The worsening of the quality of life for U.S. workers can’t be neatly compared to past eras or even contemporary countries. The specific conditions of the working class in late U.S. capitalism have taken a big evolutionary jump as a result of the pandemic. The socialist movement in the U.S. has to contend with a rapidly segmenting working class and ever-more reactionary little bourgeoisie. The movement is facing an outlaw horizon and that means having to both quickly and carefully experiment with organization-building to specifically overcome working class segmentation and an increasingly vicious big and little bourgeoisie alliance.
The profit squeeze of the 70s and rise of Thatcher/Reagan, 9/11 and the global war on terror, the 2008 depression and now the COVID-19 pandemic and related depression were major geologic events that in each case accelerated the worsening condition of the working class, as incremental ideological, legal, environmental and economic changes accumulated along the way.
For a while, cheap goods extracted from the developing world and credentialism—get a degree, get retrained, go back to school—was a viable strategy for enough workers to improve their material condition without collective action. It was the perfect neoliberal solution: an individual strategy that depended on individual responsibility. The situation now, as a result of these periods of intense, sped-up change, has many of the same underlying relations U.S. capitalism has always featured—white supremacy and the class struggle—but also some important differences that make our work more urgent, complicated, and perilous.
For a start, there has been a deep segmentation of the U.S. working class that the socialist movement needs to grapple with.
The Coordinator Class
The left has had trouble really understanding the mass “white collar-ifying” of the working class, as huge numbers of workers went from production and related jobs like logistics and retail to “office jobs” that often require a post-high school degree.
These workers enjoy a mystifying kind of social power despite their low levels of unionization, stalled wage growth, exclusion from various labor protections, and ever-more precarious jobs. Their comparatively better wages and working conditions clearly sets them off from production and service workers. The left has seemingly settled, in practice if not explicitly, as distinguishing them from the working class of production, logistics, and direct service workers. This is often short-handed as the “professional-managerial class,” which seems like a lazy misnomer given the details of the changing conditions of labor struggle. While it might be little more than an epithet at this point, there is a real phenomenon leftists are trying to describe.
The growth of the “white collar” or “PMC” segment of the working class is maybe better understood by looking at capital’s need to expand its bureaucracy as more and more wealth and with it the ultimate decision-making power over wealth rests with fewer and fewer people. As capital has concentrated, in other words, immense companies (and their hanger-on contractors) need legions of workers with authority to make minor decisions and oversee minor transactions and relationships. This authority is not really professional or managerial, in the sense that it depends on expertise in a substantive field or grants meaningful decision-making power. It’s more hall monitor than prosecutor.
In his book on the development of late capitalism, aptly titled Late Capitalism, the Marxist thinker Ernest Mandel studied closely the relationships between the increasing “socialization of labor” (meaning the increasingly specific division of labor, where less is done by one person and components of work are accomplished by large groups), the concentration of wealth, and the changing nature of the working class. As the rate of profit falls, firms grow in size, and so there is pressure on companies to “rationalize” their operations, that is, to very carefully plan and manage their operations—think of the intense logistical and managerial structures at companies like Walmart and Amazon:
“A far more technicized division of labour now replaces the old factory hierarchy. This gives rise to the illusion that bureaucratization of the administration of a company is equivalent to an actual bureaucratization of the function of capital—in other words, to an ever-increasing delegation of control over the means of production to an expanding army of managers, directors, engineers, and ‘bosses’ large and small. The reality by no means corresponds to this appearance. The radical tehcnicization and rationalization of the administration of enterprises and companies represents a…unity of two opposite processes—the growing delegation of the power to decide questions of detail on the one hand, and the growing concentration of the power to decide questions crucial for the expansion of capital on the other….[the] mistake of those who argue the thesis of the bureaucratization of corporations or the dominance of the ‘technostructure’ lies in the fact that they confuse the technical articulation of the exercise of power with its economic foundation—the actual sources of power.”
What Mandel is saying here is basically that the tendency of the rate of profit to fall means thinner profit margins, requiring a large scale for adequate capital accumulation. Ever-larger scale means firms have to “rationalize” their administration, so they need more and more bureaucrats in the company to make minor decisions. This has been seemingly confused as more and more workers with decision-making power over how companies operate (“managers”)—but the reality is the opposite, in fact fewer and fewer people decide how a society’s wealth is allocated and invested while more and more people have to work in the vast bureaucracy needed to run capitalism.
This sector of workers, capitalism’s bureaucracy, could better be described as the Coordinator Class than the Professional-Managerial Class, whose commodifiable skill isn’t some specialized substantive knowledge, but an ability to talk, write, and operate in the language and customs of bureaucracy. They are not “professionals” in any sense that would give that word meaning—they don’t hold specialized licenses nor do they self-regulate through cartel-like associations as do doctors, lawyers or accountants; they lack professional unions that can enforce common licensure requirements or standards. Nor are they “managers” because they don’t have that type of power over other workers or corporate policy.
