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Two Tendencies of Imperialism

I want to start this post by noting two tendencies of imperialism that are often treated as irreconciliable contradictions but are dialectically interrelated: 1) the tendency of super-profits gleaned from the export of capital to allow for a greater measure of social democracy at the centres of global capitalism (and thus what is sometimes called "the labour aristocracy" or the "phenomenon of embourgeoisment"); 2) the bourgeoisie's search for profit tends to result in the phenomena of down-sizing, of laying-off workers at the centre and breaking unions in order to harness cheap labour in peripheral nations or in migrant populations that have been forced from the peripheries to the centres.  The over-emphasis of either tendency results in a failure to understand the export of capital in totality.

Clearly, to speak of the first tendency at the expense of the second is to ignore reality.  In this period of capitalist crisis, labour unions at the centres of capitalism are being broken and oft-times, in some areas, it is difficult to see how there can be a labour aristocracy.  Capitalists, being capitalists, do not care as a class for social democratic reforms because these reforms get in the way of profit––the fact of exported capital means that they can and will lay-off first world workers in order to hire cheaper and more exploitable labour since greater exploitation means greater profit for the bourgeois class.  We might speak of a "labour aristocracy" as an aristocracy in relationship to global labour as a whole, but the bourgeoisie recognizes no aristocracy beyond its own class rule: this is not a holy estate that needs to be maintained by the guardians of capital––it is always threatened by crisis.

And yet to speak of the second tendency at the expense of the first often leads to the assumption that the theory of a so-called "labour aristocracy" does not exist because either: a) all workers are generally exploited equally; or b) that workers at the centre, because of down-sizing and jobs given to workers at or from the peripheries, are somehow more exploited because their livelihood is being stolen by workers elsewhere due to the export of capital (in a previous post I argued that this argument was absurd because it simply, reductio ad absurdum, reinstates a chauvinist theory of the labour aristocracy where the workers at the periphery, because they are somehow "stealing" jobs are the labour aristocrats and the laid-off workers at the centre are their victims).  But if all workers were exploited equally, then why would down-sizing happen in the first place?  The logic of exporting capital at the expense of union breaking and lay-offs in the centre is because there is more profit to be made at the peripheries.  And why is there more profit to made at the peripheries?  Because there are no aspects of social democracy––that which is only possible at the centres of capitalism because of imperialism––and thus a more exploitable work force.

As a class, capitalists cannot exist without exploitation and this is why, regardless of lay-offs and union breaking, workers in and from the periphery are exploited at a level beyond their core counterparts, even those who have been laid off.  Indeed, the laying off of workers at the centre is somewhat incidental to the mechanism of exploitation that generates profit here since profit is the surplus exploited from the value creation of workers––in this context, a super-exploited work force at and from the peripheries.  Laid off workers might form part of a reserve army of labour in the global centres, their laying off might even contribute to the value generation that produces surplus, but this very important point remains: if they had never been unionized, had never been in a context where welfare capitalism and its labour laws were possible, then they wouldn't have been laid off in the first place.  That is, down-sizing and union breaking happens, especially during times of crisis, because the labour aristocracy is in the way of profit.

Here it is important to examine how the labour aristocracy emerged, and to understand its general nature, in order to make sense of these contradictory tendencies.  First of all, it needs to be said that a labour aristocracy does not exist because of some capitalist conspiracy to intentionally buy-off the working class at the global centres––that is, capitalists did not get together one day in some illuminati-esque chamber and decide "hey, these workers of ours are getting uppity and we can deradicalize them through the export of capital and sharing the super-profits we make at the global peripheries!"  And though it might seem bizarre to point out how the possible existence of a labour aristocracy is not a conspiracy, it needs to be said because sometimes both advocates and detractors of this theory speak of it in such a way.  There is this assumption that there is a simple one-to-one ratio of super-profits to workers and that this defines the labour aristocracy.  But capitalists as a class are not interested in sharing out their profits, super or otherwise, because sharing profit is abstractly speaking not a very capitalist thing to do.

