Capitalism Against Labour: Can We Re-Invent Work?

Mike Yates is a long time Marxist, socialist writer and analyst, and one of the editors of Monthly Review. Over the years he has written extensively about capitalism but particularly on the working class, its life, potential, and role in transforming society. His latest book, Work Work Work: Labor, Alienation, and Class Struggle (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2022), gathers a series of his essays and articles dealing with various aspects of work, the working classes, its institutions, its contradictions and potentials, and the broader social relations that form work under capitalism.

The chapters cover issues such as life in modern workplaces, the drudgery and danger of working in capitalism, how work and the working class is perceived in mainstream bourgeois economics; contradictions and hierarchies within the working class, especially racism, patriarchy, and how they need to be addressed; the rise and tragic decline of an iconic US union; and perspectives on how to build a movement against work as we know it in capitalism as well as against the system itself.

Work Work Work

Yates’s main preoccupation is the following: “[I]f we are ever to liberate ourselves, we must reinvent work. Whether we will convert the daily hell that is work today into something that connects us to other people and the world around us, or we will descend into the alienation engulfing us” (25).

Yates relies, for the most part, on his varied experience and grounding in Marxist political, economic, and social understanding. There are, for the most part, thoughtful and deep lessons embedded in these essays, but there are some issues, concerns, and contradictions in the approach, and while they are secondary, do call for some critical comments.

Economics by and for Whom?

Yates describes how he taught bourgeois economics and made sense of the contradictions in it through finding Marxism, drawing on his experience growing up, and in thinking about the role of capital and labour. This was supplemented by his understanding and analysis of his role as a college teacher in a capitalist institution and its similarity with other forms of labour.

His critique of labour markets and the dogmas of neoliberal economics is clear and trenchant. Particularly galling, in his view, is the unquestioned way that mainstream economists accept as a given market equilibrium and the so-called value free nature of their mathematical models.

Mainstream economists claim to be practitioners of science without any real pretence of testing their hypotheses in reality. He gives examples of bogus claims that higher wages cause unemployment and that inequality is caused by market actors having different levels of productivity and therefore justly receiving lower incomes than capitalists.

He also criticizes liberal (in the American sense of slightly left of centre) American economists, such as Stiglitz and others of his ilk, who cheered on the Occupy Wall Street protesters, telling them that the system needs to be fixed because it isn’t working the way it should. On the other hand, Marxists such as John Bellamy Foster noted that the system is indeed working as it should – “inequality, speculative bubbles followed by downturns; overwork and unemployment”; etc.

Work, from the Inside

A theme throughout the book is what work is like in current capitalist society – in the US and around the world. And, it should be understood not just as a phenomenon studied from the outside but also from the inside, and as part of the underlying system and the social relations that drive it.

There are four essays which directly relate to this central theme. Yates’ review of Ben Hamper’s iconic book about working in an auto plant, Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line (1992), is a case in point. The workplace that Hamper describes, like most others, is not a happy place – even though many workers, when asked, tell researchers that they are “satisfied with their jobs.” This is often a way workers rationalize the fact that even though they are pushed around and controlled at work, it is better than losing one’s job or living in a state of permanent insecurity.

But working collectively and engaging in various forms of resistance and survival activities doesn’t automatically translate into class consciousness or political understanding. Yates writes, “Work itself, no matter how oppressive, does not engender class consciousness and solidarity.” Instead, it breeds a kind of “us versus them” mentality and includes a form of “self-hatred turned into contempt for outsiders.” Workers often end up explaining and understanding their life situations through a prism of contradictory and problematic thinking and explanations, for example, blaming welfare and immigrants for the larger social and political realities that weigh upon them.

Unions, like the UAW in Hamper’s auto plant, provide a kind of safety net, but they have little shop floor presence and don’t provide leadership in challenging the boss, and often end up “selling” notions of common interests with employers and lowering any expectations of workers.

But Yates goes further in this essay. In analyzing Hamper’s description, he comments:

“Hamper admires Michael Moore who has encouraged him to write about his work, but he won’t make much effort to bridge the gap of consciousness between them. Why Not? This failure, even unwillingness, to push his class consciousness forward when he could have, disappointed me.

