Things Done Changed

Part II of IV in the series

The Specter that Still Haunts: Locating a Revolutionary Class in Contemporary Capitalism-Imperialism

In Part II, Comrade Kenny Lake examines the chaotic uprooting of hundreds of millions of people in the world in recent decades by speculative and financialized capitalism-imperialism, interrogating what the processes giving rise to this world-historic dispossession means for the proletariat that it leaves in its wake and raising the question of what this means for the future content and form of people’s wars.

by Kenny Lake

Finance as Fantasy and Reality

The bourgeoisie is not a monolithic class of industrial capitalists all directly profiting from the exploitation of the laborers they employ. Instead, the bourgeoisie is divided into various factions, including financiers, renters, merchants, industrialists, and landlords. Among these factions, the surplus-value created by human labor is split and appropriated. But while the capital that different factions of the bourgeoisie accumulates has its origins in the production of surplus-value, the various forms of capital and the processes these forms undergo are different.[1] With the transition from capitalism to imperialism came the ascendance of finance capital to a position of primacy within the overall accumulation process. Lenin wrote that the “concentration of production; the monopolies arising therefrom; the merging or coalescence of the banks with industry—such is the history of the rise of finance capital and such is the content of the concept.”[2] David Harvey clarifies that rather than a power bloc in opposition to other capitals, finance capital is “a circulation process of capital that centers on the credit system.”[3]

Consequently, the social anarchy of capital is drastically heightened the more that, under the credit system and through large financial firms, decisions about where to invest capital are increasingly divorced from the direct production and exchange of commodities. Finance functions as an external power over production processes, and “the large financial conglomerate has achieved the capacity to switch capital and manpower from one line to another and from one part of the world to another ‘in the twinkling of an eye.’”[4] The ramifications for the masses of people are intense instability, and for industrial capitalists there is far greater compulsion to remain profitable or face ruin as finance moves to another enterprise.

The functioning of finance has changed considerably in the last several decades. Saskia Sassen describes the new “capacity of finance to develop enormously complex instruments that allow it to securitize the broadest ever, historically speaking, range of entities and processes; further, continuous advances in electronic networks and tools make for seemingly unlimited multiplier effects.”[5] Choices about where to invest capital are now often arrived at by advanced mathematical algorithms[6]—worlds apart from the rational social planning needed for production to serve humanity’s all-around development. Furthermore, finance capital increasingly divorces economic decisions from material realities, resulting in intense and intensely destructive speculation. Sassen notes that “outstanding derivatives, a form of complex debt that derives its value from another source, ranging from other types of debt to material goods such as buildings and crops” “are presently the most common financial instrument” now valued at “more than one quadrillion.”[7] She goes on to describe how “securitization,” such a prominent feature of finance today, “involves the relocation of a building, good, or debt, into a financial circuit where it becomes mobile and can be bought and sold over and over in markets near and far.”[8]

The transition to a more freely speculative functioning of finance that can extract profits from just about anything came about through the policy changes wrought under the neoliberal turn in the capitalist-imperialist system. Harvey summarizes radical transformations within the financial and banking system, including the “interlinking of global stock and financial trading markets” in 1986 that meant “banks could operate freely across borders.” In the US, dismantling the “distinction between investment and deposit banking” “further integrated the banking system into one giant network of financial power.”[9] The structural adjustment programs (SAPs) forced on the oppressed nations by the IMF / World Bank beginning in the 1980s smashed the doors wide open for finance to move surplus-capital into these oppressed nations and for increasingly speculative investment schemes, resulting in vast extractions of wealth. Furthermore, the massive debt owed by oppressed nations to foreign lenders, which SAPs enforced repayment of, made finance capital an all the more powerful lever over the economies of the oppressed nations, including through debt-servicing operations. Sassen points out that “Africa’s debt service payments reached $5 billion in 1998; that year, for every $1 in foreign aid African countries paid $1.40 in debt services…in 2006 a total of 144 countries had debt amounting to $2.9 trillion and paid $573 billion to service that debt.”[10]

Paradoxically, in order to understand the material changes affecting the lives and social relations of humanity, the fantasy-like operations of finance capital form a crucial starting point. The movements of capital commanded by finance from one corner of the globe to another have the effect of siphoning one section of people into the reserve army of labor and subjecting another to the process of proletarianization. They result in the ruin and dislocation of previous modes of economic life and migrations of the people who are ruined and uprooted. And as land acquisitions and resource extraction become some of the most profitable (and newly speculative) ventures, those whose land is acquired and whose resources are extracted are drawn into antagonistic conflict with the motions of capital accumulation.

The fantasy-like operations of finance capital thus have a material life in the nightmares they create in the real world. To understand this material life, we can examine transformations in the organization of the global economy over the last several decades. Doing so requires going beyond simply comprehending the basic division between imperialist nations, where finance capital is concentrated, and oppressed nations, where finance capital operates as an external power.[11] It is through analyzing the specific forms of organization of and processes set in motion by the motions of capital that classes and class antagonisms can be located. Over the last several decades, a few broad trends stand out:

  • The emergence of global cities as centers that organize the global economy and where finance capital in particular is accumulated.
  • The re-organization of production on a global scale that has given rise to export-processing zones in the oppressed nations as new locations for production and sites of proletarianization.
  • The casting off of entire sections of people into a vast and seemingly permanent reserve army of labor as a consequence of de-industrialization (especially but not only in imperialist nations) and the ruin of previous modes of economic life in the oppressed nations (with SAPs dealing the final blow in this regard).
  • Migration within oppressed nations and from oppressed nations to imperialist nations both to serve the labor needs of capital and, in the case of the massive slums in the cities of the oppressed nations, as a dislocated surplus population without prospects of employment.
  • Increasing conflicts over land and resources as both become more scarce and capital moves in to profit from resource extraction and land acquisition, often expelling populations as a result.

In what follows, these broad trends will be elucidated with an eye towards the possibilities within them for mobilizing proletarians for communist revolution.

Global Cities

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A basic philosophical error in much analysis of globalization is to treat centralization and decentralization as mutually exclusive opposites rather than as a unity of opposites in which both aspects are dependent on one another. The incredible mobility of capital and the decentralization of production that characterizes the world economy together with the deregulation and free market fundamentalism that allows capital, at least in the oppressed nations, to trump national sovereignty can make it appear as though no central force holds globalized capitalism together. However, the global assembly and distribution line that links worldwide decentralized production requires coordination and command, and the market in which capital freely moves requires centers through which finance can speculate on and dictate investment. Saskia Sassen has identified global cities, such as New York, London, and Tokyo, as the centers “from where the world economy is managed and serviced.”[12] These global cities are characterized by an agglomeration of activities, in particular of finance and production services, with global reach.

The concept of global city provides several crucial analytic insights. First, it gives a specificity to how imperialism operates. Second, it helps to explain socioeconomic differentiation within imperialist nations, with global cities like New York economically ascendant and consequently characterized by a different class structure than a de-industrialized and economically depressed city such as Detroit. Communist organizing in the latter would require particular attention to mobilizing the surplus population that is being deprived of means of employment and even housing and water. In the former, by contrast, the proletariat consists, to a substantial degree, of immigrants working in services.

This points to a third insight of the global city concept: the management and coordination of the global economy and the functioning of finance and financial and production services has to be produced and reproduced in the spatial location of the global city. Office buildings need to be constructed, cleaned, and maintained; the class managing, speculating on, and servicing the global economy needs to be fed and transported; and the gentrified lifestyles of this class require labor-intensive production of gourmet foods, clothes, and other trinkets as well as servants to carry out daily tasks of reproduction such as cleaning and child care. Furthermore, while the overall trend is for production to be “offshored” from the imperialist nations, some aspects of production, for one reason or another, make more sense to take place in the global cities, whether these be sweatshops producing high-end fashion or specialized electronics manufacturing. All this requires a proletariat that is amenable to flexible, informal, and labor-intensive employment and can be expected to refrain from the disruptive activity of class struggle. In the global cities, this proletariat has been largely recruited from immigrants who, especially but not only when undocumented, meet the above requirements.[13]

In conceptualizing the immigrants who clean offices and gentrified homes, cook food, fly through busy traffic on bicycles to make deliveries, serve as nannies and maids to the rich, and work in sweatshops and low-wage manufacturing as a new section of the proletariat, we call into question certain conventional “Marxist” wisdom. Namely, much of this proletariat is engaged in reproduction and/or functions as a servant class rather than as “productive” workers in the industrial sense. This is all the more reason to move away from mechanical notions that privilege some specific forms of productive activity as somehow portending to revolutionary consciousness and fail to recognize the crucial role of reproduction and service to capital accumulation.[14]

Furthermore, the largely immigrant proletariat in the global cities presents several strategic advantages for communist revolution. First, owing to its immigrant status, it is politically marginalized and the bourgeois state makes little attempt to incorporate it into its hegemony or provide it with means to advance its position within the capitalist order. For those reasons, combined with the oppression it faces in the dimensions of culture, language, and social position, it remains a class in antagonistic conflict with capital. Second, it is an exemplification of one process of socialized labor—migration—and an embodiment of the proletariat as an international class, and brings a myriad of experience with imperialism from its countries of origin. Third, since crucial members of the international bourgeoisie and the central nervous system of capital are dependent, for their daily functioning, on this section of the proletariat, it occupies a strategic position in the revolutionary struggle with a particular capacity for disruption on a grand scale.

One of the most impressive and innovative tactics of the communist revolutionary people’s wars in Peru and then Nepal was the shut-downs of Lima and Kathmandu. This tactic involved the coordination of both communist military organization and a mass of supporters to bring life to a halt in the major centers of population and bourgeois political power. It served as a demonstration of the power of and support for the people’s wars in the urban centers and as a form of dress rehearsal for the intended goal of seizing nationwide power. Political scientist Cynthia McClintock describes the most successful urban shut-down by Sendero Luminoso in 1992:

On 22 and 23 July, the insurgents’ two-day armed strike paralyzed Lima. Roads and rail links to the highland interior [of Peru] were cut by bombs. The major avenues from shanty towns into Lima were blocked by stones and burning tires. Public transport halted. Most offices, shops, and schools closed. As the Shining Path enforced the strike by bombs and assaults, some forty people were killed and roughly one hundred were wounded.[15]

Were urban shut-downs to be employed by communists in the global cities at the center of imperialism, their effect would be magnified. Given the existence of a vast immigrant proletariat in the global cities, this tactic is a real possibility were this immigrant proletariat mobilized under communist leadership.

