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Meta-Review: The Worker Elite

Although it is true that an innacurate review of a book tends to reveal more about the reviewer's politics than the book in question, it is also true that such reviews might do damage to the reviewed book by convincing possible readers to avoid it at all costs.  In this context, then, the cliche "no press is bad press" is far from a truism: if enough potential readers assume that a review written by an author they respect is accurate––because why would they have reason to dispute the views of someone they trust?––then they will avoid that which this author has thrown into dispute even if this author has done so in an erroneous and dishonest manner.  Clearly, the average reader cannot read everything, and must trust those reviewers whose work s/he respects, and so reviews can sometimes function in a "gate-keeping" manner.  In this sense, even if a dishonest/inaccurate review can and should shed light on the reviewer's own political sympathies, such an insight will go over the heads of those who, because of such a review, will never read the book in question and encounter the political dissonance.

Such is the case with most reviews written about books that critique one of the commonplace dogmas of the first world left: that the unionized working-class at the centres of capitalism is the proletariat.  Despite generations of revolutionary theorists, since Lenin, speaking of something that can be called "the labour aristocracy", to even dare to question the union space's claim to proletarian essence is considered heretical.  Those books that did pose such questions, whatever problems they actually did nor did not possess, are dismissed a priori and dishonestly––as I once demonstrated in the case of Post's review of Cope's Divided World Divided Class––so as to police any engagement with a theory that challenges a normative assumption of organization that has become woefully economist.  To be clear, I am not arguing that such challenges should not be critiqued (I myself have problems with particular arguments/elements of some of them) but only that the way in which they are critiqued has been, to date, so dishonest and inaccurate that, if I was presented with this kind of engagement by an undergraduate student, I would give them an extremely low mark.

Stephen D'arcy's review of Bromma's The Worker Elite is yet another example of this misrepresentation of the subject matter.  It is even worse when, as the publisher of Bromma's book (who is also the publisher of my book) told me in August, people who have read this review use it as justification to not read the book that D'arcy inaccurately reviewed, imagining that an inaccurate summation of the text in question was some sort of "take down" simply because they have chosen to designate D'arcy as an authority. (But an authority of what?  Just what has this academic reviewer organized?  In what way has he embedded himself in working class struggles?  Bromma's book begins by discussing the fact that the author, following one of the dominant trends of the anti-revisionist movement of the 1970s/80s, attempted to declass by involving himself in the industrial working class.  Has D'arcy done the same, thus allowing him to speak with the same concrete certainty?  And if he has, though his biography seems to locate him only in a social democrat organizing space, why the hell isn't he aware of the problem of the economism that every revolutionary organization that has attempted to embed itself in these organized worker movements has encountered?)  But no, just because he possesses some academic authority, his straw-person review of The Worker Elite is treated as authoritative––a "take down", an honest assessment by someone who lacks the experience to even be honest in this context, a gate-keeping review.

Here's that cover image again.

Anyone who has bothered to read Bromma's treatise should realize the dishonesty in D'arcy's review.  It's so inaccurate that it borders on the laughable––worse, even, than Charlie Post's review of Cope and, to be fair, I think Bromma paints more a far more nuanced picture of the first world working-class than Cope.  Indeed, D'arcy's review reads more like a critique of Cope than Bromma, despite being peppered with quotes from the latter's book.  But even if D'arcy was to primarily direct his attack at Cope, his attempt to accuse those who believe in the theory of the labour aristocracy of endorsing a model of "privilege" over a model of "exploitation" would be quite off-base.  Cope has a theory of exploitation, after all, that requires engagement and that has nothing to do with the vague category of "privilege" that D'arcy ascribes to his discontents: the theory of net-exploitation.  Whether or not this theory is correct is besides the point; the fact is that it is ignored altogether and instead we are told, by the likes of D'arcy, that those who complain about a labour aristocracy aren't talking about exploitation just because of an antinomy that D'arcy sets up that is in no way accurate.

Returning to the Bromma text, it is important to point out that we have several reviews that provide an analysis that undermines many of D'arcy's claims––my own, the one by the Worker's Dreadnought, Gabriel Kuhn's, one on anti-imperialism, and others––because they maintain that Bromma is saying things that have nothing to do with D'arcy's interpretation.  All of these reviews understood the Worker Elite to be arguing something that D'arcy claims otherwise, as if the former had read a different book than the latter.  This dissonance is significant, far more important than D'arcy's vague "take down".

But let us examine this so-called "take down" so we can understand just how and why it is inaccurate.  Whenever the problematic of the labour aristocracy is discussed––from the most extreme to the more nuanced variant––it is always met with a knee-jerk rejection on the part of those who are offended by the very possibility that it might be correct.  An entire constellation of stratagems are employed, as we saw with the aforelinked Post review of the Cope text.  D'arcy's mis-review is a perfect anatomy of this approach.

