Beyond empiricism: More on the "Divided world, divided class" debate

Is the working class divded? How is it divided? What does this mean for revolutionary strategy? A new book by a Zak Cope, Divided World, Divided Class: Global Political Economy and the Stratification of Labour Under Capitalism which some see as theoretical evidence for the politics of third worldism has sparked a great deal of debate? Kasama is posting a series of reviews of Cope's work in order to spark discussion on the relation between class composition, imperialism,and revolutioinary strategy. We've posted reviews by Matthijs Krul and Charlie Post. The following is a critique of Charlie Post's review on the MLM Mayhem blog.

The Theory of Labour Aristocracy and its Discontents: a meta-review of Cope's "Divided World Divided Class"

Although the position Charlie Post takes in his thorough, and thoroughly backwards, review of Zak Cope's Divided World Divided Class was predictable, the review itself tells us more about the state of critical thought amongst marxist theorists at the centres of capitalism than anything else. We could point out that the fact that Post begins by snidely claiming there is no empirical basis for the theory of the labour aristocracy is a rather humorous attempt at empty rhetoric: he knows that numerous revolutionary political economists such as Samir Amin have provided an empirical framework to apprehend a labour aristocracy because he argued with their frameworks in his own analysis (simply because your empirical framework is in disagreement with another doesn't mean that there is no empirical data, it just means that you are calling one set of empirical data into question with your own); he should also be aware that his own empirical data was called into question with another framework of competing empirical data. We could also point out that his argument from authority where he claims that the theory of the labour aristocracy was disproved by a non-marxist (though anti-capitalist) political economist Anwar Shaikh is somewhat laughable. The real point, however, and one that Post cannot help but miss, is that any attempt to prove or disprove the theory of the labour aristocracy through empiricism can only go so far: just us Cope can find the data to prove the theory, Post can mobilize opposing data to supposedly undermine this data, and Cope could probably reply with another pie chart or set of statistics, and Post would reply again... round and around it goes.

This is because crude empiricism is not materialism and political economy is not science. If we were to believe that this was the case, then we would have to accept the pure economist "mathematical proofs" that communism is doomed to fail, or at least lose ourselves in the infinite back-and-forths between marxist and anti-marxist economists who are just as deft at conjuring numbers and tables to throw dust in the eyes of their opponents. So where Post claims that Cope's arguments "do not withstand critical examination", the same can be said about Post's earlier claims to the contrary (as the aforelinked article demonstrates), and the point here is that this sort of positivism is not, as Post imagines, tantamount to "critical examination". As historical materialists we have to understand that an empirical analysis does not simply break down to positivist exercises in empiricism; here the empirical goes beyond statistic citing and economistic sophistry––it is about examining the concrete historical processes of which statistics are an abstraction. To allow oneself to be trapped on the level of abstraction is to abandon scientific core of historical materialism, replacing a materialist empirical analysis and become trapped on the level of appearance.

None of this is to say that Post's critique of Cope's book is completely without merit. True to rhetorical form, he focuses on the weakest points of Cope's analysis––a weakness I mentioned in passing in my review of the book––where there is an attempt to find a one-to-one relationship between imperialist exploitation and super-profits. Since Post himself understands the theory of the labour aristocracy according in this simplistic manner, and ignores the analysis that is even contained in Divided World Divided Class that is not about this one-to-one relationship, he is probably on safe ground to focus only on this aspect of the book.

Although I think this one-to-one relationship between super-exploitation and super-profits paid to workers can be found through the same methods used by Post (and was indeed found by Cope) I also think it can also be disproved according to the same epistemological apparatus, and so to avoid this endless back-and-forth debate of empiricism I have always been of the opinion that this approach to the theory is incorrect. After all, a similar back-and-forth debate regarding the labour theory of value has been going on for almost a century and, in order to break this endless circle of political economic stat-citing, there needs to be a philosophical intervention to clarify the meaning of the theory, to compare approaches, and to find one theoretically wanting.

