“Can the Working Class Change the World?”: Book Review

Eve Ottenberg.

“Can the Working Class Change the World?”, Michael D. Yates Monthly Review Press.

If the working class doesn’t save our vastly unequal and dying world, it’s difficult to see who will. Certainly not the billionaire class, which has the money to put the brakes on climate change by investing in renewables but has not yet seemed inclined to do so. They don’t seem particularly interested in eliminating inequality either. As for the better-off middle classes, they “are more likely to support fascism than profound social change,” according to Michael Yates in his new book, “Can the Working Class Change the World?” So that leaves the working class. Yates explains how workers can do this, but it’s not, he says, really a matter of can they, but rather that workers MUST change the world and quickly, before it’s too late – before climate change renders the earth inhospitable to humanity.

Yates is correct about the failures of capitalism – for billions of people it’s a calamity. “After several hundred years [of capitalism], there are still several billion people existing on the brink of economic ruin. Work is still hell for all but a few.” Yet many struggle to imagine a non-capitalist world, even though, as recently as 1980, “more than a quarter of the world lived in countries that had broken out of the capitalist global market.” In China and the USSR, “production was not predicated on profit, employment was guaranteed, and much of consumption by workers and peasants had been socialized, that is, provided without payment by individuals.” These countries’ citizens also enjoyed free medical care and free education. But the fall of the Soviet Union and the rush to state capitalism in China have been a disaster for workers worldwide. The two communist behemoths kept capitalism somewhat in line; once gone, corporations the world over renewed their assault on ordinary peoples’ living standards by dismantling social democracy. Now, in many places, capitalism is headed farther than mere neoliberal austerity – to the next step, fascism.

Given that recently the world’s 3.5 billion workers have lost power, how to reverse this trend? The first step, Yates argues, is to find an ally. And there is one ready at hand – the world’s three billion peasants. Clearly these two groups constitute most of earth’s population. The problem is that both are so busy eeking out a living, just surviving hyper-capitalism, that few have time or energy to terminate capitalist hegemony. Nonetheless, Yates has many suggestions. Paramount among them is radical education, provided by labor unions and peasant organizations. He quotes Peter Linebaugh: “Communal values must be taught, and renewed, continuously.” Also capitalism’s nature – exploitation and expropriation – must be explained and can be: “peasants have been taught the rudiments of the three volumes of Karl Marx’s magnum opus, Capital.”

This book also critiques that bane of the campesino, capitalist agriculture. Yates quotes Ian Angus: “It now takes more energy to produce food than we obtain from eating it: every calorie of food energy requires ten calories of fossil energy.” Clearly industrial agriculture, relying on fossil fuels and billions of pounds of pesticides, promotes ecocide. Much of that industrial agriculture goes to feed the billions of farm animals that provide meat and dairy. So our diet must change too. Meanwhile, capitalist distribution of agriculture is wildly inefficient: 850 million to two billion people go hungry, Yates reports. He praises Cuba, whose agriculture has transitioned off fossil fuels and mechanization.

Yates also advocates democratizing labor unions, so that members run the unions and “abandon labor-management cooperation schemes.” This, he argues, will require getting “rid of the leadership.” His best model here is the United Electrical Workers. Yates also promotes union-like groups, or worker centers, like those in New York and Florida, and also the labor-community coalition in Richmond California, the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), which has fought “for rent control, pollution abatement at the large Chevron oil refinery, against police brutality…against the harassment of immigrants by ICE,” and more. Neither the RPA nor its office seekers take corporate money, Yates reports. “It is also independent of the Democratic Party.” With similar organizations in other places, Yates writes, “they could coalesce into regional and national political bodies.” He also suggests other tactics for the worker/peasant alliance, including ways to fight structural racism and patriarchy to advance workers’ aims.

Can the working class change the world? Yes, Yates answers, if it pursues these goals: a sustainable environment; a planned economy; “socialization of as much consumption as possible, especially transportation and childcare;” worker-community control of workplaces; public ownership of social institutions like schools and media; a radically egalitarian society; opposition to the rule of the many by the few.

While Yates is correct that “only radical thinking and acting have any chance of staving off…barbarism,” getting billions of people to act radically is a tall order. Everywhere, across the globe, barbarism advances. Only the combined efforts of workers and peasants could stop this, but the sleeping giant has yet to awake. The sobering truth is that if that slumber continues, we and the fragile biosphere that supports life could all die in our sleep.

Posted on Monthly Review, from Eve Ottenberg blog.

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