constitute it. And these only gain their meaning in the heat of struggle, a heat generated by the friction of interests, the class struggle.  

Privilege Discourse

Does the propagation of privilege discourse help or hinder the attempt to forge working-class solidarity in practice? (It is important to insist, upfront, that this is the decisive question, even if we can’t be sure how to answer it.) Does it make good strategic sense, or for that matter social-scientific sense, to understand class in terms of privilege? Although, in general, I’m a skeptic about the strategic effectiveness of giving a central role to privilege when thinking about class, even I would concede that the question isn’t to be answered with a simple Yes or No. There is some complexity and ambiguity that has to be acknowledged. On the one hand, pretending that there are not real differences in the scale and scope of the harms inflicted on different sections of the class by capitalism isn’t going to help forge solidarity, but only to further fuel the festering resentment and mutual misunderstanding that weaken the grip of solidarity already. Viewing the EDF article sympathetically, it could be seen as a (somewhat clumsy) attempt to draw attention to these important differences, in order to forge a more meaningful solidarity, one which ensures that the least well-positioned workers won’t find their needs ignored by the wider workers’ movement. On the other hand, even if drawing attention to these differences often has a valuable role to play in the promotion of solidarity within the working class, nevertheless it would be going too far to replace analysis of the commonalities of working-class exploitation, domination and oppression, with an analysis that depicts many workers as a “lucky” and a “privileged” social group, essentially depicting most workers as beneficiaries of capitalism, even hinting that they would benefit from maintaining the status quo rather than from challenging it. A privilege discourse on working-class differentiation that is denialist about the exploitation and oppression of most workers surely both reflects and encourages the embrace of a politics that has gone decisively off the rails, that has switched sides, and that — in spite of itself, one hopes — now speaks from the standpoint of the employer.

When the question we pose to unionized workers is, “Don’t you see how lucky you are?,” it is a sign that we have lost our way.

My six questions are offered, therefore, as a proposed course correction for those who may have lost sight of the value of a politics, like King’s, founded on the project (not the discovered fact, but the resolutely chosen challenge) of forging solidarity among people who share the predicament — which politically, and collectively, is also a kind of shared strategic opportunity — of being members of the global working-class.


On the difference between the working class and the broader category of the “toiler” classes

Strictly speaking, not everyone who answers ‘Yes’ to all six of my questions will be a member of the working class. In the classical, old-school jargon of global workers’ movements, everyone who answers ‘Yes’ to all six of these questions would be called a “toiler,” but only some of them (albeit a substantial majority) would be considered working-class, in the classical marxist sense. (See The Program of the Communist International, 1929, IV [no.2], which distinguished between “the working class and…the broad masses of the toilers who march under its leadership.”)

The term “toilers,” now seldom used, was meant to include at least three groups of people: (1) tenant farmers (or “peasants,” as one used to say), who work on land leased from a rentier class, (2) proletarians, whose labour is fully commodified and so have “nothing to sell but their labour-power,” and (3) waged or salaried “craft” or “skilled trade” employees, usually partly protected from wage competition by “guilds” or “professional associations” that insulate these employees from some labour market effects (notably downward pressure on wages due to competition, but also often the pressures of deskilling), giving them more autonomy on the job and sometimes more security. Famously, the practice of collective bargaining by proletarians has tended, as a practical matter, to blur the difference between proletarian and craft employees, so that increasingly this contrast takes the form of a continuum, as the Registered Nurse example illustrates. At the same time, the craft protections (or “privileges,” if we’re to use the term) traditionally made available by guild membership tend to be eroded over time, as employers try to subject craft employees to market discipline (as seen, for instance, in the ever-expanding use by universities of “contract faculty,” who are largely denied access to the guild protections available to the “tenure-track” professoriate, even if they are sometimes able to protect themselves as workers by union membership and collective bargaining). Marx, and many later marxists, have noted that “professional” or “skilled craft” employees tend only to be receptive to forming an alliance with the proletariat when they find their traditional protections to be eroding or under attack, a fact which renders them politically erratic, rather than reliable allies of either capitalists or proletarians.

By some classical definitions, the “toilers” also included (4) self-employed people and small proprietors, such as shopkeepers (the “urban petty bourgeoisie”), but members of this group wouldn’t answer ‘yes’ to all six questions, because they would not be employees. In the jargon of the contemporary (official) labour movement, the term “toilers” has been replaced — for better or for worse — by terms like “working people,” “working families,” or even “hardworking families,” which are more vague and expansive than the term “working class,” a feature that endears these terms to some AFL-CIO officials, among others. The pros and cons (mostly cons) of these terms have been widely discussed. But what hasn’t happened, perhaps regrettably, is that no one seems to have found a word to replace the old word, “toilers,” even if it remains as politically important as ever before. Possibly the best proposal was put forward by the late George Jackson, who — inventing a formula that simultaneously echoes Marx’s term, “the mass of the people” [die Volksmasse], and anticipates the #OWS slogan, “We are the 99%” — introduced the term “the 99%” in contrast to “the 1%,” as a novel way to describe the toilers.

