Review: The Worker Elite

I will first say, I am labor aristocracy myself: not the Worker Elite, but the intelligentsia–I am a teacher and a former professor. I don’t always trust my own motives, and I am easily frustrated with the “left.” Perhaps for many of the same reasons as Bromma as a child of “working class-turned-worker elite” parents who became a academic, but also because I have had bad experiences with dogmatic infighting and frankly dishonest denouncing. I have also lived in Mexico and seen its “middle class’ in action, and it is very much as Bromma describes but perhaps more openly contemptuous of the larger working class.

Bromma’s brief notes on the “Worker Elite” argues that a form of labor aristocracy has developed in the core of the capitalist world. Bromma does what many academic and activists Marxists seem afraid to do: class analysis from experience. Furthermore, he joins a tradition of Maoist-influenced thinkers who realize that proletariat differentiated out–either as separate classes all together, or as having internal sub-classes.

While Bromma accepts many of the propositions of Third-Worldists and economic theorists like Zak Cope, Bromma illustrates that the worker elite is also elite in the “core” over certain sectors (service workers, textile workers, the gray market economy) as well as in relationship to the “third world.” He notes imperialists developments in “former third world” areas like China, and by implication, parts of Eastern Europe. If you wanted to pair this with a thinker like Wallerstein, Bromma seems keenly interested in showing the shifting of the International Capital and the disempowering of one worker elite may lead to the creation of another. Bromma’s thesis has the advantages of explaining both social democratic and left liberal subsuming of proletariat politics, but that labor aristocratic impulse has largely spread to certain sectors of unskilled workers who then embrace nativist or sexist ends. In other words, labor aristocracy is not just the union boss and the skilled technician, but the shipyard worker, the longshoreman, and the autoworker.

Bromma documents that trans-nationals have been very good at building worker elites, and that the worker elites often play a contradictory world to both the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. It needs to bourgeoisie for its privileges and its outsized pay in the global scale, but the bourgeoisie only needs it in times of labor pressure. The worker elites needs non-aristocratic proletariat for pressure on the bourgeoisie, but can never let the proletariat win in entirety. The reforms granted will have some loop-hole for exploitation. This, however, means that in success the worker elite fails either direction, but will fight to maintain its privilege at the expense of other national groups, genders, etc. While Bromma does not mention the rise of Oprah and Obama as a sign of black worker elites–it is not hard to see the thesis. The real material wealth of the black community as a share of GDP is actually declining in the age of Obama. Furthermore, the reactionary nature of a nativistic worker elite comes out in times when worker elite lose privilege and some sort of “otherizing” narrative can be used to buy their loyalty.

As J. Moufawad-Paul says in his review of the book, Bromma puts himself in a very nuanced position: “The inherent nuance of this approach avoids placing the theory of the labour aristocracy within solely macro-political constraints (i.e. the first world is bourgeois and petty-bourgeois, only the third world possesses the proletariat) while also not submerging this reality within some asinine micro-political discourse (we shouldn’t look at the world as a whole, unless we are looking for statistics that justify our position, but only at the class of the first world), and thus provides some space for a discussion that will likely annoy both sides of this debate: Bromma will be a “third worldist” for the dyed-in-the-wool Trotskyist, perhaps even a “first worldist” for some Maoist Third Worldists.” I find this refreshing as I think worldwide analysis of a capitalist system makes nationalist or first and third world analysis more complicated than it is generally presented.

Bromma’s use of the PPP (“purchasing power parity”) helps bring bourgeois economics to back up his points. It makes it clear that the core of the capitalist world has the most worker elite, but they are developing all over the capitalist world in some degree, with some exceptions in Africa and South East Asia. This is both enlightening and very easy to understand.