The historical emergence of a labour aristocracy, as I've mentioned in numerous posts (including the one linked above), is partially due to working-class struggles at the centres of capitalism.  Since capitalists will never give up any profit without a struggle, then the only reason this class did allow for the existence of a labour aristocracy is because they were made to allow for its existence in the process of class struggle.  Labour laws, unions, and every social democratic reform exist because of working-class struggle and not because capitalists wanted to play nice.  Nations at the centres of capitalism were forced to adopt forms of welfare capitalism; there were struggles in factories and in the legal arena that won workers the right to unions and other pro-worker, however mild, labour laws.

At the same time, however, the only reason these reforms were possible without breaking the boundaries of capitalist hegemony was because capitalists were able to find a way to persist as a class through the export of capital and thus the recovery of profit at the global peripheries.  Social democracy, where it exists and to whatever degree, is permitted because: a) it was forced into existence by concrete struggle and thus needed to be recognized by the "equal rights" (where greater force decides, as Marx points out) of bourgeois law; b) the loss of surplus could be circumvented through the export of capital and super-exploitation elsewhere.

In those belle epoques of capitalism, then, a labour aristocracy lives large at the centres of capitalism because capitalists are able to recuperate their profit at the peripheries without de-pacifying a first world working-class that is still slightly exploitable.  If labour laws mean I have to run a factory where I only receive a few dollars of surplus every hour from every worker, and yet I have the capital to also run factories in places where I can receive ten or twenty times that surplus, then I will not rock the boat of labour in my country; I will happily make a little surplus in one space (a little, of course, which translates often into millions) while, at the same time, making a lot of surplus elsewhere (multiple billions) even if it is annoying.  Of course, the temptation will always be to down-size and move my entire site of capital to those places where I can make the most, or spend time and money breaking unions and lobbying for anti-labour politicians at home, but I still have to deal with the fact of bourgeois legality.

So when we speak of a labour aristocracy we are speaking first and foremost of a structural context that exists because of super-profits gleaned from the peripheries––the context of welfare capitalism, of social democracy, of even democracy itself.  Not some simplistic situation where capitalists share their profits with first world workers to intentionally buy them off.  They are bought off, yes, and in the buying off the imperialist centres are able to sustain themselves ideologically, but this has to do with the wider social relations than some direct mechanism of bribing––the bribing is the result, not the cause.

But we know that, at times of crisis, capitalism becomes monolithic, fascistic, and turns against the very social democracy that only exists because of imperialism.  In these periods social democracy is attacked, is revealed to be nothing more than a superstructural concession, while imperialism also intensifies.  Capitalists close ranks and, unhappy with the concessions they made in their home nations, do everything possible to recuperate as much profit as they can––and this is where the tendency of down-sizing, union-breaking, and everything that supposedly contradicts the theory of the labour aristocracy comes into play.  Social democracy is challenged and thus a working-class that experiences a level of privilege (unlike their peripheral counterparts) due to said social democracy finds its stability challenged.  This is all part of the normative export of capitalism within the overall context of capitalism's logical functioning: sometimes there can be a labour aristocracy, sometimes it needs to be shattered, and in both cases imperialism continues untrammelled––despite down-sizing and union breaking at the global centres, where the so-called "labour aristocracy" is being reproletarianized, the most heinous forms of exploitation crescendo at the global peripheries.

That this context of labour aristocracy––because it is generally a context––can persist despite the tendency to down-size and union break, however, is something that needs to be recognized.  A few days ago, for example, some of my working-class family members were complaining that their labour was casualized because "all of the good jobs" were going to "foreigners".  And yet these foreigners, these migrant labourers, are people who, unlike my family members, would never receive public health care, welfare benefits, proper working days, and are often here on guest-worker programs.  They are supposedly "stealing jobs" and yet they are "stealing" nothing but the right to be exploited whereas those whose jobs they are stealing can still benefit from the social system which, through the legal mechanism of taxes and a context that exists because of imperialism, provides a better life.  Thus, at this point in time, even laid-off my family members remain a labour aristocracy in comparison to those people who are "stealing" their jobs.

But let's go back further into the history of the country in which I live, to that point where a labour aristocracy was just emerging against the wishes of the capitalist class.  When Chinese workers were brought to Canada to build the railroads they ended up in conflict with the already established anglo-saxon dominated unions of railroad workers.  Indeed, these workers were imported to break these unions, to mobilize cheaper and more exploitable labour, back at the slow dawn of Canadian social democracy.  The already established unions, however, did not try to fight this undermining of their union rights by recruiting Chinese migrant labour; instead, refusing to "pollute" the white unions with "foreign" workers (and yes, there were instances when they closed union membership to prevent Chinese admission), they treated migrant labourers as their enemy––as undesirables to the labour aristocracy they were building.

