A universal Struggle

“The logic of capital is universal, and so is resistance against it” by Nivedita Majumdar  via Jacobin

Socialism is in the air. It returned to the United States with the 2008 economic crisis, which made capitalism’s exploitative nature clear for a new generation, and unleashed struggles to challenge austerity and staggering income inequality. Activists in a host of movements helped create the environment in which a presidential candidate could talk about socialism on a national stage.

Though he might not be the most radical of figures, Bernie Sanders, who openly identifies as a socialist, is drawing tens of thousands to his campaign, upending everyone’s expectations.

It’s no surprise, then, that the idea of socialism also faces heavy counterattack — and not only from the Right. Within the Left itself, there is suspicion of an ideal many view as single-mindedly focused on economic issues and distant from other everyday sufferings, especially those of black and brown people.

Sanders’s specific evocation of Scandinavian social democracy has elicited criticisms that he endorses a kind of “Nordic exceptionalism” that is hostile to diversity. Such attacks on even the tamest varieties of socialism are nourished, especially on college campuses, by theoretical positions that see Marxism and many of its descendants as hopelessly Eurocentric.

The underlying assumption in these related lines of attack is that socialism, a supposedly Western (and white) ideology, while capable of addressing economic injustices, remains incapable of speaking to the lived experience of oppression and discrimination in the Global South, as well as oppressed groups elsewhere.

Is there any validity in this criticism?

The socialist ideal rests on the belief that working people all over the world suffer at the hands of capitalists and share a common interest in resisting exploitation. To call that a narrowly Western idea would be news to the more than 1,100 garment workers in Dhaka, Bangladesh who were killed in April 2013 when the Rana Plaza factory building in which they were working collapsed on them. The building had been declared a safety hazard, but their employers forced them in under threat of dismissal.

Two years after the factory’s collapse, Human Rights Watch conducted a detailed study of industry practices in Bangladesh. It found severe industry-wide retaliation against labor organizing — the one effective safeguard against hazardous work conditions and dismal wages. In order to stop union activities, factory owners routinely led vicious campaigns of intimidation and reprisals against workers, most of them women. Workers attempting to spearhead organizing drives not only lost their jobs, but were often blacklisted across the sector.

On the other side of the globe, in April 2015, Walmart closed five of its American stores, laying off 2,200 workers with only a few hours’ notice. While the stated reason for the closures was “plumbing repairs,” it was a retaliatory action against workers trying to organize for a living wage and better work conditions. Walmart, where workers recently went on hunger strike to protest poverty wages, is the United States’ largest employer of blacks, Hispanics, and women.

Is it Eurocentric to argue that Bangladeshi garment workers have as much at stake in fighting for their economic rights — for a decent livelihood and job security — as workers laid off at American Walmart stores? Certainly their Bangladeshi managers and factory owners don’t think so. They are no less worried about, and no less hostile to, the idea of workers organizing than are the managers of Walmart.

Capitalists everywhere see workers as a source of profit. In a system driven solely by the profit motive, there is little incentive to address workers’ needs beyond the dictates of the market. And the laws of the market, whatever the claims of neoclassical economics, are not fair or impartial. The superior economic and political might of capital ensures that the market’s laws are always fixed in its favor.

In both contexts, however, a socialist analysis points to another reality at work. Against all odds, workers invariably fight back.

But it’s always an agonizing battle, with capital using every weapon in its arsenal to crush workers’ resistance. The bosses’ crude methods include physical intimidation when they can get away with it, as in Bangladesh, and more polished gambits, like closing down entire stores, as in the United States. For labor, the result of the battle is always risky and unpredictable because capital retaliates against dissent at every step. But capital can never be fully at ease, either, because exploitation everywhere breeds resistance.

Socialism is not Eurocentric because the logic of capital is universal — and so is resistance against it. Cultural specificities may shape some details of capital’s operation differently in the United States and in Bangladesh, in France and in Nicaragua, but they do not alter its fundamental prioritization of profits over people. This is why, for more than a hundred years, many of the most powerful and sweeping social movements in the Global South have been inspired by the socialist ideal.

Whatever their differences, leaders as diverse as Mao Zedong in China, Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, Walter Rodney in Guyana, Chris Hani in South Africa, Amílcar Cabral in Guinea-Bissau, M. N. Roy in India, and Che Guevara across Latin America saw socialism as a theory and practice no less relevant to their experience than it was for European trade unionists. And yes, these revolutionaries also faced political opponents who dismissed their cause as a theory of the West, unsuited to Eastern realities: the leaders of the religious right, landed classes, and other economic elites.

On the fateful morning of the Rana Plaza collapse, workers were reluctant to go into the building. Large cracks had appeared on the walls of the factory, and inspectors had declared the building a hazard. But management forced them to start working. A devastated mother later recalled that her eighteen-year-old daughter, who perished in the collapse, had been threatened with loss of pay for the entire month if she chose not to work that day.

This is a specific kind of dehumanization, born of deprivation and powerlessness and familiar to workers in every part of the world, who are forced to choose between their livelihood and their safety. Socialism identifies the source of such dehumanization — private ownership and exploitation — and rejects it.

Capitalism does not merely oppress workers on the factory floor. It creates an entire culture in which the logic of oppression and competition become common sense. It turns people against each other and their own humanity. Like Franz Kafka’s character in The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa, people are alienated from their human selves, isolated from their fellow beings, and tortured by the loss of all that could be possible.

There is nothing Eurocentric in rejecting the destructive logic of capital and fighting for a better world to replace it. It is the genuinely universal and humane choice.