The way in which D'arcy begins his review feels quite dishonest.  He lists a series of bottom-up union movements based on significant demands and claims that The Worker Elite is treating these struggles as "the struggles of a parasitic elite attempting to defend its unearned privileges."  And yet, while it is true that Bromma is trying to examine the existence/persistence of a "parasitic elite" in the working class, at no point is this author arguing: a) that all union struggles are determined by this parasitism; b) that this parasitism has to do with "unearned privileges."  Point (a) can easily be grasped if one bothers to read The Worker Elite from start to finish: the author eventually provides examples of bottom-up union movements that are not, in themselves, struggles to defend "unearned privileges"––and are in fact quite laudable––but that have been tragically co-opted by what he calls "the worker elite"; D'arcy seems to miss the general point of this extended essay.  Point (b), however, requires a significant level of unpacking since D'arcy builds his entire argument on this misconception.

The entirety of D'arcy's "review" hinges on the distinction between a class analysis based on "privilege" or "exploitation".  The latter analysis is marxist, meaning materialist; the former is non-marxist, meaning idealist.  His claim, of course, is that Bromma is guilty of making a "privilege" analysis of class, and thus guilty of failing to understand the mechanism of exploitation upon which class contradiction is determined.  If this was indeed the case, then this would be a devastating analysis since, as any marxist should know, the differentiation between the bourgeois and the proletariat is based on the theory of exploitation.  The problem, however, is that D'arcy's entire argument regarding Bromma's failure to understand exploitation due to their adherence to a concept of privilege rests only on the definition of Bromma's theory provided by, well, D'arcy: "the struggles of a parasitic elite attempting to defend its unearned privileges."

What Bromma is actually saying is that exploitation (yes, D'arcy, exploitation) is what determines the stratification of the working-class at the centres of capitalism and elsewhere, thus producing a measure of privilege for some workers due to the greater exploitation of others.  The entire analysis is driven by a theory of exploitation, which is treated as something that generates differentials of privilege, and so the entire "privilege vs. exploitation" narrative concocted in this review is off-the-mark.  Are there workers who are more exploited than other workers, and are there workers who benefit from the exploitation of their counterparts?  This is one question The Worker Elite attempts to address.  Do the workers who benefit from the exploitation of their counterparts end up, because of the fact that they benefit from exploitation, with a consciousness that is not proletarian, do they no longer have nothing to lose but their chains (i.e. their houses, their two cars, their medical benefits, etc.) and why is this case?  For if this is their consciousness, and social being determines social consciousness, we need to make sense of this social being.  We cannot just conjure it away in some "ruling class conspiracy" nonsense, where chauvinism is simply some alien ideology that would not set workers against each other if it wasn't imported by the ruling classes: now this truly is an idealist understanding of oppression, since it is not a materialist account, and leads to the most utopian understanding of class struggle––why can't we all get along, if only everyone would recognize their true interests that are part of their secret proletarian essence, etc.––which is, it is worth noting, a position D'arcy seems to presume in another article on the same website.

As noted above, there are moments of D'arcy's analysis that appear to be conflating Bromma with theorists such as Zak Cope when, in point of fact, Bromma is not making the same point about the labour aristocracy as Cope––he is not arguing that there is no proletariat at the centres of capitalism.  But even if Bromma's analysis of the "worker elite" was identical to Cope's conceptualization of the labour aristocracy, D'arcy would still be dealing with a theory of exploitation and not privilege.  Cope's analysis of this problematic has nothing to do with the boundaries D'arcy decides to cosmetically apply in his bifurcation between "exploitation" and "privilege"; it is a theory of exploitation, though not one with which I fully agree, that we can deem net-exploitation.  To dismiss this a "privilege" theory of working-class conceptualization, then, is rather dishonest: if you have a problem with this theory than it should be based on a critique of why net-exploitation––which is based on an investigation of same concept of surplus-value and the mechanisms of unequal exchange and unequal production––is an erroneous theory of exploitation, not that it is a theory of "privilege" which is not something that Cope and others permit as a root definition.

D'arcy gets around this problem, however, by setting up a false dichotomy––a bifurcation, a pseudo-antimony––between his understanding of privilege and exploitation that allows him to dismiss anything that questions his own narrow definition of exploitation as belonging to the realm of idealist privilege-based and identity politics.  That is, he sets up a binary of privilege/exploitation that allows him to dismiss the former half due to a Platonic conceptualization of the latter.  According to D'arcy the privilege approach to class "is understood as a location in a system of differences… a two-way antagonism between boss and worker. Just as important as the boss/worker conflict… is the antagonism or differentiation between differently located groups of workers." D'arcy's understanding of the exploitation approach to class "is understood in terms of the antagonistic relationships between boss and worker, and the 'friction of interests'… that propels them toward conflict. In this view, workers are regarded as fundamentally productive, in contrast to members of the employer class who are fundamentally parasitic and unproductive."

