Notes on privilege theory’s critique of Marxism (5)

by Jehu

Continued from here

5. Marx as the first privilege theorist?: Competition and privilege in labor theory

At the beginning of this series on privilege theory, I suggested that the debate between privilege theory advocates and “orthodox” Marxists could be simplified to two conflicting propositions:

Proposition 1. With the overthrow of capitalism, racism, sexism and all forms of oppression will be done away with.


Proposition 2. Racism, sexism and other forms of privilege cannot be ended simply by overthrowing capitalism.

744px-Omaha_courthouse_lynchingI called the first the “orthodox” Marxist position, but my employment of the phrase was never meant to suggest the “orthodox” view was the position of either Marx or Engels. In fact, contrary to what is now known as the “orthodox” Marxist position, Marx himself agreed with much of what might be called the privilege theory position.

In his critique of the Gotha Programme, Marx argued that at least initially socialism would be bedeviled by real inequality among the workers despite the overthrow of the capitalist.

“But one man is superior to another physically, or mentally, and supplies more labor in the same time, or can labor for a longer time; and labor, to serve as a measure, must be defined by its duration or intensity, otherwise it ceases to be a standard of measurement. This equal right is an unequal right for unequal labor. It recognizes no class differences, because everyone is only a worker like everyone else; but it tacitly recognizes unequal individual endowment, and thus productive capacity, as a natural privilege. It is, therefore, a right of inequality, in its content, like every right. Right, by its very nature, can consist only in the application of an equal standard; but unequal individuals (and they would not be different individuals if they were not unequal) are measurable only by an equal standard insofar as they are brought under an equal point of view, are taken from one definite side only — for instance, in the present case, are regarded only as workers and nothing more is seen in them, everything else being ignored. Further, one worker is married, another is not; one has more children than another, and so on and so forth. Thus, with an equal performance of labor, and hence an equal in the social consumption fund, one will in fact receive more than another, one will be richer than another, and so on. To avoid all these defects, right, instead of being equal, would have to be unequal.”

To Marx’s examples of “natural privileges”, we can add any number of additional problems arising from every day experiences of racism, sexism and national differences, etc. One worker was educated in an inner city school, or spent a significant part of his youth in prison, or unemployed and cut off from productive labor. Another is educated in a suburban system, and joins his father in a skilled trade program. One worker is still suffering the legacy of slavery, while the next has enjoyed the “privilege” of her white skin despite an identical resume. One worker is an non-unionized sales clerk or a immigrant housekeeper, while another is a unionized Boeing machinist or a cop.

The actual position of Marx and Engels on this is that these problems would imply defects in socialism based on the old society that are not and cannot be abolished on the morning of the revolution. However we have seen that these privileges (Marx’s actual terminology) themselves give rise to a competitive struggle within the working class not just within socialist society, but even within present society — a competitive struggle which, at its extreme, can fully account for the rise to power of Hitler and the Nazi holocaust. It can, as well, account for the rise of the Soviet mode of production with all that particular system of production implies. Thus with private ownership of the means of production or without, the divisions within the working class can lead to exploitation.

The history of the working class in the 20th century gives ample reason for pause.

The “orthodox” Marxists, since they attribute the events of the 20th century to some cause external to the working class, offer no explanation for them. Hitler was simply a bourgeois phenomenon; Stalin was a deviation (more or less) from “real” Marxism; and if in the more advanced countries the working class has yet to take power, and has in practice allied itself with the most repugnant policies of their own fascist state, this is only because they are prisoners of ‘bourgeois ideology’.

Every event has its own specific explanation in which the proximate cause is held to be something other than the class itself. When on closer inspection, the single thread connecting all of these proximate causes is shown to be the class itself, “orthodox” Marxism finally runs into its theoretical barrier: that, as Postone put it, Marxism seeks only the emancipation of labor, not the emancipation from labor.

In contrast to our “orthodox” Marxists, Marx did not just look on the divisions within the working class as ideological nor even primarily ideological. The divisions within the working class arose from the division of labor and from the impact capitalist industrialization has on the conditions surrounding the sale of labor power. These are material not ideological forces, although they have expression in the consciousness of the working class. They cannot be done away with simply by someone claiming to be an anti-racist or a male feminist, nor can they be done away with simply by hoisting a red flag over the White House and dispersing Congress.

In the previous part of this series, I quoted Marx at length on the role competition plays within the capitalist class, but Marx also examined the many effects competition plays within the working class in his much earlier work, “Wage Labour and Capital “.