“Maybe it is too painful to do so. Maybe the unions have failed so utterly to create a working-class ideology that would force workers to ask the right questions and struggle toward the answers that it is no longer possible to imagine a new world. No doubt radicals have failed workers too, whether ignoring them for the pleasures of theoretical debate or trying to become one of them so hard that they forget that work in this society destroys the human spirit.” (25)

Work as Hell, The Injuries of Class and Panopticon

These three essays describe various forms of work and how they reflect the misery and dangers of working under capitalism. They all (one originally published in Counterpunch and since revised for this book, the second and third, from Monthly Review) reflect a genuine cross section of the working class and all of its strata: blue and while collar, public and private sector, different levels of job security and labour market position, and those involved in social reproduction outside of direct participation in the labour market. This is an improvement on much sociological writing these days (which often includes only the most precarious or blue-collar worker as the working class).

Yates describes the formation of capitalist labour markets through impoverishment, confiscation, and appropriation in North America and throughout the globe. He explains what working to create value for capital means:

“In the world today, most workers do hard and dangerous labour, wearing out their bodies every minute they toil, fearing the day that they will be discarded for a new contingent of hands. Workers get a wage in return for converting their life force into a commodity owned by those who bought it” (48).

These chapters present a wide swathe of working-class experiences around the world: living with unemployment, working poor, vulnerable employment, citing personal experiences with child prostitution and child labour; cruise ship workers; restaurant and hospitality workers; cab and Uber drivers; farm labourers; meat plant workers; clerks; academic workers; teachers; social assistance recipients; childcare workers; prison labourers; bank workers; and various blue collar workers (auto, steel, manufacturing).

“The Injuries of Class” chapter deals with the psychological and physical costs to workers’ health and well-being in capitalist workplaces. Going through the various conditions that capital places on workers, he comments on the dangers and psychological costs facing workers across the class.

It ends with this comment:

“The injuries of class are deep and long-lasting. The poor education that is the lot of most working-class children leaves lasting scars that a picket line will not heal. The love lost when the factory-working father spent too much time in bars does not come back after a demonstration. I have been a radical, highly educated, and articulate, but the fears and anxieties of my working-class parents are like indelible tattoos on my psyche. The dullness of mind and weariness of limbs produced by assembly line store, and office do not disappear after the union comes to town. The prisoner might be freed but the horror of the prison cell lives on” (96).

In Yates’ “Panopticon” essay, he presents a concise and effective description and analysis of the historical and contemporary project of controlling and intensifying the work of workers. He goes back to the Benthamite monstrosity of the Panopticon, through the formation of factories. “Taylor’s Scientific Management” traces the development and applications of the now ubiquitous lean production forms of cost reduction and work intensification.

Divisions and Equality

Yates dedicates a chapter on structural and attitudinal racism, patriarchy, and other forms of oppression faced by particular members of the working class. He also intersperses many of the other essays with references to identifying and addressing these divisions – their roots and effects. The discussion is framed in the context of both the way the divisions affect the lives and working conditions of people of colour and women and the absolute necessity for the other components of the working class to support the struggles for equality and the challenges against forms of oppression as a condition for building unity across the class.

Yates particularly criticizes those who claim that simply raising the economic conditions of the working class as a whole is a solution to these forms of discrimination and oppression. The latter, he argues, have deep structural roots and need to be addressed specifically. Yates does this is in a straightforward and quite seamless way:

“Given the extent and depth of white privilege, racial issues should be addressed and attacked head-on. There is no easy way out. The working class will never be unified unless we confront the institutional racism that surrounds us now. Unity requires restitution for past and present damages, and nothing less will do. Racial and patriarchal attitudes are once again hardening, and from an already unenlightened base, and the optimism felt by those who wanted a racially and gender-equal society have long-ago vanished” (123).

The Rise and Fall of the United Farmworkers Union (UFW)

In a commentary on a book by Miriam Powell The Union of Their Dreams, Yates offers further reflections upon re-reading an article Yates originally wrote for The Nation magazine in 1977. It deals with the UFW and its famed leader, the late Cesar Chavez, along with insights from Yates’s time working for the union. It is a tragic story – not known by many progressive people these days – of a union and its leader that inspired a generation of young activists, made key contributions to farmworkers, and organized the grape boycott that was the introduction to working class and labour political action to so many. Chavez and the union also attracted some of the most creative and dedicated strategists, organizers, and researchers in North America.