No, in the true bureaucratic tradition, they are “coordinators” whose job is to oversee some infinitesimally small corner of capitalist enterprise and ensure it moves smoothly. The Coordinators coordinate “work,” and their success or failure will depend much more on their ability to operate in the bureaucracy than their specialized substantive knowledge of what their company does.
Everything from the appropriate tempo of email correspondence, the argot of office communication, and the appropriate methods of both workplace and personal conflict resolution have in practice become commodified skills critical to capitalism’s continued operation. There is a reason these workers can move fairly easily between an insurance company, a large non-profit, a shipping company, and a marketing business. The details of the firm’s operations are less important than a familiarity with the mechanics of bureaucratic coordination, the language of emails and conference calls and progress reports. These aren’t really “bullshit jobs,” in that they’re “unnecessary,” but rather they can feel like “bullshit” because the commodifiable skill being paid for is so mercurial.
In the time of pandemic, the Coordinator Class are the ones who are able to most easily quarantine, because their jobs can mostly be performed without having to be in a physical space—in fact in some ways, they’re probably better off not having to be around one another. Already segmented from other parts of the working class, they are now even more atomized from one another, and capital is rapidly building the infrastructure to allow them to never have to be in the same physical space ever again. As firms knit themselves together coming out of the pandemic, they will do so permanently scarred by the outbreak—and that disfigurement will look like millions of workers who rarely see their coworkers as living people but as names attached to emails who mostly complicate their day.
When Marxists talk about “downwardly mobile” professionals or white-collar workers flocking to socialism, they may be detecting this contradiction between, on the one hand, the relative social power of this segment of the working class and, on the other, their powerlessness in the chain of production. Maybe they are radicalizing because by this point, a significant chunk of these workers never enjoyed the benefits of being “white collar,” as any one of these workers under the age of 45 or so would have graduated college with debt and gone through three or so serious recessions and zero wage growth, not because they are “downwardly mobile.” They are radicalizing because concrete conditions of late capitalism require this Coordinator Class but they are particularly incapable of collective action that can improve their working conditions.
Nevertheless, having been let into the bureaucratic fraternity, these workers do enjoy a social power that their ability to quarantine safely highlights. At the same time that the working class is seeing how precarious their collective condition is, the division between these two major segments, production and services on one hand and the bureaucracy on the other, threaten to deepen even further, unless their struggles can be yoked together through organization and mobilization. Because if they are not yoked together, there is a risk that the comparatively more comfortable coordinator class will fortify against the collective self-defense of production and service workers.
Radical organization is crucial to avoiding this result. As the coordinator class’s labor commodity has plummeted in value, these workers have become attracted to left-wing politics, even socialist organizations like DSA, and they’ve brought with them the modes and language of the capitalist bureaucracy. Some socialists’ anxiety about properly relating to “the working class” is as much a function of this divide as anything else. The organization takes on the character of its most active members, and so the culture of the organization favors a certain type of participation. To build an organization that is not overly concentrated in one segment of the working class will require an organizational structure that does not favor this segment of the working class—in terms of time commitment and the bureaucratic languages and modes of participation.
Segregation of Pain
The concrete conditions of capitalism have segmented the working class into this coordinator class of the vast capitalist bureaucracy and the production and service sectors that bureaucracy is meant to “coordinate” from a distance. On top of this, the division is racialized, with Black and brown workers heavily segregated outside of the coordinator class, particularly in big cities.
The pandemic is baring how the segregation of workers allows for the segregation of pain, which in turn intensifies the divide as segments of the working class may frantically fortify themselves against privation. The racial dimension of this divide makes the tension easier to exploit, since in the U.S., race has a material dimension that makes class struggle significantly more complex in many ways, including trying to build multiracial organizations.
Because in the U.S. whiteness’s material benefit is defined by its relationship in particular to anti-Blackness there is a common view that there is an unresolvable conflict.
By way of analogy, socialists rightfully scoff at the idea that one could build an organizational coalition between workers and bosses or landlords and tenants. Ask your average socialist why, and they would tell you that in each case the two groups have inborn, inherently contradictory material interests. What would they even work together for? Besides, one group would hold all the power in that relationship.
The same skepticism seems to often be implicitly expressed about an organization of white and Black workers, as it is between “PMC” and production and service workers. From a certain point of view the inherent adversarial nature between white-ness and Black-ness means the idea of a multiracial working class organization is self-contradictory, in the same way a Marxist would see a worker-boss alliance.
