“The Worker Elite: Notes on the Labor Aristocracy,” by bromma; “Night Shift,” by Ron Kolm
THE WORKER ELITE
“Worker Elite” is a book probably written by an anarcho-syndicalist. ‘bromma,’ a former Canadian/Quebecois unionist, attempts to draw a class line between more privileged workers and less privileged workers, indicating that the former become traitors to ‘revolution.’ While giving valuable data and drawing accurate material lines even within poor countries and internal communities, he ultimately fails in his thesis. That is because revolution is not the only working class goal. To even get to that point, a series of transitional demands would have to be achieved.
Understanding that wealth and income play a role in consciousness and behavior is not a secret to any materialist. No news here. It is one of the great problems that socialists have in advanced and complex capitalist countries, in any class society, an issue that capital creates due to its strategy not to immiserate everyone.
Here bromma uses that understanding to make a hash of class categories. He blurs the lines or disappears the contradictions between union bureaucrats and union members; workers in the global “south” and workers in the global ‘north; the actual middle class and the actual working class; white-collar workers and blue-collar workers. Essentially, drawing a 'class line' within the working class seems to be somewhat sectarian! I couldn’t even find a reference to any white worker in north America who wasn’t privileged economically. There is so much blurring, you ultimately have to guess who he’s talking about in much of the book.
His main fire is aimed at union workers in the global north and privileged workers in the global south. bromma calls them ‘middle class’ – thereby identifying their own possible self-consciousness with their actual class reality. He doesn’t like the term ‘labor aristocracy’ which has been used in the past, and substitutes the term ‘worker elite,’ widening it to include all unionists, not just highly skilled workers. His main material tool is an economic category called ‘purchasing power parity’ (PPP). Bromma has useful though somewhat dated statistics comparing workers world-wide. He established a PPP of around $10,000-$15,000 as the threshold of his middle-class category. Autoworkers worldwide are especially in his sights, due to their higher incomes such as in Mexico or South Korea.
As capital is driving more workers into a less privileged position world-wide, the great task will be to unite the struggles of all workers across economic strata. Given the complexity of class structures in most countries, this is not an easy task. Given union membership in the U.S. is at a serious low, that should bring joy to bromma’s heart. But change is certainly made harder by an analysis that turns possible allies into the ‘enemy.’ Revolutions do not come until the bulk of the working class agrees, and that cannot be changed by aiming your main fire at the wrong people.
“Night Shift’ is a book of straight-forward short stories, only one of which concerns actually working a night shift in a plastics factory. That is disappointing, as night-shift workers face peculiar and nasty problems. Most of them are vignettes about working crappy jobs in bookstores, non-profits or the plastics factory, or writing a crappy book. Kolm’s experiences led to problems with marriages and relationships. I worked in a plastics factory for 2 days and left due to the toxic environment. I still ride by small plastic’s factories that now employ mostly Latino labor and on a warm summer morning the factory doors are open and you can smell the fumes. Kolm, after his night shift, literally stunk so bad his wife told him to sleep on the couch. It was a dangerous and toxic environment. Why he didn’t leave is beyond me. Kolm mentions drugs a lot, so that might have been part of it.
Kolm is one of a group of working-class writers that cover the de-politicized and seamy side of working-class life in the U.S., people like Bukowski and Palahniuk. As a writer, his first foray into literature along the lines of a middle-class academic provides a certain amount of humor. His attempt to combine Joyce, Ben Johnson, Swift, Beckett and Celine caused a wordy wreck. It became ‘the worst book he ever read.’ These stories are the kind of things you might hear at a ‘reading’ session in the back of a bar. I have a severe allergy to short stories but if you like them, this might work for you.
Other fiction/non-fiction about factory life mentioned below: “Factory Days,” “Night Shift” (by David Macaray this time); “Shop Class as Soulcraft.”
And I bought them at Mayday Books!
February 11, 2017