Indeed, the debates surrounding the labour theory of value are useful in understanding this debate surrounding the theory of the labour aristocracy. While Marx mobilized numbers and statistics to imply that the price of a given commodity was, in the last instance, a reflection of the labour-time of the worker, this was not at all the strength of his theory. After all, innumerable political economists have made much ado about the supposed impossibility of discovering that aspect of price that directly represents labour power, and have been able to reply to every marxist economist statistical attempt to claim otherwise––Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler, for example, have written an entire book (Capital as Power) where the methods of crude empiricism are employed to supposedly demolish the labour theory of value and put in its place a rather silly and anti-materialist conception of value that is little more than a restating of Eugene Duhring's theories that were thoroughly crushed by Engels. But what makes this theory scientific is not its ability/inability to explain the transformation problem through statistics and equations, but the very concrete fact that without labour there could be no value in a given commodity because without labour there would be no commodities that could be exchanged. Price is clearly a reflection on some level of this fact, but only as an abstraction of the concrete.

Similarly, the strength of the theory of the labour aristocracy is not based on statistically proving where and when super-profits contribute to the wages of first world workers, but on the fact that workers at the centres of imperialism live in a social context that could only be possible because of imperialism, i.e. welfare capitalism where there could be that historic compromise between labour and capital. And while it is true that this compromise happened partially because of working class struggles (the ruling class never concedes anything, even its super-profits, without a struggle), the only reason it could happen without threatening capitalism in toto is because of super-exploitation. To assume otherwise is to ignore the inequality of nations produced by imperialism and that some nations oppress others––a rather ludicrous assumption that would require a rather manic level of historical amnesia and the pretence that contemporary imperialist interventions are done just for the hell of it without any economic justification. In this context it makes sense to assume that the wages of workers at the centres, who live within a welfare capitalism where any reform is dependent on the fact of imperialism, are in some manner affected by the super-profits just as the price of a commodity is in some manner decided by labour power. Attempting to prove this relationship, however, requires a level of abstraction that can always be called into question as long as it is torn from its concrete basis and treated as the theory in itself––and this is precisely what Post does in his review of Cope's book, just as he has done in all of his writings in this regard.

Before proceeding any further, it is worth asking why authors such as Post are so invested in disproving the theory of the labour aristocracy. In my meta-review regarding Sakai's Settlers I dealt with two other first world marxist reviewers (one of whom wrote for the same site that published Post's review, thus demonstrating that the organization behind this site is extremely interested in disproving the theory) who were similarly offended by the same theory; I was interested in why there seemed to be a desperation on their part to reject the only theory that is capable of explaining the default opportunism that is prevalent at the centres of capitalism. And since I reject the circumstantial ad hominem as being fallacious, and even mentioned this rejection in my initial review of Cope's book, I would wager that this desire to reject the theory of the labour aristocracy that is common amongst marxists at the centres of capitalism is due to the very fact of the labour aristocracy. That is, marxist theorists who live in the privileged centres of imperialism where welfare capitalism is only possible because of super-exploitation in the peripheries do not like being reminded of their privilege, or the general privilege of the working classes they claim to represent, and are desperate to prove that they are still part of the worldwide vanguard.

Social being does affect social consciousness, and the fact that Charlie Post is privileged to live at one of the global imperialist centres (like me, like many of my readers!) produces a default epistemology that, unless critically examined, will colour every theoretical engagement with the world at large. And anyone invested in rejecting the theory of the labour aristocracy is just like everyone invested in rejecting the labour theory of value: the rejection of the latter is based on bourgeois consciousness, the desire to "disprove" that value is made, in the last instance, by the proletariat; the rejection of the former is based on an imperialist consciousness, the desire to disprove that the social reforms at the centre are only possible, in the last instance, because of imperialist exploitation.

Interestingly enough, Post's review touches upon the very thing that the theory of labour aristocracy explains and, in an attempt to provide a counter-explanation, ends up demonstrating the limitation of Post's thought. It is worth quoting this passage at length:

