The Roots of Conservatism

— Sebastian Lamb

CHARLIE POST’S TWO-PART ARTICLE “The Myth of the Labor Aristocracy” (Against the Current 123-124, 7/8 and 9/10, 2006) is a welcome effort to address crucial questions that face supporters of any kind of radical working-class politics (perhaps nowhere more so than in imperialist North America — the United States and the Canadian state). While agreeing with the bulk of his analysis, I think that Post’s explanation of the material basis of working-class conservatism, relying largely on what Bob Brenner and Johanna Brenner once wrote, is too narrow and too centered on labor market competition.

In addition to demolishing “labor aristocracy” theories, Post tackles these key questions: “How do we explain the fact that most workers, most of the time, do not act on their potential power? Why do workers embrace reformist politics — support for bureaucratic unionism (reliance on the grievance procedure, routine collective bargaining) and Democratic party electoral politics — or worse, reactionary politics in the forms of racism, sexism, homophobia, nativism, militarism?” (36)

At the center of Post’s argument is this claim: “The key to understanding working class reformism (and conservatism) is the necessarily episodic nature of working class struggle and organization. The necessary condition for the development of class consciousness is the self-activity and self-organization of the workers themselves. It is the experience of mass, collective and successful struggles against capital and its state in the work place and the community that opens layers of workers to radical and revolutionary political ideas.” (36)

I am in fundamental agreement with Post’s critique of labor aristocracy theory. I think, however, that we should call this an ideology rather than a myth. While myths have no basis in reality, the “labor aristocracy” is a weak explanation of the undeniable social realities of working-class conservatism and reformism. I also agree with Post’s discussion of reformism. My questions arise around the issue of working-class conservatism.

Post is right to argue for a historical materialist explanation of outright support for the existing social order among workers.  All too often leftists fall back on what my first socialist mentor called the “garbage can” notion of workers’ consciousness to explain such conservatism: the corporate media, religious institutions or other ruling-class forces simply pour their ideas into workers’ heads, just as one might put one’s foot on a pedal, flip open a garbage can, and pour in the garbage.

Instead of taking an elitist approach that doesn’t pay attention to what workers are actually doing and which assumes that workers are passive empty vessels, Post argues that the “objective, structural position of workers under capitalism provides the basis for collective, class radicalism and individualist, sectoralist and reactionary politics.” (38)

As he tells readers, his analysis is indebted to a 1981 article in the first series of Against the Current by Johanna Brenner and Robert Brenner. They argue:
It appears possible for the stronger sections of the working class to defend their positions by organizing on the basis of already existing ties against weaker, less- organized sections. They can take advantage of their positions as Americans over and against foreigners, as whites over and against blacks, as men over and against women, as employed over and against unemployed, etc. In so doing, working people may act initially only out of what they perceive to be their most immediate self-interest. But over time they inevitably feel the pressure to make sense of these actions and they adopt ideas which can make their actions reasonable and coherent. These ideas are, of course, the ideas of the right. (38)

Fair enough, but I believe more is involved than workers being, as Brenner and Brenner write and Post quotes, “individual sellers of labor power in competition with each other over jobs, promotions, etc.” as well as “collective producer.” (38) Workers in reality are individual sellers of labor power who are divided by forms of oppression that are cannot be reduced to how labor markets are organized: gender, racial, sexual and national oppression.

For this reason, it is inadequate to say that the material basis of working-class conservatism is competition among individual sellers of labor power. Rather, its socio-material basis is competition among workers (as sellers of labor power, but also as people who need quality housing, education and other often-scarce services), and simultaneously the forms of oppression that cut through society, placing people in privileged and oppressed groups as well as into classes.  Workers’ powerlessness is also part of the socio-material basis of working-class conservatism.

Belonging to a privileged layer in society (for example, those who are socially recognized as male, white and/or straight in a patriarchal, racist, heterosexist capitalist society) is another reason why most workers are, to use Post’s phrase, “open to the appeals of politics that pit them against other workers — especially workers in a weaker social position.” (38)

As Post says, such politics are ultimately self-defeating for members of privileged groups within the working class.

Because reactionary ideas have a material basis in social relations of oppression (especially in the relative privileges of dominant groups), the intensification of oppression in society often fuels the growth of right-wing ideas among workers who experience some privilege. In the United States, consider the impact of the rollback of affirmative action, the slashing of welfare, the increased criminalization and incarceration of people of color, attacks on women’s reproductive freedom, and bans on same-gender marriage. All this complements the individualism that simultaneously arises out of being sellers of labor-power.

There are also other aspects of workers’ social existence that serve as a material basis for conservatism. Relative privilege can be a fertile ground for conservative politics (although there is nothing inevitable about this, as the overrepresentation of skilled white male workers in the radical wing of European socialist movements of the early 20th century should remind us), but so too can powerlessness.

People who have little control over their lives on or off the job are vulnerable to all sorts of conservative responses to their condition, including consumerism and religions that defend the status quo.

Workers have enormous potential power when we act collectively, but when working-class movements are weak it’s the experience of powerlessness that usually shapes lives and politics.

Post’s critique of the ideology of labor aristocracy theory is valuable, and his explanation of the roots of reformism is too. Working-class conservatism has a socio-material basis, as Post argues, but I think that it is a more multi-faceted one than he suggests.

ATC 126, January-February 2007