Workers Hold the Keys

Vivek Chibber

Despite the threat of automation and the weakness of organized labor, workers still hold the key to winning social change.

Annette Bernhardt / Flickr

Interview by
Jason Farbman

To coincide with the second printing of our primer on the history and practice of socialist ideas, The ABCs of Socialism, Jacobin and Verso Books are hosting a series of talks with ABCs contributors. Our first was a conversation with Jacobin’s Jason Farbman and Vivek Chibber, a professor of sociology at New York University and author of Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital, about why socialists talk about the “working class” so much.

You can read the first part of that conversation here. In this edited transcript of the second half of their conversation, Chibber and Farbman discuss precarity and the changing composition of the working class, how socialists should think about unions, how the Left can get off the college campuses and into the workplaces and streets, and more.

You can listen to a podcast of the discussion (and subscribe to Jacobin Radio) here. You can also buy a copy of The ABCs of Socialism for a special sale price of $5 here.

Jason Farbman

In your ABCs piece, you say capitalism can’t deliver the goods. When criticism of capitalism does make it into mainstream discussions, it usually argues “late capitalism” has gone off the rails, or that it isn’t capitalism that’s the problem but neoliberalism — some variant of capitalism that has gone amok.

What you’re saying is that capitalism will inevitably produce injustice, and that as a result it will inevitably generate class conflict.

Vivek Chibber

Two ways to look at this. You’re right that the code word for everything now has become neoliberalism. It’s become the stand-in for anything that counts as a genuine analysis of modern society.

That’s partly because much of left discourse is overwhelmingly dominated by nonprofits and academics, and capitalism is still a no-no — you can’t bring up capitalism. So you need something else, and it’s very useful to say, “Well it’s not capitalism as such that we worry about — it’s Reaganism, it’s Thatcherism.”

There’s no doubt that the current variant of capitalism is truly inhumane, certainly more so that the one that proceeded it. That’s one reason why you don’t see the word capitalism very much. But first, it’s important to understand that if you compare today’s version to capitalism with its place in history, it’s actually not the exception. We’re reverting back to capitalism’s pure form. It’s a system in which everybody is thrown out onto the market, and they’re told “Sink or swim, man. It’s up to you.”

The era of getting social supports, some kind of social insurance, of basic guarantees, the welfare state — that was an era that dated to about the 1930s and 1940s. But it was a departure from the norm in capitalism. We’re going back— neoliberalism is actually just capitalism in its pure phase.

There’s two ways you can look at this. One is on an absolute scale: does capitalism on an absolute level actually deny people what they need on an everyday level? The answer is that for most of the world, it does — it fails. It fails because most of the world now is in a very unalloyed, barbaric form of a market society. In India, in China, in Africa, in the Middle East, the vast majority of people still live barely at a subsistence level. And that’s not an accident; it’s because they have to work for employers that simply don’t care about them. So on an absolute scale, for most of the world, capitalism is failing.

The other way to look at it is on a relative scale. In a country like the United States or in Western Europe, it’s of course true that poor people and working people have gotten a lot for themselves, and their lives are actually quite decent. But when we bring up a relative scale — not just relative to the rest of the world as is, but relative to how they could be living given the state of productivity, given the state of technology, given the state of the country’s infrastructure — could their lives be better than they are now? The answer is: absolutely.

Finally, to the extent that workers in the West have achieved better lives for themselves, this has come about because they aggregated their power. The reason the welfare state arose in the West in the time that it did was because of enormous and violent class struggle, in which labor unions managed to extract these kinds of concessions from employers in a way that had not been possible previously.

As long as you have capitalism, not only are you going to have to fight for everything you have, but those things that you have are constantly going to be under threat from the employers who never wanted to give them to you in the first place.

That fight that I talked about, that antagonism between employers and employees, therefore, is written into the system. You’re not going to get rid of it. This is why socialists have said that you can have a more civilized capitalism, and you should fight for that more civilized capitalism, but understand that it’s like a cancer: you can keep giving it chemo, you can fight back the growth of the cancer cells, but they always keep coming back.