Tragically, the UFW didn’t involve rank and file workers in key struggles and organizing, and in his later years, Chavez became dictatorial, intolerant of alternative viewpoints, introduced a series of cultish practices, and ended up helping to virtually destroy key components of the union and undo many of its successes.

Yates handles the narrative with respect and thoughtfulness, and it is impossible not to mourn the ultimate sunset of this once-inspiring project.

Working Class Revolt – Where to Go?

The final two essays deal with Yates’s ideas about the nature of working-class resistance and the larger strategies that a movement to transform work and challenge capitalism might take. The first was originally written in Monthly Review in September 2020. The second is an abridged and updated version of a chapter of Yates’s 2018 book Can the Working Class Change the World? He discusses critical issues, such as the failure of social democracy; the nature of the current labour upsurge (and its limitations); the costs and solutions to racism and patriarchy within the working class; the lessons that can be learned from past and current struggles and social experimentation; the critical importance of addressing climate change; and the limits of the labour movement and the potential role of parties.

Critiquing Social Democracy

Yates argues for a radical critique and alternative to the current reliance on social democratic parties and models and provides an excellent critique of unions today. But while his analysis contains constructive ideas about how to evaluate the working-class movement, it also contains some contradictory elements, namely, his extoling, rather uncritically, the role of worker co-operatives and worker-owned business alternatives within the system; his lack of consideration of necessary efforts to democratize and transform the state, both within the current system and as part of a radical project for the replacement of capitalism; his reading of what workers learn from ongoing struggles and experiments; and some limits in his description of the role of a radical party, especially in how it contributes to the development of working-class understanding, consciousness, and confidence.

Most of what Yates writes about in these essays reflects a deep understanding of Marxism and its application to an understanding of working-class strategy and necessary agendas. His critique of social democracy, as practiced both by elements within the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and the classical so-called Labour parties, is the kind of thinking that is absolutely necessary to help guide a future working-class strategy.

He notes that in the DSA’s worldview, (like some of the Swedish social democratic theorists) socialism (and socialist consciousness) is seen as somehow resulting from an accumulation of successful social democratic reforms. Aside from being utopian and idealist, he comments, it leads to those who put forward such views to imbue each and every spontaneous struggle as being a “harbinger” of a socialist revolution waiting to unfold.

Further, he writes that social democracy has historically ignored inequality and has failed to address it while in power. While this is true, his critique somehow leaves out the central issue of social democracy: its acceptance of the impossibility of replacing capitalism and the domination of society by private ownership and accumulation, not to mention its implied acceptance of labour markets.

As well, it would have been instructive to hear his take on the role of electoral participation. Should socialist parties refuse to participate, as some of the Trotskyist critics on the far left maintain? Should elections become the central fulcrum of socialist strategy, as others argue? Or, as Yates seems to imply, does there need to be a relationship between electoral participation and mass struggles to challenge capital, transform institutions, and experiment with alternatives ways organizing social life?

Transforming Unions

His reading of the union movement in these essays shows a deep understanding. He makes the point that the current upsurge must be understood in relation to the historical weakness and defeats of the labour movement and the working class during the neoliberal period, and thus, needs to be put into perspective. As well, and more importantly, his critique of the state of the current union movement and ideas about transforming it are excellent.

He cites the trade union movement’s collaboration with employers and capital, its cozying up to right-wing and business-oriented politicians, its corrupt and undemocratic practices, its refusal to challenge racism, the patriarchy in its ranks and the refusal to take on work intensification and management power in the workplace as major contributors to the defeat of the working class and decimation of the movement’s ranks. Instead, he calls for a radical transformation of unions or their replacement with other forms of collective organization.

While his read of the actual state of the union and workers movement is tempered by a sobriety rooted in a strong analysis, he muses about workers developing a radically different approach, somehow coming out of the experience of the economic crisis, the COVID pandemic, and the struggles against police violence during previous summers. Citing Mike Davis, he writes, “A sense of rage is boiling over. For this rage to take a leftist and profoundly radical direction, masses of people will have to force the issue” (162).

Yates is most powerful when he focuses on the role of education, and in particular, socialist education in its fullest collective content, as indispensable to building working-class power, organization, and consciousness:

“Some of us can educate, explaining the world in which we live clearly and in language that does not look at the working class from the outside, examining and analysing it, but as part of it, teaching while we learn in dialogue with others” (168).

Working-Class Strategy

In his final essay, he develops what he calls a “comprehensive plan of attack for workers and their allies, not in the sense of specific tactics but in more general strategic terms.”

Here, he begins with a set of principles and goals, which include a sustainable environment, a planned economy, socialization of much of consumption, worker and community control of workplaces, public ownership of social reproduction institutions, a radical egalitarian society, and collective and mutually solidaristic values.

The key idea in these final essays is his argument for the elimination of the capitalist system – rather than an accumulation of modest social democratic reforms. This is absolutely crucial and reflects Yates’s commitment to a socialist future. And, in this, he is clear that the elements of the system are not independent of the larger system and its underlying structural logic. His listing of the characteristics of a socialist system here reflects this thoughtful and radical approach.

In these final chapters, Yates describes important initiatives and struggles that workers and socialists can and have learned from – and that reflect the kind of approaches that will contribute to building a larger working-class movement. Here, he refers to initiatives such as the Black Panthers’ community services, radical union projects such as the Australian Building Labourers Federation, the Chicago Teachers Union, the struggles of Black Lives Matter and Occupy, and the role of workers centres such as Immokalee. These were and still are clearly experiences and spaces for building struggle, challenging capital, and learning lessons. But there is little here about what lessons were actually learned, how lessons could or will be summarized, and how workers involved in these forms of struggles can link their experiences to building a political base and a movement for socialism.

Workers can, and often do, learn lessons, but as is the case for most people, those lessons are usually mixed and can lead to forms of right-wing populist conclusions, depoliticization, accepting the limitation of “liberalism,” or an obsession with individual upward social mobility.

This is a critical orientation for any real working-class education. But here again, where will workers get to participate in these kinds of socialist educational experiences, and where will the educators – hopefully, as Yates implies, increasingly developing out of the working class – come from? What kinds of institutions need to be created in order to do this?

This panoply of direct-action movements, struggles, and experiments act as examples of the kinds of resistance necessary to build on, as well as ways of prefiguring elements of working-class politics and power. And, of course, most are, but while these experiences can serve as a basis for learning, there isn’t all that much about how to craft that learning in ways that can help participants draw radical conclusions about socialism and the potential of the working class – as well as who can provide that learning.

There is also a rather uncomfortable emphasis on worker-run businesses and co-operatives that exist apart from a larger and radical political movement and operate in an environment that is subject to the requirements of market competition and profit-making. The latter are referred to as key experiences of worker power and workplace control, rather than sites of experimentation that can teach different, ambivalent lessons: a worker-run capitalist enterprise is not immune to the structural requirements of the system (such as profit-making, dependence on financial markets, labour costs/cuts, competition, etc.), and therefore, in order to succeed, it must bend to these constraints. Learning how to successfully operate within the system this way isn’t necessarily something that will point in the direction of a radical consciousness.

Some of the collective projects of co-operative small scale production or consumer organizations that he cites as key experiences may be important to provide needed services (and certainly in the case of the Panthers and the work in Jackson, Mississippi, this is especially true), but they don’t necessarily teach participants to develop a critical understanding of capitalism, the potential role of the working class, and what is needed to challenge the system and transform and challenge the state.

Building a socialist movement within the working class clearly requires experiments with alternative forms of ownership and control. Yet, independent of an existing socialist political movement, such experiments either don’t get off the ground, get defeated, or become integrated into the larger neoliberal capitalist economy. Workers don’t necessarily learn the kinds of lessons that can serve to build a socialist future.

And even some of the most exciting struggles, like Black Lives Matter, don’t necessarily develop movements and leaders that can work to transform key state institutions like the police, prisons, and municipal politics. They can also generate a cohort of activists whose goal is individual upward social mobility, with aspirations to become integrated into the ruling class strata. Clearly, both of these contradictory outcomes can occur. However, without a socialist politics operating in some organized way in and around these kinds of movements, the pressure for the latter outcome is often stronger than the former. What may start as radical forms of resistance don’t necessarily teach the participants that the capitalist system must be replaced by a working-class-led socialist movement. That has to be learned through education, along with the experience of struggle and experimentation. But where is the education going to come from?

