The politics of work
Adi Dasgupta, Leo Niehorster-Cook, Jessica Sales, Mark Woodall
Platypus Review 157 | June 2023
On December 8, 2022, the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted this panel at the University of California, Merced with panelists Adi Dasgupta (UC Merced), Leo Niehorster-Cook (Democratic Socialists of America), Jessica Sales (Party of Socialism and Liberation), and Mark Woodall (United Auto Workers 2865). Daniel Rudin of Platypus moderated the panel, the video of which is available online at <https://youtu.be/C3SJIYUKRyI>. An edited transcript follows.
It is generally assumed that Marxists and other Leftists have the political responsibility to support reforms or the improvements of the welfare of workers. Yet leading figures from the Marxist tradition such as V. I. Lenin, Rosa Luxemberg, and Leon Trotsky also understood that such reforms would broaden the crisis of capitalism and potentially intensify contradictions, which could adversely impact the immediate conditions of the workers. For instance, full employment will be in a natural demand from the standpoint of all worker interests, but it also threatens the conditions of capitalist production, which relies on a surplus of available labor. Capitalism needs unemployment to continue to function and to motivate labor, thereby potentially jeopardizing the system of employment altogether. In light of such apparent paradoxes, this panel seeks to investigate the politics of work from Leftist perspectives.
Mark Woodall: It’s interesting that we’re discussing these diverging perspectives here on how labor and workers work. As I look around this room, I see many who, from different ideological perspectives, have spent much time over the past month engaged in the strike activity here.
I will start by giving my own perspective. I am a sixth-year graduate student in physics here at UC Merced. I have been organizing on and off with the United Auto Workers (UAW). The UAW 2865, which represents the TAs, graders, and tutors, has been unionized and in existence since the late 90s. That itself was a product of a decade’s worth of prior organizing. Organizing the student researchers closed a gap that was left in the late 90s by the failure of that particular unionization movement to capture all of the aspects of graduate labor. It was a historic campaign to an extent. We certainly haven’t seen anything of that scale in the U.S. in the past decade.
Some of the things that motivated me to get back into organizing had been my souring on the mission of exactly what it was I was seeing in the university. Perhaps its ideals were not being upheld, at least in their stated manner. I had the realization that there was not a lot of recourse for members of the university to have a way to enforce fair working conditions and obtain the fruits of their labor that they deserved.
I see many of my colleagues in here, who are probably familiar now with the all-powerful distinction that the university and its agents like to throw at us: the distinction between a student and a worker. This has been the subject of endless litigation over the past few months and longer. The expectation in higher education was that there was a certain class of workers, namely graduate workers who had completed some level of coursework, who were simply expected to continue doing labor for the university for advisors beyond whatever terms and conditions might apply to normal workers. One of the biggest things this fight has been about is — what exactly is a student worker, what exactly is labor in the context of higher education? Over the past year and a half, it was challenging to conceptualize what it means for higher-education workers to labor, what it means to strike and exactly how it fits into the longer context of labor.
I won’t presume to speak on the historical precedent. But from my vantage point, it does seem that the fight that is currently playing out in this space, in labor and higher education, is one that I would expect to see play out in many aspects of labor across modern society. In post-industrial American life, we simply have fewer environments and spaces where you have this classic model of a factory organization: there’s a bunch of people that work in a building, and they all leave the building and go on strike, the work stops, the pain is felt immediately. It’s a game of who can hold out longer in these sorts of actions. When the dock workers go on strike, these things tend to be resolved quickly because the pain is felt immediately. We can see now as we’re entering a month of striking that the same thing is not true in education, and certainly in the space of higher education. It takes a great deal of time and a steady, slow burn for these kinds of actions to have the impact we desire. And that’s the nature of the service that the university provides to its customers — to its students.
I use those terms specifically, because that is how I view the direction that the university has taken in modern life. It’s a business that’s designed to deliver grades and credentialing to its primary customers, mostly undergraduate students. Disrupting its operations requires a longer and slower type of action than you might have traditionally associated with labor actions from past eras or even in other industries that still exist. This is something that we’ve had to navigate, effectively for the first time, because nothing like this has ever been done, certainly not at this scale. I’m not a scholar of these matters; it’s not something that I have extensive history and background in; it is simply something that you, at times, find yourself in a position where you happen to be on the edge of something that’s happening, which there is no prior description for, and you’re making that history as you go. This isn’t to say that everything we’ve done along the way was correct. It’s simply to say, we didn’t know what we were getting into several years ago when this began to be envisioned.
I’m curious to hear what colleagues here have to say. I see this as a model that extends to other aspects of employment in American life. We have some evidence of this before. Teachers’ union strikes come to mind. These are the types of working conditions that share a lot of similarities with what we do. You can even make some correlations about aspects of the type of work that we do, where most of us enjoy what we do. I certainly did. I liked physics. I came here to do this because I want to do and enjoy science. And that enjoyment and desire on our parts is exploited and used against us. That is one of the specific reasons that we are able to be compensated so poorly for this work, and to be offered these terrible conditions under employment. It’s precisely because we’re willing to put up with it, because this is something we want to do.
I’m from Los Angeles originally. I have friends in various arts, trades, and motion-picture unions — IATSE people. It’s a similar situation where these are desirable things people want to do. Who doesn’t want to work in the movies? But just because you want to work somewhere, just because it’s something so desirable, does not mean that you as a worker have lost that dignity that comes with being a worker. This is a core foundational piece of what we’ve had to do here. It’s something that we’re still uncovering and figuring out where it goes. Hopefully it will resolve in our favor.
Leo Neihorster-Cook: I want to talk about what I view as the Democratic Socialists of America’s (DSA) role in rediscovering the world-historical thinking that the Left has had historically — and maybe not so much today. What I’m about to say about DSA isn’t unique to it. There are some people who say that the DSA are going to be the next Bolsheviks after the revolution, and that’s not the picture that I’m trying to paint.
