There are two theories of how world revolution will emerge in the 21st Century.
First, that the Western proletariat will have to seize control of Western nations in order to spread socialism to the Global South (also known as the Third World). Second, that the Global South will first have to be emancipated to put social and economic pressure on Western nations which will intensify the class contradictions and lead to revolution in these nations.
I firmly believe that the second theory, also called Third Worldism, is the only way for global revolution to occur on a mass and continuing scale. There are four major reasons for this, in my opinion: super-exploitation will not be ended organically in the West, most productive property is now in the Global South, there is a far vaster and poorer proletariat in the Global South and because Western material standards are too high to enable socialist revolution.
What is super-exploitation, one might ask?
Super-exploitation refers to how profits that are made from production in Third World countries are magnified in Western markets when products are sold and exchanged in Euros or Dollars after being purchased and produced with labor power that is paid in weaker, non-Western currencies. When, for example, a pair of Nikes are made in a sweatshop in Cambodia, the workers are paid in weak Cambodian currency, using goods purchased in the same weak currency.
Upon arriving in a Western store, the price is magnified by the necessity for triple-profits: i.e., the owner of the factory in Cambodia and the owner of the store in the West, as well as the Nike corporation, are all trying to make profit off of this process.
This super-profit typically ends up mostly going to the store and to Nike. Some of these excess profits that don’t need to be accumulated to maintain a competitive edge are then used to pay relatively high wages (in terms of the global labor market) to Western workers who either market or sell the products, though they didn’t produce them.
Super-profits have been used by many Western companies to keep providing a higher material standard of living for the vast majority of the working class in First World countries. Through unions, another class of worker, also known as the “labor aristocrat,” has developed since the 1950s, primarily in the U.S. and Western Europe.
The labor aristocracy refers to those workers who have obtained jobs that pay far beyond what their labor-power produces, especially in petit bourgeois unions that make up most of the AFL-CIO in the United States. This sub-class of the working class was a threat to Western capital until the 1970s, because of how many people were in unions and because the constant pressure put on capital by continuously increasing wages led to a falling rate of profit for most companies — not only the U.S., but also the U.K., France, Spain and Germany, among others. This led to an intensification of the contradiction between private profits and social wages, which was (mostly) fixed by neoliberal reforms.
With the advent of open markets and neoliberalism in the 1970s, the corporations that were forced to pay the highest wages and had seen their profits decline (primarily manufacturing and commodity production corporations) now had free reign to move production to countries where unequal currency exchange and cheap labor-power seriously decreased labor expenditures while vastly increasing profits. Also, union-busting measures of the 1980s weakened the ability of the labor aristocracy to demand higher wages and benefits in most industries.
Ironically, although the massive manufacturing capital flight hurt Western workers engaged in these industries and led to a stagnation of Western wages, the fact that production was moved overseas meant that most commodities could be made far cheaper for the average First World worker. All the while their wages could still be maintained high enough to keep a comfortable material standard of living by the extraction of super-profits (the result of super-exploitation) to the West.
Through the maintenance of a relatively high material standard of living in the West, as well as through the collaboration between the ownership class and the labor aristocracy, most First World workers have become very passive and apolitical. Most of them have more to lose from global socialist revolution than they would gain, at least in terms of material conditions and availability of cheap consumer goods. This makes organic revolution incredibly rare and unrealistic in most people’s eyes in these Western nations.
Another key problem is that most productive property is now located in Third World countries. This means that most factories, sweatshops, “mills” and other means of production that generate most consumer goods are now in countries like Cambodia, Mexico, India, Indonesia and Thailand.
These are the things that generate tangible value, while most work in Western nations is involved with the distribution and management of value. With little actual means of production to seize in a revolution, the West would be condemned to a major decrease in the availability of goods and also have to pay far higher prices for these goods.
In terms of who is and who is not a member of the global proletariat, one must examine the key statement Karl Marx made about what a “proletarian” is: one who only has their labor-power to sell. If we are to go by this admittedly rigid but relevant definition, we will see that most workers in the West have many sources of potential profit, from stocks and bonds to expensive houses and even retirement funds and 401(k)s.
Since the majority of Western workers have enough accumulated property to sell it, they do not need to just sell their labor-power, but their safest option is to do that in order to maintain a constant supply of money. Meanwhile, the child laborers in Vietnam working 13 hours a day, the garment workers in Chinese sweatshops who work 10 hours a day and the rural African farmers who can barely grow enough food to live but still need to sell some of it after working entire days in the boiling sun are the true global proletariat.
One of the biggest sources of proletarian power comes from the slums of global mega-cities, where millions of people live in abject poverty and barely get by because of the “race to the bottom” (with wages) mentality that has taken hold in much of the Third World since the rise of neoliberalism. There is the greatest revolutionary potential within these proletarian communities, and in fact, many of the people in these regions are waging people’s wars or are engaged in some form of class struggle.
As I mentioned before, the biggest impediment to true class consciousness in Western nations is the abundance of wealth resulting from corporate super-profits being extracted from Third World nations. This is what allows wages to be kept (relatively) high in Western nations, and also makes cheap commodities plentiful and varied.
Because of the high material standard of living that most Western people experience, as well as the distractions of mass media, drugs, alcohol and plentiful supplies of food, most people don’t see any real point in engaging in class struggle or revolution. These people tend to have far more to lose than their chains.
They could lose their secure jobs, houses, TVs, air conditioning, vacations, iPods and fancy cars as well. This is not to say that there isn’t a First World proletariat. Blacks, Latino/as, Third World immigrants, First Nation peoples and poor whites are some of the groups that are largely part of the proletariat in Western countries.
However, these groups are very divided, socially controlled and politically disorganized at the moment and do not have the capacity to take on Western capitalist-imperialism without first developing a mass line.
If global revolution is to start anywhere, it will be in the Third World nations where there are the most impoverished and enraged proletarians with the most to gain from world revolution. If they are to succeed, they could socialize their wealth and production, put heavy tariffs on exports and nationalize foreign companies.
These actions would seriously increase the price of doing business in these countries and put economic pressure on consumers in the First World. Prices would go up and wages would go down, since super-profits would be seriously reduced and the amount of goods imported to Western nations would be cut back to maintain rising rates of profit.
Once the material standards of Western nations are severely threatened, the contradictions between the ownership class and working class will magnify and create the proper historical and material conditions for revolution in these nations. This will only happen, however, if the Third World is engulfed in revolution and the resources of those countries socialized.
Note: This article was originally published by Anti-Imperialism.com on Oct. 22, 2014.