This view might lead to the (again implicit) belief that the best hope is to harness capitalism and redirect its resources to eliminate white supremacy. But for socialists, organizing for a non-white-supremacist capitalism is like isolating the sound of one hand clapping. Put another way, white supremacy and capitalism are baked together like a cake, and seeking out non-white-supremacist capitalism is like trying to taste only the butter.
This seems to be the view of Barbara and Karen Fields, authors of Racecraft, who in an interview criticized the creeping dominance of this certain idea of white-ness and Black-ness as immovable categories tied together as opposites, and urged a politics that was rooted in careful historical study to avoid immobility:
[The] big mystification achieved by racecraft [is it] looks like a relation between people or race relations, but it’s really a submerged economic relation: that’s the American ideology. We have an economic order that is untouchable because people live in identities without understanding that they are living in the world of work. In the era of a strong labor movement, they were fighting fights to get rights and now that’s not even legitimate in the eyes of some people.
Socialists want to abolish the relation that allows bosses to exist (private ownership of productive property), and can conceptualize doing that (democratic control of the means of production). Real-world guideposts like municipal utilities, public banks, or workers cooperatives, make abolishing this relation a short conceptual walk. The depressing absence of successfully deracialized hierarchical societies makes it more challenging to design a political program that keys in on the specific social relations that define white supremacy.
Of course there has been plenty of work on critical race theory, it’s just that the political practice of that theory seems to still sit primarily in the academy and the NGO world, where it is managed from the top and communicated as something that capitalism’s bureaucrats can accomplish through behavioral changes, albeit in structural settings (i.e., through their roles as bureaucrats). It has not been a theory experimented with widely in the context of worker organizations, especially low-resource, democratic ones.
These approaches, with their emphasis on centering and uplifting, seem better suited to HR departments and tenure committees making hiring decisions than to a mass organization of volunteers moving into struggle on their own behalf. Again, if we want to overcome segmentation of the working class, we have to experiment with how to yoke differential struggles together, to democratize power.
As one example, what does it mean for one group of organizational worker volunteers to uplift and center another group of worker volunteers in an organization? That isn’t a rhetorical point, it’s a good faith question. It may have some tangible answer, but what that is is far from clear. In the context of volunteers where assuming leadership necessarily means taking on significant work (since there is no paid staff), can it mean reserving leadership for radicals of color? That seems an unfair distribution of organizational labor. So therefore does it simply mean “defer politically”? That seems incoherent, since it still leaves the power with mostly white people to choose which people of color to defer to, unless one believes people of color have interchangeable political ideas.
The concrete conditions of the working class, and this segmentation between the bureaucratic coordinators and the production and service workers with its racialized nature, makes organizational experimentation around this problem critical. The COVID-19 pandemic has only made this more urgent, not less.
In any case, socialists need to state plainly their belief as to whether a mass, volunteer-run, multiracial socialist organization of all kinds of workers is even possible. Too much is left implicit, unstated, or vague. If it isn’t considered possible, that is disappointing, but it’s better just admitted, so alternatives can be studied. If it is possible—which I believe it is—then experimentation needs to begin in earnest and with patience and good faith.
Danger awaits. Socialists are looking at an outlaw political horizon, in the Robin Hood sense. Socialists by no choice of their own are facing becoming economic outlaws, racial outlaws, political outlaws who have to commit themselves to challenging not just the obvious adversaries in capital and right wing paramilitaries but a vast strata of the political elite and even segments of the working class that enjoy a relative social power that for the time being insulates them from worst depravities of catastrophe.
This is because deteriorating conditions for the working class won’t happen in a vacuum. As the conditions worsen, the ruling class will use their state power to more acutely constrict the ability of the working class to organize and advocate for itself. This includes further militarizing our cities, impairing the rights to assemble and to vote, and outright criminalizing the statutory rights to organize. At the same time as they’ll wage a legal war through the state apparatus, they’ll wage an ideological war heavily inflected with racist appeals to white workers but particularly to small business owners—the petit bourgeoisie who,
“[resents] his social position: he looked up with envy and hatred to big business, to which he so often helplessly succumbed in competition [we can add: in debt]; and he looked down upon the workers, jealous of their capacity for political and trade union organization and for collective self-defence. Marx once described what, in June 1848, had driven the French petite bourgeoisie to turn furiously against the insurgent workers of Paris: the shopkeepers, he said, saw access to their shops blocked by the workers’ barricades in the streets; and they went out and smashed the barricades.” (Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast, 1963) (emphasis added).
