Investigating the new proletariat

05 June 2023

Marcel Rajecky reviews Work, Work, Work: Labor, Alienation and Class Struggle by Michael D. Yates, Monthly Review Press, 2022, 216pp, $12.

In his latest book, veteran author, labour organiser and contributor to Monthly Review journal Michael D Yates provides a comprehensive overview of the nature of work in today’s world.

In the book, Work, Work, Work, Yates convincingly dispels two widespread myths about contemporary workplaces. The first is a perception more often held by liberals: that work is based on a consensual agreement between workers and employer, and that therefore workers are by and large satisfied with their working conditions.

The second is one that has commonly been held by socialists and labour movement leaders: that the oppressive conditions of the workplace provide workers with an experience of capitalism so negative that they are all but compelled to reject it. 1

With regards to the nature of work, Yates shows that workplace surveys indicating high levels of job satisfaction are often dubious. In the first instance, they measure the opinion of workers whose alternative to their current employment is less often another job than it is unemployment, and alongside it destitution. 2

Furthermore, he shows in great detail the terrible conditions that workers are forced to endure, from physical injuries to the destruction of relationships with their co-workers and families, and overwhelming strain on their mental health resulting all too often in serious mental health conditions and suicide. Work, Yates explains, alienates its practitioners, from their products, from nature, and from each other. 3

Concerning the latter myth, Yates shows that the workplace, as well as extracting surplus value, has a secondary ideological function of controlling and disciplining the worker. Far from pushing them to draw revolutionary conclusions from their  exploitation, the monotony of work physically and mentally exhausts workers, and as workplace tasks become more and more specialised, the sort of general skills required for political activity become harder to train. 4

Furthermore, Yates shows with impressive detail how employers encourage competition between workers. This happens not only within a given workplace, but also by pitting workers against consumers, who are more often than not workers themselves. It does this with surveys and feedback, most extensively in the ‘casual sector’ but increasingly in formal sectors like education as well, where lecturers are at the mercy of the ‘reviews’ of their courses by students.

Whilst the workplace is a tool to prevent workers developing a class consciousness spontaneously, they can do this, as Yates shows, through conscious political action in workers struggles.5

This often happens through the trade unions, but as Yates explains, there are limits to what trade unions can achieve. Union leaders will often lobby for reforms, but abort these struggles once the workers movement shows signs of challenging for political power. In doing so, the bureaucratic leadership often prevents the rank-and-file members from having genuine democratic rights within the union. The seventh chapter of Work, Work, Work, illustrates this very well, with an analysis of the rise of the United Farm Workers in the United States, and the suppression of the union members who opposed Cesar Chavez’ compact with the bosses, his cosy relationship with the Democratic Party, and his chauvinist policy towards undocumented Mexican agricultural workers.6

Yates’ book is impressive in its wide-reaching analysis of the modern proletariat, looking far beyond ‘traditional’ workplaces and the ‘traditional’ working class. There is extensive analysis of the growing service sector, and of self-employed workers, which he more accurately describes as ‘own-account’ workers.7

Far from being entrepreneurial self-managers, he shows that this is generally, and especially in poorer countries, in fact the most exploited part of the proletariat. Whilst the book deals principally with workers in the United States, it is full of examples from South Asia, Europe, and Latin America, demonstrating the global dimension of the trends described in the book. It is also particularly contemporary in showing how the coronavirus pandemic has shaped the nature of modern work, and in many cases accelerated the exploitative techniques of employers.

One area where Yates is particularly strong is in his criticisms of bourgeois labour economic theory. He shows not only that its basic models concerning the labour market, or wage level determination, are wrong, but also that they are ideological, in that they are the intellectual justification for systemic exploitation in the name of profit. Fundamental orthodox precepts: that wage differentiation reflects varying levels of ‘human capital’, that higher wages lead to unemployment, or that astronomically high profits are necessary to incentivise and reward risk, have all been disproven. Were economics akin to a natural science like physics—as some of its leading ideologues claim it is—the weight of empirical evidence would have discredited these ideas, yet in what Yates equates with religious faith, all major educational institutions cling to this orthodoxy.

Whilst the majority of the book deals with the conditions that workers must deal with, and the final chapter what workers must fight for, one area that is underdeveloped is the question of how workers achieve this. Precisely how they can use their immense economic power to either win reforms or to overthrow capitalism completely.

Yates rightly suggests that the rank-and-file will have to take charge of the trade unions, as the major unions are collaborating with management.8 However, there is little about how a rank-and-file movement could be formed, how it could mobilise generally dormant union memberships against the bureaucracy, or how it could challenge the dominant ‘broad left’ tactic that socialists have put forward within the trade unions.

It is difficult to make such an argument without noting the need for a revolutionary party. 9 Yates does mention the need for a ‘democratic working-class party’, but what he calls for is essentially a more radical version of existing mass labour parties. Whilst this is certainly a necessary demand in the United States, it is not sufficient, and that the PSUV in Venezuela is offered as a model is illustrative of this. He also provides a useful outline of a programme for existing ‘organisation[s] or movement[s]’, to adopt, although it unfortunately does not include nationalisation on its list of demands. 10

What socialists need is distinct from either the proposed ‘democratic working-class party’ and from the existing political organisations in the United States. Rather, socialists would have to form a revolutionary organisation that could consciously intervene in such a party to force it to implement a radical programme, and also to intervene in social and labour struggles to transform them from ‘sectoral’ campaigns into the wider struggle against bourgeois rule. Such an organisation would be necessary to not only win reforms in the workplace, but to end the very system in which the vast majority of mankind has to sell themselves to a parasitic class of property owners in order to have the basics of life. Only under revolutionary working class leadership can it reject the cruel way of organising humanity detailed in Yates’ book and fight for workers control and for socialism.

1  An argument as old as capitalism itself, these ‘economists’ were the subject of Lenin’s fierce 1902 polemic What is to be Done?, Collected Works Vol. 5, pp. 347-530 (Progress, 1960)  
2 Work, Work, Work, p. 25.
3 Ibid, p. 95
4 Ibid, p. 85
5 Ibid, p. 125
6 Ibid, p. 134
7  Ibid, p. 49
8 Ibid, p. 191
9 Ibid, p. 199
10 Ibid, p. 178

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