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Eve's Review

Working Class Heroes

"Can the Working Class Change the World?"
Michael D. Yates
Monthly Review Press, 216 pages

Eve Ottenberg

If the working class doesn’t save our vastly unequal and dying world, it’s difficult to see who will. Certainly not the billionaire class, which has the money to put the brakes on climate change by investing in renewables but has not yet seemed inclined to do so. They don’t seem particularly interested in eliminating inequality either. As for the better-off middle classes, they “are more likely to support fascism than profound social change,” according to Michael Yates in his new book, "Can the Working Class Change the World?" So that leaves the working class. Yates explains how workers can do this, but it’s not, he says, really a matter of can they, but rather that workers MUST change the world and quickly, before it’s too late – before climate change renders the earth inhospitable to humanity.

Yates is correct about the failures of capitalism – for billions of people it’s a calamity. “After several hundred years [of capitalism], there are still several billion people existing on the brink of economic ruin. Work is still hell for all but a few.” Yet many struggle to imagine a non-capitalist world, even though, as recently as 1980, “more than a quarter of the world lived in countries that had broken out of the capitalist global market.” In China and the USSR, “production was not predicated on profit, employment was guaranteed, and much of consumption by workers and peasants had been socialized, that is, provided without payment by individuals.” These countries’ citizens also enjoyed free medical care and free education. But the fall of the Soviet Union and the rush to state capitalism in China have been a disaster for workers worldwide. The two communist behemoths kept capitalism somewhat in line; once gone, corporations the world over renewed their assault on ordinary peoples’ living standards by dismantling social democracy. Now, in many places, capitalism is headed farther than mere neoliberal austerity – to the next step, fascism.

Given that recently the world’s 3.5 billion workers have lost power, how to reverse this trend? The first step, Yates argues, is to find an ally. And there is one ready at hand – the world’s three billion peasants. Clearly these two groups constitute most of earth’s population. The problem is that both are so busy eeking out a living, just surviving hyper-capitalism, that few have time or energy to terminate capitalist hegemony. Nonetheless, Yates has many suggestions. Paramount among them is radical education, provided by labor unions and peasant organizations. He quotes Peter Linebaugh: “Communal values must be taught, and renewed, continuously.” Also capitalism’s nature – exploitation and expropriation – must be explained and can be: “peasants have been taught the rudiments of the three volumes of Karl Marx’s magnum opus, Capital.”

This book also critiques that bane of the campesino, capitalist agriculture. Yates quotes Ian Angus: “It now takes more energy to produce food than we obtain from eating it: every calorie of food energy requires ten calories of fossil energy.” Clearly industrial agriculture, relying on fossil fuels and billions of pounds of pesticides, promotes ecocide. Much of that industrial agriculture goes to feed the billions of farm animals that provide meat and dairy. So our diet must change too. Meanwhile, capitalist distribution of agriculture is wildly inefficient: 850 million to two billion people go hungry, Yates reports. He praises Cuba, whose agriculture has transitioned off fossil fuels and mechanization.

Yates also advocates democratizing labor unions, so that members run the unions and “abandon labor-management cooperation schemes.” This, he argues, will require getting “rid of the leadership.” His best model here is the United Electrical Workers. Yates also promotes union-like groups, or worker centers, like those in New York and Florida, and also the labor-community coalition in Richmond California, the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), which has fought “for rent control, pollution abatement at the large Chevron oil refinery, against police brutality…against the harassment of immigrants by ICE,” and more. Neither the RPA nor its office seekers take corporate money, Yates reports. “It is also independent of the Democratic Party.” With similar organizations in other places, Yates writes, “they could coalesce into regional and national political bodies.” He also suggests other tactics for the worker/peasant alliance, including ways to fight structural racism and patriarchy to advance workers’ aims.

Can the working class change the world? Yes, Yates answers, if it pursues these goals: a sustainable environment; a planned economy; “socialization of as much consumption as possible, especially transportation and childcare;” worker-community control of workplaces; public ownership of social institutions like schools and media; a radically egalitarian society; opposition to the rule of the many by the few.

