How do we understand the role of the middle-class in the structure of global capitalism? Why are western workers often surprisingly conservative? What does anarchism have to do with Chairman Mao?
By The Mutualist
Dec 18, 2015
Maoist-anarchism, you're going to hate this (or love it, or be confused by it)
I recently had an idea which I realised, to my delight, would piss just about everyone off. Why not combine Maoism with Anarchism?
What a disgraceful thing to think!
But let me tell you the origins of this sick and perverse thought and maybe you will choose to spare me yet:
|I want Mao
What is Maoism?
Chairman Mao is mainly remembered for his unmatched death count. The 20th century wasn't shy of a brutal dictator but Mao is said to have taken the biscuit with up to 70 million deaths attributed to his actions at the helm of China's Communist Party between 1945 and 1976. Whilst this may be a bit sad the real tragedy was that somewhere, drowned in all the rivers of blood, we lost the fact that Mao was also a great thinker.
So what is Maoism? As with so many things I launch into authoritative rants about I actually know very little. I newly discovered it online, read a few articles, managed to understand them and BOOM I'm ready to dive into arguments, make witty comments and 'yea verily' I'm ready to write blogs about it. Such is our custom.
Anyway, all qualifiers out the way, Maoism has a very interesting explanation for why the first world working class became more conservative and less revolutionary as time went by and why more and more the idea of any kind of a revolution breaking out in the first world is simply unrealistic.
Karl Marx believed that a socialist revolution was almost inevitable because workers were paid less than the full value of their labour, eventually they wouldn't stand for being impoverished and ordered around by the capitalist class and would rise up and overthrow them. Lenin accepted the theory relatively untainted but Mao altered it. His specifically 'third-worldist' communism distinguished between first world workers who were actually paid more than the product of their labour and third world ones who were the real global proletariat. But how could first world workers be paid more than the product of their labour?
Because the surplus extracted from the great army of 'majority world' labourers is enough to enrich the western bosses with enough left over for them to throw some crumbs to their workers at home (read about neo-colonialism for some clues as to how). This stabilises the system and keeps the people of nations like the USA, Western Europe, Australia, Japan etc. invested in global capitalism, stabilising the system with a relatively large big bulky class of people who have an interest in keeping those below them down. This is controversially known as the labour aristocracy.
In my opinion there is truth to this and value in understanding it, we also need to know where any nuances are and what it means for us (if us is a first world anarchist like me!).
Why there is some truth to it:
It actually rests on foundations that aren't all that controversial. Imagine a millionaire CEO of a major business, a wage worker who is earning 500 times what the cleaners are getting per hour (or whatever). It's safe to declare that this person is probably getting paid much more than they have contributed to the value of the product the business is producing. If we imagine global capitalism as this business then somewhere in the upper ranks you'd find the line beyond which where people were not really being exploited in any meaningful way any more. Above this line, whilst they aren't capitalists and the system was never designed primarily to benefit them, they are there to administer the system on the capitalists' behalf and are well rewarded for it. Some of the fruits of the labour of those below them is shared with them, crucially this amounts to enough so that they would be very unlikely to ever unite with the lower ranks against the shareholders or owners (or whoever it is that owns businesses these days).
For those first world nations where their governments are directly getting money in from third world ones (debt repayments with massive interest rates or whatever else they do) and then spending some of it providing services to their own citizens, this only hammers the point home further.
Why there is some value to it:
There is some value to this because it helps us understand where the global middle class comes in and why 'middle class' may mean something much more significant than just a label for a certain lifestyle choice. The global middle class are all the workers who benefit more from capitalism than they loose from it. They are still liable to be ordered around, they could still get fired but they don't actually loose money to the system.
The whole idea of what the middle class is has long confused me. I think this is a strong clue to working it out.
What about these nuances?
These are important because obviously it would be completely arbitrary to declare that the entire so called 'first world working class' is really just part of the global middle class (it's also far too materialistic and doesn't take into account any of the other things people have to give up to make room for capitalism like their health and their communities but put that aside...). Clearly there are people in the west who are genuine proles, no? Correct, according to most Maoists anyway:
The significant minority
There is a significant minority whose material conditions would naturally lead them to swiftly join any global revolution against capitalism. These may include groups like the following: Illegal immigrants (almost always heavily exploited), prison labourers, those on most zero-hours contracts, casual workers (together making up the 'precariat'), the underclass, homeless people, many sex workers, excluded poor urban ethnic minorities, the long term "unemployed" etc. and maybe some people who are just in really crappy minimum wage jobs.
Those who are primarily exploited post-getting paid
I've never heard Maoists talk about it but another group who seem to obviously fit the bill are those who are on low to average wages but are subject to extremely high rents, we are almost certainly being exploited whatever way you look at it. For example; London is the wealthiest city in the UK but the average Londoner actually has the least amount of spare money left after each pay-check because housing costs are so high.
The direction of travel
Maoist analysis was clearly based on a very specific socio-historical situation. In actual fact I think things are changing (slowly). Many first world nations are actually beginning to see widening inequality within their own borders (as I wrote about here). It seems likely that the next stage of capitalism will see the middle class islands shrink from the western nations down to just specific wealthy areas within western nations, super rich cities like London for example where poor people are totally priced out, having to be ferried in to do the dirty jobs and then ferried back out at night. It may even end up being the case that inequality within nations becomes much more significant than between them but we are certainly not there yet.
What might it mean for us? - (lessons from the risqué flirtation)
Lets get to the anarchism already!
Have you noticed that, although Maoist third-worldism is usually associated with a very authoritative brand of socialism, there is no real reason why this kind of economic analysis couldn't be accepted by anarchists? It's been used to justify support for all kinds of brutal regimes (including North Korea for example) who are thought (wrongly) to be attempting to protect their citizens from western neo-colonialists. But must it?
No. It could just as easily be useful for serious anarchist revolutionaries who want to make the best use of their time and energy:
- Some may conclude that there is no point in wasting time trying to bring about revolution in the west and that joining with anarchists in the third world is actually the only chance they have of being there when the revolution finally breaks out and helping! Migration may be in order!
- Some who have decided that they are actually a part of the significant minority of western workers whose interests genuinely do lie with the global working class (or their allies) may want to begin to take steps to see themselves as so. To try to form links primarily with the third-world global struggle, to understand what it means to be an exploited minority rather than the exploited majority that they had always assumed they were, no doubt this should impact on tactics.
- It highlights the particular value of the struggles against borders which are, of course, already a target of anarchist rage but in this context are probably one of the most significant means by which global oppression can continue. It's only by robbing people and then preventing them following the wealth that the system can continue to work.
- It also highlights the importance of all forms of internationalism and reminds us that we are not necessarily at the centre of things. A healthy dose of reality for a people who are still wont to assume that we were born to lead.