Understanding and Changing: A discussion with Zak Cope, author of ‘Divided World, Divided Class,’ on the stratification of labour under global capitalism

Zak Cope is the author of Divided World Divided Class: Global Political Economy and the Stratification of Labour Under Capitalism, which was just published this past August by Kersplebedeb Press as part of their recently launched Kalikot series. The book “charts the history of the ‘labour aristocracy’ in the capitalist world system, from its roots in colonialism to its birth and eventual maturation into a full-fledged middle class in the age of imperialism. It argues that pervasive national, racial and cultural chauvinism in the core capitalist countries is not primarily attributable to ‘false class consciousness’, ideological indoctrination or ignorance as much left and liberal thinking assumes. Rather, these and related forms of bigotry are concentrated expressions of the major social strata of the core capitalist nations’ shared economic interest in the exploitation and repression of dependent nations.

 I recently got the chance to interview Dr Cope about the project.

Nikolai Brown for Anti-Imperialism.com: Greetings and thank you for the interview.

Dr. Zak Cope: It’s a pleasure! Thank you for your interest.

NB: I first want to ask you about the book itself. Who did you write it for and why; and what can someone who is perhaps just discovering the subject expect to find out by reading your book?

I think that the ideas discussed in the book are accessible and of great interest to anyone concerned with international relations, poverty and inequality. As well as scholars and students researching in the fields of political economy, development studies, and the history of labour and socialist movements, I expect the book to have some appeal amongst teachers, lecturers, civil servants, social workers, counsellors, professional politicians, anti-capitalist, anti-racist and national liberation activists, and anyone at all interested in understanding and changing the grossly unequal and inhumane world we live in. Above all, I hope the book will have some appeal to English-speaking people in the developing countries and oppressed people in the developed countries. Ideally, the book will appeal to at least some working people in the latter, too.

I think that people will find out from the book about three things that are not often highlighted. First, that the depredations of colonialism and slavery provided not only the historical impetus for the rise of capitalism, and for the birth of the working class as such, but also a crucial source of food, employment opportunities and land for metropolitan labour. Second, the book highlights a historical shift whereby metropolitan labour first depends upon colonial labour for its existence, then, later, increasingly for its sustenance, and finally, now, upon neo-colonial labour for its entire lifestyle. Third, the book shows that the tasks facing workers in the developed countries are not those facing the workers of the underdeveloped countries. That fact may seem obvious, but the book goes further and shows that there is a deeply rooted contradiction between the aims and interests of the respective workforces, as demonstrated by metropolitan labour’s active engagement in colonial and neo-colonial politics.

NB: What was your initial motivation for writing this book? How did you stumble across the topic and what drove your research in this direction?

My initial motivations for writing the book were threefold. Firstly, I wanted to examine why workers in the rich countries seemed to have given up on socialism. As Donald Sassoon’s magisterial One Hundred Years of Socialism shows, the working class of the imperialist countries has for a century and more struggled to regulate and socialise capitalism, not replace it. If it is true that capitalism is an inherently exploitative and oppressive socioeconomic system how is it that workers in the rich countries have been so content to put up with it? Moreover, how is it that workers in the developed capitalist countries are so far from having, as Marx wrote, “nothing to lose but their chains”? My second motivation, then, was to counter those ideologies on the left which seek to explain these phenomena (that is, metropolitan working class conservatism and embourgeoisement). So, for much of the left, it is its militancy, its productivity or a combination of both, that explains metropolitan labour’s relative affluence. Paradoxically, however, the Western left has felt the need to explain working class conservatism by something other than this. Thus it has tried to excuse metropolitan labour’s conservative, complacent and fully reactionary politics with reference to its having been brainwashed or divaricated from its revolutionary tasks by all-powerful ideological state apparatuses (attempts to excuse it with reference to job insecurity and “precarity” notwithstanding). In short, for much of what passes for the left, it is “false class consciousness” that has led the Western working class to prefer social democracy, social partnership, and blatant national chauvinism (all these predicated on a political alliance with the capitalist class and its representatives) to socialism. Finally, and most fundamentally, the book was motivated by a desire to reinvigorate an internationalist perspective which had been sorely neglected by a Marxism deeply marked by a pernicious Eurocentrism. In that sense, the book was motivated by wholehearted opposition to colonialism and imperialism, which provide the real underpinnings of embourgeoisement, reformism, and racism alike.

The book is a continuation of my prior research into what I call the political economy of bigotry. My first book, Dimensions of Prejudice (Peter Lang, 2008) showed that unreasonable dogmatic beliefs are expressions of socially structured patterns of prejudice. I argued that beliefs about religion, gender, “race” and culture are not simply the product of personal ignorance or miseducation, but the ideological by-product of various types of group relation (patriarchy, white supremacy, capitalism). The new book substantiates the older analysis by showing that the division between the rich and poor countries brought about by colonialism and imperialism is today the most fundamental “group relation” shaping peoples’ worldviews.