While Yates is correct that “only radical thinking and acting have any chance of staving off…barbarism,” getting billions of people to act radically is a tall order. Everywhere, across the globe, barbarism advances. Only the combined efforts of workers and peasants could stop this, but the sleeping giant has yet to awake. The sobering truth is that if that slumber continues, we and the fragile biosphere that supports life could all die in our sleep.  Read More 
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Capitalism and Slavery

“The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism”
Gerald Horne
Monthly Review Press, 256 pages

Eve Ottenberg

The world is awash in the blood of innocents. Nothing makes this clearer than Gerald Horne’s recently published “The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism,” which puts the genocide of indigenous Americans at about 90 percent of their population’s total. The book also estimates that from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries nearly 13 million Africans and five million indigenous Americans were enslaved by Europeans in the new world, a predicament that proved fatal for many of them. He refers to “the three Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Slavery, white supremacy and capitalism,” while throughout this volume, he relates the construction of a new racial identity, whiteness, and white identity politics.

Horne emphasizes the hypocrisy of a slaver merchant class that cloaked its interests in bombast about liberty. In the seventeenth century, London “merchants unleashed a steady fire of propaganda, portraying their unhindered entry into the slave trade as a matter of the nation’s life and death.” Cromwell’s merchant supporters won the propaganda war, as they muscled their way into the slave trade. “This blatant power and money grab by merchants was then dressed in the finery of liberty and freedom, as the bourgeois revolution was conceived in a crass and crude act of staggering hypocrisy, which nevertheless bamboozled generations to follow, including those who styled themselves as radical.” Horne also levels this criticism at the American Revolution of 1776.

The slavers did not always have an easy time of it. “Between 1673 and 1694 Jamaica experienced at least six major slave revolts of the enslaved, followed by eruptions in 1702 and 1704.” Slaves often employed arson against their oppressors and rebelled on their transport ships, too. In the mid-seventeenth century, more than 300 slave revolts occurred on Dutch ships. Also, Horne tells how Africans and indigenous Americans cleverly played different European powers against each other and joined with indentured Europeans in uprisings. But as “whiteness” was constructed as the new and paramount racial category, these tactics foundered, according to Horne. Early on, religious bigotry divided Europeans, Horne writes, but by the close of the seventeenth century, race determined everything.

Once established, a racially-based caste system was difficult to overthrow. Though the United States eventually abolished slavery, the world’s north-south color line today matches the one between the haves and the have nots. To the extent that color-caste has gone global, the slave trade – which, Horne writes, ransacked the healthy adult population of parts of Africa, thus crippling large swathes of that continent – is largely to blame. Hence Horne’s call for reparations at the end of his book.

This call is reasonable. Germany pays reparations to Jews whose lives were destroyed by the holocaust. Surely a multi-trillion dollar economy, that of the U.S. and European Union combined, can do the same. Unfortunately, under the current Washington regime, such a move seems unlikely. White supremacy has surged lately in the U.S., legitimized by a president who regards open racists as “fine people.”

One point that cannot be stressed enough is the symbiosis of capitalism and slavery. The southern United States was built on unpaid labor. Slavery was big business for merchants and the bandits who engaged in the slave trade stooped to any trick, promoted any lie, to increase their profits. Things haven’t changed all that much. Take the climate catastrophe today. As the planet burns from global warming and as freak weather events kill thousands, stupendously wealthy fossil fuel corporations pump out lies about their product having no role in the current ecocide. Their propaganda dominates U.S. media and government, making sane, civilized, scientifically informed discourse nearly impossible. Thus it was in the seventeenth century with slavery.

What slavery illustrated with painful clarity was that capitalism is about profit and regards the workers who create that profit as disposable. That has not changed; for proof just look at the sweatshops in India, Bangladesh, Vietnam and elsewhere today. With its tyrannical structure, the capitalist corporation ensures that the people it exploits have no say.

At his book's end, Horne mentions the Haitian Revolution’s challenge to the slave system and thus white supremacy. Later, across the ocean, the Bolshevik Revolution eroded “the capitalist world’s maniacal obsession with ‘race’” by replacing it with the concept of class. Moscow’s threat, Horne writes, engendered Western entente with China, and thence we reach today’s juncture, with communist-led China surpassing the United States economically. “This represents a crisis for all aspects of the hydra-headed monster that arose in the seventeenth century – white supremacy and capitalism not least.” As this comes about, Washington will resist. But the tide has turned: the current flows now toward a multi-polar world, not one dominated by a single, capitalist superpower. And the economic leaders in that world may very likely not be white. Read More 
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