We’re watching this happen all around us now, as the small business, petit bourgeois base of the right wing reacts to the rules that can particularly help the vulnerable segments of the working class. As workers attempt to put up virtual and literal barricades to stop themselves being thrown into the pandemic’s abattoir, the petit bourgeoisie will be stoked by the same landlords and creditors breathing down their necks to tear down those barricades and open access to their businesses. The artificial scarcity of a Depression will set the stage to pit segments of the working class against each other even more acutely through these state and ideological means, starving small businesses of their thin margins as the secular decline in the rate of profit in the U.S. continues.
While most U.S. workers work for large firms—some 53% for firms with 500 or more employees—the immense mass of workers working for small firms, starved of state support, will experience particularly harsh conditions as their employers look to nickel and dime and hyperexploit them. As workers for these smaller businesses—restaurant and retail workers, those in health care services—organize in reaction, the petit bourgeoisie will get pulled closer to the right wing, which promises disciplinary state measures to stop “disruptive” worker action. As in Marx’s day in other words, not only will they smash the barricades, but they will look down with baleful jealousy at workers’ capacity for collective self-defense, and willingly grant the state more and more power to crack down.
Here’s the maybe more novel point: with more and more intense state suppression and petit bourgeois hostility, traditional institutions of the Left may shy from radical action. Whether to preserve what access to power they have, or to avoid state crackdowns, their willingness to provide political access and cover to a mass, socialist working class movement will dwindle. The tepid reaction of progressive institutions, whether unions or NGOs, to the Bernie Sanders campaign—a popular candidate with a fundraising advantage and near-monopoly on young voters—should pull the scales from the eyes. At the same time, institutions with resources, often situated as gatekeepers in critical points in the working class, are crucial. This counsels for socialists developing democratic and radical bodies that can pull those institutions towards the movement or at least minimize their ability to undercut it.
I believe this experimentation will require subverting, not adopting, the sort of corporate bureaucratic and NGO approach, and bucking the example of the professional grasstops, if for no other reason than that fifty years on from the fusion of the New Left with foundation money, that approach has achieved little more than the proliferation of NGOs.
As discussed above, it should involve determining how to yoke self-interested struggles together inextricably. And from the practical point of view of organization-building, it will require at least in part building organization that does not require specific modes of participation—for one, the argot of capitalist bureaucracy that one segment of the working class has been steeped in specifically; for another, the voluntarism that requires intense participation as a qualification for leadership.
How can socialists yoke the workers of the great capitalist bureaucracy to production and service workers? How can they yoke the struggle of white workers to that of Black and brown workers, often across that same divide?
As is often the case, a crisis in capitalism makes very plain what is often concealed by loose credit and cheap consumer goods. A communicable virus makes our links to one another concretely visible. Pleas from nurses and teachers to require people to stay home, and therefore to provide them the resources to allow them to stay home, is underneath it all a solidaristic plea on behalf of their fellow workers as well as themselves. The conditions have forced the conclusion on them, even if they wouldn’t show their work in a Marxist way.
Of course, the details are anything but simple; it’s immensely challenging, because moving people into struggle requires organization-building, and building a democratic, multiracial working class socialist organization has no blueprint anybody is aware of. It is fraught and daunting, and the solutions that are offered are often riddled with the logic of capitalist bureaucracy and NGO Speak. In socialist and radical organizations imbued with the language and custom of the capitalist bureaucracy, it requires reimagining our organizational structures and cultures, often intentionally by negative examples of past models.
The idea of an “outlaw country” as I’m presenting it here is not a warning that it’s time to go clandestine: quite the opposite. It is a warning that the concrete conditions the working class is facing requires knitting together the entire working class in fraught ideological and economic conditions through novel organization. This, to me, counsels for trying to build a certain type of mass organization: (1) more democratic, more nimble, more transparent, than incumbent and past organizations, (2) consciously engaging with all labor struggles, (3) oriented towards pressuring the traditional institutions of the Left to conform to that mass, democratic character. This can help crest the border walls between segments of the working class manned by professionals, and create a wake that pulls institutions towards socialist politics.
For a mass, volunteer organization, expanding circles of democratic participation that push people to work together will require cooperation not for political appearances, but for practical reasons—without broad buy-in, nothing gets done at scale. The pressure to cooperate can forge a common culture that eliminates what favors one group or disfavors another. Democratic participation from workers increases pressure on other organizations ostensibly “speaking for” constituencies to modify their models, as a socialist organization can set a visible participatory standard. Coalition building within an organization across tendencies and backgrounds sharpens workers’ political skills and connections. A volunteer leadership with regular turnover prevents the growth of a “professional” Left and forces other institutions to relate to the body of the organization rather than individual leaders, i.e., forces coalitions to be based on organic connections to membership rather than personal relationships with leaders. Taken together these are among the ingredients for resiliency that the outlaw horizon calls for.