“Difference, Exploitation &
Emancipation of the Global Working Class:
Ruy Mauro Marini, Walter Rodney and Andaiye in Dialogue”
By Amanda Latimer, in Decolonizing Then and Now (forthcoming in 2023)
Amanda Latimer, together with Jaime Osorio, is the winner of the Paul M. Baran – Paul M. Sweezy Memorial Award for her work as coeditor of the new and updated edition of Ruy Mauro Marini’s foundational essay, The Dialectics of Dependency — just published by Monthly Review Press.
For more than two generations, the disunity of the global working class has been one of the key factors behind the weakening of class-based politics. While in the neoliberal period, the structural roots of disunity (e.g., multiple tiers of rights, pay and security due to outsourcing) intersect, at times, with vectors of oppression based on gender, race, ethnicity, and national boundaries, the embedding and leveraging of divisions within the working class has been central to strategies of capital accumulation in all moments of imperialism. In the mid-20th century, anti-colonial and -imperialist thinkers in the Americas worked to build movements of working peoples that moved deliberately across the lines that had been surgically implemented in colonial divide and rule policies. In their theoretical work, they connected these divisions to the exploitation and superexploitation of workers, and insisted that these forms of exploitation were not deviations from the way capitalism normally develops, but rather core features of the world economy. In this discussion, the periphery spoke back to the core, telling us something about the development and underdevelopment of our world from a different, particular angle.
However, the political projects stemming from their writing did not leave the particular behind. Decolonial projects in this period also begin to recover from the subjective damage left in the wake of colonial denial of self, of full life cycles, family and collective life outside the requirements of capital, and giving what was recovered robust, life-giving political expression. These projects did not simply dwell on a race-first, class-first or even gender-first line of thought which so appeals today. What some might call “identity politics” today was not a dead end for class-based projects of liberation; it was a necessary and generative start to the practice of solidarity and unity. While these experiments all ended in some form of defeat, the effort to give such insights political form led to the some of the most exciting and innovative projects and ways of organizing of the period.
From where I write in the global north, the connections between decolonizing projects today (largely limited to academic settings, and to questions of the equitable representation of racialized and gendered minorities, amongst others, in hiring and curriculum) and those I’ve just alluded to are vague, and perhaps posing questions of working class unity to the current discussion is unfair. However, it is fair to ask after the class and material content of contemporary projects, particularly in the metropolitan and still-imperialist centre of the world system. Decolonial efforts in the metropole often rely on a notion of intersectionality from the ‘post’ moment of the 1990s, which may or may not recognize class as a key vector, or to be more demanding still, class reckoned and reproduced across national boundaries. The relationship of the decolonizing university to solidarity and internationalism as material things (i.e., strategic priorities in earlier moments of decolonization) is also missing. The very question of anti-capitalism seems to be a non-starter in a discourse captured by neoliberalism, despite regular economic crises and the precarity of the planet’s life-sustaining processes. With all this in mind, it might be more fitting to declare this the second coming of the postcolonial moment of the 1980s, which also dwelled on unpacking colonial ways of producing knowledge, subjectivities and representations while maintaining a tenuous relationship to anti-systemic social movements. Meanwhile, the relationship between the debate on university campuses and movements actively combatting the colonial ‘afterlife’ of dispossession and land theft, gender-based violence and femicide, racialized state violence, the outsourcing of emissions and dirty industries and – my particular interest here – the race to the bottom between workers, has yet to be defined.
For this reason, it is befitting to revisit a series of exceptional writers and organizers who attempted to address this problematic during the last generation of anti-imperialist struggle. This essay examines the treatment of difference in the formation, exploitation and emancipation of the working class in the work of three contemporaries from the Americas: Ruy Mauro Marini (1932-1997), Walter Rodney (1942-1980) and Andaiye (1942-2019). A Brazilian Marxist who would pass twenty years of his adult life in exile, Ruy Mauro Marini’s political life intersected with revolutionary processes in Brazil, Chile and Mexico, while his theoretical work formed a major pillar of Marxist dependency theory, itself the product of intensified class struggle and breaks with eurocentric Marxist accounts of capitalist development that emerged in the late 1960s and 1970s. Marini’s contributions examined the ways that the international division of labour gave rise to differentiated forms and degrees of exploitation, spurred by the very insertion of the Latin America in the world system. Here, the essay will focus on Marini’s discussion of superexploitation as a mechanisms of accumulation and underdevelopment, starting in Dialéctica de la dependencia (1973).
June 2020 saw the fortieth anniversary of the assassination of the Guyanese historian and activist Walter Rodney. The act, for which no one has been held responsible to this day, marked the abrupt start of the unwinding of the Caribbean radical tradition. Known for works like How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (2012) and The Groundings with My Brothers (2012), Rodney’s work as an historian of his native country challenged the notion that racial animosity between African and Indian sections of the working class was timeless and inevitable, by exposing the particular and imbricated histories of class formation and struggle of each community a markedly Pan-Africanist and non-eurocentric Marxist position. Even prior to his return to Guyana, this approach was given political expression in the Working Peoples Alliance, a multiracial alliance launched in 1974 to oppose the dictatorship of Forbes Burnham. It would be another WPA leader, the radical thinker and feminist organizer Andaiye, who would take this praxis even further with Red Thread, an organization that mobilized women across racial lines against dictatorship, the effects of structural adjustment on women’s waged and unwaged labour, and domestic and sexual violence. Andaiye’s reflections on her role in Guyanese, regional and international feminist movements have only recently become publicly available in The Point is to Change the World: Selected Writings of Andaiye (2020), edited with her niece and long-time member of Red Thread, Alissa Trotz.