"Clearly, the vast majority of workers in the global North––and in the global South––most of the time are not revolutionary, or even actively contesting the capitalist offensive. [...] However, the roots of these phenomena are not found in the sharing of super-profits derived from imperialist investment, unequal exchange and monopoly. Rather, they're found in the objective structure of capitalist social property relations that make possible varied forms of working class conscious praxis––working class conscious behaviour and action. [...] While collective mass struggle against capital is the basis for working class political radicalization, the roots of reformism can be located in the separation of workers under capitalism from the means of production. Working class collective organization and activity is necessarily episodic, for the simple reason that workers must sell their labour power in order to survive, and thus cannot continually engage in struggle. The episodic character of the class struggle produces both a layer of full-time officials within the labour-movement and prolonged periods of working class passivity. And it is this that constitutes the social foundations of both the unconditional reformism of the officialdom and the conditional reformism of most workers. [...] The roots of working class conservatism are found in the constant competition among workers as individuals sellers of labour power. In the absence of effective, collective class organisation, workers are pitted one against another on the basis of race, gender, nationality for jobs, promotions, education and housing. This competition among workers provides the social environment for the development of racism, sexism, nativism and other conservative ideas among workers. [...] [W]hich form of consciousness develops in which sections of the working class historically depends upon the presence, shape and strength of resistance and struggle.

Here is an attempt to explain precisely what only the theory of the labour aristocracy can explain with a set of philosophically confused ideas, a theoretical mess that is in itself haunted by the very theory it seeks to reject. And it is here that I want to concentrate my critique of Post's review since it is the only worthwhile aspect of the review: the theory of the labour aristocracy is scientific because it can explain the phenomena of opportunism at the centres of capitalism––it possesses an explanatory power, and one that fits the confines of occam's razor––that other explanations (which are very minor) lack. So here is Post's only real argument against the theory of the labour aristocracy; the rest is economic mystification.

First of all, Post begins this explanation by homogenizing the working class. As if imperialism does not exist, the working classes of the centres and peripheries are identical and share similar concerns. He claims that most of the time this working class is not revolutionary when, in point of fact, working class movements in "the global south" have been by-and-large far more revolutionary than their reformist counterparts at the centre. He spirits away the fact that every significant revolution, including the two world historical socialist revolutions (Russia and China), happened at the margins of imperialism, at Lenin's "weakest links", in those places that some of us would say are "super-exploited". These are movements that have and are indeed "actively contesting the capitalist offensive" and this needs to be explained––something that his analysis cannot do but what the theory of the labour aristocracy can do and has done. It is somewhat despicable that a self-proclaimed marxist refuses to speak about communism's historical revolutionary experience, let alone contemporary people's wars that are erupting in the peripheries as we speak––but in this sense, Post is no different than many first world communists who like to pretend that revolutionary people's wars don't matter.

Secondly, Post's claim that the roots of revolutionary inaction can be found in "varied forms of working class conscious praxis" begs the question, and keeps on begging it throughout this entire passage. We need to ask about the ultimate roots of this varied consciousness, just as we need to point out that this consciousness varies most significantly when we compare working class struggles in the periphery to working class struggles in the centre. What is the consciousness of an activist at the centres of capitalism compared to the consciousness and praxis of an active Naxal at the periphery? Let's go back further in history: what is the active consciousness of your average SPD member compared to the active consciousness of a Bolshevik? Or let us place this variation at the very heart of world capitalism: what is the active consciousness of an active union worker compared to the active consciousness of a non-unionized migrant worker or an active member of an oppressed nation?

Thirdly, before attempting to explain this variation, Post speaks of the "episodic" nature of resistance and how it is based on the fact that workers need to sell their labour power to survive. Obviously this is the case, but again there is a marked difference in the episodes at the centres of capitalism and the peripheries, and there is also the fact that social democratic reforms exist only at the centres and these reforms mitigate the problem of crude survival. Moreover, according to this analysis of labour power sale and survival, it would seem that the more brute the sale the less time someone would have to engage in the business of revolution––and yet exploitation is demonstrably harsher at the peripheries (or does working in a sweat shop without health care/insurance, without welfare, in what is tantamount so slavery not count as greater exploitation?) and even still anti-capitalist movements are stronger in these regions. I'm beginning to suspect, however, that Post does not believe that capitalism is more oppressive in the global peripheries and everyone is exploited in the same manner and his idea of this "episodic" struggle is based only on a myopic view of the first world.

