Notes on privilege theory’s critique of Marxism (3)
Continued from here
3. Privilege theory, fragmentation and the rise of Hitler
One of the problems with the debate between the privilege theory advocates and opponents is the lack of perspective. In particular, the legacy of slavery in the United States has few counterparts in the rest of the world. This appears to put both advocates and opponents of privilege theory in the position of trying to analyze what at first seems like a one off event. Making sense of the issues in the debate is harder because there are few other examples of a working class as riven by the sort of unrelenting racism the US working class suffers (South Africa, Rhodesia and Israel come to mind).
Of course, part of the problem is trying to figure out which parts of the legacy of American slavery are unique to the U.S. and which may have appeared in different forms in earlier time or different places. This has provided the space for certain writers to offer racism as the determining influence in European social relations. This racial determinant is counterposed to class struggle as the motive of history and it attempts to explain present relations through the lens of European racism rather than class.
On the other side, the biggest problem the orthodox Marxists opponents of privilege theory have is their inability to explain racial antipathy within the working class on the basis of the assumptions of historical materialism. They try to finesse this defect by constantly regurgitating the argument that racism is a form of bourgeois ideology manufactured by the ruling class and spread among white workers to keep the class divided. Thus the puzzle of the intergenerational reproduction of the white worker’s disdain for, and fear of, the black worker is resolved by assuming it to be the product of the other class; and once it is safely handed off to the other class, its presence in the middle of bourgeois society can be attributed to previous patterns of domination.
This leaves the field open to all sorts of academic bullshit. White people are racist because … racist and we can trace their racism back to antiquity. These writers assure us that if we follow European civilization back to its genesis, we find it was racist from the very beginning; to be white is given as the explanation for being racist and not only does racism enter bourgeois society from earlier epoch, the historical materialist critique of bourgeois society is likewise steeped with racism. The orthodox Marxist opponents of privilege theory have no one to blame for this situation but themselves. After more than 50 years of debate they still have no other explanation for racial divisions among the working class in the US save one:
“The capitalists made us do it.”
Fifty god-damned years and this is still the best the Marxists opponents of privilege theory can come up with.
As a result, the Marxist opponents of privilege theory have been forced to concede ground to privilege theory even on the primacy of classes and class struggle as the motor of history. Classes and class struggle is not the determining motive of history, but simply an influence that “intersects” with any number of other motives — thus the core assumption of historical materialism is sacrificed. But it only begins there: next we find politics is “relatively autonomous” from the mode of production; and not just politics, but culture, law, morality, etc. Finally, we get folks like the wertkritik school who tell us the abolition of labor has no practical implications for political action, because, you see, “It’s complicated”.
Let’s be clear: as an idea, the persistence of racism is no more puzzling than explaining why 80% of Americans hold to the belief in some form of creationism; and, as an expression of material conditions of modern society, racial antipathy is just another division of an almost infinite variety of divisions within the working class — national, religious, gender, etc.. There is nothing particularly sinister about racism that is not already implied by any other division within the working class.
Even if we take race out of the equation altogether, the remaining divisions within the class are sufficient cause to explain some of the worst instances of recent historical experience. To prove this, we need only look at a circumstance where racial division of the sort that bedevils the US working class played no direct role in events, the rise of Nazism in Germany. According to the autonomist writer, Sergio Bologna, when the Nazis came to power, they did so with a very large base of support within the working class.
“[In] a disturbing development, over the past decade various historians have focused increasingly on what they say was the decisive contribution of sections of the working class to the Nazis’ electoral victories, and they have also documented a massive presence of the working class within the social composition comprising the electoral base of the Nazi Party.”
A study of Nazi membership cards from the period showed that fully 40% of the Nazi membership were drawn from the working class. If it is difficult to offer an explanation why white workers would join the Klan in the 1920s amidst the black migration, what explains this? It turns out that the working class is not monolithic as our Marxist opponents of privilege theory seem to believe — it is heavily fragmented and composed of many layers and strata. And this fragmentation has serious social implications.
Indeed, some historians of the Nazi Germany period have concluded that,
“[The] monolithic concept of working class is sterile, because in their opinion the historian’s job is to analyse all the divisions and differentiations within society, and in particular to analyse all aspects of everyday life, even where they are not principally defined by work or by work relations.”
If we start with the idea of a monolithic working class, our understanding of why the class capitulated to the Nazis provides us no more useful information than the idea all white workers in the United States are racist. All we learn from a monolithic model is that some workers were for the Nazis and some workers opposed the Nazis. Who supported the Nazis and who opposed it seems to be a matter of individual preferences or social attitudes.
So what German historians, and in particular a generation of amateur historians, began to do was drill down into the working class to understand exactly who among the working class supported what and when. In particular, they looked at the working class before the assumption of power by the Nazis to see if they could detect trends. What they got for their effort was a rich, highly nuanced, picture of what it meant to be a worker in pre-Nazi Germany in the 1920s and 1930s.
Materially, the working class was deeply fragmented within the division of labor — with an industrial sector, a very large precarious labor force attached to it, a large section employed in micro-firms, public employees and growing mass of individuals completely cut off from all productive employment. This fragmentation had its political expression in a working class that was divided between the two big proletarian parties — the Social Democrats (SPD) and the German Communist Party (KPD). Closer inspection showed these two parties represented not only different individuals, but also different strata of the working class.
Of the SPD, Bologna has this to say:
“The main thrust of the Social Democratic union had concentrated on the component of the working class employed in the big factories, or in municipal workplaces, where trade union agreements were more or less respected.”
