Wednesday, July 28, 2021

No War But Class War: "Class Reductionism"

There's been a lot of talk in recent years about something called "class reductionism."  Here are my two cents on the subject.

Someone mentioned in a comment about an article I shared recently (Exiting the Vampire Castle by Mark Fisher) that it struck them as "class reductionist."  I only put the term in quotes because it clearly seems to have a lot of different definitions, and it has inspired a fairly complex debate in a variety of publications.  Without necessarily wanting to start any new controversies or respond to all the various points made on the subject in the past year or so, I thought I'd take a stab at addressing this concept.

Most people reading this live in a capitalist country.  We live in countries where corporations dominate the economy.  What drives the overwhelming majority of corporations is the profit motive.  

There are many different factors that can mitigate a corporation's basic tendency to maximize profits.  Principally, government regulation of the sort that is frequently enforced, that comes with serious economic and legal consequences if flouted.

While government contracts are generally the biggest source of profit for the corporate sector in any country, there is nevertheless a basic conflict between the corporate profit motive and government regulation.  

The profit motive tends to make corporations want to take advantage of things like, for example, racism, sexism, and environmental destruction.  Why pay certain people more when you can pay them less, if you stand to get pretty much the same result either way?  Why make fuels burn more cleanly if it's more profitable to burn dirty, and you'll sell more stuff that way?  Or so the rationale goes, if the profit motive could put a couple sentences together all by itself.

But when, say, social movements on the streets make business as usual impossible for an extended period of time and force some nominally democratic government to start making and enforcing rules about equal pay for women or using alternative energy, capitalism can adapt to that, and still make lots of profit.  This isn't at all theoretical, it's demonstrable fact.  

For example, while it is clearly true here in the US that racism and exploitation of undocumented immigrant labor is structurally baked in to American capitalism, and are both enormous sources of corporate profit, that's here.  There's a world out there.  In other countries, like, say, Denmark, 80% of the workforce is unionized, including all the people working in the slaughterhouses (in the US the rate of unionization of the workforce is in the single digits, last I checked).  Denmark is one of the world's biggest producers of windmills, beets, bacon, and a lot of other things, and Danish industries have been turning a good profit for at least several centuries.  But for a long time now, in Denmark, all those workers basically make a living wage, without the need for a significant undocumented immigrant workforce or any kind of super-exploited underclass.

One of the biggest factors that make problems like racism, sexism, and pollution in the US so tenacious is that all of these things are enormously profitable to the corporations.  They will never start doing things like paying everyone equitably or revamping their infrastructure to run on alternative energy unless they're forced to by government regulation.  Government will never pass such regulation unless it's controlled by the people, rather than bought and sold by corporations, like the US government mostly is.  So, these basic inequities in society, especially the ones that are profitable, like racism and sexism, will continue, until they are stopped by government, which won't happen until government is taken over by the people.

One way to make the case that the corporations will never reform themselves en masse without being forced to do so by governments acting under popular pressure is that it's never happened before.  But corporations reforming themselves because government passed laws forcing them to conduct their operations safely, cleanly, equitably, etc.?  That happens all the time -- especially in other countries.

Because racism, sexism, and environmental devastation can be so profitable, and they are all so fundamental to US capitalism, it's easy to look at capitalism, from a US perspective, and think that these things are fundamental to capitalism.  But if you look to other advanced economies in the world, even with cradle-to-grave government-provided care, with daycares, schools, drug rehabs, retirement homes, hospitals and so much more baked in to the system, without an exploited underclass, without women forced to stay home to care for the family, the corporations still make loads of profit.  In these same countries, the average household uses less than half as much energy as the average household in the US.  Nevertheless, these countries are home to some of the biggest and most profitable corporations in the world.

Capitalism tends to keep marginalized people marginalized, because the profit motive says it's always a better bet to hire more normative types.  There will be exceptions to this rule, but generally, if you're different in any way that requires accommodating your needs, or in some way that might offend a customer, or require training, or education, or take more time at first, etc., capitalism doesn't want to do that, so the marginalized will tend to stay that way.

Of course there are myriad other factors that will tend to keep the marginalized marginalized, once a class of people are in that position in any society.  But the biggest one is the profit motive.  If the profit motive isn't a factor, and the prices of houses won't go down if they move to the neighborhood, then formerly marginalized people can suddenly become very mainstream and accepted.  For example, Jews, Catholics, and gay couples are generally all welcome to move to the suburbs these days, as long as they're white, without raising an eyebrow or negatively affecting property values.  If you're not impressed with this progress, I'm not either.  But it is nonetheless demonstrably true, while demonstrably not true of other marginalized groups today, such as people of African descent.

When capitalism is tightly controlled by effective government regulation enforced by well-funded and highly competent government agencies, society can look entirely different than it does in the US.  This is not theoretical, it's demonstrable fact, for anyone who can afford to travel.  

This has also been true of some societies that went further than just tightly regulating capitalism, but kicked out the capitalists and socialized their property, like Cuba.  Countries that do that tend to bring on the wrath of US imperialism, like Cuba has done (it was impossible to avoid at the time, if the Cubans wanted to remove the boot from their country's neck).  So it's hard to use them as good examples for how things can be done differently, because they're under siege, and thus, not always a great example of the kind of prosperity that different economic systems can bring.  However, Cuba is far ahead of the vast majority of the world in terms of it's majority Black population also being the majority of doctors, around half of them women, among many other similar accomplishments, such as doctors per capita, universal health care, and much more.

But whether the capitalist order is completely overthrown and replaced with something very different, or if capitalism is just heavily regulated by a government that is responsive to the popular will -- that is, a government that's not corrupt and isn't run by corporations, where there's multiparty democracy set up in such a way that it can't easily be bought, and it's able to be responsive to the popular will, where the corporations can be controlled, and prevented from doing everything according to their default, the profit motive.

