Proletarian: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, August 2022

I sat at Nati’s Restaurant in Ocean Beach for a late brunch on a Sunday afternoon. It was 1986. I was on my third Negra Modelo when the waitress served up my heaping plate of Machaca con Huevos with dolloped sour cream, refried beans, Spanish rice, escabeche, pico de gallo, and a stack of corn tortillas. I had high tolerances in those days so I wasn’t even buzzed as I dripped Tapatío hot sauce on my aromatic food.

I had a few drinking routines when I was gainfully employed and living in San Diego. Weekdays after working as a typesetter I bought 16-oz cans of Schlitz malt liquor and drank in the privacy my Pacific Beach apartment. I occasionally went to shows on Friday and Saturday nights. Whether at bars like the Casbah or Spirit Club, or larger venues like the Pacific Palisades or Adams Avenue Theater, I drank my crap malt liquor before the show in my parked car. I didn’t want to be buying expensive, watered-down drinks at some punk dive bar. I’d do a little day drinking some Saturdays and Sundays starting at Nati’s before hitting the Pacific Shore Lounge, then the Beachcomber in Mission Beach and ending up at the West End or the Silver Fox in Pacific Beach at night. The idea was cheap drinks and happy hours, and if I got too wasted by the time I got round to Pacific Beach I could always park my car and walk home.

As usual Nati’s was full, with a line out the door. I’d just started eating when the deuce next to me opened up and Mark Johnson sat down. Mark was 40, a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party who ran the RCP’s youth wing, the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade (RCYB). Mark and the RCYB were hoping to recruit “rebellious youth” into the party’s ranks, with the RCYB recently targeting punks. I was a punk and a left anarchist transitioning into Marxism at the time, known for my broadside Point-Blank and regularly publishing the monthly punk zine San Diego’s Daily Impulse. But I was older than the average punk, though not as old as Mark. We’d run into each other at various local punk shows and political events, among them the RCP’s brief-lived No Business As Usual front organization. And he’d tabled at my 1984 Balboa Park Anarchy Picnic and my 1985 Mariner’s Point Hardcore Picnic. Ours was not a friendly rivalry but an open political antagonism. When the Hardcore Picnic turned into a full-blown riot provoked by the SDPD Mark at first said I was responsible for the mayhem, then proceeded to fundraise on behalf of those arrested. Since I’d sponsored the picnic, I got the lawyer and organized the successful legal defense. So when I hit him up for that money to help with our expenses he handed it over, minus a not insignificant “service charge.”

“No surprise finding your petty bourgeois utopian anarchist ass here in OB’s remnant hippie-dippie countercultural enclave,” he said after ordering.

“This from the man whose shitty vanguard party had its vulgar Leninist origins in the ‘60s Bay Area,” I replied between mouthfuls. “And I’m working class. A prole. A bonafide wage slave. I own nothing but my labor.”

“It takes more than exchanging your labor power for wages to call yourself working class.” Mark switched into pure Maoist mode. “Or claiming you own no other means of production. You gotta have the correct class background, correct class aspirations, and correct class stance to qualify as a proletarian.”

I knew the basics of Marxist class analysis though not its nuances, so I kept quiet. I paid for my meal as Mark’s Carne Asada con Huevos arrived and I left without another word. I’d been bested by a Mao cultist so the exchange stayed with me.

According to Marx, class is a social relationship between the workers and those who own the means of production and extract surplus value from their labor, the bourgeoisie. Also called the capitalist class, it rules society but it’s a small social group compared to the much larger working class. Anyone who sells their labor for wages is a worker, but in Marx’s day there were other social classes in the mix. There were vestigial classes from the waning feudal social order—various formations of aristocracy and peasantry. And in the newly emerging capitalist social order there was the small-holding petit bourgeoisie and the lumpenproletariat criminal underclass. Finally, there were déclassé elements like the intelligentsia.  But for Marx two trends in this schema were considered paramount; that the ever-expanding working class was transforming into an ever more powerful industrial proletariat thanks to economic industrialization, and that eventually all of society would polarize into just two contending social classes—the proletariat versus the bourgeoisie—that would engage in open class warfare.

Now I’ve always worked, exchanging my labor for wages, when I wasn’t actively avoiding work. The abolition of work has always been a focus of mine. Thanks in part to a family inheritance, I’m now comfortably retired from wage labor.

My mother was from a Polish middle class family and my father from minor Polish aristocracy. They raised me middle class in a bourgeois European cultural sense. As a refugee from the second World War, dad joined the US Army. He became a US citizen, qualified for GI benefits, got a college degree, and bought a house. He moved from blue collar to white collar, ultimately becoming an upper management Federal government civil servant and elevating his family into the middle class.

I have always stood with the working class and its revolutionary aspirations, but now like any respectable Marxist I’m for the proletariat abolishing itself as a class through its self-emancipation. Whether I’m truly working class is complicated.