Still, I have a few issues with Bromma’s analysis: he seems to have switch between defining class in terms of production and in terms of social role. For example, conflating police and exploitative criminals in the the category of lumpen proletariat. Police and exploitative criminals may actually have some similar class interests and both parasite on the proletariat, but they do not necessarily share interests. Furthermore, while Bromma is does decry class essentialism, he does talk about these classes in ways that make it complicated. Again to quote J. Moufawad-Paul’s review: ” Bromma claims that this worker at one point originated from the proletariat and yet is unable, at least in this small book, to discuss the possibility of members of this elite being reproletarianized. Class as something that is made seems to happen in only one direction––an odd claim considering that more people, globally, are impoverished under capitalism than enriched. Perhaps this problem can be explained according to the assumption that it is easier, under capitalist ideology, to gain a privileged consciousness than to gain a revolutionary consciousness… But such a problem is, as Althusser once argued, inherent to even those born into proletarian positions since capitalist ideology is predominant: the poorest of the poor, when lacking a revolutionary movement, will be drawn to the ruling ideas of the ruling class. Here is where, perhaps, Bromma’s analysis of first world union movements slightly stumbles.” I also think this makes the analysis of lumpen and intellectuals a lot harder too, but Bromma does not attempt that as it is not in the purview of his notes. Still, as notes to a understanding of a new mass class, Bromma’s inconsistency here is understandable and can be easily expanded upon by himself or other thinkers.

I also wonder if internal colonization within the core explains the apparent shift of capitalist imperialism to Asia. While there is real shifting, and China, Russia, and the US do emerge as major imperialist powers, the trans-national nature of this still seems to be dependent on dominant nation-states at the core. Nation states whose bourgeoisie may or may not be running out of money–see Kliman’s analysis of the tendency of the rate of profits to fall–and who may need to claw back some of earnings back, so exploitation of the “worker elite” will have to increase. Still, most labor aristocracy will have a tendency to favor reformist measures that keep their privilege in place: think the Union worker who sells out minorities, women, and now in the auto-industry as well as education even younger workers who will never be allowed the same benefits as older union members. Think tenured professors who complain about the corporate culture of universities but refuse to acknowledge the exploitation of adjuncts that make their positions possible, etc.

Even in within tiers of the worker elite itself this kind of internal parasitism takes place. Bromma does not address that but his analysis does not preclude it either.

While this has a few rough spots, I find that Bromma’s book is easy to read and incredibly informative about labor aristocratic elements in our current class structure. I think this is an important book that will be sadly under-read.

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4 thoughts on “Review: The Worker Elite

  1. This is a very interesting post, and certainly at some point I’m going to have to check this book out. Now, the one sentence that really sticks out in my mind in your post is: “It needs to bourgeoisie for its privileges and its outsized pay in the global scale, but the bourgeoisie only needs it in times of labor pressure. The worker elites needs non-aristocratic proletariat for pressure on the bourgeoisie, but can never let the proletariat win in entirety.” If it can never afford to let the proletariat win in its entirety, then – assuming that is true – then are we not talking about a different class altogether? Actually, a similar consideration has been on my mind ever since I heard you describe, on an episode of Diet Soap, the managerial class as “technically proletarian”. I could still buy that the worker elite are still some kind of proletarian, but managerial & technocratic elements are another matter entirely.
    Like I’ve often done in the past, I consulted volume 3 of Hal Draper’s Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, this time on the subject of the labour aristocracy. What surprised me is how old the phenomenon is. Ernest Jones, the leader of left Chartism, is quoted to that effect. What did stand out are some comments by Engels on proletarian consciousness versus that of the (pre-New Unionism) unionized labour aristocrats. Normally, we’ve been conditioned think of “proletarian consciousness” as something not actually native to the proletariat, in the manner of Kautsky as taken up by Lenin in What Is To be Done. Now, in the 1879 Circular to Bebel et al, Marx and Engels speak of the necessity of non-proletarian members of the party “to adopt the *proletarian outlook* without prevarication”. They are clearly NOT talking about value theory or any other thing that the Party is presumably meant to inculcate to the workers. Engel’s later comments Draper quotes seem to confirm this. Sections of the labour aristocracy, on the other hand, are bourgeoisified. This obviously complicates the traditional Marxist narrative on proletarian consciousness, especially since the material conditions enjoyed by that aristocracy have been to a large extent, generalized in the West.
    This seems germane to me because I can’t help but ponder, due to 100 year anniversary, of the complicity of the German Social Democracy in the outbreak of WW1. I’ve been reading Peter Gay’s The Dilemma of Democratic Socialism, and one thing Gay remarks is that it was the trade union leadership that was decisive in tilting the Party towards that event. Co-equality of Party and Unions was in hindsight a victory for the latter.
    One more thing. Ideology has been bothering me recently, particularly since Doug Lain tried to conflate subject and ideology when you were discussing the movie Waking Life and you had to point out the problem with that. Since you seem to be interested in disentangling Marx from Marxism, I recommend you check out John Torrance’s Karl Marx’s Theory of Ideas. It seem to me ideology had gotten too big for itself so to speak, and needs to be dialed back(recall how there are times when Zizek seems to speak of nothing else b but ideology). One thing Torrance does is list 13 propositions neither found in Marx’s actual treatment of ideology nor necessitated by it – including Althusser’s thesis of the inevitability of ideology.