One of the biggest roles that we have is spreading class consciousness beyond its typical quarters in academia and the labor movement. You see a lot of Marxist academics and Marxists in the labor movement, but you don’t see a lot of Marxists outside of those. We would like to change that, which means that, from every corner of the current Left-liberal political hyperspace, you’ll find DSA members. We are a big-tent organization. We have a lot of members who are full-throated democratic socialists. We also have a lot of anarchists and Marxist-Leninists. You can find every strain of socialism in the DSA. That also means that we have a lot of not just theoretical diversity, but also diversity in terms of where you are in society. We have members who are in the upper echelons of the Democratic Party, making six figures a year; we have members who are unemployed, and homeless. There is also professional diversity: we also have a lot of members in the trades, and we have clearly a lot of academics, etc. Our goal is to bring together various groups and different understandings of Left-wing politics with one platform of action that socialists of all stripes can agree on, at least at the present moment.
Another objective is the election of socialist politicians to Congress or to other bodies. We’re not the only group that has elected socialists, but I think in the U.S., we’re probably the one that has done the most. This means that we also must keep these people accountable, something the organization is grappling with a lot right now.
Another big push that DSA members have been engaged in is to integrate the economic core of socialism with other Left-wing developments that have become popular in the past 50 years or so. I’m thinking primarily of things like intersectional feminism, decolonial thought, other sorts of Left-wing developments, and even explicitly non-socialist movements.
The last thing that we’re focused on is refining the organizational form. I think about this all the time in UAW meetings. If there’s one thing that DSA is serious about, even more than socialism, it’s democracy. All of us are elected by the body. We have staffers that are overseen and hired by a political committee. Every time I move to a new chapter, I must figure out: do we call it the “steering committee” here, or the “Central Council” or what? And there are different roles that go with different names. That’s something that has been beneficial to us: we can see that some forms of organization simply don’t work or are really well adapted to a specific kind of political environment but not others. That’s the most important thing that DSA does generally — refine the organizational form.
We also push off a lot of our ideas to other groups. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in one of these UAW meetings, and I ask, “why do you guys not just do it this way?” Or, “couldn’t we vote on this and that?” There are bylaws, and the bylaws are non-democratic. Democracy, or voting, is only one form of collective problem-solving. I’m not going to argue that it’s the best one in all circumstances, but it’s one that works well.
Given where we are right now in human history, it’s important to note that the collaboration between socialists and graduate-student unions is one of the few places here in the imperial core where we can really mix what might typically be called white-collar and blue-collar workers and have people coalesce around shared class interests. It’s clear to all the workers on strike that we get shitty pay, we get treated horribly. There’s a real sense in which we are working class, but lots of people in graduate school come into it with this impression that they’re professionalized, upper-class members of the bourgeoisie, and that the laws of labor don’t apply to them. Many academics have called for a reduction in the number of funded PhD programs so that they can make more money themselves. That’s reminiscent of the problem of the abolition of labor versus full employment stated in the panel prompt.
Adi Dasgupta: I haven’t been very involved in labor organizing myself, but some of the topics I study include political economy, especially the relationship between technological change, capitalism, and democracy.
What is work? It can be as fundamental as to act, do, function, operate — almost to exist. It can correspond to labor, and work can be done by machines. Work can be performed by people, it can be performed by technology, and a combination of those two things. Let’s examine the relationship between technology and work in history, and about two different positions that exist in scholarship. One is the classic view of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the Communist Manifesto (1848), which views technological progress as fundamentally immiserating. As technologies improved, they automated functions previously performed by humans. This worsens the condition of workers until they get bad enough to precipitate a communist revolution. That’s a grim view of technological change. A precisely opposite view comes from neoclassical economics. That technological change is the lever of riches, in the words of John Maynard Keynes. In this view, technology is what makes us prosperous, like a rising tide that lifts all boats.
Which of these two perspectives is true? If we go back to the Industrial Revolution, we can think of, on the Left, the Luddites. These were the textile workers who started destroying the machines which were automating the work that had been previously done manually. Or we can think of these thriving factories which gave rise to factory and boom towns like Detroit, providing mass employment to a prospering working class. These two conflicting images are not something that just comes from the Industrial Revolution. It’s part of our modern-day, post-industrial knowledge economy — Apple headquarters, iPhones, and all the prosperity that comes from that. So, is technological progress something that makes people worse off, and puts them out of work? Or is it something that complements work, and makes us better off?
What economic historians have found is that it depends on the context and the period. During the Industrial Revolution, the GDP per worker increased. As inequality rose, more wealth was generated and captured by capitalists, by factory owners, and not much went to workers. But that started to change towards the second half of the Industrial Revolution when workers’ wages rose again. We can’t just say that the Industrial Revolution was good or bad for workers. It depends on the period. Look at the early 20th century. There was a period of a huge rise in labor’s share of national prosperity, followed by a large-scale decline, especially beginning in the 1970s. The share of national wealth accorded to labor declined. Among workers, there’s growing inequality. 1950–70 is a period of shared gains across different percentiles of income distribution for families. But since the 1980s, there has been a fanning out for households who are in the median or lower percentiles. There’s not some uniform relationship between technology and work. Institutions, such as labor unions, are what shape how broadly the surplus generated by technological change is distributed in society. Also, labor unions played a key role in the emergence of democracy. Movements like the Chartist organization of the working classes in 19th century England played a key role in forcing the British political elite to extend the right to work to workers. Once democracy was extended to working-class people through labor-based parties, they played a key role in the expansion of the welfare state. We’re now in the knowledge economy. We no longer have the docks and factories as the major source of employment; we have universities and other forms of organization. The key challenge going forward is, how do we reinvent labor organizing in a way that distributes the gains from technological change from universities in a way that’s shared widely?
Jessica Sales: Work is a transaction between workers and capitalists. Workers sell their labor power to capitalists, who are people who own the means of production, like factories, farms, steel, etc. Generally, wages are enough to sustain workers so that they’re able to reproduce that labor, day after day. Marx says, “The exercise of labor power, labor, is the worker’s own life activity, the manifestation of his own life, and this life activity, he sells to another person in order to secure the necessary means of subsistence. Thus, his life activity is for him only a means to enable him to exist, he works in order to live, he does not even reckon labor as part of his life, it is rather a sacrifice of his life, it is a commodity which he has made over to another.”
Two classes in society arise: those who work and those who own, leading to irreconcilable contradictions. It’s always in the interest of the capitalists to keep wages low and to have what Marx would term a reserve army of labor, which is a large subsection of people who are unemployed or underemployed, that are desperate for work, which capitalists can use as leverage to replace those workers who go out of line and potentially unionize for better wages. On the other hand, you have the working class, who want the highest wages possible, and secure and guaranteed jobs, or full employment for all.
Capitalists set their capital in motion in hopes of increasing its value. They rely on our ability to work because only our labor power can create wealth. Each dollar that goes to the worker is a dollar that’s lost in profits. The only solution to this is a revolution, where the whole capitalist system is destroyed, and worker power is put into place, or the so-called seizing the means of production. Our perspective is that workers make the world run, so workers should run the world. The capitalist class is a parasitic class that has outlived its purpose. The only work of the CEOs and corporate boards is to find ways to make workers work longer hours, to pay to drive down benefits, and to lobby against legal safeguards for workers to carry out union busting.
This is not productive work. It is not work that benefits society, but rather work that siphons the wealth of society into their pockets. But we still live under capitalism, and we’re building a movement toward revolution. This is where reforms come in. Reforms create better working conditions and make living under capitalism a bit less harsh, and marginally better. One such vehicle of reform is the union. Organized workers are a major force against capitalist employers, and they are necessary for the workers’ struggle against capitalism more broadly. Without union resistance fighting for and winning higher wages and better working conditions, employers could push wages lower and lower, to increase their own profits. Unions are beneficial in bringing workers together, realizing their power, and also revealing contradictions that may not have been obvious before.
Lenin wrote, “reforms cannot be either enduring or far-reaching.” With this, he made it clear that sure emancipation of the workers is not possible by trying to fix capitalism, by changing its inherently exploitative nature. It’s important to maintain that unions and reforms alone are not the end goal. Lenin argued that the abolishment of wage labor and thus the abolishment of capitalism requires a revolutionary working-class party that can win over the confidence of the working class and lead it away from the politics of compromise of the dominant capitalist parties. In the absence of a revolutionary party, the bourgeoisie happily steps in and pushes workers into the safe channels of bourgeois democracy, such as our two-party electoral system.
Lenin also said that it is not sufficient for the revolutionary party to hold a correct political line. He added that the working class must learn from their own experience. This is also where reforms come in. The struggle for reforms is a critical element in building class consciousness among workers, because it is through that struggle that class lines are drawn and workers can see which side of the barricades the politicians stand, on which sides the cops stand, and on which side the Supreme Court stands. Those of us with a revolutionary outlook can repeat over and over that the Democratic Party is not on the side of the workers. But that is no substitute for the real-life experience of watching the Democrats smash the strike as well as workers who are asking for a few days of sick pay. It is the duty of revolutionaries to fight side-by-side with workers for each and every reform that lifts up the conditions of working people, while at the same time exposing the bankruptcy of the capitalist system and its political operatives.
Overall, we see that reforms improve workers’ immediate conditions and develop worker consciousness to see that they have the power and that they produce all the value and don’t need bosses. However, there are limits to reform that we can see by analyzing the labor movement, including struggles that are happening today. In recent news, two of the most pressing labor struggles are the ongoing UAW strike that we see happening on campus, and the national rail workers’ fight for a fair contract. The work of struggle exposes the contradictions of capitalism. Workers’ demands for sick leave and a living wage demonstrate that these tenets of dignified, fair work are not guarantees of capitalism but are won by organized workers through struggle and bargaining. Because the working and owning classes have diametrically opposed interests, we see that workers must ultimately make concessions to appease employers, going back and forth on contracts until both sides are satisfied. Even more indicative of the precariousness of reformism, in the case of the national rail unions’ struggle, we see the state also intervening to protect the interests of owners rather than the workers, denying workers a valuable tool of striking and trying to force contracts upon them. This act is representative of the role of the capitalist state in the class struggle, criminalizing workers and using force to put them back into line.
The second thing we can see is that the struggle for workers’ rights and union protections under capitalism is never ending, and rights are given and rolled back at the discretion of the ruling class. Railroad workers’ strikes — as in the 1870s, 1930s–40s, 1992, and today — demonstrate how labor struggle alone is simply not enough, and only temporarily alleviates the hardships inherent under capitalism. Attempting to reform the system will not lead to the emancipation of the working class. Therefore, the true aim of progressives needs to be a mass movement toward revolution.
How can we think beyond the reform struggle, even beyond the union struggle? Recognizing the limits of reform is by no means an acceptance of defeats or an excuse for hopelessness. Knowing that reform doesn’t go far enough should motivate us to uphold the goal of revolution in all our actions, because we know that that is the only way to end the system that forces workers to have to sell their labor power. Though politically educating folks involved in economic struggle is valuable, it is not the sole method of organizing, and nor is it the sole battleground of the revolutionary method. There are a great number of people already involved in political struggles, like anti-imperialist, police- and prison-abolitionist student opposition groups, and others who are involved in these struggles without realizing that their struggles are all connected and rooted in capitalism. The role of true revolutionaries is to work in concert, through the vehicle of a party to further the political education of all these groups, to guide and support their leaders and instill in them the belief in revolution. Only together can we dismantle the entire political and economic structure, and see the self-emancipation of the working class.
Moderator: Mark talked about the post-industrialization knowledge economy, and what that might mean for the traditional structure of labor unions such that the worker obtains just fruits of labor or the dignity of labor. Do you see any limitations to these time-worn formulas that have been critiqued by the Marxist tradition?
Leo talked about economic socialism, integrating different social movements under a big tent with one platform of action, in which there’s a democratic refining of organizational form. My question for you there is, how does that connect with the world-historical role that you mentioned? Is one function of the DSA to somehow preserve the memory of the Left?
Adi took up this question of the knowledge economy and post-industrialization to find that the knowledge economy set up two pathways for looking at technology, either as leading to unemployment or as being the lever of riches. Adi, could you speak to why this earlier industrial period, which we might call Fordism, was transformed into the knowledge economy? What might be the political reasons for that transformation?
Jessica, this gets back to this question of the fruits of labor or the dignity of labor that Mark was raising. There’s the concept of labor power, which is that labor has become rationalized. It’s not just the labor. It’s not just us working with instruments, but rather, this notion of labor power presupposes a quantity of labor applied to machinery. What does this notion of labor power mean to older notions of political economy, which might have changed or transformed under capitalism? You talked about the need for a mass movement to connect different radical activism, sublating the matter that Leo mentioned. How do you reconcile the idea of a social movement with your call for a political party for socialism?
MW: The answer you’ll get from me is always pragmatic because the nature of labor organizing is that the coalition that you’re trying to assemble has wildly divergent views on these things. Some people are searching for dignified labor. Some people don’t see themselves as doing labor at all, which is mistaken. It’s a powerful motivator in this knowledge economy, where a lot of these jobs are desirable, and to get to work on things that approach self-fulfillment in some way. For workers in dying industries, like print media, it’s valuable for them to unionize, because they need to protect what little they have left. The joke, of course, is that the people who need to unionize the most, because of the untold riches they could unlock, are Facebook and Google’s engineers. These people are likely paid more than you, me, or anyone else in here ever will be. They are comfortable, beyond worldly concerns. Yet the distribution of the sheer value of what they produce is much in line with what we’ve talked about earlier regarding workers. This is true in many industries like this. So, the dignity of labor means different things to different people.
LN: You asked about the connection between world history and the refining of the organizational form. This is one problem that socialists historically have dealt with in a number of ways. Whenever it seems like a bunch of socialists get together, they stop doing that shortly. Whether it’s the Internationals, or whether it's here in America. We had organizations like Students for a Democratic Society. Even the Wobblies still exist, but they’re not nearly the power they once were. That’s one of the major struggles that DSA deals with over time. We have a high turnover rate, like most social-movement organizations. People come and go. And that creates a difficulty in linking the form of the organization with anything in the long term, even over the course of one person’s life, let alone world history.
This is something that boggled the Soviets and the power bloc that came out of them more generally, and it continues to this day. You still find this both internally, and in Westerners debating Cuba and China and countries with strong socialist states that are doing things for working-class people that are often criticized as authoritarian. This highlights the role of socialists in relation to extant states, and how engagement with states can possibly lead to a diminishment of their power. Eventually, things get bad enough that we’re going to have a revolution. At that point, we’ll implement our own state, or maybe take over the existing one, but violently. We will impose the will of the proletariat on the state and therefore, the capitalist class will be abolished, right? Whereas for anarchists the shoe is on the other foot: private property can only be abolished once the state has already been abolished. Private property is a legal fiction, and therefore can be abolished in one fell swoop with the state.
For the record, I’m an anarchist. It’s clear to me that it is unlikely that anytime soon we will either abolish or destroy the state militarily. That's why I’m a member of the DSA, although I’m not a full-throated democratic socialist. I just said I believe in the abolition of the state, including all democratic parliamentary structures, constitutions, etc. But it seems to me that all that we’re able to do, in terms of getting us back into this world-historical mindset, is to engage in mass organizations with socialists of all different stripes and even non-socialist, Left-wing thinkers, and try to come to some sort of consensus about where we are in history and what kind of organizational form we need to match that.
AD: The way I understood your question is, “what's been driving the changes in the economy in the late 20th century, from the factories to the knowledge economy?” The two major things that have happened are globalization and skill-biased, technical change. Globalization offshored or outsourced a lot of manufacturing work to lower-wage places like China. Skill-biased technological change created new forms of work that complemented skills obtained in higher education. Over the course of the late 20th century, the college wage premium has been going way up. The gap between wages for those with a college degree versus those without has been growing. This change has produced huge amounts of wealth. It has also created winners and losers. When you have a functioning social contract, what’s supposed to happen is that the winners compensate the losers to some degree, through a functioning welfare state, through redistribution to other mechanisms. That really hasn’t happened. I would just give two examples of this. One is universities. In a context where the college wage premium has been rising, how would you facilitate greater equality? You’d want to give people easier access to college. But this has been the same period where tuition has been going through the roof. Getting access to good university education has not been easy. Secondly, you have the gig economy. Uber generates tons of wealth for its shareholders on the basis of a bunch of very poorly paid people with minimal benefits, etc. The three other panelists have been asking, how can labor organizing be reinvented for our age? How do we change the direction we’ve been headed in?
JS: As to your question about reconciling a party and social movements, there isn’t much reconciliation to be done. Social movements are all the different struggles. The role of the party in this pre-revolutionary period is to politically educate everyone in all these struggles so that we’re on the same page. For example, with the Black Lives Matter movement. Police brutality led to a lot of people becoming interested in prison and police abolition, but maybe they didn’t make the connection that the police and the prisons are state apparatuses that are used by the ruling class to suppress the working class as a function of capitalism. It keeps everyone in line. Spreading that knowledge is making the connections, such that what seems to be separate issues — capitalism,the workers’ struggle, and prison abolition — are connected. That’s the role of the revolutionary party. Unlike the Democrats and the Republicans, we’re not trying to run for office and win the presidency. The goal of the revolutionary party is not reformism. The goal is revolution. You need as many people and as many struggles as you can get on board with you, on the same page, so you can all work together towards revolution, and ultimately the dissolving of classes and the state.
Q & A
When Marx talked about technology causing the administration of the working class, he meant that technological advances at that time were in the hands of the ruling class. In the hands of the ruling class, technology is eviscerating. We can see that in contemporary America when productivity goes up, we just go down, which doesn’t make sense. If production goes up, we’re creating more value. Our wages should be increasing, but it doesn’t work that way because of the capitalist class.
AD: I agree, technology can be designed in different ways. It can be manipulated by different classes, different individuals. That’s going to have distributional consequences.
With the turn toward social media, and less people reading, how do we bring about more consciousness for the working class? Is there a need for a modern vanguard party? If so, what is the content?
JS: Political education isn’t necessarily forcing everyone to read Marx. Consciousness also comes from the economic union struggle and workers’ struggle in general. It comes from just seeing the contradiction, seeing things that happen in your workplace, and then having discussions with other people, whether it’s your coworkers or in a completely different industry, or you happen upon people in a revolutionary party, or people who have more radical ideas. That is what expands political consciousness. Eventually these things raise people’s awareness. One would hope that after the revolution we could help, as in Cuba, fixing literacy rates, etc. Obviously, we can’t do that under these circumstances. But there are other ways that we can expand political consciousness.
In terms of the revolutionary party, we need people who are disciplined and organized, who have the ability or a revolutionary outlook and think in a Marxist dialectical method in order to see how struggles are connected, and then, through the party, meet leaders from other struggles and help them to make those same connections. These are the benefits of having a party and building leadership. It is not that we lead everyone else. We want as many leaders as possible from the masses.
LN: I agree that we need a vanguard party, but, even more so, I think we need thirty of them. We’re never going to get to where we have one privileged organization that pushes us across the finish line to revolution. We’re going to need a huge multi-tendency coalition with many different groups.
Should workers place blind trust in their leaders?
MW: We deal with this problem in labor organizing, where you frequently discover that there is a certain caste of leadership, a labor nobility, who professionalize the running of organizations that are there to protect workers. They are folks like me, who are taking on a position managing the interests of workers and trying to channel their needs and concerns.
It can go further than that though. It tends to be the case that the higher up you go in organized labor, the more often you find folks who are just increasingly disconnected from the actual work of workers themselves. In many cases, their working conditions are completely dissimilar to the people that they’re supposed to be representing. This can create problems and distrust. The exact distrust you’re describing is playing out in full force right now across the UAW. This is one of these old school unions. There’s plenty of internal politics and hierarchy and leadership disputes about what workers do and do not want, what is and isn’t in their best interests. Even organizations who are out to serve the interests of workers fight with these same hierarchies all the time. It’s a constant struggle to figure out what to do about it.
This is just a bit of devil’s advocacy here on the point of revolution and the dissolution of the state: regardless of how this comes about, what do you put in place after the revolution? What is the proposition of a better form of the state or is there some kind of assumption that it’s not necessary — that chaos or anarchy is preferable to the status quo? As you said earlier, there is the danger of becoming the thing that you’re fighting against.
LN: If capitalism is the general setup whereby one person sells their labor and receives a monetary amount for the time and labor that they put in, what comes after abolishing that? It would be difficult to abolish capitalism and then make a worse system.
AD: You could have feudalism.
LN: That’s fair. We could go back. Even a scary dictatorship would still be, on a world-historical level, less exploitative than capitalism, because it doesn’t encourage slavery, which is still a problem that we have, especially in places where capital rules the political system. It makes sense to look back, but not to feudalism. Rather, it seems that throughout most of human history societies have had neither law enforcement nor bullion money. Trade has been done through decentralized currency, meaning, as a shopkeeper, I make my own wooden tokens so that I can give them to people for stuff, and then later they give me the tokens back and I give them stuff from my shop — through credit, right? Most of human history has been a credit economy. We’re going back that way insofar as we are starting to eliminate paper money from our economy and moving to plastic. In the original agrarian economies, trade relations were without centralization, and the currency was not backed by taxes paid to the monopoly on force. If currencies were used at all, it was backed by the fact that somebody was creating them and giving them to people in exchange for things and taking them back — a form of economic backing.
I’m not against what you’re saying, but the current world order isn’t capable of reverting to an agrarian, decentralized system. It’s untenable, short of zombie apocalypse. There’s going to be a power vacuum. Somebody is going to step into the power vacuum, and hopefully we can say it’s somebody beneficent, but there’s no guarantee.
JS: Your main question has to do with going from one stage to another stage, essentially. The goal with revolution is another: socialism, which is a transitional period from capitalism to communism. In this line of thinking, we have capitalism now, and then we have a revolution, and then socialism is essentially the dictatorship of the proletariat. You are right in one sense. Under capitalism, the state is the apparatus that one class uses to suppress the other. The capitalist class has control of the state and is in a minority. With socialism, with the dictatorship of the proletariat, once the working class was to get hold of the state, we would have to suppress another class. But, the people in charge of the state would be in the majority.
The first action of revolution is to defend the revolution. So we do need a state apparatus to suppress any counterrevolutionary people, actions, etc. Because the state is the suppression of one class over another, because we’re transitioning economic systems, under socialism with workers owning everything, we’re not going to have suppression anymore. Eventually the two classes disappear. We want a classless society, and once we reach a classless society, the state withers away. But, there will be a period where the state is taken from the minority and placed into the hands of the majority.
You’re correct in the sense that we are going to have to be suppressive to a group, but it won’t be the way it is now, where we have all these billionaires locking everybody up. Everything is in their interest. It’s about profit. With the workers in control, it’s a true democracy of the masses, of the people.
Say, for example, the owner of the production wants to reduce wages, but the worker wants to increase wages. We can think of the two-income trap as a cooperation problem, where at some point in the past a family could be supported by the income of one person. As families want to elevate their quality of life, both parents entered into the workforce, and now, because of the cost of living increasing across the board, you need two parents working to maintain that same lifestyle relative to when things were cheaper. What are your thoughts in regards to increased income being better?
JS: The people who own those things that cost money, who control prices, whether the homes or products on the shelves, are always part of this capitalist ruling class.
