Where The Power Lies
The socialist playlist is built around the working class. The deteriorating living conditions of the exploited masses, alienated from the product of their labor and compensated as little as possible for it, would incite an international uprising and civic institutions that represent and nurture the people, as opposed to the capitalist focus on protecting the property of wealthy citizens and corporations.
The journalists at Jacobin released a book of essays and illustrations entitled The ABCs of Socialism. This month, four lectures will be released from contributors to the book. The first lecture was filmed on Mar 6 at the Verso studio in Brooklyn. “Why Do Socialists Talk So Much About Workers?” is the question tackled by Vivek Chibber. Chibber is an NYU Sociology Professor, author, and Jacobin contributor. I listened to the lecture, and below is what I learned.
Wage-laborers are the source of the capitalist’s profit and they make up a majority of society. This means that, in coordination, wage-laborers are able to dry up their employer’s profits by striking or through other measures. The power of the working class is an important strategic factor to be considered by any political endeavor. They are the only group with a, “structural place in society to bring the power centers to their knees”.
Socialists care about reaching the working class because of their potential to disrupt the system that is driving the continued growth of inequality and pollution. But they also see the working class as their natural ally. A lot of socialist thought and organizing takes place in academia and civil society, but the conversations are related to reducing inequality, responding to climate change, and building a political movement to influence politics. The plight of the American working class could benefit from a socialist message. Bernie Sanders and Democratic-Socialism hit a nerve in the 2016 Democratic Presidential Primary.
Socialists believe in a just society. For fairness and justice all people need basic material, social, and intellectual resources, and autonomy, or freedom for domination. Capitalism does not achieve this definition of justice.
The basic needs of people with inadequate employment and no income-generating private property can easily go unmet. These people’s only value in the market is for their labor. Capitalist’s hire wage-laborers to produce goods. However, the employer’s priorities are guided by profit, not communal well-being. The capitalist needs to pay for resources and labor, but they always want to reduce costs. They have no control over the price of resources, but they can lower wages to reduce costs. The interests of the capitalist and managerial classes are in direct conflict with the interest of the wage-laborers, who need to be paid enough to meet their basic needs and deserve more.
The wage-laborer’s need for control over their life is undermined by the employer-employee relationship. In some of the most strict conditions, coal mines, mining tycoons used to pay employees in peculiar currencies that could only be spent in a local store. This controlled the miners’ ability to leave the mining towns, because they would not be able to spend their fake money elsewhere It also guaranteed the tycoon a second income from their stores.
The mines were extreme examples but modern jobs do control your schedule and determine how you dress, the drugs you can do, and the way you behave. Outside of the factory, construction site, or office, capitalists still have the power to weaken the working class’ right to self-determination by funding lobbying and legislating morality. Examples of this include prohibition, the war on drugs, and the homophobic defense of traditional marriage.
Socialists spend a lot of time asking how to build a society where everybody’s basic needs are met and everyone has control over their lives. The answer, according to Chibber, is to “extract” these rights through a mass mobilization of labor power. The American political process is not a place where bills can sing songs and become laws, or where dedicated public servants listen to and solve the problems of their constituents. There are two parties full of wealthy charlatans who sell their rhetoric to whoever happens to be paying. The system will not respond to protest from the margins, and the socialist left has been marginalized. Marginalized groups in American include the LGBTQ community, black people, latinx people, and, ever-decreasingly, communists.
Radicals and poor people occupying a park is fine for the rich and powerful. The park has no commercial value in the short term. The working class and the left could engage in direct actions that hurt profits, such as occupying factories and other commercial properties. This could bolster the will to build a just and fair future. Socialist reforms and social developments could be built on leverage from the economic pressure that the Left’s profit-shrinking strategies would place on the rich.
This was the end of the lecture. Chibber and Jason Farbman, the host, then sat down for questions. Below I relate some of the more interesting points they discussed:
Chibber discussed his hardline stance against capitalism, and his belief that it has become taboo to criticize it. People criticize neoliberalism or ‘crony capitalism’ instead of crediting capitalism with creating inequality. Chibber argues that the economic system itself is the problem and that attempting to create a, “more ethical capitalism”, is like ignoring a cancer for the symptoms.
The men discussed the definition of class and addressed the misconception that income determines class. Chibber defines the working class as people whose labor is being “extracted”. The managerial class, on the other hand, extracts the labor. And the capitalist class profits from the production.
Farbman asked, “Do workers still exist?”, in relation to deteriorating labor rights in the US and trends with the gig economy. Chibber responded that labor power is currently weak because of the weak labor market. Former labor unionists are too insecure in their jobs to risk losing their jobs in a strike.
Finally, they discussed unions. Chibber described two types of union. Unions that build power by representing specialist laborers, monopolizing scarce resources, and keeping other laborers out. And unions built in a, “tradition of trade unionists fighting for a wider and more encompassing vision of what the labor movement is”. Chibber argued that socialist organizers need to engage working class communities, build a righteous union power, and direct that power toward a more just world.
Watch the lecture below: