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Labor Divided

Timothy Kerswell (timothykerswell [at] umac.mo) is an Assistant Professor of Government and Public Administration at the University of Macau. His research interests include labor, migration, imperialism, class structure, and globalization.
Zak Cope, Divided World Divided Class: Global Political Economy and the Stratification of Labour Under Capitalism (Montreal: Kersplebedeb, 2012), 387 pages, $20.00, paperback.
“Who are our enemies? Who are our friends? This is a question of the first importance for the revolution.” —Mao Zedong

In confronting global capitalism in the twenty-first century, the most fundamental question is the one Mao posed in 1926 in preparing for the struggle for national liberation and against feudalism and capitalism in China—the same question Zak Cope attempts to answer in Divided World Divided Class. The fundamental question is: What forces are materially opposed to global capitalism and seek a fundamental transformation of society, and what forces simply want a bigger share of the pie at the expense of the rest of the world’s people?

Cope argues that the seemingly pervasive racism and cultural chauvinism in the global North is not the result of false consciousness, misinformation, indoctrination, or ignorance (at least to the extent that much of the political left assumes). Rather, racism and cultural chauvinism are the expression of economic interests shared by a variety of social strata in the global North, all of whom have an interest in exploiting the global South. Central to this argument is the idea that the labor aristocracy—the relatively privileged global North working class—developed as a result of the exploitation of the global South, and therefore has a material interest in continuing this exploitation.

Cope deploys a rich documentation of the development of capitalism, explaining how various stages of imperialism have produced this group. He observes four distinct stages and identifies them with associated forms of chauvinisms. While books like J. Sakai’s Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat cover similar subject matter from the perspective of the United States, Divided World Divided Class is unique in giving a sketch of global imperialism that is often through the eyes of the imperialists themselves.

Cope illustrates the deep divide between workers in the global North and South making use of the concepts of capital export and unequal exchange, and he provides an estimate of the value of superprofits extracted from the global South. He also critiques theories, advanced even by some leftists, that make productivity the source of global wage differentials. His conclusion is that the “labor aristocracy” predominating among the global North’s workers are not exploited, but instead consume surplus value generated by workers in the global South; in fact, the Northern workers are not unaware of their resulting material interests. This argument is buttressed with historical case studies from Britain’s Labour Party, the U.S. Democratic Party, and Germany’s Social Democratic Party; based on these studies, Cope connects the material position of workers in the labor aristocracy to ideologies of empire, settlerism, and social fascism, respectively.

Also documented is the comprador nature of the capitalist classes based in the global South, who are willing partners in exporting surplus value. However, one weak point was the lack of attention to the more internationally mobile sections of the global South. This creamy layer of aspirational classes benefit both from the globalization of business and IT services and from skilled migration programs, allowing them to earn the same or similar super-wages as their imperialist country counterparts. This has a broader impact not only on a certain section of workers in the global South, but on the aspirations of those around them, while their remittances influence the households who receive them.

Divided World Divided Class is valuable to a wide audience, especially those unfamiliar with the history of imperialism, the unequal exchange paradigm, and its impact on class structure. It should be a wake-up call to advocates for the exploited classes of the global South as they attempt to develop a twenty-first-century praxis, and as they engage with advocates for workers in the global North—without denying activists in the global North a role in helping to change the world in favor of the exploited peoples of the world. It reaffirms, with an impressive breadth and depth of evidence and argument, that the Northern workers must help fight for democratic sovereignty in the global South—even if it appears to be against their material interests to do so.