Export Processing Zones

A key part of what the bourgeoisie in the global cities commands, coordinates, and services is the global process of production. Several factors have coalesced in recent decades that enable capitalist production to function as a dispersed global process and for the allocation of capital to parts of the world where labor and other costs of production are the cheapest. Aside from the greater fluidity of capital already discussed, these factors include technological innovations that allow for a global assembly line in which different parts are produced in different locations, advances in transportation such as containerization, advances in electronic communications, and, perhaps most importantly, the availability of cheap labor and production facilities provided by the SAPs and neoliberal policies enforced on the oppressed nations.[16]

What all this means is that the production of commodities, especially in growth industries such as electronics and in labor-intensive production such as the garment industry, increasingly takes place mostly in the oppressed nations in what are broadly referred to as export-processing zones (EPZs). These are newly industrialized zones with an array of production facilities set in motion by foreign capital and employing a vast army of proletarians in labor-intensive low-wage work producing or assembling commodities for export largely to imperialist nations. We can add alongside these EPZs the rise of plantations and large-scale capitalist agriculture in the oppressed nations producing food and cash crops for export. For our purposes, what is most important about these EPZs is that they constitute one key process of proletarianization that has resulted in over 80% of the world’s industrial workforce now being located in the oppressed nations.[17]

This process of proletarianization has generally involved the following route. SAPs wreak havoc on traditional economic modes when subsistence and peasant agriculture lose government subsidies and price supports, restrictions on imports are stripped away and domestic production can no longer compete with foreign goods, and state provisions such as healthcare, education, and public-sector employment are shattered. This results in a large pool of people unable to sustain themselves in the ways they did previously, and thus forced to migrate to wherever capital will employ them.[18] The drastic increase in foreign direct investment (FDI) from the imperialist countries to the oppressed nations since the 1960s is one indication of capital moving to where it can create and best profitably exploit proletarians.[19] Furthermore, capital’s ability to exploit labor in this situation has been aided by conditions stipulated by SAPs that destroy any barriers to exploitation, as well as the neoliberal policies which include an enforcement of capital’s freedom to exploit labor in that God of bourgeois ideals called the free market. This is perhaps best exemplified in those EPZs known as “special economic zones” in the oppressed nations, in which state policy eliminates barriers to investment such as tariffs and labor laws. These special economic zones were pivotal to the restoration of capitalism in China and to China’s re-integration into the world imperialist system.

The proletariat in these EPZs is marked by several distinctive features. First, it is generally made up of newly proletarianized people dispossessed and dislocated from their previous modes of economic life, which were often peasant and subsistence farming. Second, those who work in the EPZs generally arrived there through regional migration, often from rural areas to the newly industrialized zones. Third, EPZs heavily recruit young women, who, from the standpoint of capital, are a more docile workforce owing to the patriarchy prevailing in their societies. These young women are frequently laid off when they reach their mid-twenties, as by that time they are no longer seen as useful to capital both due to the physical exhaustion of intense labor and their growing propensity for struggle after several years of exploitation. Unemployed and disconnected from their previous modes of life and geographic location through the process of proletarianization, these women then have little choice but to migrate further in search of employment.[20] Fourth, labor conditions in the EPZs are among the worst in the world. Besides the extremely low wages, intensity of labor, and absurdly long work hours, the numerous factory fires, facilitated by shoddy construction and made more deadly by locked factory doors and no safety measures, that have killed thousands in the garment production sites of Bangladesh in recent years highlight the expendable position—to capital—of those laboring in the EPZs. Furthermore, these human incinerations are a stunning indication that capitalism, far from providing continual forward progress for humanity, perpetually repeats horrors of previous centuries. Fifth, the EPZs allow for little possibilities of successful struggles, on the part of the proletarians they employ, to improve their conditions of existence. Aside from the active role of the repressive state apparatus in stamping out resistance, capital is free to move production to another EPZ should resistance force it to pay higher wages or improve working conditions. Those cutting edge technologies and must-have trinkets for people in the imperialist nations known as iPhones, iTablets, etc. have been made cheaply available in part through the practice of changing locations anytime those producing them in China manage to win a struggle for higher wages.

This chart shows the proportion of women that make up the labour of export processing zones in various countries. Data from “2011-12 Progress of the World’s Women Report,” from the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women.
This chart shows the proportion of women that make up the labour of export processing zones in various countries. Data from “2011-12 Progress of the World’s Women Report,” from the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women.

These features present several strategic advantages for mobilizing proletarians in the EPZs for the aims and practices of communist revolution. First, given that typical reformist struggles for improving conditions of daily life—higher wages, better working conditions, official unions—are largely foreclosed, the immediate and pressing need for revolution should be much more palpable to these proletarians. This is in part because these proletarians confront, in their daily lives and struggles, not just their immediate exploiter, who is often a local capitalist that the imperialist bourgeoisie has outsourced production to, but the machinations of capital on a world scale. They can be left unemployed in a heartbeat should capital find a more profitable location to outsource production to. It is only communist class-consciousness that can make sense of this situation and open up pathways for struggle aimed at eradicating the forces that perpetuate it, which in this case principally involves the social anarchy of production. Furthermore, given the active deployment of the repressive state apparatus anytime these proletarians put up resistance, there is fertile ground for violent rebellion, as has occurred in the Bangladeshi garment industry in recent years, and for revolutionary armed struggle. This is made all the more of an immediate possibility considering the desperate conditions of daily life for those laboring in the EPZs.

Second, proletarians in the EPZs are potentially much more prone to revolutionary class-consciousness given they have recently undergone the process of dispossession and dislocation from their previous modes of life and confront not just the bitter experience of exploitation but also the volatile effects of the social anarchy of production, in this case the movements of capital to wherever production is cheapest. For these proletarians, there is generally no going back to their previous lives, as the peasant and subsistence farming they came from is no longer a viable option, and working in the EPZs has separated them, socially and culturally, from their previous lives. Furthermore, proletarians in EPZs exemplify the processes of socialized labor in several ways. They arrived in the EPZs through migration. They work in manufacturing facilities often employing large numbers of laborers, and they live in zones that concentrate a large number of proletarians within a single geographical location. They are part of production processes that are often international in character, with components of commodities produced in various places and brought together in a global assembly line, and, owing to the presence of foreign capital, they form social and cultural links with imperialist countries. All this makes them an embodiment of the international character of the proletariat and provides raw material for shaping an internationalist proletarian class-consciousness.

