Class struggle – key to liberation

Shomi Yoon gave this talk to the International Socialism Day School, Newtown, Wellington, last month.

It seems obvious that we need to understand the world in order to change it. Socialist strategy and tactics for liberation is not only about the downfall of capitalism but also for genuine liberation for all.

A Marxist understanding of class and understanding that this is the central divide in society is crucial. But more than this, it’s the working class that can transform society for genuine liberation. I want to contest the idea that putting class at the centre of our analysis means that other forms of oppression are secondary in importance to class – far from it – it provides a concrete analysis of where the oppression comes from and how we can overcome it.

Making class central is key – conceptually and politically – to combating Eurocentrism. If we give ground to the notion that there are ideas that are somehow ‘essentially’ Western or ‘essentially’ Asian, Māori, or whatever, we reduce the social relations within society to a fixed and solid state. Class analysis points to the fractures and divisions running through the world today. So it’s a key to understanding where we are now, and how we liberate ourselves.

I want also to introduce a controversial idea: social relations determine our struggle, not a set of ideas we can label ‘European’ or ‘Asian’. Capitalism is the reality in NZ now – it was established by bloody dispossession, land theft, expropriation. And now it rules. So we have to think about ways of overcoming its rule. Talk – even radical-sounding talk – that encourages us to think of working people as having more in common with bosses who share similar backgrounds to them culturally – whether as so-called ‘white people’ or as Māori or Asians – is a barrier to this project.

Class divide in Aotearoa today

In 2016 today, it’s pretty obvious that there is a class divide. Take the 14km drive from Khandallah to Porirua East. There is very clearly a class divide. A few years back, the rates of rheumatic fever in Porirua East was called a “national disgrace” by health experts – a disease borne of poverty and overcrowding, and substandard housing. A disease that does not exist in the leafy suburbs of Khandallah.

But there’s something about the real experience of rich and poor that covers up the genuine extremes of society. We worry about paying bills, getting kids to school, or buying a car, paying the rent on time. But to the rich this is utter triviality.

Oxfam released a report earlier this year that the richest 1% now have more wealth than the rest of world’s population combined. Global inequality is worse than we have ever seen since the 19th century.

This level of inequality in the world is obscene – one that dictates that 600 million poorest in the world languish and live on less than $2 a day. Inequality is an obscenity that is also entirely structural and made by the system that we live: capitalism.

And obviously inequality hits us here in Aotearoa too. Since Labour introduced neoliberalism in the 1980s the richest 10% used to earn five times as much as someone in the poorest 10%; now they earn eight times as much. Put another way, the wealthiest 10% own 20% of New Zealand’s net worth, while the poorest half of the country has less than 5%.

One of the reasons why class matters: Any fight for genuine liberation has to fundamentally involve taking back this wealth from the top 1% and redistributing to the rest of the world.

But inequality on its own is not enough to change the world. Previous societies experienced a wealth divide but nothing as extreme as what we’re seeing under capitalism.

The central point of Marxism is that it is now possible to destroy this inequality once and for all. And so Karl Marx’s argument is that there is something different about the world today that makes that possible.

Marx argued that with capitalism, the world is able to produce enough to meet human need. Here’s some stats to back this up: the military spending of the US alone would be enough to provide the whole world with food and shelter. In 2015, they spent $598.5 billion, and you compare this figure to what would be necessary to end poverty worldwide: $175 billion worldwide – which is less than 1% of the combined income of the richest countries in the world. This is a relatively small figure compared to what the US spends on its military.

The problem is not scarcity. In the past it was. There was not enough to go around.

Now, the problem is the lack of political will for the ruling class in the world to do anything about it. So you can have capitalists like Warren Buffet, second richest capitalist in the world, say without a shadow of irony that, “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s may class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning”.

The other side know it’s a class war. So why does our side keep taking this?

It’s key to see that this is not the fault of the poor or even the workers of first world countries. The problem is that the capitalists, the rich and powerful in the world, control everything that is important in the world. They control food supplies, housing, water, electricity, water, and telecommunications, everything that produces wealth in this society. And it’s this control and power that gives them the final say over every government.

For Marxists the power that’s opposed to this, the power that has the capacity to fight back, the power that can potentially win, is the working class.

New Zealand capitalism: Fonterra

New Zealand’s biggest company is Fonterra. In its 2016 Financial Report, Fonterra boasted an annual revenue of $17.2 billion. It generates some 25% of New Zealand’s export earnings. They are the world’s biggest dairy exporter, sending 95% of the production of its 10,500 NZ farmer suppliers overseas. It supplies dairy to every continent of the globe with China being Fonterra’s biggest customer. The company has around 40 offices and employs some 16,800 people around the world. The NZ dairy industry is worth $14 billion a year to the New Zealand export economy. In the same report, they bragged a net profit after tax of $834 million dollars, up 65% from the previous year.