One thing I’m not is a Maoist who believes that “proletarian consciousness” is some kind of Leftist panacea. Somewhat akin to the class consciousness of E.P. Thompson and György Lukács—in which the subjective proletarian mindset arises out of protracted historical class struggles—proletarian consciousness is more likely to result from prolonged criticism/self-criticism party “struggle sessions.” And this bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the “conversion experience” of various religions. Acquiring proletarian consciousness is more important, and supersedes, all other markers of class—class background, class reality, class aspiration, and class stance—in the Maoist scheme of things. During the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, student Red Guards vied to become “more proletarian than thou,” summarily dismissing and denouncing each other, even industrial workers as not sufficiently proletarian. Pitched street battles were fought and lives lost over who did or did not have the correct proletarian consciousness.

I consider myself vaguely middle class nowadays, given how uneven my proletarian qualifications are. There’s all sorts of ways classical Marxist class analysis has been muddied by late stage capitalism. This ranges from the insignificant difference-without-a-distinction between wage labor and salaried labor to the more consequential growth of the white collar work that shades into the substantial managerial strata required by the state and corporate capitalism. Also needing a mention is the use of corporate stock ownership to differentiate between ownership versus control of the means of production. Then there’s the reality that individuals can occupy multiple social classes either serially or contiguously, personally identify with numerous classes, have family ties in different social classes, or take on momentary leadership roles that push class boundaries. Finally, there are the realities of post-Fordism; flexible production using flexible machines or systems and a flexible workforce, high-tech economies of scope, massive economic inequalities, decline of unions and collective bargaining, all within a post-welfare state and vast concentrations of speculative finance capital.

I’ve been discussing how to define the working class and what makes one proletariat as I examine my own sense of class. My intention is to eventually develop a comprehensive analysis of class along several lines of inquiry threaded through the usual, somewhat eclectic subjects I explore monthly. First, how is the concept of the working class relevant to the Left and society today and can the proletariat be the basis for constructing a genuine liberatory socialist society? Second, is it feasible for a relational class identity to be combined with the particularist/essentialist identity politics of race, ethnoculture, sex, and gender into a multifaceted socialist movement? Third, what is to be done with the concept of class under socialism, specifically with regard to notions of the nomenklatura (Michael Voslenski), the “New Class” (Milovan Đilas), and bureaucratic collectivism (Max Shachtman)? Fourth, can the concept and functionality of the working class be superseded by diffuse left-leaning populist movements (eg. Global Justice Movement, Occupy Wall Street)? Fifth, can the concept and functionality of the capitalist ruling class be replaced by notions of “globalist elites” (eg, European Union, United Nations)? Finally, is it time to question the working class as either obsolete (André Gorz) or a blind alley (Krisis Group) and how might we engage in struggle without classes?

I’m also interested in what “immaterial labor” and a “postindustrial society” mean? Is there such a thing as the precariat, a social class formed by individuals with no job security or no prospect for regular employment, and how does that differ from the lumpenproletariat? My proletarian self-education continues.

Buy my books here.

Chalkboard #1: Defining Capitalism

The chalkboard series is where I think out loud.

Private property is a key concept under capitalism, meaning the personal ownership of productive property like land, means of production such as facilities, tools, and machinery, and of course capital in all forms. Individuals who own private property are called capitalists, and collectively they are known as the capitalist class. An individual who owns nothing except his or her labor and is forced to sell that labor—usually for a wage—in order to survive is a worker. Collectively, workers are a part of the working class. Capitalists and workers are continuously engaged in a class struggle for social power, during which the working class undergoes recurring processes of composition, decomposition, and recomposition in which class consciousness plays a crucial role in the “class in itself” becoming a “class for itself.” Commodities, markets, competition, and monopolies are also key concepts under capitalism, which requires that capitalist individuals and businesses return a profit in order to survive. Profit can be realized through simple commercial exchange, through a more complex exploitation of wage labor for surplus value which is valorized as capital, or through the forced appropriation of labor and resources via colonialism and imperialism. The entire system of commodity production and distribution is called the capitalist mode of production.

Capitalism as a world system of capital accumulation began in the Mediterranean with the Venetian/Genoese cycle from 1250 to 1510. It dovetailed into the Dutch (Antwerp/Amsterdam) accumulation cycle from 1500 to 1733, which fed into the British cycle from 1733 to 1896, and which in turn overlapped the American cycle from 1865 to 1973. Each cycle went through three interrelated phases in which profit was extracted first from commerce, then from production, and finally from finance. The capitalist world system became truly global during the Dutch cycle, and came into its own as a mode of production with the development of industrial capitalism during the British cycle. Finance capitalism is capitalism in decline, and the American cycle entered its finance phase in 1973.

Finally, crisis is crucial to understanding how capitalism functions, yet Karl Marx never worked out a completed theory of capitalist crisis. Of the contending crisis theories (underconsumption, profit squeeze, falling rate of profit, disproportionality), my money is on the falling rate of profit to account for why capitalism periodically experiences economic and social crises. No determination yet as to whether the crisis in the American cycle marks a geographic shift in the capitalist world system under a new cycle, or some final crisis of world capitalism.