    • There is a lot to respond to here. First, let’s get to your class question. Is the petite bourgeoisie a separate class from the bourgeoisie? In terms of production and relationship to exploitation, no; but in terms of interest, particularly after the subsuming of labor categories–absolutely. So in terms of the worker elite, you have a problem–in terms of production, the worker elite are still participating in the production of capital and are still wage, but they have been given social advantage from various forms of imperialism and social contracts which are decidedly nationalist. So again, if you see this as a separate class depends on how you parse it? Is the lumpen as separate class? Marx didn’t think so, but he did they they were parasitic on all classes particularly the proletariat.

      Ideology as a category is problematic, and Marx does use it but once in his later writings. He talks of reification and fetishes in later writing because these are ideologies manifested. Althusser re-collapsed all that–although his definition makes that clear, but the terminology is done.

      Doug is a Zizekian. A smart one. But our conflicts became pronounced and we quit speaking for a time after that podcast–we are now back in dialogue, and we have even discussed me reviving Pop the Left with him, but he has a tendency as a Zizekian to collapse everything down to both ideology and totality.

  2. That was more or less the answer I was anticipating: the “bourgeoisification through material advantages of imperialism” hypothesis.

    How one parses is difficult to say, but the fact that there is worker elite in most capitalist countries is a control of sorts; one would have to examine the ones in countries that are completely cut out of the imperialist game. Or countries that lose their imperialist advantage.

    As to the latter, I have to point out that in Germany in late 1918 and after, when not only had it lost its empire but was in complete shambles, the masses of the proletariat – not just the worker elite, but the masses – repeatedly found themselves in positions where they *could* have chosen the more radical option, but consistently cleaved to the conservative wing of the Social Democrats. And this in the country where in both absolute and relative terms more workers had probably ascended to full class consciousness in all of history. I note that Lenin and many others subscribed to a variant of your hypothesis to explain why the German revolution failed. I think it’s fairly obvious that such a hypothesis is not nearly enough to explain either the German revolution or trends since then. I think it’s also inadequate for precisely the opposite reason too: events like May 1968 that leave the official left flatfooted and unable to react timely.

    As for ideology, I think something like this is needed: scrape away definitional expansions to Marx’s concept that have occurred since Engels and onward, critically examine what remain in light of what’s happened in history, reattach some of the accretions scraped off if necessary, and ground it in the solid institutional analysis Zizek just doesn’t do. I have never been as sanguine towards Zizek as Doug, but he’s useful since he makes Lacan useful, who in turn is useful because like Reich, he makes Freud useful. But thanks largely to you, I’ve increasing wondered about the baby-to-bathwater ratio in Zizek, and I’m getting progressively more pessimistic on that count.

    Finally I’m delighted to hear about you patching things up with Doug. We never did get that Fascism episode of Pop the Left, after all. And I’d love to hear you guys rip bourgeois liberals a new one, if you’re wanting for suggestions.

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