Fonterra’s CEO Theo Spierings made headlines this time last year ‘generously’ offering to have a pay freeze after receiving a 18% pay rise of up to $770,000 last year. In the same moment, he made 523 Fonterra staff redundant. That means his annual income is something like $4.94 million. His hourly take home wage is something like $1595.

Consider for a moment the disparity between what something like Spierings’ earns and an adult on the minimum wage. It would take someone more than two weeks to earn what he makes in an hour.

This is how modern capitalism works today.

Fonterra’s spin is that the farmer shareholders benefit in this profit because the farmers are the shareholder. In reality, the top 10 shareholders are not your individual mum and dad farmer on their individual farm, but massive corporations in their own right. Farming companies like Ellis-Lea Farms, and Dairy Holdings.

You can bet your bottom dollar that Spierings would not be on the farms milking the cows first thing in the morning, he won’t even be creating spreadsheets to work out the profits – he’ll have employed someone to do that. These people are purely owners, they pay people to manage their farms. They don’t contribute to the production that goes on.

It’s the hard work of farm labourers, engineers, people who work in the transportation, service industries that support the farm labourers, they are the ones who contribute to the value produced by Fonterra.

This makes an important point. It goes to say that the value produced by Fonterra is produced by labour. If you look even further, the machinery that Fonterra relies on, the capital, the investment, the intensification, is a product of labour too.

All this web of production is done through cooperation, not by the capitalists themselves, they are simply the owners of it, but by the workers.

This highlights some general points about capitalism. The ownership of capital is central to the rulers in this economy. Capital is property that allows bosses to employ workers to create value. And that’s another way of saying that workers are the source of all real value. And workers do not receive the full worth of their value. If they had done you wouldn’t see hundreds of people getting made redundant while the CEO receives an 18% pay rise.

The working class and its revolutionary potential

The obvious question is why do workers accept this deal?

Simply put, in today’s economy we don’t have a choice. If you don’t work, you starve. Life without a job, life on the dole, is difficult to maintain.

So what does this say about the working class?

As workers we are the source of all profits, yet we don’t receive those profits. We’re forced into an exploitative relationship with the capitalists because we don’t own capital ourselves. We don’t own enough property to employ labour or make money off it ourselves.

Workers organisations in the primary industries – meat works, forestry, shearers – have been the most progressive and anti-racist bodies in the whole history of this country. They’ve organised Māori and Pākehā and immigrant workers across racial lines and on class lines. Because capitalism threw those workers together, and it forced them to think up common strategies and to think of their common goals.

But there’s more to the working class than just this relationship of exploitation. The modern economy relies on enormous cooperation. For someone to get to work in their car, they’ll need to rely on petrol that was distilled from oil pumped out from the Middle East, on food being on the table that was grown, processed in Australia or the US, and shipped here and put in supermarkets for families to buy off the shelf. It is an enormous international web of cooperation, which goes into providing for our needs today, towards production.

So we’re continually working with people on a massive scale. This society is built on economic cooperation.

The other thing that’s different about the working class today is that the closer you get to the heart of capitalism, the bigger the factories tend to be. There is a largest concentration of labour than there ever has been before. Call centres will employ hundreds of people around the clock, schools can employ hundreds of people, universities 1000s, hospitals 100s, as do the docks, as do telecommunications, the list goes on.

Thousands of people are brought together because it’s more efficient for capitalists. This means that they can concentrate the machinery, the means of production.

This is important because it brings workers in larger numbers. And so what we have throughout the economy, is large numbers of people cooperating and in workplaces, who are all effectively barred from controlling the value that they cooperate to produce.

But that’s not the end of it. The capitalist class has an interest in reducing our standard of living wherever it can. Fonterra’s example is a point in case. Cutting our living standards is good for Fonterra, good for business. On the other hand, maintaining our wages, extending our rights is good for our class the workers.

What this means is that the classes aren’t stagnant, and separate but one that is constantly changing and in relationship with one another through the process of struggle: our class vs theirs.

The key in this relationship is that the capitalist need us to continue to produce value for them. But we don’t need them. We can do without them; they can’t do without us. They serve no useful purpose.

Their profit system has created wars and economic crises on an enormous scale. Everything in the modern economy is already run by us. Networks of planning, logistics, and distribution. Our strength lies in our capacity to organise and run production without the property owners.

The working class is collective and has to cooperate.

Strategies for liberation and class

The Marxist understanding of class doesn’t equate that we deprioritise other forms of oppression – if anything it should enhance it. We see capitalism and oppression as interconnected. Capitalism divides society into a dominant ruling class who exploit the majority of the world.

To sell their ideology, capitalism has various ideological, psychological tools to keep ordinary people in their place.