I do support reforms while we’re waiting for revolution to happen. I do think higher wages for the sake of workers having a decent standard of living is a good thing. But ultimately, that’s not my goal. Just paying everyone more won’t fix all the problems. The problems won’t be fixed until the production and the distribution is in the hands of the workers, rather than in the hands of people who are going to raise the prices for everything just to increase their profits.
Adi mentioned how wealth is concentrated and how there’s this disconnect between GDP and productivity. How much of that is due to just our population multiplying by a factor of about six over a century? How much is due to more people competing for this finite set of employment opportunities, and thus willing to work for less because they want to be employed?
AD: That’s an interesting idea. I’m not sure we’ve hit a Malthusian limit to economic growth. In fact, if you look at per-capita GDP, the per-person amount of goods and services that we produce, it’s just been an exponential increase since the Industrial Revolution. Despite the fact that we’re producing more and more goods and services, the distribution of that wealth varies in periods from being broadly distributed to being extremely concentrated.
Why does it seem like most resilient socialist states are not democratic but operate by dictate?
LN: The answer is in large part because those countries came into power using the Marxist-Leninist method to take over a state in the name of their ideology, and then put state planners in that were on board with that. Those countries were not taken to socialism via democratic means. It would be surprising if they were to implement democratic means after the fact. Especially here in the U.S., socialists love to talk about how broad our demands are, but Joe Biden beat Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary, just within the Democrats by a wide margin. That shows that our ideas and policies are not well supported by a large faction of the country.
Let's say Bernie Sanders took power by force of arms. It would take a long time for him to be able to say, “I'm going to put these guns away and you guys are all going to keep voting for me.” It’s difficult, when you come to power in a non-democratic method, to maintain power whilst converting to democracy. It’s not that I think that these leaders are against democracy. In fact, I think that they’re ardently pro-democracy, but there’s an actual structural problem that’s preventing them from shifting to an electoral democracy, at least the sort of democracy that we claim to have here.
I also wanted to touch on your question to Mark about why grad students maybe get paid less — because we do work that we enjoy doing. I don't think that’s how wages are set, regarding how much value we produce, or how much fun we have doing it, or what our incentive structures are. I imagine that one of the most enjoyable jobs in terms of just how much you get to dick around and not have to learn is CEO, right?
I’ve heard the reason why wages for teachers, graduate students, and artists are so low, is because they’re things that everyone wants to do and thus they’d be willing to work for less. Even if there are some people who hold out wanting to be compensated accordingly, there are plenty of people who are okay with their level of compensation for what they’re doing.
MW: The idea that there’s some pool of people willing to work for a certain wage and for certain awful conditions is not unique to this particular labor context. There have always been jobs with a critical number of people ready to step in and do the work for slightly less, under whatever conditions. We’re already there. If anything, I would say we have a more advantageous platform than, say, folks that work in Starbucks unionization. That’s a tough thing to crack. These are jobs that lots of people would take. Lots of us here probably worked in food service before; these are things you can be trained to do quickly. The reality is that with a lot of the work that we do, you cannot be trained to do quickly. In that sense, we have leverage. But the problem of having people willing to do something for less is not unique to this space.
I also don’t think it’s fair to characterize this as an open market of people selling their labor to the university. People come here, often young people, who don’t have experience in the workforce and didn’t know what else to do, or who came under the illusion that there might be career opportunities available. This wasn’t as big of a concern 40 years ago when you could be guaranteed that after some garbage period in grad school, there would be faculty jobs somewhere.
That’s not true. But the illusion is present for many people, who are fooled into thinking that those opportunities are available. People are not making well-informed decisions about the nature of what they’re entering in many cases. And once you’re in, the sunk costs start to take over. If you’ve put in three, four years of your life into this kind of work, and you don’t want to walk away from it, or you don’t want to go against your boss because you might just be fired, and all of that will have gone to waste . . . That doesn’t mean that you’re not exploited, and that doesn’t mean you like what you’re doing. That means you are afraid of the consequences of walking away because you have sunk so much into what you’re doing. That’s not just a function of folks being willing and able to do all of these things along the way.
I wonder if the issues that graduate students have are no longer problems of students, but of labor. Is this desirable in terms of Left politics? Historically, there are other forms of students participating in the Left and as laborers, for example, in the New Left, issues like the anti-war movement in the U.S. or the conservatism of social democracy in the Communist Parties.
The issue of the labor movement and the state was raised, but the way the panelists talk about it, it appears not as politics, but as pressure on politics. So the welfare state appears to be the byproduct of the labor movement, but what about the politics of socialism? Is socialism simply the outgrowth of the workers’ movement? The Democratic Party has been tied to organized labor since FDR. The Chartists had political demands, not simply demands, but labor demands. What should the politics of work be for socialists, and how would it be different from what has been dominant in the 20th century, namely progressivism?
MW: I like this first question a lot. Anyone who’s suffered through listening to my speech at some point or another has heard me rail about how little “student” there is in being a graduate student in a university. I have become a bit of a hard liner on this. Being a student is when you sit in a lecture and take tests. Not to say that you’re not learning outside. We are all learning every day all the time. But those other things are not being a student. When I work in a laboratory, that is work. Perhaps the best traditional model of what that is is being an apprentice. Lots of fields and trades throughout time have had the concept of being an apprentice, where you’re still learning how to do something, but it’s not being a student in the same sense. This is a cudgel that the university keeps hitting us with over and over again: that being a graduate student, at least in a modern American university, is primarily an exercise in being a laborer for a number of years, while just a small component of it is being a student.
