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JONUS, Journal of Nusantara Studies, reviews “Can the Working Class Change the World?”

Sharifah Nursyahidah Syed Annuar

Can the Working Class Change the World?
218 pp, $19 pbk, ISBN 978-1-58367-710-0
By Michael D. Yates

Reviewed by Sharifah Nursyahidah Syed Annuar for JONUS, journal published biannually by Universiti Sultan Zainal Abidin, Malaysia, Vol. 5, No. 2

Can the Working Class Change the World? is not written suddenly. Throughout the last decade, capitalism has been increasingly discussed and debated, both by the right and left wing. This is because many people are struggling with economic downturn, wide income gap, unemployment, poverty and environmental crisis. The Lehman Brothers collapse in 2008, almost brought down the global financial system. Later in 2011, the Occupy Wall Street movement began and spread to several countries to protest against the 1%. And in 2018, Ray Dalio, a multibillionaire who is also the founder of Bridgewater Associates, himself admits that capitalism does not function for most people. Today, the assets of the 26 richest individuals in the world is equivalent to the assets of half the world’s citizens (Elliott, 2019). But, if capitalism now has failed, the question is: who fix it?

Can the Working Class Change the World?

For Yates, the working class is responsible for this noble work. However, can they change the world? It is not necessary to read until the end of this book to find the answer. Yates explained it earlier. The working class can change the world, but with struggle in every corner and consistent against the capitalism. Therefore, this book explains how the working class can come up with strategies for facing the challenges of capitalism. However, this book is not just meant for workers, but for humanity who want to end the cruelty of capitalism. In this timely book, Yates divides theoretical and empirical explanations into six chapters.

Chapter 1, simply title The Working Class, defines the working class, who are their allies and who are not. Yates goes beyond the definition of an employee, considering students undergoing practical training, women doing reproductive work but unpaid, unemployed, and people doing informal work. They have the potential to fight for the rights of the working class. In fact, Yates didn’t ignore the role of the peasant which is needed to create organic solidarity. Moreover, the workers are segregated based on race, ethnicity, nationality, religion and language. This is commonly used by capitalists and the State as a practice of divide and rule so that the ordinary people are not united. Whereas, they intersect each other. One thing that Yates emphasizes briefly in this chapter is the middle-class people who don’t seem to have the seriousness of changing the world. Therefore, the ordinary people should be careful of who they want to work with.

Yates also invites readers to rethink the fundamental questions about where wealth comes from. Therefore, in Chapter 2, Yates revisits the concepts related to capitalism like M-C-C’-M’, profit, ownership and the labour market. The chapter title, Some Theoretical Considerations, describes the exploitation and extortion as elements of capitalist oppression which are also facilitated by slavery, racism, patriarchy, colonialism, nationalism and imperialism. Yates cautioned that apart from capitalists, the ordinary people must face three other enemies which is the State, schools and media. This can be attributed to the Gramsci’s hegemony (1971) when there is a control through the superstructure domain to influence the mindset of the community. Therefore, the working class must do the counter hegemony.

Chapter 3, Nothing to Lose but Their Chains, should be considered Yates’s main idea in this book. This is because Yates believes the workers (and their allies, peasants), have power that can overcome the capitalists. But they need the class consciousness to form this power. Again, Yates emphasized that class unity is very important. Interestingly, this book is unlike any other books that are always written from colonial and Western lenses. Yates’s analysis tried to cover the rest of the world by comparing the situation between Global North with the Global South. In fact, Yates indirectly did two things at once; challenged the dominance of the Global North in the labour literature and criticized the unfamiliarity of workers in the Global North to the workers in the Global South. Indeed, all of them must unite because the workers have nothing to lose but the chains that bind them.

Two basic points for the working class are also explained further by Yates in Chapter 4, What Hath the Working Class Wrought? First, trade union as a representative for workers and for labour education. Second, the labour party as the workers’ political participation. Furthermore, Yates saw the trade union as a tactic to deal with employers. Meanwhile, the labour party is to counter the bourgeois political elites. In this chapter, ideological conveyance is implied and can only be understood through the existing context. Also, Yates states that working class is strong when they have a strong working-class perspective. In addition, this chapter begins to debate the ideas that might slow the transition to socialism. For example, Keynesian, corporatism and social democracy. Of course, Yates hopes for more progressive trade unions and did not become hypocrite trade unions. For example, American Federation of Labor (AFL).

Therefore, the leadership and internal democracy of trade unions are essential to counter the capitalist power. Yates openly criticized in Chapter 5 about union bureaucrats who are bureaucratic and autocratic, thus affecting the chances of the union success. However, this criticism indicates that since Webb and Webb’s book Industrial Democracy was published in 1897, the dominance and ineffectiveness of trade union leaders still exists. This chapter, The Power of Capital is Still Intact, also emphasizes that capitalists not only control production and distribution, but also dominate politics. Moreover, with the neoliberalism project that promotes free market benefits. This emphasis seems to suggest that in addition to recognizing the relationship between capital and power, the concept of capital as power is also necessary to understand the dynamics of capitalism and neoliberalism.

The last chapter, Can the Working Class Radically Change the World?, may not be a question. Instead, it is a statement by Yates that deliberately adds the word ‘radical’ to the title of the Chapter 6, which is originally the title of this book. This is because Yates wants to challenge the working class to be radical and increase their consciousness. The key is unity and collectivism. In addition, it is not exaggerated if this chapter is considered as an attempt to revive Lenin’s (1961) writing in 1902, What is to be Done?, but with a more advance and simple style. Yates lists the strategies that need to be worked out; such as having principles, radical education, revolutionizing agriculture and efficient trade unions. However, all of this should be based on the maxim “Occupy, Resist, Produce”. Besides, Yates argues that old and traditional ways are no longer relevant in this era. In order to achieve the goal of changing the world, new ways of thinking must be considered.

So, what can be learned from this book, especially in the context of the Nusantara? The phenomenon mentioned by Yates also occurs in countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines. Among them are the problems of low union membership, the absence of effective labour political parties and fragmentation of trade unions. Workers in this region are also struggling to build strong trade unions in not accommodative environment and authoritarian government. Racial sentiments are also being use. In fact, these countries send and receive migrant workers to each other. However, organizations such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) often been criticized for not carrying out its functions to protect local and migrant workers. Thus, the workers in the Nusantara should take the lesson and strive to improve the organization and mobilization of workers. No one can be trusted unless the worker himself acts to change the situation. What’s more, they had an amazing labour history.

In conclusion, it is not easy to find the book’s weaknesses. Moreover, Yates is not an intellectual who writes jargon, but a labour educator who has extensive experience about labour. Furthermore, since the age of 12, Yates already worked. His previous book, Why Unions Matter, was also the best-selling book. Yates knows this field better. Hence, this book Can the Working Class Change the World? is important because Yates offers arguments that other scholars may have written, but with more refined and optimistic ideas. Although this book does not talk about Industrial Revolution 4.0, Yates assures that if the workers and peasants unite, they do not have to worry about the automation issues. Perhaps one thing to note here is Yates’ lack of explanation of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. Therefore, this book should be read together with The Long Depression: Marxism and the Global Crisis of Capitalism by Michael Roberts. While Roberts’s book outlines the causes of the economic crisis, Yates’s book explains how the crisis can be mended.

––Sharifah Nursyahidah Syed Annuar
Lecturer in the Political Science programe, National University of Malaysia

Monthly Review Press
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