Finally, Post attempts to ground his concept of variation in the theory that competition amongst workers is promoted by some bourgeois conspiracy of racist, sexist, nationalist ideology. This is precisely the simple-minded analysis of oppression, where x oppression only exists because it is designed by a group of bourgeois conspirators to "divide the working" class, that I have already critiqued as ahistorical, idealist, and just plain lazy in a previous post. And the point I made in this critique is that to simply explain away racism and sexism as some plot to divide the working class fails to answer the question; it does not explain why racism/sexism/etc. exists in the first place and why it possesses such a strong ideological cache amongst certain sectors of the working class. Thus Post lapses into the same anti-materialist analysis of the phenomena of oppression, unable like so many others to provide anything approaching explanatory depth to what he seeks to describe. Most importantly, however, he does not seem to grasp that the phenomena of racism can only be explained in a historical materialist manner according to the theory of the labour aristocracy. Hence, the very theory he seeks to dismiss haunts the grounds of his dismissal.

All-in-all, Post and his ilk do not appear to think that imperialism exists, or if they believe it exists they do not appear to believe that it matters. In their view, it does not contribute at all to the "variation" of the working class, which seems to happen all by itself without any logic––the phenomena of racism and sexism emerge in a vacuum, nothing more than the conspiratorial plot of an unvaried bourgeois class spreading divisions to variate the working class. And yet, since I do not at all believe that Post is stupid (he did, after all, write a pretty significant book on the American bourgeois revolution that shifted this revolutionary impetus from the Washington era to the Civil War), I am convinced that he does believe that imperialism is a fact because to believe otherwise would be to dismiss reality and assume that phenomena such as the recent interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Haiti, Libya, etc. did not happen.

But if imperialism is a fact then we need to ask, as historical materialists, whether it is more than spectacular moments of militarism. According to Post's analysis, it seems as if imperialism doesn't really do anything, existing only as a banal fact. After all, his division of the world into a "global north" and "global south" seems to admit that there is a worldwide imperialist division, but this division does not factor into the "varied forms" he discusses even though it is a rather significant variation. Thus, according to his analysis, imperialism seems to be an eternal global fate that lacks historical contingency: the division of the world into wealthy and impoverished nations is a Platonic destiny, just the way things are, rather than something that emerged through concrete historical processes. And if there was a reason for the emergence of imperialism, and the fact that some nations were able to become powerful at the expense of others, it makes sense to wonder whether this development also affected the development of class struggle.

We need to ask why the most powerful capitalist nations involve themselves in the business of subaltern nations and what they get out of this involvement. We need to ask whether this involvement produces a fact of global exploitation, whether there is a reason for corporations to down-size and export capital, and what all of this means for working class struggles at the centre. We need to make sense of the mainstream first world working class' identification with imperialism and why its consciousness is generally "variated" from the consciousness of their counterparts who are experiencing occupation, bombing, and sweat-shop exploitation. These are all questions that can only be explained by a theory of labour aristocracy––by a theory that claims that workers at the global centres, by the very fact that they live in these global centres, currently benefit in some way through imperialist exploitation. And this is the strength of the theory of labour aristocracy, a strength that is sorely lacking in Post's confused alternate account.

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  • Guest - R. Fly, Esq.

    Nice digs you got here.

    This thread might be dead, and sometimes I feel like I'm shouting into the wind, but let me say a couple of things anyway.

    First of all, I haven't read the book. So my impressions are based solely on the reviews. A couple things did stand out to me though in this riposte to Post's review.

    This is because crude empiricism is not materialism and political economy is not science. If we were to believe that this was the case, then we would have to accept the pure economist "mathematical proofs" that communism is doomed to fail, or at least lose ourselves in the infinite back-and-forths between marxist and anti-marxist economists who are just as deft at conjuring numbers and tables to throw dust in the eyes of their opponents.


    This has a bit of a postmodern flavor to it. Because there's an ongoing argument over the numbers, we have to simply accept the infinite back and forth or accept mathematical proofs that communism is doomed? It's true that crude empiricism is not materialism, but you haven't shown that a crude empiricism is the basis of Post's argument, only that there's an empirical debate. Indeed, as I'll point at, I think there's a deep theoretical foundation to Post's objections. Moreover, it's not simply the case that because one side says one thing, and the other side says another, and they go back and forth for a long time, that the truth is undecidable. I think that's the method usually at work in the bourgeois media: "People in Pakistan say that civilians at funerals have been targeted by drones. Administration officials say they haven't been. One side says one thing, the other side says another, and in order to be "objective" we'll just leave it at that."