The brutality, violence, and exploitation of the system needs to be kept unseen so that the system can kick people into line but in a more subtle, non-explicit way. This is the role of oppression in society.

Oppression is an integral part of capitalism – it’s an inequality that’s inbuilt into the fabric of society. It exists in all social, legal, and political institutions.

The racists like Don Brash and the supporters of Hobson’s Pledge show what is different about Marxist analysis. Maria Bargh, a very important and principled intellectual, puts this group down to ignorance. But we disagree. It’s not ignorance that motivates people like Brash – they’re smart, well-educated, they know history. It’s politics. Their group is made up of the rich and powerful – big businessmen. They want to divide and rule. This isn’t ignorance or Eurocentrism. It’s a clear class outlook. They’re our enemies, not misguided souls. We need to be clear about that.

It’s the fact that New Zealand state supports an ongoing war in the Middle East where the population is overwhemling Muslim, it’s the fact that New Zealand has a racist injustice system where you’re far more likely to be harrassed, picked up, locked up with harsher penalities for longer if you’re Māori. It’s the fact that New Zealand capitalism and the profits of companies the likes of Fonterra is based on the brutal expropriation and confiscation of Māori land. So oppression is structural and systematic.

The other aspect of oppression are the ideas behind it. It helps the ruling class get away with their brutalities and exploitation if they can get people to believe that oppression is natural, or normal. It’s no surprise that Police Minister Judith Collins comes out with diatribe that poverty is the fault of ‘poor parenting’. They want to blame the individuals rather than the system.

Racism under capitalism

Historically, racism grew out of the need and justify the enslavement of Africans. But while slavery has been done away with, racism continues.

In Aotearoa, we can see that capitalism used racism to justify plunder, conquest, and brutal appropriation of land from tangata whenua.

Once capitalism established itself here, it also used racism to divide and rule: to pit one section of the working class against another thereby blunt our ability to fight back.

Karl Marx himself grasped the centrality of race under capitalism. Looking at the tension between Irish and English workers, Marx wrote about the Irish struggle for self-determination was a vital issue for the British working class:

Every industrial and commercial center in England possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he feels himself a member of the ruling nation and so turns himself into a tool of the aristocrats and capitalists of his country against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social and national prejudices against the Irish worker.

From this quote, we see how racism operates in a contemporary society. Marx highlights three things:

  1. That capitalism promotes economic competition between workers
  2. That the ruling class uses racist ideology to divide workers against each other
  3. That when one group of workers suffer oppression, it negatively impacts the entire class.

By talking about racism being a product of capitalism, Marxists have been accused of denying or diminishing the importance or impact of race on Aotearoa. But this is not the case. We simply want to explain its origins and reasons for its perpetuation.

The question of being Pākehā

Much of the controversy about Marxism and race is over whether Marxist theory appropriately understands the centrality of race. Our main contentions are:

  1. Pākehā workers do not have a privileged status here New Zealand; and
  2. Pākehā workers can gain revolutionary consciousness and
  3. Therefore a united working class revolution is possible.

Marxists start with the premise that all workers under capitalism are oppressed but some workers face further oppression because of additional discrimination like racism, sexism, homophobia or anti-immigrant ideas, the list goes on and changes depending on the needs of capital. Thus here in Aotearoa, Pākehā workers are oppressed, but not to the same degree as Māori, Pacific peoples and other non-white workers.

Oppression is not just an ideological tool to divide groups of workers, but has real material consequences as well. Because of racism, for example, the median household income for European families according to the 2013 Census was over $30,900 a year. For Māori it was $22,500; for Asian $20,100; for Middle Eastern, Latin American, and African it was under $20,000 per year. By every measure of the quality of life in Aotearoa, Pākehā are on the top and Māori, Pacific peoples, and other non-white ethnicities are on the bottom.

Marxists do not deny that these differences exist, nor do we deny that oppression means the lives of some workers are actually worse than others. For Marxists, the question is the cause of the differences. Are the disparities the result of Pākehā workers benefiting directly from the oppression of Māori workers? That is, do Pākehā workers make more on average because Māori workers make less?

To accept this explanation means to ignore the biggest beneficiary in the disparity in wages–employers and bosses. That employers are able to use racism to justify paying migrant workers less brings the wages of all workers down–the employers enjoy the difference.

This is not to deny that Pākehā workers receive some advantages in this society because they are Pākehā in a racist society. If they did not get some advantage–and with it, the illusion that the system works for them–then racism would not be effective in dividing Māori and Pākehā workers.

The distinctions and differences among workers function to create a distorted view of reality that turns the traits attributed to the oppressed into a kind of “common sense,” which in turn deepens those divisions. Māori and Pacific peoples are poorer, have worse housing, go to lower-decile schools, have a shorter life span and generally live in worse conditions, which helps to perpetuate the image in the minds of Pākehā workers that Māori and Pacific peoples are inferior.