By contrast, the KPD had been purged from industry, but had a strong following among the unemployed, who, by 1931, made up 80% of the ranks of that party. The KPD grew rapidly during this period, but at least in part, this growth was representative of the spread of unemployment in the aftermath of capitalist breakdown.
“The unemployed were not a marginal corner of society – they represented 30% of the population. The KPD was thus the strongest organisation of a new social stratum, that of the “long-term unemployed”, which was a potentially explosive mix. This meant that the party had a social power and possibilities for mobilisation which were even greater when one remembers its popularity among the youth of the big cities.”
Thus the KPD organized the fastest growing section of the working class — those cut off from all productive employment — but it lacked the union and political power to materially support them — which was in the hands of the Social Democrats.
Moreover, capitalism had suffered breakdown as predicted by labor theory, but this was not altogether clear to many (if not most) of the most organized sections of the class. Much like in Greece today, with its 28% unemployment and youth employment greater than 50%, no one realized the crisis was now a permanent feature of the mode of production. Assuming the unemployed sections of the working class qualified for any support at all, they could collect a limited, and apparently arbitrarily determined, monetary pittance through the state’s social insurance programs. The social insurance programs were administered by the public employee who identified with the SPD, while the unemployed identified with its hated rival, the KPD.
Thus, in pre-Nazi Germany, there were pronounced material and political divisions among the employed, between employed and unemployed, and then among the unemployed who qualified for social insurance and those who didn’t.
“There was thus an enormous distance between the mentality of an average SPD cadre, who identified (and not just ideologically) with the bureaucracy of the Weimar Republic – and the mentality of the average KPD cadre.”
Not only did the two parties reside in different strata of the working class, they were at war with each other — with the workers and unions associated with the SPD cooperating with the capitalists to drive the workers associated with the KPD out of industry. The social insurance system, which the SPD effectively administered, increasingly exerted social control over the unemployed recipients, which the KPD effectively represented. In both industry and in the state the strata of workers associated with the SPD exercised control over the strata of workers associated with the KPD.
Bologna makes the observation that the control exercised by one section of the working class over the other is critical to understanding the transition to the Nazi regime. In the intra-class conflict, which predated the onset of the depression, one section of the working class was essentially exercising its domination over the other. And the crisis, when it hit, only intensified the conflict between sections of the class:
“The spiralling rise of unemployment gave this apparatus huge powers during the final phase of the Republic. We could go so far as to say that, in the eyes of the ordinary citizen, the only identifiable face of the state was that of the welfare apparatus. The discretional powers of this apparatus steadily increased, and at the same time its function as a ‘benefit agency’ was gradually replaced by a function of ‘gathering information about people’.”
This was not just the increasing power of the capitalist state in the abstract; the increasing power of the state was materially expressed in the increasing power of the SPD aligned welfare office worker over the KPD aligned unemployed worker. One part of the working class was essentially the iron fist being used to smash another section of the working class.
And. It. Had. Nothing. To. Do. With. Race.
The divisions within the working class are almost infinite — to be a worker is to be in conflict with all other members of the class. Since these divisions already exist in reality, they appear in whatever forms history allows them to express themselves. But it is entirely true that the capitalist make use of these divisions. For instance, Bologna makes this observation:
“The final Weimar governments, … were well aware of the controlling potential of the welfare apparatus. They used the lever of the system of … compulsory unemployment insurance … with great cynicism and to calculated effect in order to create a maximum of segmentation and atomisation within the mass of the unemployed.”
The access of the unemployed to social insurance was “progressively altered”; with certain groups of workers arbitrarily excluded or the amount of benefits slashed. The unemployed felt themselves were constantly under threat even in an area of social right which they had funded. Workers even avoided applying for benefits because they did not want to go through the stigma and hassle of collecting. In the crisis of the depression, says Bologna, the bond between the class and its own effective political power was shattered.
Thus when the Nazis took power, the class as such had very little to defend. Laws originally introduced to aid the poor were employed as the basis for measures to introduce forced labour. The social insurance system itself became the “basic building block of the Nazi system.”
“Large numbers of the poor and the marginalised were thus defined as “anti-social” on the basis of information gathered by the welfare offices and amassed in their personal files, and they were then slotted into a machinery of selection which was not only a process of racial selection, but also a process of social selection. The majority of those interned in camps at the start of the Nazi regime consisted of these so-called ‘anti-social elements’, who were subsequently to be termed … ‘alien to the community'”.
With the assumption of power by Hitler, the whole of this apparatus fell into the hands of the Nazis. This social democratic structure of support that increasingly expressed the divisions within the class, in turn became the machinery of holocaust. The trade union, which organized the employed sections of the working class and had already participated in purging its own, immediately capitulated to the new Nazi regime.
The first official May Day in Germany was hosted by the Nazis, who invited the SPD to join them in the celebration. Even assuming the Nazi regime was the direct rule of the bourgeoisie, it is clear this rule owed its initial victory to the divisions within the working class.
Privilege theory, since it points to the divisions within the working class in the United States, raises some troubling questions for the class struggle. These questions cannot be put off by attempt to fob off racism or sexism and other forms of conflict within the class to some alien class ideology. Even if we assume racism is wholly an invention of the capitalist class, how this ideology manages to find purchase — and its continuing influence — within the class remains to be explained. The orthodox Marxists opponents of privilege theory offer no explanation for how this is possible.