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.