    So here is Post's only real argument against the theory of the labour aristocracy; the rest is economic mystification.


    Economic mystification? Really? Post gives us the standard Marxian economic mechanism for why, according to Marx's theory, “first world” workers tend to be more exploited than “third world” workers, and the author just writes the whole thing off as “economic mystification”. The author simply avoids addressing the issue of the relation between exploitation and capital composition, a relation which is not born of misguided empiricism but of bedrock Marxian political economy. As Post says, the tendency is less pronounced today as some of the most capital-intensive industries are now located in the “third world” while “first world” workers in places like the U.S. and Britain have seen rampant de-industrialization.

    Moreover, according to this analysis of labour power sale and survival, it would seem that the more brute the sale the less time someone would have to engage in the business of revolution––and yet exploitation is demonstrably harsher at the peripheries (or does working in a sweat shop without health care/insurance, without welfare, in what is tantamount so slavery not count as greater exploitation?) and even still anti-capitalist movements are stronger in these regions. I'm beginning to suspect, however, that Post does not believe that capitalism is more oppressive in the global peripheries and everyone is exploited in the same manner and his idea of this "episodic" struggle is based only on a myopic view of the first world.


    Exploitation and oppression are not synonyms. Oppression is a moral term, whereas exploitation is a scientific technical term in Marxian political economy that designates the process by which surplus value, i.e. the “extra value” the worker produces, over and above the amount she/he receives in the form of wages, is extracted from the worker by the capitalist through the appropriation of her/his labor power in the production of commodities.

    Oppression is a catch-all moral term for various phenomena, exploitation being one of them, but also racial discrimination, gender discrimination, colonialism etc.

    Finally, Post attempts to ground his concept of variation in the theory that competition amongst workers is promoted by some bourgeois conspiracy of racist, sexist, nationalist ideology. This is precisely the simple-minded analysis of oppression, where x oppression only exists because it is designed by a group of bourgeois conspirators to "divide the working" class, that I have already critiqued as ahistorical, idealist, and just plain lazy in a previous post. And the point I made in this critique is that to simply explain away racism and sexism as some plot to divide the working class fails to answer the question; it does not explain why racism/sexism/etc. exists in the first place and why it possesses such a strong ideological cache amongst certain sectors of the working class.


    The theory of the labor aristocracy as put forward by Cope wouldn't explain racism, sexism, bourgeois nationalism, etc. either though would it? Because for Cope isn't it social democratic consciousness and social democratic policy in the imperialist countries that explains the alleged backwardness of first world workers? Racism, sexism, bourgeois nationalism...all long predated social democracy.

    I don't know if a bourgeois conspiracy is at the origins of these reactionary phenomena, but I do think there arose historically something of a conspiracy amongst the bourgeoisie to maintain these things, or at least amongst important sections of the bourgeoisie. Certainly organizations like the KKK had deep roots in the old southern planter class.
    I think we need more research into precisely how capital has generated and maintained backward ideas. Irrespective of any bourgeois conspiracy it's helpful to keep in the mind that the ruling ideas of any society are the ideas of the ruling class, and the ruling class' ideas about how to rule stem in large from the needs of capital. So although I'm not entirely convinced by what I've been able to glean so far from the reviews, I do appreciate Cope's materialist approach and there is an intuitive appeal to his arguments.

  • Finally, Post attempts to ground his concept of variation in the theory that competition amongst workers is promoted by some bourgeois conspiracy of racist, sexist, nationalist ideology. This is precisely the simple-minded analysis of oppression, where x oppression only exists because it is designed by a group of bourgeois conspirators to "divide the working" class, that I have already critiqued as ahistorical, idealist, and just plain lazy in a previous post.

    This doesn't seem to be the case. Charlie Post's idea is that the structure of capitalism perpetuates racism/sexism/etc because workers have to compete with each other, which finds its surface appearance in things like xenophobia with regard to illegal immigration. I would argue that part of male sexism may be derived from women coming to be extra competitors against them, as well. It may well be related to attitudes towards affirmative action as well, since it creates competition that is guaranteed to "win" over white/Asian students of similar qualifications. I don't see a hint of some kind of conspiracy or non-materialist understanding of these concepts.