Thus, the knee-jerk protectionism that is often treated as "progressive" by the average social democrat has been a hallmark of capitalism since the early days of capitalist imperialism… In early 20th Century Canada, amongst a predominately white supremacist [settler] working-class that was slowly struggling to become a labour aristocracy, is it unsurprising that the song White Canada Forever was popular amongst the working-class at the western end of the railway?  And were the migrant workers whose guest-worker activities resulted in the laying-off of white Canadians somehow better off than those embattled union members who were threatened by their employment?  These questions, obviously, are rhetorical: the tendencies intersect, reveal themselves to be a single tendency all along.


  1. Very appreciate this post! It clarifies questions I've had with the theory of imperialism. It is especially helpful to explain the labor aristocracy in terms of class struggle and the self-activity of the working classes, instead of a conspiracy on the part of employers or the state. I do not believe either Lenin or Mao made this point as clearly as you do, though I could be wrong (they wrote a lot, obviously.)

    Thanks always for your work here. When's the book coming out?

    Marq Dyeth

    1. Glad that this post was helpful. I'm also glad you found it clear, because sometimes I fear that my writing is too opaque and meandering.

      If you mean the book I have up for consideration (at HM's publishing subsidiary), which is my doctoral dissertation, I still haven't heard whether or not it is accepted. If you mean the book I haven't finished but for which I might possibly have a publisher, that will probably be a few years––publication queues for small presses are long. (But as I always say, I'm more than happy to go with a quicker publisher if any are around!) I was thinking of making the draft introduction of the latter book, however, available as a downloadable PDF at some point.

      Or are you not talking about anything I have been writing but, rather, the long promised book of the PCR-RCP on PPW? Because I also want to know when that is coming out considering it's been promised for a while and is apparently still being written and/or edited.

    2. Ha! No I meant your work here. The relationship you outline between imperialism, the labor aristocracy, settlerism, and the attainment and defense of social democratic reforms by the self-activity of certain sectors of the working class is a formulation I've not seen before. I think people who care about this stuff would benefit from your perspective. But I don't know anything about publishing.

      I'll be interested to see what comes out of the PCR-RCP's book as well.


    3. Then thanks again for the confidence. The other book I'm working on, which is about how to philosophically engage with political theory as a marxist, does synthesize and adapt analyses from this blog in the areas you mention but in a (hopefully) more thorough way than the posts. As noted above, I might put the draft of the introduction up here in the future in order to see if it generates positive feedback.

    4. Greetings and thanks for the interesting contribution to this significant area of study.

      This piece is a good start at looking at the historical and social-contextual aspects of the labor aristocracy. And, as the piece notes, this is an area of study that has been somewhat dusty (despite its significance) since Lenin.

      If I may, I want to highlight one thing that I see as something of a methodology/a priori error which is generally part of discourse on the labor aristocracy. Specifically, the idea that the labor aristocracy is the result of their exclusive class struggle is fallacious. Rather, under conditions of nascent monopoly capitalism, the development of the labor aristocracy in imperialist countries and amongst oppressor nations was a means to counteract the class struggle of the proletariat as a whole.

      It is not as if labor aristocrats great-great-grandparents were part of the IWW, and hence their descents received the benefits. But, some white workers were. More importantly, the 20th century saw the development of the emergence of socialist states, which on a wider scale did pose an existential threat to the capitalist system. Hence, 'bribing' a section of the working class became a means for the international (monopoly) bourgeoisie to secure themselves against rising class struggle globally.

      In regards to conspiracies. Some people assign intent to causality and functionality. It is especially prolific in areas in which there is not sufficient explanation. I tend to equate Illuminati-type conspiracy theories as they normally exist to the 'creationist' view of society. Otherwise, yes, people with power know it and talk to each other about it. However, when power is so pervasive, there doesn't need to be conspiratorial designs to maintain it; it can go largely unspoken (similar to liberal white supremacy). Moreover, the actual functionality of a system and the objective role played by various agents therein tends to override any intent on their part.