To say that we live in a capitalist society where the primary driver of the dominant economic force in society -- the corporation -- is the profit motive, is just to describe our basic circumstances.  The specific methods for maintaining the inequities in this particular capitalist society have everything to do with divide and rule, and a form of divide and rule that is very focused on race, with a settler-colonial history centered around racially constructed enterprises such as the systematic slaughter and displacement of the indigenous people, and the enslavement of Africans.  There is no way to overstate how fundamental, how profitable, these two evil pillars of US capitalism have been, and in many different and new ways, continue to be.  

W.E.B. DuBois called the US system Racial Capitalism.  Let me just admit here that I haven't read the whole book and I'm not an expert on DuBois.  But I'm not venturing too far out on a limb here to just note that it's kind of in the term itself -- "racial" is a descriptor of the type of capitalism it is.  DuBois was not saying that capitalism couldn't exist as a phenomenon anywhere in the world without the use of a racialized group to exploit.  Capitalism doesn't require racism any more than it requires sexism in order to function.  Although both can be used to divisive advantage to the capitalist class if they're looking for methods to divide and conquer the populace, to be sure.  

But the capitalist class can also find other ways of keeping us divided, docile, and good for business.  Like atomize society into millions of alienated, gig economy workers, triple the cost of housing, and then provoke us all into arguing with each other about who's more privileged or more oppressed than the other, while the social media algorithms make sure nobody has any real idea what's going on, and the country floods and burns.

Historically, the most powerful social movements are movements of movements -- coalitions of vast swaths of any society, who all have something fundamental in common.  Movements like the Industrial Workers of the World in the early decades of the twentieth century, which brought together women, men, children, immigrants, native-born, Black, brown, white, and others as well, into One Big Union, to fight a class war against the bosses, the great industrialists, the barons of capital.  

But far more recently, movements like the global justice movement of only two decades ago, which involved mass gatherings, demonstrations, popular education and a lot of civil disobedience, arrests, and wanton police brutality in many different countries.  This movement, which continues to be the lens through which I see the world, I suppose, brought together interests as disparate as the global labor movement and the global environmental movement around a common cause.  It brought together leaders of indigenous nations from across the world, anti-colonial movements around the world, movements in the so-called "developing world" trying to dig out from the mountains of debt left by the dictators the World Bank had been supporting for decades.  Movements for local sovereignty, for socialism, for community control, for a living wage, for rent control -- it's hard to know where to stop listing the kinds of networks, organizations, and individuals that made up (and still make up) this movement.

A related movement in 2011, Occupy Wall Street, talked about "the 99%" and the common ground we all have in opposing a global capitalist system controlled by an increasingly concentrated global elite.  Although a flash in the pan compared with the global justice movement that it more or less sprang out of, this global movement managed to have a profound impact in once again bringing questions of class inequities into living room conversations everywhere.  

The derailing of the global justice movement and other movements that have called for systemic reform to the capitalist order within individual countries and globally has been a very intentional process, whether that's evident to the casual observer or not.  Any social movement that isn't directly challenging economic relations stands to just be another finger-wagging exercise that's likely to accomplish little beyond making people feel shittier about the whole mess than they already do.

We don't need to attend workshops on how to overcome our internal biases.  We need to stab a corkscrew into the heart of capitalism, and make some wine out of that blood.  Once we have a society where every single person in this country has a nice place to live, universal health care, universal education, and universal basic income, we can all just watch all those biases fade away, along with most forms of crime, which are crimes of poverty.  What I am saying here is not theoretical either.  I'm describing what has happened in the real world already, in certain places where everyone has had access to a living wage and good schools and such -- this is what generally actually happens, without any anti-bias workshops.  I've both seen it and read about it.

There's my two cents.  Or to sum it up in a few words, let's not reduce everything to class -- just most of it.


  1. 1 billion people fly
    1 billion kids have no shoes

  2. Du Bois became a "class reductionist". For example:

    "so long as American labor is more conscious of color and race than it is of the fundamental economic needs of the whole laboring class, just so long the development of labor solidarity is impossible." —W.E.B. Du Bois, "The Nucleus of Class Consciousness"

    "I still think today as yesterday that the color line is a great problem of this century. But today I see more clearly than yesterday that back of the problem of race and color, lies a greater problem which both obscures and implements it: and that is the fact that so many civilized persons are willing to live in comfort even if the price of this is poverty, ignorance, and disease of the majority of their fellowmen; that to maintain this privilege men have waged war until today war tends to become universal and continuous, and the excuse for this war continues largely to be color and race." —W.E.B. Du Bois, preface to The Souls of Black Folk, Jubilee Edition (1953, 50th Anniversary)

    In case you haven't seen this:

  3. Response to the commentator who mourns the lack of class/union struggle in the climate movement: It's true that the bonds are not as strong as they should be. But here's a few examples of that alliance over the last forty years:

    Clamshell Alliance (1976-1980)

    Turtles and Teamsters alliance at anti- globalization actions in Seattle(1999)

    Environmentalists for Full Employment (1975-1984)

    Labor Committee for Safe Energy and Full Employment (1979-1981)

    Redwood Summer (1990) Earth First and IWW

    Labor Party (1996-2007)

    Connecticut Roundtable on Climate and Jobs (2015-present)

    International Longshore Workers Union + 17 unions( 2015-present) “No Coal in Oakland” campaign

    Sunrise Movement (2021) Good Jobs for All campaign

  4. Great stuff, David. (I doubt you remember me from the farm in Bozeman, MT). Glad I found this place.

    @ Steve, thanks for posting that list. It still seems woefully too short though, no? More work connecting labor and the ecocrisis movement is needed.


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