Third, the feminization of the proletariat in the EPZs adds more fuel for revolutionary fire. Since communist revolution aims not at simply ending the exploitation of labor but at radically transforming society in all its dimensions in order to do away with all existing oppressive social relations, eradicating patriarchy is an integral part of the proletariat’s historic mission. Moreover, putting the struggle against patriarchy and active mobilization of women, including in leadership roles, at the heart of communist revolution further radicalizes the revolutionary struggle. Not only do the EPZs around the world brutally exploit young women, but they also often foster some of the most violent assertions of patriarchy. One particularly chilling example is Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, just south of the US border. Juárez became an EPZ during the 1990s as foreign capital moved in and set up maquiladoras (sweatshop factories), which employed large numbers of young women migrating from impoverished rural areas. Since then, hundreds of these young women have been kidnapped, raped, and murdered, with the Mexican state doing nothing to stop it.[21] These and other horrors are all the more reason for the proletarian women working in the EPZs to become a central part of the revolutionary struggle, and in doing so will strengthen that struggle. Both the state repressive violence and social patriarchal violence directed against these proletarian women renders revolutionary violence the only requisite response.

Slums not Jobs[22]

A scene from the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya.
A scene from the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya.

Migration within the oppressed nations does not take place only or even mainly because capital is in need of labor at specific locations. Much of the rapid urbanization of the population in the oppressed nations since the 1960s has been driven not by the labor needs of capital, but rather by the dislocation of rural populations through the SAPs and consequences of neoliberalism described above. In addition, the collapse of formal colonialism brought about an end to previous restrictions on population mobility as well as population displacements owing to anti-colonial conflicts and internal power struggles.[23] Unlike the EPZs, the slums that have increasingly defined cities in the oppressed nations are generally not sites of growth and new production in the world economy, but instead are full of people left to fend for themselves in whatever ways they can. Consequently, slum residents are often underemployed, unemployed, and/or work in the informal economy without any guarantees of stability or protections. Lacking basic infrastructure such as sewage systems and clean water and wracked by disease, the human surplus population packed into the slums today far eclipses that described by Engels in his 1845 work The Condition of the Working Class in England.

To understand the growth of, prevalence of, and conditions in slums today, a few facts and statistics from Mike Davis’ Planet of Slums are worth citing:

  • As of 2005, a conservative UN estimate is that there are over one billion people living in slums worldwide. In the oppressed nations, 78.2% of the urban population lives in slums. In Nepal, that portion is 92%.
  • In Lunda, Mapute, and Cochabamba, at least two-thirds of “residents earn less than the cost of their minimum required nutrition.”
  • The slum of Neza in Mexico City had a population of ten thousand in 1957 and approximately three million today. This is indicative of the magnification of slum populations worldwide since the 1960s.
  • “Mega-slums” have emerged especially in Latin America and Africa in which several shantytowns merge to create one continuous slum belt, with Lima and Mexico City as prime examples.
  • Slums are generally crammed spaces of high-population density. In Dhaka, 70% of the population live on 20% of the land.
  • Slum residents are frequently subject to mass evictions to make way for urban development, special events such as international sports competitions, or for security reasons.[24]

The slum dwellers of the oppressed nations are a vast and seemingly permanent reserve army of labor that capital has no use for in the foreseeable future. Eking out an impoverished existence in occupations such as rag-pickers, rickshaw drivers, street vendors, sweatshop workers, crime, and beggars, slum residents are the most concentrated expression of the growth of the informal economy under global capitalism in recent decades. Mike Davis notes that “the global informal working class…is about one billion strong, making it the fastest-growing, and most unprecedented, social class on earth.”[25]

If we center our conception of the proletariat on dispossession and include the reserve army of labor as a component just as crucial to the formation of the proletariat as that component which works in production, slum-dwellers emerge as one pivotal and populous part of the proletariat today. Given their desperate conditions of daily life and the fact that slums cannot be replaced with housing fit for human beings short of social planning on a massive scale that includes providing the right to work in meaningful, productive, and non-exploitative positions for those now residing in the slums, slum-dwellers have an immediate and irreconcilable antagonism with the overall functioning of capital. All this makes them a potentially powerful force in the revolutionary struggle, even if the often sharp social contradictions among slum-dwellers forced into a daily competition for survival with each other and the fact that many of them sustain themselves through individual economic activity rather than socialized labor pose challenges for organizing slum-dwellers for the larger aims of communist revolution. While these real difficulties will be addressed below, here it is worth pointing out some of the strategic advantages slums present for revolutionary people’s war.

First, the dense populations of slums facilitate collective struggle and organization on a territorial level. Second, the informality of not just economic activity but also housing and political status allows for the possibility of setting up voluntary communal forms of living and economic survival among those masses committed to the revolutionary struggle that are outside the parameters of the bourgeois state. During the height of the people’s war in Peru in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Sendero Luminoso took advantage of this possibility and organized groups of its supporters to claim parts of Lima, construct housing for themselves, work and/or meet their subsistence needs collectively to the degree possible, and live according to communist morality. These became important base areas for the revolution right within the slums surrounding Peru’s urban center of power, making the 1992 armed strike described above possible, and served as models of the revolutionary future to those in Lima’s shantytowns.[26]

Third, slums present the possibility of revolutionary armed struggle in the urban domain, which is all the more crucial given that the urban population of the world now outnumbers the rural population. The bourgeoisie is well aware of this possibility, with the US military paying increasing attention to developing doctrine and practice for what it calls Military Operations in Urbanized Terrain (MOUT). Mike Davis sums up bourgeois military concerns in regards to slums:

  • Unlike urban centers, the slums are sprawling geographically, which makes them difficult targets to bomb.
  • The built environment of slums, with narrow roads and passages and informally constructed housing, make them difficult terrain for armies with modern equipment and conventional military organization to navigate. The US military faced this difficulty and, as a consequence, accumulated many casualties in Sadr City.
  • The youth of the slums, lacking prospects for a meaningful future, pose an insurgent threat, especially when they have grown up around violence, weapons, and gangs.
  • Given that the repressive state apparatus does not have easy reach into the slums, there is the real possibility of liberated zones emerging in the slums.[27]

Communists are unfortunately far behind the bourgeoisie in developing military doctrine for revolutionary warfare in the slums. In this regard, the experiences in the urban domain during the people’s wars in Peru and the Philippines are in need of examination, and non-communist urban military conflicts, such as the Sandinista’s urban military campaigns and more recent conflicts in the Middle East, should also be mined for their lessons. Of course, most importantly, new endeavors in practice are required.