When talking about taking over abandoned factories and other workplaces – which in itself is absolutely necessary, of course – Yates suggests that they be run as worker-owned co-ops. He doesn’t raise the idea of nationalization providing an opening for some kind of planning, and perhaps producing a socially useful and non-fossil-fuel driven product or service, which can also experiment with different forms of management and work organization, rather than forms of private ownership subject to the requirements of the private marketplace. (The Oshawa, Ontario movement called Green Jobs Oshawa argued for such a solution to the planned closure of a major auto assembly plant in that Ontario city.)

There is a call for organizations to have statements of principles and a set of short and medium term demands for larger political movements, which is positive and thoughtful. But it leaves out the demand to nationalize, regulate, and democratize the financial system and run it as a utility, ending free trade and limiting capital mobility. It does include references to community policing (clearly shorthand for transforming the role, structure, and control of policing) and abolishing the prison system.

Party Building

Yates calls for social democratic parties to be replaced by “democratic working-class parties.” But it is difficult to see where such parties could be built from in this model. In fairness, no one on the left has clear answers to this, either. The bottom-up experiences he cites either didn’t succeed or were developed in societies where radicals or socialists were already running the government. Clearly, experimental political initiatives such as workers’ assemblies and projects such as the Richmond Political Alliance could provide important lessons on how to build a radical, working-class political project – with allies – but there are precious few other such experiments. And even there, we know little about how the activists building these experiments are doing political education with workers about challenging capitalism and building toward a socialist future.

A coming together of various experimental local movements isn’t likely to build a party by itself, and the kinds of parties built this way in capitalist countries tend to be predominantly social democratic in their orientation, unless there is an organized core of socialists working to create a different political orientation inside and around them.

This also begs a series of other questions, which all of us on the left are thinking about: What might be the approach such parties take to electoral participation, especially in a US context where the Democratic Party might be a space to participate in primaries but is hardly an instrument of radical transformation or a space that would tolerate socialists who work toward such goals? How would a radical party – or a party with a large radical component – come to power? Assuming the unlikely possibility of insurrectionary political movements getting anywhere on their own, how could such parties combine electoral activity with building institutional power in working class communities and workplaces?

These lacunae are perfectly understandable, considering the breath of the larger panoramic framework and set of principles Yates is looking to establish, as well as the obvious reality that these questions confound socialists around the world, especially in North America and Europe.

Overall, Yates’s larger vision of working-class political action has several compelling elements. He is one of the few who understands that the different strata of the working class and their allies, created and constantly transformed by capital and the formers’ resistance, is complex, and full of contradictions but have to be unified, all the while understanding, respecting, and addressing the critical differences within the class.

How will the working class become conscious of the way society works – and get a sense of what an alternative could look like – in other words, become politically literate? It can’t happen by itself, and we, as socialist intellectuals or activists, can’t do it by ourselves either. The ways to do this are not really clear to anyone on the left today, although Yates strives to make sense of this rather challenging and contradictory reality through a kind of ‘optimism of the will’:

“We cannot afford to settle for incremental changes that, even if they happen, never amount to what is qualitatively and radically different, and can soon enough be reversed and usually are. To believe otherwise is surely utopian. The radical upending of the social order is now hardheaded realism, the only path forward. It will take time for a class riven with so many fundamental cleavages, by race/ethnic gender most importantly, to unify itself and destroy its class enemy. Mother earth may take her revenge on us before that. In the meantime, though, best to do what we can, in whatever ways we are capable: by any and all tactics, everywhere, all the time, in every part of the capitalist system” (217).

Yates adds a ‘Postface’ – that describes the now defunct Volvo-Uddevalla plant experiment with collective small group manufacturing of entire vehicles. It is an example of what work is not like under capitalism and was the result of a unique set of conditions: low unemployment; strong union and high union density; creative, union-friendly thinking; a friendly government; and a corporation that was vulnerable to the union’s power. It gives us a clue about what production might be like in a different social system.

Work, Work, Work is an extremely thought-provoking set of essays that should be read, discussed, and ruminated over by socialists and radicals concerned with the realities of working-class life and especially work. •

On December 13th, 7pm (EST), Leanne MacMillan and Herman Rosenfeld, both retired union staff persons, will comment on how the issues raised in Mike’s book relate to Ontario and Canada today.

Zoom link.

Herman Rosenfeld is a Toronto-based socialist activist, educator, organizer and writer. He is a retired national staffperson with the Canadian Auto Workers (now Unifor), and worked in their Education Department.