Why the proletariat?

rakesh bhandari djones at uclink.berkeley.edu
Tue Dec 5 23:17:14 MST 1995

Bruce McQane raises the problem of a bifurcation within the working class.
He argues that automation will hit the low-skilled workers the hardest,
leaving conservative status-conscious skilled technicians (much to read on
this topic: F Pollock, Ben Seligman, Andre Gorz, Jeremy Rifkin,

But how does it all look when we look at the problem from the perspective
of the international division of labor?  From this perspective, how
outdated is Marx's theory; in this context how does the new knowledge
worker appear?   

I think some of James Kenneth Galbraith's comments are helpful. He builds
on a 1971 finding by William Branson and Helen Junz: "...one might say that
the United States does not export mass produced physical capital-intensive
goods; it exports custom-made, human capital-intensive goods."  

In his non-technical explanation of the process, Galbraith argued:

"...there is also the way that great individual fortunes are made, the way
of creating seemingly instant wealth: by capitalizing on a transient
advantage, by creating an indispensable product and reaping the surplus
other are willing to pay--so long as the monopoly holds--in order to own

"This leads in a straightforward direction.  The US position in the global
economy and its standard of living have depended on its ability to continue
substantially to dominate world production of *capital goods*, of the
machinery and equipment that flow into the industrial process.  Further,
that ability depends on its capacity to generate and sustain the expansion
of an investment goods-producing sector serving a world market.

"Why capital goods? Because capital goods embdoy design, and unique design
is the essence of scarcity value.  The machinery and equipment used in the
producito of goods and services--and not the final act of production
itself--are what determine which technologies, which systems, become the
basis of consumer life in the industrial world.  For this reason, technical
superiority in capital goods is the quintessence of advanced development,
the ultimate rent-yielding activity.   Superiority here is the one thing
that cannot be emulated by a developing or industrializing nation or even
second-rate industrial power, nor can it be undercut by low-wage
competition.  It is therefore the one thing that guarantees an advanced
nation a high standard of living."  p. 17 of Balancing Acts: Technology,
Finance and the American Future. Basic Books, 1989.  

Now it would seem that it is in Galbraith's rent-yielding sectors that we
would find Bruce's conservative, status-conscious technicians, and, if the
US is to find a comparative advantage in such production (as recently
argued by Adrian Wood),  it does seem very probable that much of the US
proletariat will indeed become unwanted even as an industrial reserve army
of labor, perhaps to be eliminated in a barbaric racial utopia.  

No matter how much underemployment results, US capital shifts into these
advanced sectors  because they alone are the recepients of surplus profits,
especially important if there is a decline of the average profit rate on
capital-in-general.  As Grossmann and Mandel argued, surplus profits are
the driving force of late capitalism. 

In his own way, I think this is what Robert Reich is getting at when he
describes the transformation of the US economy as one "from high volume to
high value".  Mass production is of course high volume but not the source
of extra surplus value, as Galbraith argued above; so once again capital
achieves the infamy of abstraction (high value) at the expense of gross
production and consumption (high volume).  

And high value is embodied in advanced capital goods, according to James
Galbraith.  And to the extent there is most probably a redistribution of
global surplus value to the advantage of these sectors, those sci-tech
workers may well  derive some of it, fortifying their conservatism.  

 However, Taylorism has not been replaced by automated factories; Taylorism
 has only been redeployed to where it can become bloody Taylorism as
Lipietz has put it through the prolongation and intensification of labor. 
This is why I referred to the work of Swasti Mitter whose most recent work
on global production systems I have not yet read.   As exporters of
sophisticated capital goods, these advanced firms  benefit from the maximal
global extraction of surplus value as this underwrites the quicker
turn-over of fixed capital and facilitates investment in the better vintage
equipment which US companies are attempting to bring onto the market and

So it is does seem that there has been a fragmentation of the working
class, between some of the 'aristocratic' workers in the advanced capital
good sectors and the rest of the global proletariat--superfluous at home
and fragments of it abroad super-exploited.  I do not think capitalism has
liberated itself from the alienating labor process which Marx did not
describe historically but theorized as inherent in capital's development.
Nor do I disagree that the production of the surplus population has gone
qualitatively beyond Marx's analysis.  However,  I think the Druckers are
wrong, limiting themselves to a description of the nature of the skilled or
scientific work carried out in advanced capital goods sectors, located in
the imperialist countries, from which they generalize their theories of
capitalism as such.  

And, to the extent that consumer good production has relocated back to the
imperialist countries (it seems largely in rural areas or on the
peripheries of the metropolitan areas), it seems that it has revived
traditional forms of exploitation, hardly generative of only
status-conscious workers. 

Moreover, I must leave Bruce's scenario of automatic cargo to the high-tech
cult and insist that transporation workers have not been eliminated by
automation. It is of course easier to use high technology for the movement
of information along a metaphoric highway than move actual material goods
through automated tunnels.


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