Last year, during Bernie Sanders’s primary run, Jacobin’s comments sections, email inboxes, and carrier pigeon coops exploded with basic questions about socialism, asked by people ready to fight for economic justice but unsure of how to talk about these new ideas with their friends, coworkers, and Twitter followers.
So Jacobin published The ABCs of Socialism, designed to answer the most common and most important questions about the history and practice of socialist ideas.
To coincide with our second printing of the book, Jacobin is 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.
Who are “the workers,” after all? Why are they important to capitalism, and why are they important to socialists? How can workers use their collective power to challenge injustice?
Below is an edited transcript of Chibber’s remarks. You can also listen to the discussion and subscribe to Jacobin’s podcast here. You can also buy a copy of The ABCs of Socialism for a special sale price of $5 here.
The issue before us is why socialists constantly focus on the working class as a strategic factor in society.
To get straight to the point, there are a couple of fundamental reasons why socialists do so, and I think they are very sound reasons. You can think of this as one, being a diagnosis of what’s wrong in modern society, and two, being a prognosis of what to do to make things better. Both of these point in the same direction.
So let’s start with the diagnosis.
The diagnosis focuses on what kinds of things people need in their life to have a decent shot at happiness, at decent social relations with others — all the things that go into what we call justice, and fairness. Whatever else is needed — and there are many things that are needed for social justice — there are two that just about everybody agrees on.
One is certain basic minimum material goods. People cannot live decent lives if they are constantly worried about having enough to eat. They cannot live a decent life if they don’t have basic health, or housing, or certain material provisions that allow them to strive to what they would regard as a higher end to things: creativity, love, friendship. All of those things are harder to sustain if you don’t have certain basic goods, so first of all you need these goods.
Secondly, autonomy, or freedom from domination. The basic idea is, if you’re underneath someone else’s thumb, if you’re being dominated by somebody else, there’s always a chance that that authority which they have over you will turn into abuse.
Being dominated by somebody else, therefore, means that the priorities by which you live are not going to be your own. They’re going to be the priories of that person who has power over you. Which means that you don’t essentially get to set your agenda, whatever that agenda might be.
Therefore, if in modern society people lack these basic material goods, and they lack autonomy, they experience domination. Whatever else they need, in that kind of society, justice is very hard to achieve.
Socialists say that capitalism is a social system which systematically deprives people of both the material goods that they need and their autonomy. The reason is simple: capitalism runs on the principle of profit maximization — it puts profits over people.
Now, why does that undermine both autonomy and access to basic material goods? Well, most people in a capitalist society have to work for a living, and they go to work for somebody else. While they’re working for somebody else, their employer, the employer’s priorities are not set by what is good for the employees who are working under him. They’re set by the firm’s goal of maximizing profits.
The reason the employer has to prioritize profit maximization is that if he does not, the firm dies. The only way the firm can survive is by wringing as much money as it can out of its economic activities as possible so that the employer can take that money and increase efficiency and other competitive strengths, so that he can beat out his rivals.
This is the fundamental problem: the thrust and the force of competition compels capitalists to always look after the bottom line. And the bottom line ends up being injurious to everybody else.
The flip side of profit maximization is cost minimization. Every firm has to try to maintain and hold its line on whatever costs it has so as the profit margins can be increased as much as possible. But cost minimization has an immediate impact on workers’ lives, because what they take as their income, which is their wage, is their employer’s cost.
So cost minimization means that every employer tries to pay as little as he can get away with when it comes to remunerating his workers. Which means that workers’ basic means of livelihood are determined not by what they need, but by what their employer can get away with. That’s issue number one.
Issue number two: while they’re at work, they have to surrender their autonomy to their employer.
The wage contract essentially says, “I’ll come work and work for you. You give me some money, and for the duration that I’m working for you, I am under your authority. What I do with my time, where I stand, where I go, who I talk to, how many bathroom breaks I take, where I look, how fast I work all this is not at my discretion. It’s at the discretion of you, the employer.”
That waking time, for most people in the world, is most of their waking day. That working time comprises anywhere between two-thirds to three-fourths of all the time that they’re awake — which means, effectively, that three-fourths of their active life is spent giving up their autonomy to somebody whose interests are lined up against their own interests.
This lack of autonomy inside the workplace is often compounded by being under their employer’s control outside the workplace. In company towns, or in cities where judges and legislators are bought up by the employer, even political authority is under the capitalist’s hands.
Therefore, for both of these reasons, it is built into the structure of capitalism that these fundamental preconditions for a just society are systematically undermined by the rules of the system itself.
Who Has the Power
What that means is that in order to move towards a more just social arrangement, you’ve got to figure out how to get people these basic provisions and greater autonomy. This has been the struggle of the poor since the birth of capitalism: trying to establish non-market access, or at least non-contingent access, to these things they need for decent lives.