Jason Farbman

The main argument of the piece is that workers are the key revolutionary social agent. It’s important to actually say what a worker is.

In the last five years, we have seen enormous explosions in social struggle. Occupy Wall Street is where a lot of this started, which was fantastic: it put on the map this idea of the one percent versus the 99 percent, which was really useful because all of a sudden you have millions of people talking about vast gulf, the huge inequality in the society on every level.

At the same time, this enshrined a conception of class as being about how much you make, which isn’t exactly what we mean. So what is a worker?

Vivek Chibber

It’s been a very effective rhetorical tool to talk about the one percent versus everybody else, and that everybody else is defined as a negative category, whoever is not in the one percent. The assumption and the implication is that they all are not only worse off than the one percent, but that they can all come together in some way as an effective social group.

On a very narrow range of issues that’s true: the ninety-nine percent is going to have certain common interests. But a significant chunk of that ninety-nine percent are people who we would never call workers. They’re going to be managers, they’re going to be people who have a great deal of autonomy, who own their own means of production, and therefore for some of them, like the managers, even though they’re not in the one percent, their job is to make the one percent happy by getting more work out of the bottom sixty percent.

While right now they might not be getting as much money and have as much wealth as the one percent, they aspire to be and will try to be in that one percent, because there’s an actual chance for them to do so at some point.

Up on top of society, there’s a game of musical chairs: employers have managers, managers go up a ladder, and the way you go up the ladder is by screwing over the people underneath you. That’s your job. So for the kinds of ends that we’re talking about, of actually bringing people together around an agenda to push employers to give up some of their profits for higher wages and other things, managers aren’t going to be a part of that. That’s why you’ve never had unions try to bring in managers, because they know that you’re essentially bringing in your enemy.

What that means, therefore, is that this language of income being the divider, or these percentage points being the divider, is rhetorically and in some narrow ways useful, but it’s strategically and politically not very useful.

The key thing for an analysis of capitalism is not what your income is, but what you have to do to earn your income. If what you have to do to earn your income is boss and manage other people, then you’re not going to be a part of that movement. That’s what managers do.

On the other hand, if you have to submit to the authority and the depredations of these managers and their employers, now you’ve got a reason to try to fight against them.

That’s why class is not the same thing as income groups. Class is fundamentally about which side of the divide you’re on — whether you’re extracting labor or whether it’s your labor that’s being extracted.

Jason Farbman

My next question is sort of rhetorical: “Do workers still exist?” The reason I ask is because there are arguments out there that workers have won important gains in the past, but they’re not a relevant force today.

Every few decades, there’s this new theory that emerges that the working class is disappearing for one reason or another and thus irrelevant. We also hear that the United States is postindustrial, that automation has now replaced workers (or will soon) that we all live in a gig economy, that we’re too precarious.

It’s clearly true that working conditions are changing, and that does mean something, but does that change the position and the role of the working class?

Vivek Chibber

We should not be too quick to say no. First of all, no in a big sense. Nothing is new in the current structure of capitalism in any deep sense.

This view that automation is eventually going to end in everybody being out of work and robots running everything — it is not true and it can’t be true. It is of course the case that automation continually throws people out of their particular workplace, but the effects of throwing these people out is always counterbalanced by two things.

One is that in a growing economy, if productivity is increasing, and the tempo of economic growth is always on the upswing, new firms and factories and plants and workplaces are springing up all the time, which then suck up the workers who were thrown out of work by the automation. So there’s a dual process going on, of some people being thrown out, and then those people being sucked up by new firms.

This view that automation will result in everybody eventually losing their jobs screens out and ignores this second, counterbalancing thing. It just assumes that the existing factories and workplaces are the only ones that will ever exist, and over time, as they throw people out, those people are going to be like the zombies in the Walking Dead, they’re just going to be shuffling around looking for jobs and there’s no new jobs. That forgets the fact that you’re always sucking these people up into new employment venues.

