Reviewed by Lucia Morgans
Those who have watched with amazement and dismay as the power of capital has been ever-more violently consolidated over the last forty years may very well be asking themselves the same question as Yates poses in the title of his latest book: Can the Working Class Change the World? In just under 200 clearly written pages, this book provides a powerful and timely medicine for all socialists battling pessimism. Furnishing the Marxian critique of capitalism with contemporary examples drawn from not only the US experience, but the global condition and struggles of the working-class, Yates provides a compelling argument for why the answer is affirmative. Not only can the working class change the world; it must – ‘there really is no choice’ (183). This book puts paid to any suggestion that such sentiments are utopian.
Published in 2018, this book comes at a time when popular interest in socialism is on the rise, as evidenced in the increased membership of the British Labour Party and the DSA. Yates, however, is under no illusions that traditional social democratic politics can bring about the radical social transformation required to pluck humanity from its alienated existence and avert the course of climate catastrophe. Incremental changes, history has shown, can ‘soon enough be reversed and usually are’ (184). This has been evinced of late, with the evisceration of hard-fought for worker-rights, welfare benefits and public investment under an era of austerity that has caused a ‘very large number of murders and condemned millions of people to lives of hopelessness’ (117). At a time when neoliberalism has ensured that ‘capital no longer sees a need to accommodate the working class in any way,’ (123) how can workers challenge the terrible imbalance of power between labour and capital and create the world anew?
It is no small feat to argue for the transformative power of a class whose members often act against their own objective interests and are wrought with seemingly insurmountable divisions. Nevertheless, in six carefully crafted chapters, Yates manages to achieve just this. In a format and style accessible to those in which he places his faith, he explains who the contemporary working class is, why it is capable of changing the world, its victories thus far and the challenges before it, and crucially, provides practical suggestions for its struggle against exploitation and expropriation.
Born and raised in a Pennsylvanian manufacturing town, Yates’s commitment to his working-class roots has driven his career as one of the leading labour educators in the US. His Why Unions Matter (1998), published over two decades ago, has become a best-seller in worker education circles, a testament to his ability to engage socialist ideas and practice at the grassroots level. Such ability is also the central strength of this latest book. Despite a career in academia and role as editorial director of Monthly Review Press, Yates’ impassioned yet accessible writing eschews the often-times abstract academic debates with which Marxist scholars can be engaged. Theory is of little use if it does not guide practice, and practice is susceptible to go amiss if not guided by theory. This book strikes the balance with comprehension and a non-compromising style.
Since the 1970s, changes in capitalist production and the rise of so-called identity politics have rendered it difficult to define just who the working class are. Nevertheless, Yates tackles this necessary starting point head on. Arguing for a broader definition of the working class, he refutes the traditional Marxian emphasis on wage-labour as the necessary condition of inclusion as it ‘miss[es] hundreds of millions who are not paid wages but labor in such a way that capital benefits’ (12). To the employed, he adds those in the reserve army of labour, informal workers, unpaid homemakers and the world’s some three billion peasants. Drawing upon powerful examples, from construction workers in the US (25-6) to the electronics workers pushed towards suicide in the Shenzhen Foxconn plant (27-8), he demonstrates that the experience of the working class is marked by misery and precariousness.
In the second chapter, Yates elucidates central tenets of Marx’s analysis of capitalism to show that ‘working people are exploited and expropriated, making it impossible for them to achieve real freedom, autonomy, and unalienated lives in a capitalist society’ (33). He supplements a comprehensive exposition of the theory of surplus value with a clear account of the ways in which the expropriation of nature, the non-market labour of women and the bodies of black and other minority people is intertwined with the exploitation of wage labour.
Expanding upon central claims of the Communist Manifesto, in chapter three Yates explains why the working class is capable of radically changing the world. He considers the forces that unite workers against capital, as well as the barriers that thwart class solidarity: differing levels of skill, the mobility of capital, the ideology of nationalism, racialized and gendered social attitudes and structures, divide and rule strategies in the workplace and in capitalism’s hidden abodes, and diminishing health of workers (74-82).
