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Review: Bromma's "The Worker Elite"

At this year's Historical Materialism conference at York, though I was unable to attend any panels, I had the pleasure of visiting the book table shared by Kersplebedeb and PM Press so as to hang out with the representative of the former.  As some of my readers might know, I have been an avid reader of the titles printed by Kersplebedeb and have reviewed some of them on this blog: Butch Lee and Red Rover's Night Vision, Zak Cope's Divided World, Divided Class (twice, in fact), James Yaki Sayles' Meditations on Frantz Fanon's Wretched of the Earth, and J. Sakai's Settlers.  Those familiar with the press will also be aware that it has, among other things, published Kevin "Rashid" Johnson's Defying the Tomb as well as, jointly with PM, the RAF: A Documentary History series.  As a leftist academic who has always been drawn to subterranean marxist traditions I have found the work of Kersplebedeb refreshing, often an enjoyable break from the innumerable dry tomes I find myself slogging through day-in and day-out.

Thus, I was quite happy to complete my visit with Kersplebedeb by purchasing two of its most recent publications: the Bottom Fish Blues collection Amazon Nation or Aryan Nation, and Bromma's The Worker Elite.  The latter, which I will begin reviewing below, I read within a day––in part because it was short, in part because it read well––and have just started the former, which I also plan to review in a later post.

My first encounter with the author of The Worker Elite was a pamphlet, also printed by Kersplebedeb, entitled Exodus and Reconstruction: working-class women at the heart of globalization.  Since I had also enjoyed that essay, I was looking forward to picking up a copy of the author's The Worker Elite since it was another engagement with the concept of the labour aristocracy, a topic that I believe is of considerable importance.  Most recently, and much to the horror of those leftists who would deny imperialist super-exploitation, Zak Cope's Divided World, Divided Class was also published by Kersplebedeb.  My initial worry was that Bromma's book would stay within the boundaries proscribed by Cope's book, perhaps borrowing more obviously from Sakai's Settlers, but would be ultimately little more than a polemical treatise declaring precisely what was theorized in Cope's weightier book.

Only 88 pages including the endnotes!

Thankfully my assumption was proved wrong: although it would be wrong to claim that Bromma's work has nothing to do with Cope's (Divided World, Divided Class is cited twice, after all), it would also be wrong to treat it as doing the same thing or agreeing completely with the theory of net-exploitation.  As the publisher told me, Cope's book provides, through its academic intervention, a certain space for works such as The Worker Elite to exist.  Here, it needs to be said that Bromma's treatise shines as a sharp argument for the existence of the labour aristocracy and class struggle that, unlike Cope's academic analysis, reads as if it is connected to concrete praxis.  (Note: this is not at all a dig at Cope.  Despite my problems with Divided World, Divided Class––that I mentioned in my aforelinked review(s)––I think its sober academic tone and extensive research is necessary to place this kind of political economy on the same level of "academic respectability" that those who reject the concept of the labour aristocracy enjoy.  Again, it opens the space for a debate.)  Really, the book was a joy to read, which is why I finished it within a day (including the underlining and marginal notes!), which is more than I can say for a lot of leftist non-fiction writing, my own included.  There was an immediacy to the text, produced by the personal touch in the very first paragraph.

None of this is to say that The Worker Elite is not without problems, some of which I will address at the end of this review, but no books are without problems.  Perhaps the biggest problem with this book is also one of its strength: its size and immediacy mean that it can only provide a collection of snap-shots on its subject matter, opening up particular regions of debate and discussion.  The author, however, recognizes this problem at the outset and defines the book as "preliminary, partial, and (to be realistic) almost certainly incorrect in some ways."

Of course, there will be those treat the book as "incorrect" for the wrong reasons.  Particularly, there will be those who, beginning with an a priori rejection of the theory of the labour aristocracy, will be incapable of recognizing that such a rejection can actually be explained according to Bromma's theory of the worker elite: these are people who, desiring to hold unto a privileged role within social movements, possess a class consciousness that hampers critical analysis.  Social consciousness, after all, is largely determined by social being.  We only need to catalogue the dishonest reviews of Sakai's Settlers and Cope's Divided World, Divided Class to realize that this kind of criticism often does proceed from particular social commitments and class privilege.