The second thing is this: the automation that’s throwing people out of work through technological change, new machines, new processes coming in place — every one of those generates a demand for additional skills and additional workers to continue to produce those technologies, to service them, to figure out how to make them better. Technological change is generating new occupations all the time. So it’s always this dynamic process of one side of the equation throwing people out, but at the same time creating the conditions for those people to be sucked into new positions.

The key thing is, everything rides on the rate at which these two processes interact.

Right now, the fears of automation leading to a desert and mass unemployment are stoked by a reality, which is that in the past fifteen to twenty years, the pace of new employment generation has in fact been very slow. And because it’s slow, we see the people who are being thrown out either not getting jobs, or doing gig jobs, temporary work here and there.

That has to do with the fact not that we’re seeing the true force of automation, its bare fangs finally visible. It has to do with the fact that this this particular era of capitalism in the West has been delivering very slow rates of growth, very low levels of reinvestment, and therefore very low levels of reemployment for the people being thrown out of work. That’s why there’s a kernel of truth to it, which is that that does change the conditions for organizing people.

It’s very different, and in ways I would say a lot easier to organize people, when everybody is sure of work, because then they’re less afraid of their boss. What we’re going through right now is a period in which people are so terrified, so beaten down, that in their jobs, in their workplaces, they are much more afraid of raising their head, raising their fist, than they had been sixty or eighty or even forty years ago.

That means organization is a lot harder, and this is one minor reason why the existing trade unions are not really trying to organize new workers. Their strategy essentially for twenty-five years has been acquisitions and mergers: you raid other unions, you go to campuses because students are already organized, and UAW says, “See, we’re organizing, because we brought a bunch of grad students into our union.”

It’s a lot harder to walk into an auto plant and organize workers. And it’s not just because bosses have a lot of power over their workers— the workers themselves are very much worried about the consequences of even taking a step, because they know that it’s a desert out there.

Jason Farbman

When we talk about the working class as the revolutionary agent of change, this seems very far away from where we are right now, certainly after forty years of givebacks and one-sided class attack. Socialists have always supported trade unions. But the union movement is on its back in major ways. Each year in this country, union density falls to a new low, strike activity falls to a new low.

Most unions are now at this point run by bureaucrats who don’t actually seem that interested in organizing their workers so much as sort of striking deals at the top with little input from the unions. How do socialists approach unions with all of this going on?

Vivek Chibber

What you’re asking is that there might be some reason to focus on workers, but are unions the best vehicle for unions to bring that about, given where they’re at now?

First of all, we need to be flexible about this. The key point is: remember that it’s not a moral issue per se. It’s a practical issue, which is, how do you bring capitalists to the table to say, “Okay, we’ll give you something”?

We have to be open to the fact that as capitalism evolves, maybe new possibilities open up for how we bring poor people together. Maybe today, there’s a greater space for electoral politics, because of the incredible role that the state plays in distributing income. Maybe neighborhoods are a very important place, because workers live there, and they can aggregate themselves into larger numbers, because perhaps in workplaces it’s not so easy. We have to be open to all those things, certainly.

But until we have practical reason and practical experience with these other forms of organization, and other forms of interest aggregation, I don’t see a way around keeping unions as an absolutely pivotal mechanism and instrument within left strategy.

If you can find a better one, great, let me know about it — I’ll help you advertise the thing. I haven’t been able to see one anywhere, and the last twenty years have been an interesting experiment in this way. In the last five years alone we’ve seen mass mobilizations all over the world. In the Middle East, which brought down a few regimes, in Brazil, in India, where I’m from, in the United States. What all of them have in common is that while organized labor has played varying degrees of roles in all of them, it hasn’t really been at the core of any of them.

The second thing that they have in common is that they’ve all ended in defeat. They all had lots of people come out into the streets, and while they were in the streets they made a great spectacle, but they didn’t have a lot to show for it at the end of the day.