From the beginnings of capitalist production in England, surplus populations have posed a threat to bourgeois rule given their instability, desperate need to find means of survival, and exclusion from the economic and social functioning of society. This need for social control will be explored in greater detail in relation to deindustrialization within the US in part four. In regards to the slums, the bourgeoisie’s fear of the urban human surplus it has created is in dire need of being made palpable through communist organization and revolutionary struggle.

James Bond on the Right Side of Humanity for Once?

The need for the minerals used in new technologies and industrial production, the oil that continues to power the global economy, and the food and industrial crops and water sustaining a growing population requires that capital continually acquires land and resources. As both become increasingly scarce due to nearly two-hundred years of industrial capitalism and the environmental destruction it continues to perpetuate, conflicts over land and resource extraction put new sections of the population in direct antagonism with the processes of capital accumulation.

Deforestation makes way for a palm oil plantation. This site is in Sarawak, Borneo, Malaysia.
Deforestation makes way for a palm oil plantation. This site is in Sarawak, Borneo, Malaysia.

In recent years, foreign direct investment has shifted away from manufacturing and to the primary sector (mining, crops, oil, etc.), especially in Africa.[28] New financial instruments, such as derivatives, have aided in making land acquisition a particularly profitable venture for finance capital, including through speculation. Saskia Sassen describes a drastic increase in land acquisitions by foreign countries and firms occurring around 2006, resulting in two-hundred million hectares in land acquisitions from 2006–2011.[29] After 2006, “it is crops for biofuels that now account for most of the acquisitions,” with palm oil plantations providing green energy for the European Union.[30] Since palm oil can only be produced profitably on large plantations of at least four or five thousand hectares with processing facilities and easy access to transportation, this has resulted in massive seizures of communal and smallholding farm lands in Indonesia in particular.[31]

It is not only the long-established imperialist nations responsible for these land grabs, but also “oil-rich Gulf States” and “populous and capital-rich Asian countries.”[32] As acquired land in Africa becomes the bread basket for foreign populations, the results include, in Ethiopia, the perverse co-existence of foreign land acquisition for food production by Saudi Arabia with massive hunger and malnutrition among Ethiopians requiring foreign food aid.[33] As global warming creates draughts in places like California and Western Australia and water, the most important sustenance of human life, becomes a rarer and more valuable commodity, control of water resources in the oppressed nations is usurped by foreign nations and firms, wreaking havoc on the water supply of those oppressed nations.[34] Thus control over water resources played a crucial role in fostering recent radical movements among the basic masses in Bolivia and in the election of Evo Morales. As an eco-friendly capitalist grabbing control of Bolivia’s water supply, Dominic Greene, the chief villain in the 2008 Bond film Quantum of Solace, is thus an all-too-real personification of the machinations of capital in the real world. And while the bourgeois media portrayed recent violent conflicts in the Central African Republic as fostered solely by ethnic and religious rivalries, with the good old French former colonialists and present-day imperialists stepping in to save the day, beneath the surface is the extraction of cobalt and other minerals crucial for electronic gadgets such as cell phones.

Sassen sums up that since 2006 “this sharp growth in foreign ownership [of land] is significantly altering the character of local economies, notably land ownership, and diminishing the sovereign authority of the state over its territory.”[35] This includes numerous expulsions, large and small, of people from the land that had provided their subsistence and economic life. For our purposes, what is of strategic import is how these land acquisitions and expulsions draw masses of people in rural and peripheral settings into direct antagonistic conflict with the movement of capital. While such masses are generally not proletarians, they are increasingly at the center of the fundamental contradiction between private appropriation and socialized production, and thus constitute a social force ripe for revolutionary struggle. As will be explored further in part three, this has certainly been the case with the communist people’s war in India in recent years. Here there are broader implications for the strategy of protracted people’s war in the oppressed nations. On the one hand, confronting local oppressors in rural areas before moving on to confront the centers of national power provides communists with the opportunity to build up a revolutionary army and a mass base before the reactionary military can destroy either. On the other hand, this approach may no longer apprehend the possibilities for the rapid development of revolutionary struggle given that rural and peripheral populations living on now valuable land or resources are suddenly forced to confront capital, and the repressive state apparatus backing it up, directly in their geographical location.


Above I have attempted to provide a broad outline of key global trends in the motion and accumulation of capital in recent decades that affect the formation of the proletariat as an international class and the development of social antagonisms due to the movements of capital. Such a broad outline does not explain how these trends manifest themselves in particular countries. Given that my analysis has been focused on the economic base, it needs to be stated that proletarianization and class antagonisms will always also be shaped by particular histories and specific social formations in a given country or locality, especially the persistence and intensification of national oppression and patriarchy.