At the same time, there will be those who reject Bromma's book because it argues, while still accepting that the labour aristocracy's existence is due to imperialism and thus accrues at the centres of capitalism, that a proletariat does indeed exist in the imperialist centres.  That is, he does not make what I consider to be the error made by Cope: the conflation of exploitation with super-exploitation.  Such nuance, however, will probably also result in his dismissal on the part of those who abide by a theory of net-exploitation.  These commitments to statistics counting, which often prevent people from realizing that they are adopting philosophical rather than scientific positions, is something I critiqued when I attacked Post's review of Cope's book; it is also the problem with economic theory in general.

With these qualifications in mind, let us return to Bromma and The Worker Elite.  Beyond what they have written, I know little about the author aside from the fact that they are most probably in the same circles as J. Sakai and Butch Lee.  This book begins, however, with autobiographical details that are essential to the book's object of critique: Bromma was part of that group of 1970s radicals who tried to commit "class suicide" by entering the factories.  This experience is significant because it taught them, as it did with those members of Canada's New Communist Movement who are still radical, that these factories were not necessarily sites where revolutionary consciousness was possible.  Bromma's understanding of "the worker elite" comes from this experience.

Ever since Settlers and other similar texts, there has been an argument that the class category of "proletariat" needs to be differentiated from the broader category of "working class".  Bromma's theoretical contribution to this discussion is to divide the working class into three interior classes: the proletariat itself (still the revolutionary subject according to the root marxist definition), the lumpen-proletariat (parasitical on the proletariat, and here he does something interesting with what is usually a tricky term), and the worker elite (a working class that has become an economic middle class, the so-called "labour aristocracy", with a consciousness determined by this social being).  Quite interesting is the tantalizing claim that an adventurist politics results from mistaking the lumpen-proletariat for the proletariat, whereas a reformist/collaborationist politics results from mistaking the worker elite for the proletariat.  Only the latter forms the subject matter for this small volume.

Drawing out an analysis from this class struggle within class produces some intriguing ways of understanding social struggle.  The worker elite functions as a bought-out faction of the working class, initially valorized and empowered by imperialism and the New Deal, but one that finds itself in the typical (following directly from the traditional analyses of the labour aristocracy) position of having to ensure its middle-class status by hoping for proletarian struggles it can co-opt or undermine so as to prove its necessity to the bourgeoisie.  A mythology of the worker elite as proletariat emerges, as well as a particular class autonomy: it is not simply the bourgeoisie's puppet, but has its own interests that sometimes place it in conflict with the bourgeois––such conflict is only when it is facing the loss of its social privilege, the solution to this conflict, for the class as a class, is to prove its ability to staff those worker struggles that threaten the bourgeois order.

This class division of class produces a significant amount of nuance in understanding the labour aristocracy as a whole.  Due to the size and immediacy of the book this distinction is not fully described, but it is still present.  On the one hand we have the description of a context of labour aristocracy (imperialism and super-exploitation); on the other hand we have an investigation of the particular ways in which this general tendency accrues as a worker elite.  Macro and micro levels, the kind of problematic I was attempting (though hastily) to describe in one of my older posts, emerges quite cunningly in what might be called a phenomenology of the labour aristocracy.  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.

While Bromma still argues (and rightly so) that the worker elite is more common at the centres of capitalism than at the peripheries, at the same time he is able to argue for the location of a proletarian at the centres and, conversely, locate a worker elite at the peripheries.  He does so with the use of "purchasing power parity" [PPP] statistics that he himself recognizes is not entirely accurate, but here it is worth also recognizing that other statistics, due to the fact of their positivism, are also derived from bourgeois economics and thus not, by themselves, scientific.  It is worth noting, however, that the PPP analysis is used by imperialists so as to justify the ways in which they intervene; the IMF is notorious for utilizing such an analysis to understand when and where it must act to undermine possible rebellions against imperialism.  The pattern that emerges from his use of PPP statistics is one that indicates both super-exploitation and rarified exploitation even within imperialist nations.  Again, the size of the book prevents these statistics from being utilized in the same way as the statistics used by Cope.  Then again, Bromma is more interested in charting the ways in which the class struggle within the working class operates.

Aside from the limitations determined by the book's size, The Worker Elite is not without its problems.  First and foremost is the problem of a quasi class essentialism that hampers its nuanced take on the labour aristocracy.  We can locate this possible problem from the outset of the treatise where the author appears to claim their submergence within the working class did not make them a part of even this middle class stratum of workers.  Later there are arguments about how the worker elite, when dragged down to the level of a proletariat, will still see itself as the worker elite class.  There are also statements that seem to confuse class with caste, claiming that it needs to have some level of generational and familial permanence in order to be class.  These all seem to be misunderstandings of class-qua-class considering that the conceptualization of class was tendered against a feudal notion of estates where a person's social essence was determined according to the social position into which they were born.  One could never really alter their social position, according to this view of reality, and the concept of class was raised against this tributary way of seeing the world.