Despite these barriers to class unity, the working class has, since the dawn of capitalism, already changed the world in significant ways. In chapter four, Yates draws predominantly upon the US and European experience to demonstrate how labour unions have raised the wages and benefits of union and non-union members, improved working conditions and weakened the control employers have over hiring, firing, and the labour process (87-97). Where the labour movement has been strengthened by high union density, labour political parties have represented working-class interests, often securing redistributive social policies, generous social welfare benefits, protective legislation and public service investments: the post-war British labour government and the Swedish SAP are given as pertinent examples (101-104.) Furthermore, the examples of Russia, China, Vietnam and Cuba are proof of the power of workers and peasants to instigate revolutionary transformations of society. In the case of the latter, tremendous advances have been achieved, where ‘education, healthcare, and today, organic farming, urban agriculture, and medical research are world class’ (109).
Despite these gains, the power of capital remains firmly intact, as revealed in the penultimate chapter. The demise of the socialist bloc and China’s headlong rush towards capitalism has altered the global balance of power between labour and capital, and has meant that Western capitalist states are no longer pressured to grant concessions to the working class out of fear of popular revolt (117-19). Capital’s assault on the social democratic welfare state, bolstered by the ideology of neoliberalism, has gone largely unchallenged by mainstream labour parties, whilst labour unions, insufficiently democratic and tarnished with corruption, have not caught up to the fact that capital long ago abandoned corporatist cooperation (124-30). As a result, ‘left behind’ workers have forsaken traditional parties and unions, and their insecurities have been capitalised upon by neo-fascist politicians, whose central concerns lie in keeping the working class divided (133).
How can the working class challenge the hegemony of capitalism on all fronts? In the last, largest, and most important chapter, Yates suggests multiple ways in which the working class can utilize its radical agency to change the world. Central to this is a call for solidarity – an emphatic ‘we’ – that can stave off the spell of individualism that is the raison d’être of capitalism (141). In order to bring about radical social transformation, Yates declares that the working class must not look to traditional social democratic politics, nor the ‘mainstream environmental groups, the non-governmental organizations that have proliferated like invasive species [or] the plethora of liberal feminist and ethnic and racial advocacy associations [whose] stakes are tied to the bourgeois order of things’ (184). Its activities and demands must resist co-option by capital’s demagogues, and its mission to reclaim the commons, build substantive democracy and engage self-sufficiency must be instigated from the ground-up. Yates explores ‘multiple terrains of struggle’ through which workers can push back against capitalist exploitation and expropriation: joining and supporting workers centres and cooperatives, forging alliances with peasants and immigrants, sustained insistence on radically democratized labour unions and political parties, and engagement in direct action such as strikes, boycotts and protests are some of the many illuminating suggestions on offer.
Unlike other books of its like, Yates stresses the imperative of averting the course of climate change and places a welcome wager on the capacity of the working class to restore Earth’s metabolism. He argues convincingly that by engaging in mass levels of ‘occupy, resist, produce,’ the working class can reject the irrational and abhorrently wasteful capitalist food production and distribution system, replenish the environment and forge collective consciousness in the process. On this, there are a great many lessons to be learnt from the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement (156), Cuba’s mass Urban Agriculture Programme (152-53) and Cooperation Jackson (180-81).
One of the many strengths of Can the Working Class Change the World? is its perspicuous explanation of the inextricable relationship between class exploitation and racism, patriarchy and environmental destruction. If the working class is to overcome its divisions in this age of ‘identity politics,’ then it must heed Yates’ observation that ‘capitalism has been racialized, gendered and wasteful of nature from its inception’ (56) and act upon his insistence to confront issues of racism, imperialism, patriarchy and climate change as urgently as economic exploitation.
Recurring throughout Can the Working Class Change the World? is an emphatic call for unions, teachers and grassroot activists to ensure that the working class is educated about the history, principles and struggles of the radical labour movement, so that its members can situate themselves historically and realize their potential to change the world. On every page, Yates practices what he preaches. In the hands of workers, educators and activists, this book will go a long way in inspiring radical thinking and action. And if, as Yates says, ‘only radical thinking and acting have any chance of staving off accelerating levels of barbarism’ (184), then this book will go a long way in changing the world.
4 August 2020