While the broad trends outlined above do not address every feature of class formation in the world today, many features not addressed can be understood in dialectical relationship to these broad trends. For example, the deindustrialization of the traditional manufacturing belt of many imperialist nations forms a unity of opposites with the development of export processing zones—the production in the former was moved to the latter. As will be addressed in part four, in the US this deindustrialization, combined with the centrality of the oppression of Black people to US society, created a permanent reserve army of labor concentrated among urban Black populations for which the bourgeoisie developed a new mechanism of social control: mass incarceration. The larger point here is that understanding the broad trends outlined above should be helpful in providing strategic focus for communists in mobilizing our social base for revolution, but doing so will require delving into particularities both practically and analytically. Of course there will be plenty of other dynamics important to communist strategy in a given location that have not been addressed in this broad outline.

A working assumption here is that communist revolution requires an organized, ideologically and practically trained social base on a large scale, and the primary task of communists is to find and develop such a social base in whatever link in the shackle of imperialism they find themselves. This differs from those who imagine the emergence of a sudden political crisis enabling a small vanguard to quickly leap to the head of a revolutionary movement and seize power. To whatever extent that occurred in 1917 Russia (and this is questionable), to delude oneself into thinking a particular historical moment will be the model for future revolutions is to perpetually wait for history to repeat itself. While revolutionary crises in different forms may be necessary for revolutions to succeed, (1) the ability of communists to seize on such crises will be contingent, to a significant degree, on their organized base among the proletariat, and (2) revolutionary crises are created not merely by objective conditions and missteps of the bourgeoisie but by the strength and struggle of the subjective factor. It will have to wait for another essay to fully flesh out this conceptual difference.

To What End?

Following from the conception of the proletariat given in part one, in identifying key sections of the international proletariat I have sought to move away from a discussion of immediate struggles and conflicts with local oppressors and exploiters to focus, instead, on how these proletarians are brought into conflict with the larger machinations of capital. From this perspective, finance capital plays a more important role than those capitalists immediately exploiting labor, and the social anarchy of capitalist production is far more integral to class formation than the act of exploitation. Furthermore, as shall be demonstrated in part three, the qualities that make some sections of the proletariat potentially more prone to communist class-consciousness and revolutionary struggle are dispossession and dislocation rather than exploitation in the labor process.

What qualities we seek out and what aspects of class formation and class antagonism we prioritize, however, have much to do with how we conceptualize the larger aims of communist revolution. In identifying key sections of the proletariat today, my point is to look at how these key sections are strategically positioned to (1) recognize their fundamental antagonism with capitalism-imperialism as a whole, (2) take hold of the socialized productive forces after the revolution and wield them through social planning to meet the needs of humanity, (3) sharpen the communist revolution’s objective of doing away with all oppressive social relations, and (4) carry out political struggle that cannot find resolution within the structures of bourgeois rule and thus requires the use of revolutionary violence aimed at seizing state power. From this perspective, what emerges is not a monolithic proletariat matching an ideal type, but different sections which bring various strengths and weaknesses with them.

Radical opposition movements today at best speak of linking different struggles—for example, linking the labor movement with resistance by those dispossessed of their land and resources.[36] While there is an aspect of this involved in developing an international communist movement, more the point is to develop a class-conscious proletariat concerned not primarily with its own struggle against its immediate conditions of oppression and exploitation, and at best the links between that struggle and other struggles, but rather concerned with moving humanity as a whole away from commodity production and toward communist society, with the seizure of power in whatever geographical regions are possible as the first step. Developing that class-conscious proletariat requires communists to undertake social investigation among those proletarians and develop organization and struggle in relation to the palpable social antagonisms those proletarians face. However, the point of all this must be to move those proletarians to view and work towards communist revolution as the only resolution to not just their social antagonisms but to the more fundamental antagonism—between private appropriation and socialized production—on a global scale.

Contending with Centrifugal Forces

In part because the proletariat is not a monolithic class, communists will have to contend with the various centrifugal forces pulling away from proletarian class-consciousness among it. Such centrifugal forces include those embedded within the proletariat’s conditions of economic life, the active ideological work of the bourgeoisie and other reactionary forces among the proletariat and the material forms it takes, the organization and ideologies of non-communist oppositional trends, and the host of social conflicts among the people which the bourgeoisie actively fosters. The slums surrounding the cities in the oppressed nations are one site where these centrifugal forces pose particular difficulties for communists.

Given the crowded geography of the slums, the limited opportunities for even the most degrading forms of employment therein, and the fact that much of this employment involves individual rather than collective activity, slum-dwellers are pitted against one another in a daily struggle for survival. Especially when economic activity is petty-bourgeois in quality yet proletarian in condition, such as with street vendors, organization and ideology that transcends the potentially petty-bourgeois outlook this economic activity fosters is a necessity. A partial example of this contradiction was in the political mobilization of residents of El Alto, a slum perched on a plateau overlooking La Paz. Owing to its geographic location and ability to blockade the center of power in Bolivia, El Alto became a fortress of struggle against some factions of the bourgeoisie’s attempts to overthrow the Morales government. El Alto’s residents consisted disproportionally of former peasants and miners who had recently migrated when their previous economic modes proved no longer tenable. In El Alto, they often worked as street vendors and in other more individually-based occupations. What cohered them into a fighting force both for their own immediate concerns and as defenders of the Morales government (at least against US-backed coup attempts) was a network of unions and neighborhood organizations that actively mediated disputes among individuals, such as conflicts between competing street vendors, as well as various non-communist oppositional ideologies, including the legacy of anarcho-syndicalism and Trotskyism among former miners.[37] Much can be learned from this experience of forging collectivity among basic masses engaged in individual economic activity even if it needs to be recast and strengthened with the ideology and larger objectives of communism at the core.

Street vendors in El Alto, Bolivia.
Street vendors in El Alto, Bolivia.