Hence, if someone does reproduce their existence (assuming they aren't "slumming" where they can return, at any time they wish, to a privileged existence) according to the standards of a lower class, then they are no longer members of the class they abandoned.  Similarly, the extremely rare example of the poor person who becomes a millionaire (sometimes this happens, though its possibility is essential to bourgeois ideology) should demonstrate that the formerly proletarian capitalist is not still, essentially, a capitalist.  While we should not neglect some examinations of "cultural capital" we also have to recognize that such analyses fail to comprehend the very meaning of class––that which is made and not found, though made according to very strict boundaries of exploitation and oppression.

This apparent failure to treat class as class sometimes undermines the overall argument of The Worker Elite due to particular contradictions.  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.

The second problem I had with this otherwise excellent text, and was less of a problem than my worries about class essentialism, was what appeared to be a flirtation with the Empire thesis: "as it evolves, modern imperialism is… gradually detaching itself from the model of privileged 'home countries' altogether. Finance capital floats above national borders, exploiting an increasingly mobile proletariat. […] Multinational industries, corporations and financial trusts now purchase loyalty and disburse privilege directly, "over the heads" of any specific country or any national ruling class."  While it is the case that imperialism does disdain national borders, it still proceeds from the context of nation-states at the global centres of capitalism.  As Samir Amin has consistently demonstrated since the Empire thesis was first flouted up until the present, imperialism is not at all detached from its countries of origin and that this supposed detachment is an ideology, the permanent dream of capitalism.

Global contradictions between competing imperialist nations still determine the ways in which finance capitalism functions, and the most recent imperialist competition between the US and Russia––which demonstrates that the age of the so-called Triad under the US is being questioned in the imperialist order––should prevent us from thinking that capitalism can ever function without the direction of "privileged 'home countries'."  Only libertarians and those devoted to Hart and Negri would think differently.  But again, such a statement on the part of Bromma might have been made in too much haste due to the immediacy and size of the text.

In conclusion, the aforementioned problems aside, Bromma's The Worker Elite is significant insofar as it attempts to demonstrate how we can understand class struggle within the working class itself––or, to use the terminology of the organization I tend to support, which is different from Bromma's semantics but not at all alien, how to locate the "hard core of the proletariat."  Some of the most significant factions of Canada's New Communist Movement crumbled due to the assumption that the revolutionary proletariat was the same as the worker elite, disintegrating when the members they had designated for "class suicide" (like Bromma) became members of a worker elite and, upon achieving this privilege, dispensed with revolutionary politics.  At the very least, The Worker Elite should be read as an antidote to books such as David Camfield's Canadian Labour in Crisis that, in its refusal to recognize a worker elite (or to define the "labour aristocracy" as, typical of post-Trotskyists and rightly critiqued by Bromma, a layer of union bureaucracy), conflates the working class as a whole with the proletariat and, in this conflation, hopes that social democratic practice as usual will be tantamount to revolution.  Bromma has provided us with more reasons for thinking differently.

As an aside, I also learned (and it also appeared as an advertisement at the end of Bromma's book) that J. Sakai's Settlers is finally becoming a second edition, co-produced by Kersplebedeb and PM Press, in the fall.  For those readers who had problems with the type-setting, dimensions, and design of this classic radical text, this news should be exciting:

Doesn't this look awesome?


  1. Some years ago it occurred to me that as a general proposition of historical materialism one could view class struggle as the daily life of exploitation. Wage labor, the free exchange of equivalents, is the capitalist mode of exploitation. When it is the primary form of exploitation, the social formation is capitalist. But no social formation is chemically pure, thus other forms of exploitation exist, in forms as varied as the greed of exploiters can make them. If nothing else old history does not vanish, nor is there a suprahistorical blueprint for capitalist exploiters to follow, producing the great Marxian classes of capitalist and proletarian in neatly arrayed armies on the social field of battle.

    Which is all pretty simple of course. But it seems equally necessary a proposition of historical materialism that the dynamic necessity of class struggle impels capitalist exploiters to seek in daily life to divide their proletarian opponents, to bemuse everyone about their true roles. When looking at daily life, it seems to me this appears in daily life, not as a pseudomarxist antinomy between worker and bourgeois, but as a seemingly complex array of divisions in daily life.