Finally, a word on managers — a big topic. While few if any people with opinions about class would call a high-level, upper-management employee either a member of the working class or a “toiler,” there are obviously a series of gradations of broadly supervisory or quasi-managerial functions undertaken by employees at a range of different levels. For instance, there are shift supervisors at a fast food restaurant, who may exercise some minimal, low-level managerial functions, and exercise some limited authority in the workplace, albeit clearly subject to the whims and the instructions of higher-level managers or owners. But these low-paid, low-level supervisors are not plausibly depicted as bosses in any strong sense. They seem, at most, to be a hybrid employee group, working-class in most respects (probably answering yes to all or almost all of my 6 questions, and not protected by guild restrictions on labour market effects), but granted limited authority in the workplace to act as managerial delegates in the absence of a proper boss. At this point, the line between working-class and non-working-class just isn’t as clear as it is in more standard cases, because the job-description of the low-level supervisor — in contrast to upper management on the one hand, and workers with no managerial functions at all — is inherently ambiguous in this way. Marx used the the term, “intermediate classes,” to describe hybrid or ambiguous cases. More recently, Erik Olin Wright has used the term, “contradictory class locations.”

The End.






Self-exoneration via Self-flagellation: The structure of neoliberal guilt

By Stephen D’Arcy

You may have seen the video: a young white woman declares her complicity with white supremacy, insists on her own affinity and commonality with racists who murder Black people, and yet — such is her genius — she manages to depict herself in the most idealized way, as a paragon of virtuous anti-racism.

I was thinking that there should be a proper label for this increasingly common, perhaps distinctively neoliberal communicative stratagem that deploys ritual self-flagellation (“We’re quite shit!”) as a vehicle for self-exoneration (“As one of those declaring that we’re shit, clearly I’m an exemplary figure, to be admired and emulated”). But then I realized that the whole point of ritual self-flagellation, in the literal as well as the metaphorical senses, is self-exoneration, or at least a taking of one’s distance, on a now-elevated perch, from the mundane sinners all around who don’t even bother to whip themselves. So, the observation that it is used as a self-exoneration tactic is redundant, ultimately. That’s just what what we mean by self-flagellation. Still, this somehow doesn’t satisfy my hunger for phrases, so for the time being I’m going to call it “auto-exculpatory self-flagellation.”

Why do I suggest that auto-exculpatory self-flagellation might be “distinctively neoliberal”? It’s because there’s an element of brand management and self-marketing built into this practice. It is self-promotion in a properly entrepreneurial sense of the word “promotion.” More specifically, like an app-flogging tech startup, one cleverly creates the perception of a lack (in this case, a lack of virtue), even as one offers up one’s services as the local monopolist provider uniquely positioned to satisfy the new demand.

So understood, it is perhaps the substitute, among suitably entrepreneurial, neoliberal egos, for the obsolete experience of “liberal guilt.” If liberal guilt wallowed in a longing for the lost confidence in one’s own innocence, expressed in a para-Keynesian displacement of agency onto policy makers, neoliberal guilt sees instead an opportunity to cash in on one’s complicity with wrongdoing by converting it into a kind of psycho-social “income” stream, in the currency of “social capital,” namely, the prestige of being “one of the good ones.” What this situation demands, the self-exonerator thinks, is a promotional video for a campaign of viral marketing…promoting me!

But is it a bad thing? Or more pointedly, should we blame these entrepreneurs of self-exoneration?

Well, that would be the wrong way to think about such things, especially if the context is political. The way to think about politics is politically, and that means to foreground two elements conspicuous by their absence from the discourse of the guilt-neoliberal: causal explanation and strategic analysis.

Instead of the individualizing, personalizing pronouncement that “we’re shit,” or “they’re shit,” political thinking analyzes why bad things are happening, with a particular interest in the institutions, structures and systems that generate harms and injustices. On this basis, it looks to develop a strategy for defeating and (to borrow Marx’s term) smashing [brechen] these systems by means of popular resistance and social struggle, including (where feasible) the construction of self-organized alternatives.

The question isn’t, is this person (me, you) or this group of people (us, them) bad or good? Rather, the question is, how can we find a plausible path toward smashing the systems that generate so much injustice? And here is where auto-exculpatory self-flagellation falls so short. It hides the systemic, institutional causes of injustice behind a screen of personalizing moral righteousness and it eschews the development of strategies for winning, preferring instead to focus on the accumulation of social capital. The way to relate to it is not with a counter-moralism that tries to shame the self-exonerator, but to analyze the causes of this phenomenon and develop strategies for undermining its influence. Above all, that means advancing radical politics as an attractive and effective alternative to liberalism. Liberalisms of every sort, as forms of individualism, thrive in contexts where the prospects for potent collective action seem bleak. It can be undermined only by showing in practice that collective struggle can win.