But the problem with so-called “common sense” is that it is based on surface appearances and information, and does not reach deeper to give a systemic explanation for the disparities that exist in society. Instead, it creates what Frederick Engels was the first to call “false consciousness.”

False consciousness is ruling-class ideology that is used to explain away or cover up material reality. The point is that Pākehā workers contribute to capitalism’s ability to exploit them more effectively. The purely “psychological” advantage obscures the very real material deficit that racist oppression helps reinforce.

Writing in the early years of the twentieth century, radical Black intellectual WEB Du Bois explained how “false consciousness” worked in the South and why a labour movement never developed there in the aftermath of slavery:

The race element was emphasized in order that property holders could get the support of the majority of white laborers and make it more possible to exploit Negro labor. But the race philosophy came as a new and terrible thing to make labor unity or labor class-consciousness impossible. So long as the Southern white laborers could be induced to prefer poverty to equality with the Negro, just so long was a labor movement in the South made impossible.”

For Du Bois, racism wasn’t abstract, nor did it exist autonomously from class. Its development is a result of one class’ efforts to keep power away from another. It was Du Bois who came up with a famous formulation of poor whites gaining a “psychological wage”–as opposed to a material wage–from racism. But the psychological wage was to make the white worker feel superior because he wasn’t Black, even though he would have nothing material to show for it.

Marxism and the fight for national liberation

The accusations that Marxists don’t take the issue of race seriously couldn’t be further from the truth.

For most of the 20th century any serious anti colonial or anti-imperialist struggle was imbued with Marxist politics. Marx himself campaigned against slavery and was a pioneer in anti-colonial struggles.

The most significant and far-reaching of these examples was the Russian Revolution led by Bolsheviks in 1917. They were able to overcome the deep racial and religious divisions that existed in Russian society at the time, particularly anti-Semitic sentiments, and lead a successful revolution that involved the support from the many nations that the Russian empire at the time ruled. Revolutionary Vladimir Lenin said of the revolutionary party being a “tribune of the oppression”, willing to fight against the oppression of any group of people, regardless of those affected.

Another inspiring example of is that of the Black Panther Party – one of the best known Black power movements that inspired millions. No revolutionary party frightened the ruling class as much as the Black Panther Party. Born in 1966 in the Black ghettos of Oakland to resist police violence, the Black Panthers grew rapidly. They called themselves “Marxist-Leninists” and had the Communist Manifesto as required reading for members.

Here in Aotearoa, we have examples of where and when the class is feeling confident it is possible for class consciousness to shift and for workers to take up the struggles of the oppressed. Tama Poata, of Ngāti Porou descent, was a member of the Communist Party and an organiser in the Drivers’ Union. In 1967, the then government were legislating for a new land grab and Poata and other fellow Māori drivers got together to make this an issue that they brought up in a stopwork meeting of Wellington Drivers in Newtown, Wellington. He wrote of this meeting: “There were over a thousand drivers who decided as a union to make submissions to the Parliamentary Select Committee [about the Act] and a group of Māori drivers were appointed to represent the union. It was the first time ever a trade union had represented specific Māori issues to a Parliamentary Select Committee”.

The argument he put to the drivers here in Newtown at the stop work echoes the ideas around class unity and why and how Māori issues need to be taken up by the class as a whole: “We were able to argue that Māori issues were something that should be addressed by ourselves as trade unionists, and Māori interests were especially relevant because there were a huge number of Māori drivers in the union. You only had to travel to length of the North and South Islands to see the number of Māori on the roads and operating heavy machinery. Māori have always been skilled in this area, and in particular with other agricultural industries like the farming industry”.

From these examples, it’s undeniable that all these groups had some understanding of race and class being bound up in a wider system of capitalism. And that Marxism was a crucial component in not only understanding the world but crucially how to fight it.

The relevance of Marxism today

The working class today is more diverse than ever: we are female, male, intersex, Māori, Pākehā, immigrant, LGBTIQ. Gender issues, immigrant issues, anti-racism, refugees are all working class issues. In fact the three biggest unions in Aotearoa the public service, the teachers and nurses are all female-dominated sectors. The trade union militant of today is most likely to be female and working in the public sector.

US socialist Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes on the importance for a united working class to fight for genuine liberation:

The only way of achieving unity in the working class over time is to fight for unity today and every day. Workers will never unite to fight for state power if they cannot unite to fight for workplace demands today. If white workers are not won to anti-racism today, they will never unite with Black workers for a revolution tomorrow. If Black workers are not won to being against anti-immigrant racism today, they will never unite with Latino workers for a revolution tomorrow.

The challenge today is to make revolutionary Marxism, once again, part of the discussion for the strategies for genuine human liberation.

Photo Credit: Terry Coggan