Working Class Formation in the Imperialist Division of Labour
Without reducing their respective legacies to any one thing, Marini, Rodney and Andaiye were all involved in attempts to make sense of their particular realities in the setting of intensified class conflict in the 1960s (Westmaas 2009; Andaiye 2020d: 247-8), as well as the historical and theoretical formulations that followed. Their work represented a break with eurocentric approaches to Marxism associated with orthodox Marxist-Leninist tendencies (and particularly Communist Parties) of the day, whether on the question of class formation and exploitation, addressed here, or the character that a socialist revolution would need to take in each setting.
In their key works, both Marini and Rodney examined the use of divide and rule tactics to maintain control over workforces in the colonial division of labour, and to leverage greater rates of exploitation (and so, of profits), particularly at moments of systemic transition. In subsequent texts, they address how these tactics remained in place following the end of formal empire both in national settings (e.g., in Guyana following independence in 1966) and in a setting that saw the extension of the law of value globally (i.e., Latin America and the Caribbean in the world system in the neoliberal period of imperialism). It would be Andaiye whose political work and writing would add the dimension of gender to the exploration of race and class in Guyana; intersectionality in all but name, with a firm grounding in class relations (cf. Higginbottom, this volume).
Marini, Superexploitation in the Imperialist Division of Labour
Where Rodney and Andaiye examine the construction of a racially-segmented labour market in a single colony, Ruy Mauro Marini begins his analysis of underdevelopment with the insertion of Latin American social formations marked by varied forms of exploitation in the imperialist division of labour of the 19th century. He then examines the effects of this insertion on the development of the productive apparatus of the region, particularly Brazil and Chile, and more generally, the generation of a dependent kind of capitalist formation. For the author, dependency is “understood as a relationship of subordination between formally independent nations, in which the relations of production of subordinate nations are modified or recreated to ensure the expanded reproduction of dependency” (Marini 1973a: 18).
This trend would occur at a moment of transition at two nodal points in the world system. Brazil was transitioning to political sovereignty, albeit with a still-racialized economy centred on enslaved African labour, agricultural and mining plantations, and the export of primary goods. Britain, on the other hand, was experiencing a qualitative leap in the 1840s, with a shift from the production of absolute surplus value (based on the prolongation of the working day) to that of relative surplus value, based on higher labour productivity in an intensified and now mechanized labour process (in other words, on the basis of a higher organic composition of capital) and so, reduced necessary labour time, which lowers wages. Brazil and Latin America more generally contribute to both elements of relative surplus labour, with the provision of cheap minerals and raw materials to facilitate mechanized production, and of cheap foodstuffs to lower the wage bill for a burgeoning industrial working class. This also helped to mitigate a fall in the rate of profit that followed the shift to a higher organic composition (Marini 1973: 27).
However, the resulting trade in commodities would have a contradictory effect on the periphery. Over time, economies producing manufactured goods would become able to “sell [their] products at prices higher than their value, thus creating an unequal exchange” to the detriment of economies producing primary goods (Marini 1973: 34). As such, the agrarian and mercantile bourgeoisies of the latter see a drain or transfer of surplus value to their counterparts in the metropole. To offset this loss and to meet the heightened demands on its export sector, Latin American bourgeoisies take recourse, not to improvements to labour productivity as did their counterparts in the metropole, but to extreme rates of exploitation. For Marini, superexploitation involves two things. First, any combination of techniques that allow the capitalist to extract extra surplus value through extreme forms and rates of exploitation, rather than through the development of the worker’s productive capacity as such. Secondly, the reduction of wages (effectively recasting of a portion of wages as a fund of extraordinary surplus value to be appropriated by the capitalist) to the point where they fall below the level necessary to reproduce the worker’s labour power in a given social setting, even to the extent of putting the worker’s longevity or lifeforce in jeopardy; something made possible in dependent export economies, where workers are not expected to act as consumers of the use values they produce (pp.38-9).
Marini argues that this mode of exploitation marked those economies that relied on the extensive and intensive use of labour in which there was little need for high or continuing reinvestment of constant capital (i.e., extractive industries and plantation agriculture). The author does not address the interplay of difference and exploitation directly, but it is interesting to note the contradictions arising in Britain’s political economy in this moment, in his analysis: where, having rid itself of slave labour and entered into wage relations with racialized labour in its own colonies following Abolition in 1838, British industry nonetheless benefits, and is able to advance, from the proceeds of superexploited and still-enslaved African labour in Brazil.
Superexploitation hinders the transition to a state where relative surplus value becomes a general condition, as it did in the metropole, instead reproducing dependent capitalism in successive moments. Crucially, the author developed this thesis following two generations of industrial development in the region, and was in effect attempting to account for the continuing contradictions arising in this setting, which would culminate in economic crisis in the early 1960s. Marini’s work would explain the role of superexploitation, state violence and dependency in the supposed resolution of this crisis, at the hand of large fractions of local and imperialist capital in the dictatorships of Chile and Brazil.