Notes on privilege theory’s critique of Marxism (4)

by Jehu

Continued from here

4. Privilege theory, racism and competition within the working class

The argument that the victory of the Nazis resulted as much from the divisions within the working class as from the rule of the capitalist class and its state is difficult for most Marxists to accept.

For Marxists, the divisions within the proletariat are one thing, while the rule of capital is another, separate, thing. The relation between the two is rarely discussed and, if at affirmative-action-in-america-is-a-total-failureall, only in relation to the effort the capitalist class makes to employ the divisions of the proletariat against it. In this very limited, naive, context, the divisions within the class are ascribed to the domination of the bourgeois class and its ideology. If finally the Marxist must accept that there are divisions within the proletariat like racism, nevertheless he does this only to insist these divisions are part of a strategy of divide and conquer pursued by the other class. The idea that the divisions within the class have material causes apart from the efforts by the capitalists to exploit them, is seen as some sort of anti-working class hysteria.

Based on this error, we get the further error that Marxists understand the divisions within the proletariat only as expressions of bourgeois consciousness. The working class is said to be divided because it is under the influence of the ideas of the other class. Unless these bourgeois ideas are driven from the class and replaced by working class consciousness, it will remain divided. However even this is problematic, since this true working class consciousness, socialism, doesn’t arise from within the class itself, but is brought to it from outside.

Thus, as Tad Tietze protested, if Marxists accept the argument of privilege theory it becomes hard to see how the ideas of the proletariat can change at all. And this is a true complaint against privilege theory, since within the Marxist conception of the proletarian class its ideas not only cannot change, essentially the working class has no consciousness at all and merely absorbs the dominant ideology of the ruling class. Absent an intervention from outside the class, the class remains totally under the thrall of a bourgeois consciousness.

If in “orthodox” Marxism the class is conceived of as an inert mass passively absorbing the consciousness of the surrounding bourgeois society, with privilege theory, this inert mass “inherits” its consciousness from its parents, i.e., from history. For privilege theorists, there is no such things as a bourgeois consciousness at all, but only a single unchanging consciousness stretching back to antiquity and even to pre-history. If we trace the genesis of every sort of privilege to its beginning, we find they appear in history well before the bourgeois epoch. The forms these privileges take may be altered by changing circumstances, but they persist almost unchanged.

Thus all privilege theory tells us is that privilege itself violates the bourgeois morality of the privilege theorist. As Ignatin argued, in a perfectly bourgeois society, there would be no black unemployment “premium” — white workers would be compelled to give up their places in production until the percentage of white unemployed equaled that of black unemployed:

“For, make no mistake about it, with the U.S. imperialist economy stagnating or even contracting, the ending of white supremacy, the ending of the privileged position of white workers means fewer jobs for white workers, fewer skilled jobs, poorer housing etc. – if it goes no further than that. For it is obvious that if the rate of unemployment among Negroes is lowered from around 25% where it now stands to about 8% (which is “normal” in this period of imperialist decline for workers not suffering from national oppression or “favored” by white supremacy) then the rate of unemployment among white workers must be increased from the 5% where it now stands (by virtue of their white- skin privileges) to the 8% which is “normal”. And likewise with the proportion of skilled and unskilled jobs held by Negro and white workers, and so forth.”

In this way Ignatin anticipated decades of conflict over affirmative action and other measures to address black working class poverty. In the ideal bourgeois society, no worker could get more than average wages of the class as a whole. The vision of an ideal bourgeois society explains the tendency of privilege theory advocates toward bourgeois reformism as well as their marked tendency to treat various privileges on par with the conflict between capital and labor.

The same white skin privilege that results in much higher black unemployment than white, or more African Americans in prison per capita than whites, also accounts for the relative absence of black executives in the boardroom. In a society that fully conform to bourgeois notions of equality, equal percentages of whites and blacks would be unemployed, in prison and managing Wal-Mart.

This thoroughly bourgeois notion of equality overlooks the fact that in bourgeois society the members of society establish their relations through competition. The product of labor is by no means “fairly” apportioned among the members of society, but is determined by the constant conflict within society, in which every advantage of the individual is brought into play. In Capital, Volume 3, Marx provides a glimpse into this feature of bourgeois relations during times of crisis:

“A portion of the old capital has to lie unused under all circumstances; it has to give up its characteristic quality as capital, so far as acting as such and producing value is concerned. The competitive struggle would decide what part of it would be particularly affected. So long as things go well, competition effects an operating fraternity of the capitalist class, as we have seen in the case of the equalisation of the general rate of profit, so that each shares in the common loot in proportion to the size of his respective investment. But as soon as it no longer is a question of sharing profits, but of sharing losses, everyone tries to reduce his own share to a minimum and to shove it off upon another. The class, as such, must inevitably lose. How much the individual capitalist must bear of the loss, i.e., to what extent he must share in it at all, is decided by strength and cunning, and competition then becomes a fight among hostile brothers. The antagonism between each individual capitalist’s interests and those of the capitalist class as a whole, then comes to the surface, just as previously the identity of these interests operated in practice through competition.”

The argument Marx made in that passage applies not just to the capitalist class, but to all classes within bourgeois society. It does not matter whether we are speaking of pre-Nazi Germany of the 1920s and 1930s, or the US today, the result is still the same — members of the working class employ all means at their disposal to avoid absorbing the crisis of capital.

In “good times”, i.e., during periods of capitalist expansion or during war, black folk find new opportunities to sell their labor power on improved conditions — although, as Ignatin points out, never on par with white workers. But when crisis explodes, the black worker finds her conditions of labor deteriorate all the more rapidly than her white counterpart.

What distinguishes the working class from the capitalists in this regards is not the competitive struggle among the members of the class, but that this struggle is not over the division of the spoils of the exploitation of the workers; rather, and perversely enough, the workers are locked in a life or death competition over the right to be exploited. The “privilege” enjoyed by the white worker is only the right to sell her labor power in preference to her black counterpart. The perversity of the mode of production is most clearly expressed in the fact that the wage slaves fight among themselves like animals for the right to be slaves.

If privilege theory never goes beyond the bounds of bourgeois equality, precisely in this way it demonstrates the limits of that equality: every worker should have the equal right to be a happy, productive slave.

Of course, the argument here is not as bizarre as I make it out to be. In a society founded on wage labor, the subsistence of the vast majority rests on their ability to sell themselves into slavery daily. If nothing else, each slave should have the equal right to satisfy their needs in this fashion as members of a class of slaves.

The suspicion and hostility of individuals thrown together from diverse backgrounds and forced to compete gives rise to the most fantastic ideas that naturally take the form of the obvious differences among the individuals: race, national origin, religion, language, culture, skin color, gender. To state any or all of these fantastic ideas may be older than capitalism, simply means the individuals seek to make sense of the purely accidental nature of capitalist social relations through now outmoded conceptions.

The nature of class relations are such that racism does not require any manipulation by the capitalist class at all, but this fact is, first and foremost, only an expression of the nature of the relations themselves: In labor theory, bourgeois production relations do not even require a capitalist. The capitalist in labor theory is solely a personification of a set of material economic relations in which, in the most developed form of the mode of production, the capitalist class itself has been rendered entirely superfluous to the mode of production and is reduced to a class of unproductive speculators.

To ascribe inner working class conflicts to the other class does nothing at all to advance our understanding of the nature of relations within the working class and, therefore, of what it takes to advance its association. It is not, as Marxist seem to think, bourgeois consciousness actively created, managed and spread by some Bilderburg-type group of conspirators. Ideologies like racism are abstract, fetishized products of the material conditions of the existing mode of production.