In the unfinished lecture series, Marx explained that competition forced the capitalists to continually reduce the amount of labor expended on the production of commodities. This constant improvement in the productivity of labor in turn produced competition within the working class over the sale of labor power. The worker did not simply compete by selling their labor power, one more cheaply than the next, but by the labor of one worker displacing the need for the labor power of many.

“The greater division of labour enables one labourer to accomplish the work of five, 10, or 20 labourers; it therefore increases competition among the labourers fivefold, tenfold, or twentyfold. The labourers compete not only by selling themselves one cheaper than the other, but also by one doing the work of five, 10, or 20; and they are forced to compete in this manner by the division of labour, which is introduced and steadily improved by capital.”

Moreover the detail work of the labor process becomes simplified and can be done by anyone — even children. Thus the labor of one worker increases the numbers of her competitors and competition among laborers for the sale of their labor powers. The worker responds to this competition, and the fall in wages produced by it, by increasing her hours of labor and by working more intensively: “Thus, urged on by want, he himself multiplies the disastrous effects of division of labour.”

The longer the worker works and the more intensively she works, the more rapidly her wages fall.

“And for this simple reason: the more he works, the more he competes against his fellow workmen, the more he compels them to compete against him, and to offer themselves on the same wretched conditions as he does; so that, in the last analysis, he competes against himself as a member of the working class.”

Marx’s argument in this text, however, is limited only to the direct impact of the improvement of the productivity of labor and its effects on competition. We can extend it in two very interesting ways: First, in the case of African American workers migrating to escape the stultifying grip of the planter class on the relations of production in the South at the turn of the 20th century. In documented cases, industrialists went south to recruit black laborers to break strikes among their own workers. According to the Wikipedia,

With the manpower mobilization of World War I and immigration from Europe cut off, the industrial cities of the North and Midwest experienced severe labor shortages. Northern manufacturers recruited throughout the South and an exodus ensued. By 1919, an estimated 500,000 African Americans had emigrated from the South to the industrial cities of the North and Midwest in the first wave of the Great Migration, which continued until 1940. They were also migrating to escape the lynchings, Jim Crow laws, lack of protected franchise and poor economy of the rural South, where the boll weevil was devastating cotton crops. African-American workers filled new positions in expanding industries, such as the railroads, as well as many jobs formerly held by whites. In some cities, they were hired as strikebreakers, especially during the strikes of 1917. This increased resentment among many working class whites, immigrants or first-generation Americans. Following the war, rapid demobilization of the military without a plan for absorbing veterans into the job market, and the removal of price controls, led to unemployment and inflation that increased competition for jobs.”

In the second, more recent example of the Boeing strike, the capitalists threaten to relocate production from one area to another.

Both of these examples show how competition is not just increased by the impact of the improvement of the productivity of labor on wages, but by the introduction of a much wider scope of what might be considered the “labor market” of a locality. Workers of a particular area have to think of competition both in terms of workers moving into their area (“Dey took ah jahbs!”) and by capital relocating to more “business friendly” locales (“a giant sucking sound”).

It follows from this that if the development of the productive forces constantly increases with it the competition among the workers, they must take steps to reduce this competition among themselves. Their attempts to reduce competition might, at least at first, take the form of trying lock out their competitors from the labor market. This is because, if nothing else, the workers are only reacting blindly to their empirical circumstances, which are presented to them in the specific physical forms of the mass of competitors rising against them as the result of their own activity: black, foreign born, female.

Their aim is to put an end to the competition raging around them, but because this reaction is blind, it takes the form of the ugliest expressions of disdain and contempt for their competitors. In these effort, they readily find within society every sort of vile conception already present and provided by history. The divisions within the class, however, arise not from these vile conceptions but from the real and material fragmentation of labor itself.

It further follows from this that since the capitalists know very well the impact increasing competition has on wages, they present themselves as the champions of the rights of black or women workers participation in industry. We get an inversion where the chief bulwark of privilege in present society, the owners of capital, become the defenders of the “right” of each slave to sell herself into slavery on an equal basis with other slaves. While the most privileged sectors of the working class rally around opposition to all efforts to end discrimination in the workplace.

Meanwhile “orthodox” Marxists stand in the middle with their thumbs up their asses, able to explain neither the one nor the other. They can’t explain the divisions within the class because these divisions are said to result from the divide and conquer strategy of the capitalists. And they can’t explain why the capitalists champion affirmative action since the capitalist are supposed to have a white supremacist compact with the privileged sectors of the working class.

Because, “It’s complicated”, don’t ya know.