Besides the petty-bourgeois quality of a significant degree of economic life among slum-residents, the international bourgeoisie has worked to actively foster both this petty-bourgeois quality and its ideological counterpart. This has taken shape largely through the Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) presenting themselves as the saviors of the slums and through the World Bank and other imperialist entities’ use of micro-loans. Under bourgeois logic, the solution to the impoverishment of the slums is to enable slum-dwellers to succeed in the free market by setting up micro-enterprises and giving them titles to their land. The results have invariably been social differentiation wherein a handful advance their individual positions through their entrepreneurial activity while the masses fall into even more dire straits, and land ownership results in accumulation for some and dispossession for the masses. Besides failing to eradicate impoverishment, the promotion of individual entrepreneurship and ownership heightens antagonisms and destroys social solidarities and collective organization among slum-dwellers, engrains petty-bourgeois ideology into their very survival strategies, and gives an ideological bulwark to the free market more broadly.[38] Communists organizing in the slums would thus need to ideologically and practically combat the bourgeoisie’s imposition of micro-enterprise and put forward a radical alternative both in the immediate sense and as a larger objective.

Other centrifugal forces pulling away from proletarian class-consciousness in the slums are reactionary ideologies and the organization and material practices these reactionary ideologies guide. The ideologies of crime/gangsterism and religious fundamentalism stand out as holding sway among large sections of the worldwide slum population. Both have their roots in the material conditions of the slums.

Criminal activity (that is, economic activity deemed illegal by the bourgeois state), from petty theft to drug gangs to prostitution, is ubiquitous in the slums just like it is among any surplus population without means of survival. Moreover, crime is by no means a peripheral activity in the world economy, as “the three largest sectors of global foreign trade are in drugs, illegal guns and human trafficking.”[39] Given the prominence of and social stratification within the illegal economy, it would be detrimental for communists to write off those forced into criminal activity as a lumpen-proletariat incapable of or antagonistic to revolutionary struggle. The women and girls trafficked as sex slaves around the globe and the armies of prostitutes in the oppressed nations often serving that grotesque creation of imperialism called sex tourism are clearly an exploited and oppressed element within the criminal economy. As with the feminization of the proletariat discussed earlier, these women can radicalize the revolutionary struggle by making patriarchy and the most brutal expressions of patriarchy prime concerns. Furthermore, especially in regards to sex-trafficking, there is the possibility of developing armed struggle without necessarily immediately confronting the repressive state apparatus and relatively easily garnering popular support when the bourgeois state sides with sex-traffickers and against communists.

The many youth in low-level positions within criminal gangs wield little power or economic resources. The rebellious spirit among these futureless youth and the fact that many of them have training and experience in armed violence offer potential strengths to the revolutionary struggle. This potential can only be realized, however, if the ideology of gangsterism is actively combatted and repudiated among these youth. It will not do to tail the brutal sense of individualism and willingness to use and degrade the masses of people to materially advance that individualism. Instead, it is necessary to contrast this ideology with the selfless love for the masses so advocated by Mao, and especially through thoroughgoing opposition to the patriarchal relations and degradation of women central, ideologically and practically, to gangsterism.

In regards to the growth of religious fundamentalism among slum-dwellers in recent decades, it is worth recounting how Engels accounted for the perseverance of religion among the masses after the establishment of industrial capitalism. While Marx’s statements about religion being the opiate of the masses and the heart of a heartless world are well-known, Engels explained that religion first dealt with natural forces that dominated people that people did not understand, and subsequently with social forces that dominate people that people do not understand.[40] The social anarchy of capitalist production is exactly that force dominating people that they do not understand or have the means, under the rule of capital, to bring under their control. In the slums, this is felt all the more acutely given that slum-dwellers have been dislocated—geographically, economically, socially, and culturally—from their previous modes of existence not by the pull of capital’s labor needs but by their expendability to capital.

Mike Davis provides a particularly stark example in Kinshasa, where the social force of capital has given rise to the popularity of Pentecostalism as well as widespread belief in witchcraft. Kinshasa was economically devastated by successive SAP dictates in the 1980s and 1990s and then left abandoned by capital, with informal activity and subsistence agriculture now virtually the only functioning economic life. As people sought explanations and spiritual solace from the misery around them, Pentecostal preachers provided answers. With the complicity of the preachers at the pulpit, the supposed sinister supernatural powers of thousands of children, purported to be witches, were widely blamed for the desperate poverty and chaos of Kinshasa. As a consequence, those children deemed witches were subjected to exorcisms, orphaned, and even killed.[41] What seems nonsensical makes sense in slums devastated by even more nonsensical forces than witchcraft: the social anarchy of capitalist production and the dictates of debt and IMF-imposed structural adjustment. Here proletarian class-conscious provides the only explanation for the social forces that dominate people, and thus must offer itself as a far more compelling line of reasoning than that of Pentecostal preachers and witchcraft. As with the ideology of gangsterism, the patriarchy implicit in religious fundamentalism constitutes its most glaringly oppressive feature in the domain of social relations, and thoroughgoing opposition to that patriarchy is thus a necessity and a strength in building a communist pole in the slums.

A scene from a mass exorcism ceremony in Kinshasa.

In contending with these centrifugal forces, while struggles, organization, and material practices that address the conditions of life in the slums and present palpable alternative paths to bourgeois entrepreneurship, gangsterism, and religious fundamentalism need to be forged, the most important adhesive is communist ideology and the material practices it guides. Any immediate struggles and organization will always be temporary and outgunned (figuratively and literally) by the bourgeoisie, and will not be able to resolve the social antagonisms involved. Without an understanding of the material causes of their conditions of life and how these material causes can and must be eradicated through revolution and the socialist transition to communism, slum-dwellers will ever be left choosing from ideologies and modes of life bound to chain them to the prison of the present. While the slums provide the most salient example of how centrifugal forces pull away from the revolutionary potential of a section of the proletariat, the broader lessons here can be extended to the proletariat in all its manifestations.



[1]                David Harvey, The Limits to Capital (New York: Verso, 2006), 73–74.