LN: I'm actually a big proponent of skepticism about welfare programs. Not because I’m anti-welfare or because I want to means-test them, but because welfare and other social-democratic reforms can be chipped away at over time and are not a permanent fix to anything. One of the focuses of socialism in the economic sphere, but also in the pre-revolutionary period, should be to chip away at the control of owners over the capitalist structures. You see some of that in the form of workers co-ops, legislation. But there’s no solution outside of militant union membership throughout the country, because the union, being full of workers that are in the place where the things are being produced, has a form of physical control over the means of production that the owners can’t maintain because they're physically distal; they’re not proximal to the actual thing. The other side of that coin would be creating forms of employment that are not themselves tied to an owner or the state. Obviously, people are employed by the state, but I’m talking about things like worker cooperatives making so-called freelancing easier for people. There’s a lot of legislation that’s been supported by large corporations to make freelancing more difficult because they want to employ people. They don’t want to have their employees go and be their own boss. I’m certainly not saying that if you are freelancing, you live away from the chokehold of capital in your own little personal individual communist utopia. But I do think that these models of employment are one way to loosen the control that capitalists have on capital. One expression of that is how awful the gig economy has become, as though it’s the capitalist’s answer to self-employment. It’s like, what if we made a version of that where you still work for us? The working class is skeptical of gig economies. You hear this rhetoric about wanting a nice-paying job at a firm that will take me for 30 years, maybe with union membership, maybe I’m just coding so I don’t need it because I'm white collar enough and producing enough surplus labor. That would be my answer to how progressivism should differ from FDR’s labor support. We need militant labor unions, not the kind that supported FDR.
MW: As a big New Dealer, I would just push back on the notion that the politics of the New Deal was independent of labor. It was quite the opposite. The politics of the New Deal came about entirely because labor had the biggest stranglehold it has ever had on the American economy. The fruits of that over the subsequent 20–30 years are obvious. It was one of the most egalitarian periods in American history. It was an era of a better, brighter tomorrow. There’s a lot of good to be said for allowing labor to become all powerful within the Democratic Party. It turns out quite a bit better than when you have it on the outside, like today. It’s almost akin to a special interest for them. There was a time in labor history where big union and labor leaders could absolutely expect to be able to call and the White House would answer. There isn’t a labor leader anywhere in the country who could even get through to an undersecretary now, because labor has been relegated to special-interest, pressure-group status. Before, it was driving the politics of the day.
Everybody’s brought up that the wealth disparity has been getting significantly worse since the inception of capitalism, coupled with destruction of the environment. Capitalism is headed toward a crisis at some point, regardless of what happens under the status quo — not that changing the status quo is necessarily a bad thing. Improving the lives of people right now is a worthwhile endeavor. What can we do right now to prepare for the inevitable revolution, whenever it’s going to happen? How would it come about?
JS: On when or how revolution will come about, it’s difficult to predict. In the U.S., it’s likely going to be violent, in the form of some sort of war, whether it be civil war or otherwise. In terms of the deepening crisis, we can see it with inflation. The U.S. is trying to hold onto whatever global power it has left. It’s grasping at straws at this point. We’re in a very critical time. As for preparing, that’s where all this talk of solidarity, political education, coalition, is so important. What is the alternative of capitalism and crisis? It’s going to be either communism, socialism, or fascism. It’s important for creating people’s defense militias, learning to fight, gaining survival tactics, developing skills that can be useful, sharing the knowledge that you have, figuring out where other people’s struggles are, where they’re at in this political development. Join a party.
LN: I agree, in terms of preparation. Join PSL; join DSA. We’re talking about it all the time. Were violent revolution to break out anytime soon, it would go poorly for us and probably would result in fascism. When the time does come, we’re going to need the state to be brittle. The incoming climate catastrophe will be a big part of that in terms of causing geopolitical uncertainty, especially in those areas that we rely on for the extraction of profit. As that comes to a screeching halt, there’ll be a sect of the political elites who want a restructuring along fascist lines, to revert to a pre-capitalist power structure or straight dictatorship. The primary force is the shutting down of factories and other productive zones in Third World countries that the U.S. and West more generally are extracting super profits from. The second thing is going to be those same areas, and other areas that are hit hard by climate change and don’t have vast liberal states that have been extracting profit from others so that they can protect themselves — they’re going to experience severe migration. What will probably dominate world politics by 2050 is the climate-refugee question. When you’ve got millions of people crossing borders, the legitimacy of those government structures that supposedly are enforcing the borders starts to crumble. But in terms of preparation, I’ll reiterate: join a revolutionary socialist organization.
MW: Can I give an alternate vision? I am a non-accelerationist and decidedly about improving the material conditions of people in the world. This is why I do labor organizing. People should grapple seriously with whether they’re interested in crisis moments that allow for revolution or not, given the possibility that these moments do not materialize. You should organize yourselves accordingly to figure out ways that you are still improving people’s lives. The goal of worker empowerment is not violent revolution. The end goal is to empower workers and to empower people.
It has been mentioned how trust in Left politics or in any kind of socialist organization is at very low levels. Even a mainstream guy like Bernie Sanders was not able to pull off a win. Bernie's got great politics — good guy. We’re still not able to pull off a win. One of my favorite things about what DSA as an organization has done in the past 5–7 years is that they have taken on the spirit of the sewer socialists from the early 20th century, whose idea was that municipal governments, local politics, housing, transit, and all the regular boring, mundane things that make people’s lives good, need to be well managed. People need to trust the socialists in order to empower them with anything. I'm a big fan of the DSA getting heavily involved in city-council elections and things that city councils are probably not going to be at the forefront of, of revolution anywhere, anytime soon. These are important things that matter to people’s lives.
As to the specific question on what to do in the meantime: do the most productive, most progressive, most Left-leaning thing you can viably do that will help to materially improve people’s lives. That's a big takeaway that no one should lose any sight of, because it is always possible that none of the crises that might be used as inflection points materializes. We’ve had a history of technology solving seemingly intractable problems. We’ve talked a lot about agrarian societies today. It is simply true. Farm labor is around two orders of magnitude more productive than it was 200 years ago. You just don’t need as many people working in a field to do stuff. If you’re relying on climate crisis to bring about a more Left-leaning state, know that capitalism is clever. It has survived for quite a long time because it’s good at solving all kinds of problems. Even Marx and Engels themselves would admit that it was good at solving certain problems. The end result is that you spend time not solving problems that are in front of you. This is colored by what I do, labor organizing. I'm worried about workers today, not necessarily 50 years from now, but it’s something that is a useful thing for all of us to at least consider as a possibility.