Fanciful ideas about toiling masses chomping at the bit for revolutionary change only to be misled by a corrupt union and/or political leadership or befuddled by capitalist propaganda are routinely trotted out by the Western left. Yet the “one working class” approach ignores both the political and historical facts of labour conservatism and the (parallel) economic facts of embourgeoisement. In short, it ignores the historical and contemporary inequalities created by colonialism and imperialism.

NB: How important do you think this question of understanding the role and history of the ‘labour aristocracy’ for radical, emancipatory, or socialist movements today? What kinds of errors do you see resulting from a failure to grasp this social reality?

There are several problems associated with the failure to understand how imperialism affects the global class structure. First, workers in the Third World must be careful when heeding the political or ideological leadership of First World organisations professing to help them overthrow capitalism. Labour and its representatives in the developing countries need to examine closely the deeply embedded character of the First World left in each and every one of its manifestations, so that they can better formulate their own independent strategies. Second, narrow appeals to self-interest on the part of the workers of the imperialist countries have historically tended only to result in trade unionist reformism and further descent into national chauvinism. Insofar as metropolitan labour’s demands for higher wages, jobs monopolies and industrial protectionism are met, they are met at the expense of workers and farmers in the Third World and serve only to make a subsection of the international workforce dependent upon imperialism. Third, understanding how the “labour aristocracy” is formed means understanding imperialism, and conversely. It is not a coincidence that those organisations which do not understand the embourgeoisement of labour play down the significance of imperialism. Even socialist organisations nominally opposed to imperialism very often miss their target. So, a handful of socialist organisations might prioritise peace work and opposition to militarism, equating imperialism with the exercise of brute force against one or more sovereign nations. Their foil may be a particular administration or its foreign policy. It may even be the military-industrial complex. Or, imperialism might be opposed as supposedly benefitting only a handful of ultra-rich bankers and foreign investors (even, at a stretch, a handful of very well-paid union bureaucrats and highly skilled professionals). In this case, only the richest 1-5% of society is seen as upholding the rule of monopoly capital. The multi-faceted approach articulated in my book, by contrast, is to treat imperialism as essentially involving the transfer of surplus value from one country to another and an imperialist country as a net importer of surplus value. Only this approach allows us to really gauge the size and boundaries of the labour aristocracy and, hence, the concrete possibilities of mounting effective opposition to capitalism and its military, legal, financial and political bulwarks.

NB: What consequences does such an accurate understanding of the division of labour under capitalism imply for radical and revolutionary praxis both in core, semi-peripheral, and peripheral economies?

In the developed countries, an accurate understanding of the division of labour under capitalism must impact on the aims, strategies and tactics of movements committed to genuine social progress, both globally and domestically. Hopefully the analysis in the book largely speaks for itself with regard to political conclusions, especially the possibilities of organising opposition to capitalism in the core nations. I don’t wish to sound a despondent note with regard to what workers in the imperialist countries ought to do, but what must be avoided are self-defeating prognostication and moralistic injunction without regard to social conditions. In the so-called “developing” countries, the main foci for what you call “radical and revolutionary praxis” have been clear for some time. What has not been so clear, I think, is the extent to which opponents of imperialism must necessarily confront the First World as a whole, and not just its very richest and most powerful members.

NB: Over the last few years, there seems to have been a resurgence in discourse on the stratification of labour. Within this context, what do you hope this book accomplishes?

I think you’re right that these debates are really coming to the fore again, in no small part due to the work of groups like your own. I hope that the book can be useful as providing a battery of arguments for people concerned to challenge the prevailing First Worldism of the left and, hence, better praxis on its part. I hope, also, that the book stimulates much needed research into imperialism and value transfer. There are several areas of research barely touched on in the book which must be integrated into any full analysis of how imperialism works. For example, how does global value transfer as described in the book relate to the systematic undervaluation of Third World currencies in terms of purchasing power parity? How, in turn, does this relate to “petrodollar warfare” (whereby the denomination of oil sales in US dollars forces countries to maintain large dollar reserves, thus creating a consistent demand for dollars and upwards pressure on the dollar’s value, regardless of economic conditions in the United States)? What have been the consequences of the current recession in relation to imperialism and what role has imperialism played in precipitating the recession? What alternative methods and means of calculating the transfer of value from the countries of the global South to the imperialist countries are there? My book should be considered a work in progress, in all of these regards.

NB: I know you don’t see a lot of potential in the way of progressive or revolutionary mass struggle in imperialist countries. However, I do wonder what kind of effect a wider, more systematic, and watertight discussion on global political economy occurring within or on the margins of imperialist economies may have on wider movements against imperialism. What potential significance do you see in wider discussions which expose these issues, even if for now this is mainly occurring among “English-speaking people in the developing countries” and “oppressed people in the developed countries?” In other words, do you think if discussions on how class is actually construed gain more traction, even among people who are generally themselves alienated from the day to day struggles of the world’s exploited majority, a more correct understanding of class can be imparted onto these struggles by way of osmosis? If enough people begin bringing up these issues in a critical way, even in the language of imperialism (i.e., English, French, Spanish, etc), at some point will nominally revolutionary or Marxist groups in the Third World, some of them engaged in armed struggles against neo-colonial states, ‘get it?’ Or, given wider engagement in the issues on the part of a broader section of the English-speaking left, may this embolden those in the periphery who already do ‘get it’ to take a more clear stand? Otherwise, what do you think the possible significance of a wider discussion of these issues among your main target audience may be? Finally, how does Marxism fit into your analysis? Why did you approach the topic from a Marxian perspective, and what do you think of its broader significance in respect to ideological trends like Anarchism or Radical Islam?