    5. Lastly, the article itself does not seem to consider the notion that some workers exist via the exploitation of other workers. This was always implied by Marx (in the form of unproductive labor), but during his time it was such an insignificant factor. Today, tertiary sectors, those which merely facilitate the realization of value, have grown exponentially, specifically in tangent to monopoly capital. Thus, such unproductive labor is also woven into the fabric of imperialism and forms a basis of the labor aristocracy as well.

      Most of my own original work, which is based on differing rates of the price of labor power, has attempted to show how it is entirely feasible, based on the LTV, for some workers (productive or unproductive) to earn wages which include a portion of surplus necessarily generated through the exploitation of other workers. This, I believe, is not so much part of some conspiracy as it is part of the economic mechanisms of imperialism. This surplus is 'invested' in the wages of FW workers in the hopes (and actualization) that it will be realized by various sectors therein. Thusly, we can speak of surplus not merely being concentrated in the FW, but also saturated in the FW.

      As a final note on the above, even if we consider something like $20,000* or $40,000 to be the base-line value of full-time labor in the world system, we might see a picture in which significant portions of populations of imperialist countries are either net-exploiters or exploited on some marginal level. Yet, what would the implication be even if some portion of the Amerikan or Canadian working population was exploited while the other was not? Would that make the former revolutionary and the other not? I tend to argue this is not the case. After all, in the context of the world-system, this exploited population is still far removed from the proletariat as a whole. It may well aspire to be like its non-exploited counterpart with which it shares some common culture. “Against class essentialism,” is a good slogan in this case.

      [In all honesty and as you alluded to, someone who is working and/or gaming the system can probably secure for themselves $20,000 worth of welfare benefits, so it could be quite possible that even people on welfare are maintained above the value of labor.]

      Of course the above doesn't touch on many positive prescriptions. I think there is a lot that could be done (and that isn't to say there are not positive models existing today), but before that happens there needs to be an honest assessment of the actual class terrain. This post, despite the problems I outlined above, is a step forward in such rectifying discourse.

      Nikolai Brown

    6. Thanks for the comments. This was not intended to be an article on the labour aristocracy per se, but on a specific tension that some people take to be a contradiction that some claim either disproves the labour aristocracy or that others, who uphold the labour aristocracy, generally ignore.

      I think where I would disagree is where you say that the labour aristocracy is not a result of class struggle but just a means to counteract it; I think it is both and at the same time––a result and a means––and that the two are so dialectically intertwined that pulling them apart leads to an extremely positivist analysis of the phenomenon. And this is precisely what is at issue with this article: not about the labour aristocracy but about the inability of people who examine or dismiss this reality to think through things dialectically.

      As for workers exploiting other workers, this was alluded to yes but tangental to the main point of this small article. I'm generally in agreement with the points you've made about this.

  2. According to John Smith's "Imperialism and the Globalisation of Production" job security as a rule is much stronger in the imperial centers than in the periphery. That is: it is true that during crisis workers are fired and unions are weakened in the Center, but while this is happening many more workers are being fired in the Periphery, since the crisis has made them redundant. Some of the jobs might be transfered during the crisis, but the peak moment of "job stealing" (as your family calls it) does not happen during the bust phase of the boom-bust cycle. On top of this, of course, we'd need to add all the diferences about unemployment benefits, free health care and education, etc, which makes the fact of being without a job much more dramatic in certain places.

    Other than that, great post!

    1. I agree that job security is stronger in the centres than in the periphery, and I wasn't trying to argue otherwise, though it is true that the ideology of "job stealing" demonstrates a failure, on the part of workers here, to realize this fact. My reductio ad absurdum comment in part communicates to this point. In any case, I think to speak about comparing job security at the centres to job security at the peripheries is a category mistake since the concept of "job security" is dependent on welfare capitalism; it not only does not exist at the peripheries, it is non-sensical.

      And the "job stealing" I was talking about with my family was a transfer to exploited, non-unionized labour here, not in the peripheries. Particularly I was speaking of migrant labour, but I was probably being too particular (mainly because I was looking at the specific sector that my family works in). What was meant here (and it's really no "theft") was the broader casualization of labour in which capitalists prefer to draw workers from the reserve army and the non-unionized, a hard core of the proletariat, rather than unions.


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