Okay, so what?  The latter definition of exploitation makes sense, and is one that Bromma would also agree with.  So would Cope with his theory of net-exploitation: the point for Cope, after all, is not that first world workers are primarily more privileged but that their privilege is due to the fact that they are less productive than workers at the periphery who are the primary (and perhaps, based on how we read this theory, the only) productive class.  Earlier versions of this theory, such as the one held by the Danish anti-imperialists covered by the book Turning Money Into Rebellion argued that first world states were parasitic and unproductive.  In this sense, the entire world is transformed into a relationship between managerial states and worker states, and thus the working-class of the latter states are part of a parasitical global proletariat that are, based on the theory of net-exploitation, ultimately unproductive.  D'arcy's claim that this a theory of privilege really holds no water since the concept of net-exploitation deals with the categories of production and exchange.  If it does so in an erroneous manner, as D'arcy would probably argue, is besides the point since this is not the argument he is making.  But to be clear, Bromma is not making an argument that is identical to Cope's conceptualization of net-exploitation; I've argued in my aforelinked review that it's more nuanced. (Again, the only reason I'm bringing up Cope up in this context is because D'arcy's article often reads as if it is directed at the Cope-style position, rather than the one held by Bromma, and yet still gets it wrong.)

Returning to Bromma's analysis in The Worker Elite, then, it is extremely odd that D'arcy would accuse the author of ignoring his definition of exploitation in favour of some bifurcated understanding of privilege.  Bromma was clear that the location of the proletariat must be centred on a concept of exploitation; his sin, according to D'arcy, was in the argument that some workers can be parasitical and thus experience the privilege of being parasites by benefiting from the exploitation of other workers.  At no point in The Worker Elite does Bromma argue that class should be defined according to a differential of privilege; the argument is that its location is in a differential of exploitation that produces a differential of privilege.  Does D'arcy really imagine that the struggles of every member of the working-class is identical, that different levels of privilege are not dictated by different positions of exploitation because exploitation is something that is flat, vague, and Platonic?  That it doesn't have anything to do with sites of oppression?  Did black workers in the Civil Rights era in the US have identical interests to white workers, and why the hell did the unions composed of the latter tend to side primarily with white power?  Just for the hell of it, not because of some materialist differential of exploitation; because they were tricked into being racists, not that they actually possessed historical and materialist reasons behind their racism?

Actually we don't need to go as far as the Civil Rights to recognize this differential of treatment; we only need to look at Ferguson.  But at the very least, if we do go back decades, we can find a wealth of anti-revisionist communist theory that attempts to come to grips with this different treatment––this supposed privilege analysis of class––because it was a reality that affected organization.  D'arcy's analysis of class, where there is a scission between privilege and exploitation just because, belongs to the kind of class essentialist garbage that the CPUSA was putting out before the Panthers shook things up.  Worse, it belongs to the class essentialism that is a hallmark of every "white" marxist orthodoxy.  To assume that the "differential" between black and white worker in the 1960s/70s was not also a differential of exploitation was tantamount to declaring oneself an opportunist, or at best behind the times, and so to do so now (because racism and other sites of oppression have not disappeared) is somewhat inexcusable. [Here it is worth noting the Sojourner Truth Organization's seminal article, one of the anti-revisionist ML pieces of the 70s,  Black Worker / White Worker, that was written by Noel Ignatiev, one of the important names in critical race theory. D'arcy's awareness of this kind of literature, if this review is any evidence, seems to be quite limited.]

Thus, the problem with D'arcy's entire distinction between privilege and exploitation is that he imagines that privilege and exploitation are somehow disconnected, that the mechanism of the latter does not determine the former.  While it may be an error to conflate super-exploitation with exploitation (and this might be the point to which he is speaking without really being aware of it), to assume that people who are marginally exploited but at the same time benefit from the exploitation of others––and even consciously understand that this is the case––are somehow in the same camp as the super-exploited is wishful thinking, the kind of idealist fluff produced by people who have never organized in a significant manner.  Do the workers in privileged union spaces (privileged because of their position in a chain of exploitation) have nothing to lose but their chains?  Of course not: otherwise they would be more receptive to communist ideology, and it is not simply because of a history of cold war ideology that they are not––the reason they are open to even accepting this ideology as true is because they do see their struggles as privileged.  And this is the larger point: they want their privilege, they don't understand themselves as exploited, and they help maintain D'arcy's discourse of "privilege versus exploitation."

Reading this review, then, was not only annoying because it seemed to miss the point of Bromma's analysis––which, to my mind, was about understanding where to begin when organizing against capital––but because it had nothing to do with a concrete analysis of the concrete situation of Canada.  Has D'arcy even been part of a union struggle, has he experienced economism, has he ever tried to make sense of the mechanisms, from his own organic experience, that always push the lowest level of trade-union consciousness over any revolutionary consciousness?  Does he really think that to speak of differentials amongst the working class is tantamount to some idealist "privilege" analysis rather than something that is based on making sense of how exploitation functions in a larger sense?  These are, of course, questions his review cannot answer because it is a review that is unmoored from reality, incapable of taking the object of its critique seriously.