Firstly, it’s worth mentioning that these ideas about the global class structure are not as foreign to Third World revolutionaries as some might assume. Kwame Nkrumah, M. N. Roy, Sultan Galyev, Julius Nyerere and Che Guevara are just a few revolutionaries from peripheral nations who at one time or another espoused the idea that the workers of the core nations were receiving a portion of the surplus value extorted from their countries. (This does not imply endorsement of any of these men’s political lines, incidentally). Today, there are positive signs that trade union movements in the global South are becoming much more conscious of the conservative role played by Northern-dominated labour organisations and parties. In that sense, I agree that sound studies of class emanating from the developed nations can serve to strengthen and embolden workers and activists in the periphery determined to once and for all delink from imperialism, including its “left” standard bearers.

More generally, I think it vitally important that these issues be discussed with a view to clarifying the potentials inherent in various social struggles, wherever they might be happening. What, for example, must we conclude about the struggle to redistribute the wealth of the top 1% of the US population, when almost 1 in 10 of the remaining 99% are millionaires and the rest are in the top 10-15% of the world by income? What do we say about those groups on the left seeking to organise grassroots opposition to neoliberalism, even though some of the most popular anti-neoliberal parties are fascist? The same thing goes for the anti-globalisation movement, of course. The question people concerned with global inequality, including inequality within the working class, ask is: what does redistribution of wealth derived from imperialism amount to, politically speaking? What good does socialising imperialism do? If we can show just how much of the wealth of First World countries is predicated on superexploitation, we get a truer picture of the social, economic and political underpinnings of current realities.

Marxism teaches that consciousness does not determine life but, rather, life determines consciousness. This means that ideas about the basic inhumanity of large groups of people, our right to treat them with complete and utter disdain, do not simply drop from the clear blue sky. They are the product of certain conditions of life, primarily, the way in which societies wherein such ideas predominate organise their production. For several hundred years, production in the core nations has been organised on a capitalist basis, for which Marxism has provided the most in-depth and scientific critique. Nowadays, capitalist production has become truly global, but Marxism has largely failed to keep in step with it. In my view, this is mainly due to the phenomenon articulated in the book, namely embourgeoisement occasioned by a specifically imperialist capitalism. Yet by utilising the concepts (particularly value theory) and methods (dialectical materialism) developed by Marxism we can get to the roots of the matter, certainly much more so than were we to rely on religious and quasi-religious doctrines like Islam and anarchism to inform ourselves.

NB: Given how controversial these views are, how has reception been amongst academia and the wider ‘left?’

If ideas like those in the book have any currency anywhere, I would say that that it is within academia, and at the outer margins of the left. In general, however, both academia and the left are completely hostile to the ideas found in the book. To a great many socialists the working class has become a sacred cow. Any and all manifestations of chauvinism by metropolitan workers must immediately, and quite frantically, be explained away as “not their fault”. It is at least tacitly assumed that the workers of the developed countries are incapable of acting in their own rational self-interest. At all costs, it must never be admitted by the left in the developed countries that the economic struggles of the Western working class can, in the last instance, only be successful at the expense of the exploited nations. Persons and groups with perspectives like mine are criticised as severing the organic connection between struggles in the Third World and those in the imperialist countries. This is so even when it is impossible to see any link between, say, the struggle for Palestinian statehood and the struggles of UK workers for higher wages or a monopoly on jobs vis-à-vis foreign labour. It is so even when the workers themselves show no apparent sympathy, and even outright hostility, towards national liberation struggles at home and abroad.

Unfortunately, hitherto there has not really been a sufficiently watertight and rigorous analysis of labour stratification in the capitalist world economy. That fact has facilitated academic marginalisation of analyses like my own, but does not explain it entirely. The fact is, as I say in my book, whether it is for reasons of institutional self-preservation, well-intentioned “false cosmopolitanism” or avowedly conservative proclivities, by presenting the bifurcation of the world workforce into rich and poor as the natural and inevitable outcome of national differences in economic efficiency, educational attainment and cultural norms, the Western left, including in academia, effectively promulgates a mollifying, but self-serving, ideology that obscures the imperialist structures underlying international political economy. This must be faced up to.

With all that said, I am delighted that the book has been picked up by Kersplebedeb Press as part of its Kalikot book series. Kersplebedeb publishes and distributes a wide range of very useful work.

NB: Are there any other projects or books you are working on which we should be on the look out for? What’s next?

At the minute, I am preparing a couple of essays for publication. Hopefully, at least one will see the light of day this year. Otherwise, I have material on the history of the German labour movement that I may try to work up into a book. I also plan to make a more thorough study of political and economic conditions in Ireland today. I would encourage all your readers to keep up their study and add further substance to the analysis developed in the book.