    In general, secondary forms of exploitation are the markers of social strata, as opposed to the classes defined by the capitalist mode. In daily life social strata are identifiable not just by consumption but by marriage. Also, just like geological strata, social strata differ geographically. Unlike geological strata, geographical variations in social strata are not just consequences of different histories but also functional (or dysfunctional) now, as well as the history of the future.

    Sorry to be so long, but I wanted to be clear where I was coming from. Coming from there, I tend to see imperialist super-exploitation as a secondary form of exploitation. In the US, deindustrialization in favor of imperialist enterprises in the third world are a method of struggle used by domestic capitalists against domestic and third world workers. Simultaneously surplus value redistributed by complex methods permit the bourgeois state to funnel some to domestic workers in various forms, such as the mortgage interest deduction that was so important in fostering home ownership.

  2. From what I know when someone attempts to use statistics to show super-exploitation they all fail to show that first world proletarians could possibly be benefitting as much as capitalists, that this is an exploitation that changes the fundamental class relationship. From my point of view, imperialist super-exploitation can and I think does affect social stratification, separation in daily life. Of course capitalist daily life is much like the story of the toad put into the pot, which is only then heated to boiling. I too am a toad, so I shouldn't put on airs.

    As interesting then as Bromma's account seems to be, I'm not sure that its apparent omission of a key aspect of the capitalist mode of production, its particular form of reproduction of labor power, i.e., family, isn't a major problem. In the given history of the US, racial division of the working class, which I firmly believe still to be semiconsciously engineered by segregation (even if de jure segregation has been abjured,) is, however painfully slowly, breaking down in one respect by interracial marriage. World division of the class is in principle amenable to a molecular dissolution by international marriage. In this context, there are obvious geographical issues that are not attributable to false consciousness or backward ideology.

    It's not clear that Bromma is quite aware of the significance of geographical divisions. This seems to be true of geographical distinctions in one aspect of the forces of production, technological control over human reproduction. I think even the old style Marxists are right to emphasize the importance of forces of production in understanding society. But they may have forgotten that technology is also a social arrangement. Thus there is far more to the capitalist law of population, and its geographical variations, than a patent for a birth control hormone, or a formula for latex.

    Another of the obstacles to super-exploitation theories, besides the apparent insistence that it changes the class role of everyone in the First World, is that it seems to leap over the class struggle in daily life, and appears to impute invidious motives as the casusative factor. Going back to the mortgage interest deduction, whatever share of this benefit can be reasonably imputed to the profits of imperialist super-exploitation, it most certainly appears in a thoroughly mystified form. But it is class struggle in daily life that creates class consciousness. Capitalist exploitation in the form of wage labor engenders a host of struggles that loom behind the smooth surface of daily life like a dim outline of a shark in the water. If Bromma analyzes daily life for similar rents in the veil, it would be a great thing.

  3. Another of the obstacles to super-exploitation theories, besides the apparent insistence that it changes the class role of everyone in the First World, is that it seems to leap over the class struggle in daily life, and appears to impute invidious motives as the casusative factor. Going back to the mortgage interest deduction, whatever share of this benefit can be reasonably imputed to the profits of imperialist super-exploitation, it most certainly appears in a thoroughly mystified form. But it is class struggle in daily life that creates class consciousness. Capitalist exploitation in the form of wage labor engenders a host of struggles that loom behind the smooth surface of daily life like a dim outline of a shark in the water. If Bromma analyzes daily life for similar rents in the veil, it would be a great thing.

    Against this, lumpen elements, such as gangs, are fairly visibly integrated into a capitalist black market, complete with connections to the police, lawyers, banks. As usual the wage workers are the source of value, the owners benefit. And their nefarious activities are abetted to provide a kind of paramilitary force aimed at informally terrorizing the target populations. Law enforcement not only turns over the lower levels of the gangs, but targets the population the gangs are recruited from, in a sinister variation on divide and conquer: Unite the victims with their victimizers to conquer.

    Lastly, a key aspect to class consciousness is the ability to change the world when acting as a class. Practice is essential to knowledge. This is why class consciousness during a revolution takes different forms than in daily life, why in a revolution the lines tend to firm up between bourgeois and proletarian. In daily life, the lack of power is why secondary forms of exploitation demarcate social strata that seems to be more fundamental. It doesn't seem that Bromma has carefully analyzed this, judging from your citation about imperialism's home countries. I tend to think of the current world situation as Kautsky's ultaimperialism without any revisionist bullshit about compromising class struggle. The US won WWII. The verdicts of that war will not be reversed without the defeat of the US.