What is the difference between the knowledge economy versus the manufacturing economy that could prevent what happened historically in the offshoring of labor across the globe and the kind of fracturing of social bonds and nodes of control that could be organized? I'm interested in the idea of graduate work as apprenticeship, but doesn’t this concede to the trends in the university toward gutting the educational content to increase their competitiveness? How would the university escape these pressures if it were worker-run?
MW: I have depressing answers for both questions. On the question of offshoring knowledge labor versus factory labor, it’s much easier to offshore knowledge labor than it is factory labor simply for technological reasons. We already see some of this pressure in that there are more people pursuing graduate education, which is not a bad thing. But it is also true that the number of academic positions to fill has not meaningfully kept pace with that increase in the number of people who are in it. We’ve already seen some version of this internally. I see no reason that that can’t continue externally as people across the world find it easier to obtain higher education in different ways. To the other question of graduate work as apprenticeship conceding to the trends in the university towards gutting the educational content to increase competitiveness, I have bad news about what universities are: these institutions exist to perpetuate themselves and perpetuate the privileges and the prestige of the people in them. As a side benefit, they are slightly more productive and more useful for society than, say, Facebook. They do produce something that has some intrinsic value. But as universities exist, they already are gutting educational content in the name of degree manufacturing. I already see them primarily as credentialing institutions, and I have a dim view of how they operate. That's not to say I don’t want to work in one of them. Being a tenured faculty member seems like a pretty sweet job. You get paid a lot. After I’m done pissing off everybody in the UC system, we’ll see if any of them want to hire me anymore.
I wanted to touch on something Leo mentioned regarding Cuba, about socialist or communist governments not being democratic: Cuba has elections with 80% turnout, although they only have one party to vote for.
JS: You don’t have to be a part of the Party to be nominated into a position in Cuba. People are teachers, organizers in the community. The Party is a worker’s party in that sense. You can think about it like a union, where the union says, we are the union, the union is us. Similarly in Cuba, the Party is the people. It’s a workers’ party.
What Mark said was important: that the role of a revolutionary party isn’t necessarily to take arms and do revolution. We’re not accelerationist either. It's important that, as a party, we’re able to be involved in the workers’ struggle so that we can lead the people with a popular political program that people can stand behind. You’re right: capitalism is intelligent and adaptive, and it always has ground workers ready to take the workers’ new consciousness into different avenues that are not revolutionary. Our role as revolutionaries is to popularize socialism. And when millions of us are signed onto this revolutionary program, we can overcoming the incredibly militarized state. We saw during the protests about George Floyd that there were hundreds of thousands of people that came out, and a group of those people overturned cop cars and set them on fire. There is no stopping the millions of us. The role of a revolutionary party is to speak to the masses in a way that they understand and is popular.
LN: As far as Cuba goes, I don’t want to write them off. For a lot of people, democracy and electoralism are the same terms. But I don’t mean to say that, because they don’t have a representative assembly, they’re necessarily anti-democratic. But when you take power with a violent revolution, it becomes difficult to transition into a republic. That's not me saying, “therefore all violent revolutions are wrong.” That’s not just a tactical problem. It’s not a moral problem. It’s just that there are trade-offs to coming to power with different means. One of the trade-offs that comes about when you violently excise capitalists from your country, is that people are skeptical of you. In the Cuban National Assembly there’s only one position. When a person runs for the National Assembly, there’s typically only one candidate, and that candidate is nominated by the Communist Party, though it doesn't have to be a member. The National Assembly votes for its president. That is an electoral system. They get much better results than we do. They are leading the world in terms of countries helping with COVID and other medical emergencies. But there’s a real question as to how democratic they are. I’m also somebody who doesn’t think that democracy is a moral good.
We talked about how it can’t get worse than now. We're seeing armed groups outside LGBT clubs. At what point will material conditions in the U.S. worsen, where we see more encouragement of that rhetoric, especially if the Democratic Party doesn't do anything to curb it?
LN: Mostly white men were the shooters. And you see often they have these manifestos about infiltration or the replacement theory. They’re not rational political actors, so it’s hard to engage with that. You can’t debate somebody out of shooting up the mall. One of the potential responses favored by Democratic Party elites is, “let’s just beef up security. If there’re going to be lots of fascists, let’s have more cops, more cameras, more guns. We can have community self-defense organizations and so forth,” but it’s difficult to deal with this problem in a productive way for socialist politics. I know some of the people who organize San Diego Pride and they’re pretty liberal folks, but they’re always getting pressure from queer groups to get cops out of Pride. Their response every year wins the argument, which is that if there are no cops there, the fascists will blow us away. There are shootings at drag shows every week in this country now.
JS: People have been saying it can’t get worse, but I agree with you, it can. We see that happening: the economic crisis, the rolling back of reproductive rights, the U.S. escalating conflicts with Russia and China, etc. I just learned today that there’s literally a Right-wing militia group in Atwater. On crises potentially not materializing, that’s not really the issue. Crises do materialize. But if we’re not taking advantage of this, if the people aren’t prepared for it, then obviously no change is going to happen. That's why it’s important to have a party, to educate people, and raise people’s political consciousness. You guys are coming here and hearing about these things, and having these discussions so that when these crises do arise, we’re not caught slacking. You have to take advantage to make and create change if you want to see change. We hope that the change is obviously for socialism. The beauty of the future is that we don’t know what it’s going to look like, but we’re going to create it together. The goal is just to get more people on board and thinking about what they want to see in society and what empowering workers really means. |P
Transcribed by Miles Byrne and Daniel Rudin
 International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.
 Karl Marx, Wage Labour and Capital (1847), in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker, second ed. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1978), 204–05, available online at <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1847/wage-labour/ch02.htm>.
 V. I. Lenin, “Marxism and Reformism” (1913), in Lenin Collected Works, vol. 19 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977), 372–375, available online at <https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1913/sep/12b.htm>.
 Nickname for the Industrial Workers of the World.