Book Review: Bromma’s “The Worker Elite: Notes on the “Labor Aristocracy””
In the past few years amongst some elements of the Far Left there has seemingly been a renewed interest in heterodox understandings of Marxist political economy, especially in regards to class formation in imperialist countries and its relationship to the oppressed countries. In particular, Zak Cope’s Divided World Divided Class, published by Kerspleledeb Books as part of the Kalikot Book Series, has served as a contemporary touchstone that argues, using extensive empirical data, that the imperialist working class is not in fact a proletariat with inherent revolutionary potential. This is because the interests of the working class in the imperialist states dovetails with the imperialist interests of said states. Thus, for example, the Canadian working class in the Maritimes is very keen on a renewal of the shipbuilding sector, despite the fact that said ships would help reconstruct the Canadian imperialist naval military array. However, many activists and intellectuals alike were dissatisfied with Cope’s laudible attempts to do so, for a wide-variety of reasons, including the fact that it did not seem to differentiate between different sections of the North American working classes, especially in regards different sections of the racialised working classes. Rather, Cope seems to suggest that the American working classes as a whole, including racialised workers, constitute a labor aristocracy in juxtaposition to Third World workers who constituted a proletariat. Bromma’s intervention into the on-going subterranean debate on labor aristocracy, The Worker Elite: Notes on the “Labor Aristocracy”, is thus welcome as it seeks to further complicate our understanding of imperialism, the labor aristocracy and the position of racialised workers in North America.
Bromma first introduces a very useful set of demarcations that complicate our understanding of the working class. Bromma argues that the working class is in fact composed of three classes: the proletariat, the worker elite/labor aristocracy, and the lumpen working class (4). Bromma’s definition of the proletariat is not unusual, but what is particularly interesting is his definition of the other two classes. Bromma argues, “The lumpen is a parasitic class made up of people who live outside the web of “legal,” above-ground production and distribution. It makes up a significant minority of the working class.” (5) Thus far, this definition will not shock anyone inasmuch that once again Bromma is orthodox in his definition. However, where Bromma makes a notable contribution is his inclusion of the “police, informants, prison guards, career soldiers, mercenaries, etc.” in said class (5). This genuinely clarifies the confusion that reigns amongst the Marxist Left about how to relate to these sections of the working class as it demonstrates that these classes are parasitic on the working class and have no inherent revolutionary potential. Bromma’s definition of the worker elite bucks Marxist orthodoxy and argues that the labor aristocracy is not “a thin layer of trade union bureaucrats and craft workers”, but rather is a “mass class, comprising hundreds of millions of middle class workers around the world whose institutionalized privileges set them decisively apart from the proletariat.” (5) However, anyone who has read J. Sakai – Butch Lee – Zak Cope will immediately realize that this definition also radically amends the very tradition that Bromma draws inspiration from. Bromma makes two notable changes to their analysis: 1) he takes seriously the self-consciousness of workers who identify as ‘middle class’ as indeed being middle-class workers who are set apart from the proletariat; and 2) he expands the labor aristocracy to not only those middle-class workers in the imperialist countries, but also discusses the rise of a worker elite in the BRICS, for example, who similarly have little in common with the proletariat (36-45). However, Bromma continues to argue that the black working class in the USA, for example, in the main comprises a proletariat, whilst simultaneously recognizing the rise of a new Black worker elite. In doing so, Bromma avoids a naïve third-worldism which pits First World vs. Third World workers, and rather recognizes that the proletariat and the worker elite are transnational classes. Unfortunately, but understandably, however, Bromma does not then turn to reflect on the relationship between this Third World worker elite and their relationship to semi-feudalism in the oppressed countries.
Bromma makes another useful intervention by launching a critique of attempts to understand the composition of the proletariat and worker elite through positivistic economic categories. Bromma writes that “traditional Marxist economists often try to figure out a specific pay level at which workers are no longer technically “exploited” – that is, a level where their wages are so high that their labor generates no actual profit to the world capitalist system. They then attempt to use this pay level to identify worker elites and differentiate them from “non-aristocratic” workers.” (29) I agree with Bromma that attempts to do so are problematic, especially as most interested in the debate seem to completely ignore the ‘transformation problem’ and simply assert that they are able to positively determine the true use-value of labour-power, thus demonstrating that the exchange-value is identical to said use-value hence resulting in no ‘exploitation’. However, Bromma after having given us this very useful insight unfortunately undermines his own argument through a reliance on PPP, thus falling into the very trap that Bromma correctly admonishes others for falling into (31-35).
Bromma makes one more very useful intervention into the debate through a dynamic conception of class mobility around the world. Besides showing the rise of the worker elite in the oppressed countries, thus demonstrating the dynamic nature of capitalism in Third World cities; Bromma explains how the worker elite are able to defang the proletariat in countries like the USA through the example of the UFW and their migrant farmworker campaigns, and demonstrates the failures of said movement in a very revealing fashion (45-51). Indeed, Bromma effectively demonstrates that the UFW’s early aversion to undocumented workers results in them compromising with the existing AFL-CIO worker elite, resulting in them not creating the necessary alliances to forge a truly revolutionary working class movement. This dynamism is again revealed when Bromma discusses the contradictions amongst the bourgeoisie in regards to the worker elite, effectively arguing that the bourgeoisie remains in friction with the worker elite about the nature of its privileges (53) Thus, Bromma controversially argues (I agree with him on this point) that, “From a political point of view, the worker elite is neither more “hopeless” nor more “revolutionary” than other privileged middle classes. Everything depends on concrete conditions.” (53) Bromma recognizes that this friction is often in service of reactionary causes, but concludes, correctly, “The worker elite is a mass class that has significant contradictions with capital. Therefore the proletariat can’t rule out alliances with worker elites, nor can it concede the discarded members of the worker elite to be reactionaries. Revolutionaries should fight for their political allegiance, just as we do with other middle classes … Effective political work with the labor elite can only occur when there is a proletarian movement offering a clear and viable alternative to what is offered by capitalist and fascists.” (57) This insight is fundamentally important and is a welcome corrective to what else has been written on the topic. Bromma quickly discusses the relationship of the worker elite to intellectuals (who use one another to bolster their “radical” credentials) and unions (the proletariat needs to create its own agenda apart from that of the union bureaucracy). He then ends the pamphlet with an examination of the case study auto industry and puts into practice his analytical schema.
I strongly recommend this pamphlet to everyone and anyone interested in debates about the labor aristocracy. Bromma’s book is a welcome corrective to much of what is already existing, whilst reaffirming many of the central tenents of the existing literature. I can only hope that Bromma writes more about this topic and develops these ideas in a more comprehensive and expansive form as he is a fresh of a breath air in the on-going debate.