The problem is: every time the poor have tried to advocate or ask for or plead for greater assurance of these things, they’ve come up against the resistance of their employers.
Within the workplace, if they ask for higher wages, if they ask for more control over the workplace, if they ask for more authority over investment decisions, every time they come up against the recalcitrance of the employers. If they make those demands outside the workplace, they come up against employers’ greater social power.
The basic problem is power in capitalism is not distributed equally. Not only do employers get to set the agenda within the workplace, they also have the authority and the power to set the agenda for society at large, because of their control of the state, their greater resources for lobbying, their ability to buy politicians. Fundamentally, as long as they control investment, they control the creation of all the wealth and all the income of society, so everybody has to constantly worry about whether or not they’re happy.
The Workers' Opportunity
This leads to a strategic problem: if a vast majority of people in a capitalist society are denied the basic goods that are needed for social justice, and if every time they ask for them, they are denied by political authorities because of the influence of the capitalist class, how do you get them?
This leads then to the second factor after the diagnosis: the prognosis of how to fix things.
The prognosis is, in order to have a better chance at life for the vast majority of the people, and since power centers are not going to give them up voluntarily, you’re going to have to extract it from them, through a countervailing power on the part of the poor.
It’s a practical issue: if the bourgeois state, and the capitalist class, which has the power, does not, by its own generosity, allow the poor these basic things that it needs for a decent life, where is the power going to get the means to get those things from the capitalists? The answer can only be by extracting it from them, through a countervailing power on the part of the poor. This is where the strategic and practical importance of the working class comes in.
The working class is unlike any other social grouping in the non-capitalist section of modern society. However penurious it is, however dominated it is, however atomized it is, it is the goose that lays the golden egg. It is the source of profits, because unless workers show up to do their work every day and create profits for their employers, that principle of profit maximization cannot be carried out. It remains a dead letter.
Workers, therefore, have an opportunity, if they can take advantage of it: they hold the lever to the stream of profits that keeps the system going. Capitalists have the authority over them, but unless they agree to do what their employers say, the employers are left simply holding the bag — no profits for them.
Workers, therefore, are important for a strategic reason, which is that they are the agent, and the only agent, that has a structural place within the society that can bring the power centers to their knees.
That it is a capacity that they have, but they also have an interest in using that capacity. All of those liabilities, all of those constraints which I’ve laid out, which are in the way of moving towards a more just society, are most keenly felt in society as a whole by the working class itself. They are the vast majority of modern society. They also happen to be among the poorest end, and they are the ones who every day suffer the indignities, the deprivation, the loss of autonomy, the backbreaking work pace, the insecurity, and the anxiety of what to do with their lives when they are under somebody else’s thumb.
They are the ones that suffer the most under capitalism, and hence they not only have a capacity, but also an interest in coming together and struggling towards those ends which we think would generate more just social arrangements.
From the Margins to the Center
Now, there’s an important implication for this. Many people reading this are in and around universities, and you’ve suffered the misfortune of sitting through social theory classes and all that in the last twenty years.
Among progressives and in the radical left, the key category in the last twenty-five years has been the margins: marginality, embracing the margins, advocating for the margins, being the margins, loving the margins. If it’s marginal, it’s good.
Not that there’s anything wrong with the margins. But understand this: the reason the working class is important is because it’s not marginal. You’re going to have to get over your love of the margins if you want to do effective politics.
This doesn’t mean that you consign other socially oppressed groups to insignificance. Quite the contrary: anybody fighting for a just society has to take every form of marginalization and oppression as being incredibly important.
But understand that politics is not just about moral advocacy. It is also about the practicalities of achieving power against the power centers in an unjust world.
The thing about the working class that makes it important is that it is the central social category and social group within capitalism (second only to capital, of course). This means, therefore, that the reason you go after it is because of its centrality to the system, not because of its marginality.
That means that the tenor of the political debates has to change. Quite often you walk into a meeting today, and the discussion will be about whether or not this group is fighting for the margins, is looking for the margins, is bringing the margins in. That’s great, if it’s a code word for saying we have to make sure every indignity, every injustice is something we’re concerned with.
But understand that you also have to ask: who are the central and the key players in this society that can bring the kind of changes we need?
Not just in our politics but in our understanding of the system, we have to move beyond the obsessions with margins. We have to start thinking of the nucleus, the core, and the foundation of modern society, and building and establishing power within those foundations.
Right now, at this moment, the Left is the weakest its been since its birth on this issue, and one reason it’s embraced the margins is because that’s the space that it inhabits. But the fact that you’ve been pushed into the margins doesn’t mean you should embrace it.
The agenda for the Left for the foreseeable is going to be to figure out how to get out of the margins into the nerve centers of capitalism. Because that’s where the power is. And until you’re able to aggregate and use that power towards different ends, you’re not going to get the kind of society that most moral people want. That’s why socialists focus on the working class.