[2]                Lenin, Imperialism, in Selected Works vol. 1 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977), 667.

[3]                Harvey, Limits, 283. The credit system functions by finance capital extending credit to other capitalists, such as those engaged in industrial production, so these industrial capitalists can purchase means of production and labor-lower. These industrial capitalists then must pay back their financiers with interest—meaning the interest that is profit for financiers is in fact derived from the surplus-value created by human labor in industrial production.

[4]                Ibid., 147.

[5]                Saskia Sassen, Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014), 8–9, 12.

[6]                Ibid., 119.

[7]                Ibid., 117–18.

[8]                Ibid., 118.

[9]                David Harvey, The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 19–20.

[10]              Sassen, Expulsions, 91. On SAPs, see Cope, Divided World Divided Class: Global Political Economy and the Stratification of Labour Under Capitalism (Montreal: Kersplebedeb. 2012), 125; and Sassen, Expulsions, 83–91.

[11]              Though it remains important to insist on the terminology of imperialist / oppressed nations to describe a basic division in the world in opposition to terms such as Global North / Global South, First World / Third World, core / periphery, or developed / developing countries, as these terms do little to explain the basic division or the relationship between the two sides of that division, and, in the case of “developed / developing countries,” in fact obfuscates rather than explains. However, to rest content with categorizing countries as imperialist or oppressed is to accept a shallow analysis lacking specificity and out of touch with reality. Increasingly more countries display aspects of both categories, with China as a prime example where foreign capital operates within its borders to extract superprofits through superexploitation, while at the same time China develops an imperialist relationship over a number of countries in Africa, and has furthermore begun to flex its military strength in opposition to US imperialism. Moreover, putting a country into a category does little to develop a revolutionary strategy based on the concrete conditions of that country. And given the blurry line between imperialist and oppressed nation in increasing instances as well as the worldwide sell-out of national bourgeoisies in the oppressed nations to imperialism after the end of formal colonialism, it is questionable how applicable the old paradigm of national liberation in alliance with the national bourgeoisie is in the world today.

[12]              Saskia Sassen, The Mobility of Labor and Capital (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 127. For a full elucidation of the concept of the global city, see Saskia Sassen, The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).

[13]              This summary of production, reproduction, and the proletariat in the global cities draws from Saskia Sassen, Globalization and its Discontents (New York: The New Press, 1998), 86–91, 111, 121–29, 137–47; and Sassen, Mobility, 22, 145, 157–60, 174, 187.

[14]              For an example of the conception of productive versus unproductive workers I am critiquing, see Cope, 174–182, who says that “the fundamental class antagonism in capitalism is between the producers of surplus-value and the capitalists who receive it in the first instance” (176) and considers “unproductive” workers to thus be parasites on production. By contrast, in her article “The Super-Exploitation of Women and Developing a Revolutionary Mass Line,” Uprising: Journal of Revolutionary Initiative 5 (Spring 2014): 5–21, Stella B argues for a class analysis that considers reproduction to be no less important than the production of surplus-value, and thus puts the reproductive labor disproportionately performed by women at the heart of capitalist production.

[15]              Cynthia McClintock, Revolutionary Movements in Latin America: El Salvador’s FMLN & Peru’s Shining Path (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1998), 88.

[16]              Harvey, Enigma, 14–16.

[17]              Cope, 122.

[18]              Sassen, Mobility, 129–31.

[19]              Ibid., 14, 99–102.

[20]              Ibid., 114–18.

[21]              All this is perhaps best illustrated in the movie Ciudad Juárez.

[22]              In case the parody of social-imperialism implicit in this heading is lost on anyone, a common sight at anti-war protests in imperialist countries is banners reading “jobs not war,” “healthcare not warfare,” “money for jobs and education, not for war and occupation,” etc. Besides the moral bankruptcy of such slogans (would the war be okay if there was full employment, healthcare, and education for residents of the imperialist country waging that war?), they become all the more empty when considering the vast human surplus populations with no prospects for jobs, healthcare, and education under the rule of capital.

[23]              Mike Davis, Planet of Slums (London & New York: Verso, 2006), 55–61.

[24]              Ibid., 23, 25–27, 95–98, 98–114,

[25]              Ibid., 178. While the slums are the largest concentration points of the informal economy, Sassen points to informalization as a larger trend structuring employment. In the global cities, for example, many of the low-wage service and down-graded manufacturing jobs are “off the books” or lack any formal contracts (Globalization, chapter 8).

[26]              For a vivid account of life and conflict with the bourgeois state in Raucana, Sendero Luminoso’s first established settlement in the Lima metropolitan area, see Simon Strong, Shining Path: Terror and Revolution in Peru (New York: Times Books, 1992), 260–63.

[27]              Davis, 202–206. See also Stephen Graham, Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism (London & New York: Verso, 2011).

[28]              Sassen, Expulsions, 106–7.

[29]              Ibid., 80.

[30]              Ibid., 96, 99–100.

[31]              Ibid., 111–114.

[32]              Ibid., 108.

[33]              Ibid., 275 endnote 30.

[34]              Ibid., 102–6.

[35]              Ibid., 114.

[36]              For a radical social democratic exploration of the possibilities of linking different struggles in present conditions, see Harvey, Enigma, chapter 8.

[37]              This summary draws from Sian Lazar, El Alto, Rebel City: Self and Citizenship in Andean Bolivia (Durham: Duke University Press).

[38]              For a thorough and excellent critique of “the illusions of self-help” from which this summary draws, see Davis, Planet of Slums, chapter 4.

[39]              Harvey, Enigma, 44.

[40]              Engels, Anti-Dühring (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1976), 410–12.

[41]              Davis, 191–98.


One thought on “Things Done Changed

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s