    Again, I'm sorry to take so long, but the review tied into so many different aspects of daily life and class struggle I didn't see any other way to be clear about my concerns on these issues. I do want to say that while it is clear that it seems to me that Bromma has overlooked very much, it is equally clear that Bromma is looking in the right directions, something I can't say I believe of every writer.

    Steven Johnson

  4. Overall good review. I do take issue with one statement though, where you claim that the problem with Third Worldist analysis is that we supposedly conflate exploitation with super-exploitation. That is, we supposedly argue that because FW workers are not super-exploited, that they are not exploited. This is false. The reason we say FW workers are not generally exploited is because they consume more value than they produce.

    The question of value production is an important one because what makes the proletariat revolutionary is ultimately that a) its place in the production process, i.e. in direct production, renders it uniquely capable of facilitating the abolition of classes upon attaining political power, and b) exploitation is a relation through which the proletariat is robbed of its time; the proletariat receives the product of less labor than it expends, and thus the accumulation of capital -necessarily- means increasing misery for the proletariat. Our conception of exploitation is what exploitation has always meant in Marxist science.

    It is undeniable that the amount of productive labor going on in imperialist centers has declined enormously, and these positions have largely been replaced by more technical ("white collar") positions. Many ostensible workers own capital outright, in the form of 401k's and pensions, homes that can accrue in value and be sold as real estate, and in some industries, the industries are in fact owned in significant part by their workers. With the small amount of labor in direct production occurring in the imperialist countries, it would simply be absurd to suggest that these workers are producing all or even most of the value getting realized here. Even within the ranks of productive workers, whose relationship to the means of production does put them among the proletariat in a technical sense, most of these workers are part of the labor aristocracy. That is to say, their size of earnings, mode of life, and overall outlook make them "alien to the proletariat as a class." A major factor in the alienation of the labor aristocracy from the proletariat is, as Zak Cope argued, that the remuneration the labor aristocracy receives at least approaches if not exceeds the value they produce. Now, I agree with you that there are some significant problems with "Divided World, Divided Class," but our analysis is not limited to that book. The point is that we argue that there is no way in hell that FW workers are generally exploited. We don't deny the possibility that some workers are still exploited (in particular within the captive, oppressed nations on Turtle Island), but we are sober about the fact that these elements are very small compared to the overall population. That is to say, while there may be tens of millions of people with an immediate material interest in the abolition of capitalism on Turtle Island, there are -hundreds- of millions who do not and whose consciousness leads them to be quite prone to defending the current order. We argue this has significant implications for strategy within the First World and within occupied north amerika in particular, which most communists here haven't come to grips with.

    So in short, our position has really nothing to do with conflating exploitation with super-exploitation.

    On the subject of super-exploitation though, some Third Worldists do feel that Lenin's definition of super-exploitation is no longer sufficient. He defines it effectively as exploitation producing profits above what can be gleaned from workers in imperialist centers. It still assumes, however, that imperialist workers are generally exploited. What if they are not, though? Does "super-exploitation" as a category really make sense? Maybe, maybe not. I personally don't have much of an opinion on that. But I am somewhat sympathetic to the argument that there's nothing terribly "super" about "super-exploitation" since it is, by far, the norm in today's world.

    1. My argument that your position is a conflation of exploitation with super-exploitation is precisely because of what you described above in regards to Cope. And having been one of the editors for Cope's book, I am very aware and familiar with his argument. I think that it possesses an a priori conflation between two things: the mode of production and the world system; the mistaken assumption that the only thing that counts as exploitation is super-exploitation. I am very aware of the arguments you have cited, but I think they are tantamount to economistic stat-counting that depends upon this a priori conflation. Commitments to TWism, or even the kind of MLM I like, are often more philosophical than scientific, at this point, because they are about declaring meaning on a phenomena, and this is something political economy stat-counting cannot do by itself. In any case, the conflation I mentioned had to do primarily with Cope.

      Well yes "super-exploitation" is the norm, but let's not misdefine it for rhetorical purposes. It simply means that the normative and global exploitation is far greater than the exploitation, in general, at the global centres but that the latter still exists. Maybe it makes more sense, for your purposes, to call it exploitation and mini-exploitation, but that's just playing a semantic game.


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