Occupy is a very good example of that. It was a fantastic movement, and it was the trigger that got a lot of the current mobilization going. But the difference between a factory occupation and a park occupation is just this: people in the park have to go home. At some point they’re going to go home, and elites can just wait it out, because production is going on, profits are being made, without any disruption. Factory occupations, however, are a whole different thing.

Without figuring out some way of having an institutional means of bringing workers together like through a union, I don’t know any way around it.

It is absolutely true that the union movement today shows no interest in doing this. It shows no interest in fighting. It shows no interest in pursuing the kinds of goals that the labor movement in the past had. To me, that just means you build a better one, that’s all. It’s like saying a cure for this disease is not doing as well as it could, but until you find a different cure, you’ve got to keep working on that one.

It’s harder making this case today in left settings because there are very few workers who come to left settings. It’s harder to make the case that workers are important, because a lot of people on the Left are students and academics, and they want to talk about exotic things. But I don’t know any other way around it.

So while we have to be very clear-eyed and unromantic about where the labor movement is today and be aware of all of its infirmities and its liabilities, until we find a practical alternative, it seems to me that the only option that we have is to make the existing kinds of institutions work better rather than abandoning them.

Jason Farbman

Workers are not immune from the prevailing ideas of society: the acceptance of racist ideas, sexist ideas, all kinds of ideas that divide workers in ways that are exactly unhelpful to forming these blocks that could exert power. Unions could be a vehicle to fighting against those ideas. Sometimes they are, but often they’re not.

You have right-wing unions like the building trades, for example, that are actually signing on to Trump’s nationalism, because they think it can save them a few jobs in the short term. We need to figure out how to overcome this. But there’s a structural difficulty here.

Vivek Chibber

There’s two difficulties. Let me say this first: the history of the union movement is not a linear one. The history of the union movement, not just here, but everywhere, has been a kind of internal conflict over what the shape and the goals of those unions are going to be.

There’s always been a conservative wing, which has tried to narrow down the range of issues they take up and simply build on the strength of the most skilled, the most privileged, and thereby sometimes the most conservative workers, and aggregate power by monopolizing scarce resources and keeping other workers out. That is, in many ways, to what we’ve returned to today.

But even in this country, and elsewhere, there’s actually a very long and noble tradition of trade unionists fighting for a wider and more encompassing vision of what the labor movement is. In the United States, in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, communists, socialists, and anarchists fought for that vision, and they had enormous success in doing so.

One of the greatest and most important legacies of that was the fact that in the 1920s and 1930s in the Jim Crow South, it was white communists, white trade unionists who were risking their lives organizing black workers with black sharecroppers, who saw each other as comrades. That was inspired by a very particular vision of how to organize workers.

That vision lost out, partly because of the internecine warfare within the labor movement in the 1930s and 1940s, partly because the American state came down on the side of the more conservative wing of the labor movement in order to make sure that the Left didn’t win out — which culminated in McCarthyism, from which the Left never recovered.

But we need to investigate that, be aware of it, and on the Left, hold it up proudly, and say, “This is what we aspire to.” That’s something that I think we can return to today.

That brings me to the second problem. The second problem is this: there is nothing automatic in the labor movement that will push it towards a more encompassing vision of how to organize. In fact, there are many reasons why it’s rational to take the short-term, more conservative route — focus on their race, focus on their ethnicity, keep the women out, because it’s easier. It’s hard working going out and bridging these divides.

In the past, it was the ideologically committed socialist left that came to unions and fought for this. The problem today is not just that the labor movement is more conservative, has this racism, has this exclusivist ideology. It’s also people who call themselves socialist have no connection to labor, and, to be honest, many of them are simply not interested, because of this weight of this university and campus left.

Until the Left gets outside the campus, out of the seminar room, until it starts to open up offices in working-class neighborhoods, full-time organizers, gets jobs within that, until it implants itself within labor the way always had until the 1970s and 80s, you have no way of bringing this alternative vision of organizing into the labor movement. That’s going to make it hard to move towards a more encompassing, more universalistic form of class struggle.