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Breakthrough in Marxist political economy of globalization,
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This review is from: Divided World Divided Class: Global Political Economy and the Stratification of Labour Under Capitalism (Paperback)
Cope's book is a milestone in the current of Marxist political economy known as "Third Worldism", that is to say, in developing an honest and realistic understanding based in Marxist value theory of what in the wider literature is called the divergence question: the long-standing division of the world between a small number of rich countries where even the working class has incomes in the top 10-20% of the world population, and a much larger number of poor countries lagging tremendously behind in all aspects of development. As is well known, this gap grows larger rather than smaller, and significantly from the Marxist point of view, it has led for the first time in world history to the majority of the world population actually being poor urban workers - in these countries. There is among socialists little disagreement as to the reality and significance of this fact, nor of the corollary, the enormous significance of finding the right economic theory to explain and understand the mechanics of this divergence.
For this reason it is remarkable with how little seriousness and honesty most Marxist economic theorists have been willing to analyze this subject. There is indeed some excellent Marxist literature in development economics, as exemplified by the works of Ben Fine, Patrick Bond, and others. There is also a wider literature more rooted in Marxisant versions of dependency theory, such as Samir Amin and Arghiri Emmanuel, and these already go much further in trying to analyze not just the perpetuation of differences in wealth by immediate policies of imperialism and expropriation, but to also understand the historical reproduction of class relations corresponding to the phenomenon of global divergence. For this reason, perhaps, those authors are already somewhat marginal within Marxist economic theory: generally it has been very acceptable to the various Marxist parties and political currents to expound upon the evils of imperialism and war and the poverty of the Third World, but it has been much less acceptable to try and understand those "mechanics" underlying this divergence, never mind the political conclusions to be drawn from these facts themselves. This threatens the political viewpoint of most intellectual Marxists, rooted in the politics of students and workers in the First World countries, as those conclusions may not be compatible with that viewpoint, and it is hard to ignore the feeling that at some level this is sensed by many Marxist economists. Do not explore too far in this direction, they seem to say: for there be dragons.
It is therefore to the immense credit of Zak Cope (this may or may not be pseudonym) that he has done so regardless of the political consequences or palatability of this research for the Marxist mainstream in the West. Indeed, once one starts thinking about the perpetuation of divergence, the ever-declining interest in revolution and support for a meaningful socialism among First World workers, the rise of social-democracy as the 'consensus' of the First World even up to the neoliberal era, the logic of settler states and the inherent 'workers' chauvinism' associated with them and the reproduction of similar ideas among the working classes of Old Europe in response to immigration; in short, all the unpleasant realities of Marxism today and one then notices how all these are contrary to the expectations of mainstream Marxist political thinking but entirely compatible with the Third Worldist perspective, one has a very strong case to be explained indeed. Cope does just this with great vigour and relentless scientific seriousness. What J. Sakai had done for American settlerism in "Settlers", this Cope does more extensively and more scientifically for the position of the working class of the rich countries as a whole.
Cope's case runs, briefly summarized, as follows. The imperialism of the Western countries (broadly taken), enabled initially by the plunder and exploitation of the Americas and continued by the increases in wealth, power, and technology enabled by these, have over time created the potential for systematic transfers of surplus value from the 'imperialized' 'periphery' to the imperialist 'center'. These transfers then not only allow a great blossoming of labor in the countries of the center that is not immediately productive of capital, because it is compensated for by the external value transfers, but more importantly it permits the ruling classes of the center to buy off the exploited working class of the center with the proceeds of this imperialist rent. This labor aristocracy, so formed, then no longer fulfils the one special role the working class has in Marx and Engels' theory of historical materialism: namely, to be unable to emancipate itself without overthrowing the conditions it itself reproduces with its labour.
In and of itself, this is not a new observation: it is the classic expression of the theory of the labor aristocracy as found in Engels and Lenin, among others. However, the real crux is that Cope then extends this theory by demonstrating that the natural ideology of the labor aristocracy is social-democracy, and that social-democracy is the means by which the imperialist rent is shared with a wider and wider section of the working class of the center. This First World generalized labor aristocracy thereby becomes almost entirely non-exploited in net terms, according to Marx's theory of value, because the value of the surplus value produced by them is (more than) compensated for in the process of distribution through world trade. That is to say, the imperialist and neo-imperialist unequal exchange between the First World - defined by Cope as roughly the OECD and the non-OECD, excl. Eastern Europe - and the Third constitutes such a vast transfer of surplus value in the sphere of distribution that it permits, through social-democracy, an almost total compensation for the domestic exploitation of the First World working class.
Using the widely available statistics on working hours, male workers' wages in OECD and non-OECD countries, the estimates of value transfer through undervaluation of Third World currencies compiled by Gernot Köhler, the estimates of value-added in production between the First World and the Third, and so forth, Cope makes a clear and convincing case suggesting strongly, although with some room for error, that it is not at all possible to account for the differentiation by productivity differentials only, and in fact that the overwhelming majority of the wage differential is composed of vast transfers of value from the developing countries to the developed ones, distributed there to the Western working class. The means of such transfer are unequal exchange in commodity trade (i.e. deteriorating terms of trade), unequal exchange in currency exchange rates, the substantial and systematic trade deficits of the First World (especially the US), FDI profit repatriation, and so forth.
I cannot recommend this book strongly enough to all open-minded Marxists and people interested in development questions. Occasionally the prose is somewhat rote, but the points are extremely important and made with all scientific seriousness and are the fruit of an impressive amount of research and statistical calculation. In the current period, the capitalist classes of the First World seem inclined to go more and more against the historic compromise of social-democracy, and the social-democracy is therefore declining in historical vigour proportionally to the shift of capitalist production from the First to the Third World in search of lower wages and higher profits, pressured by ever-accumulating private debt. This death agony of social-democracy seems to me only understandable on the basis of a Third Worldist analysis as outlined in this book, if one does not want to fall back into unsatisfying and intellectually lazy clichés about "false consciousness", "hegemony", media dominance and whatnot to explain the current global political constellation. Nepal makes revolution while no British communist group has more than 3000 members, China and India 'develop' along capitalist lines because the Western working class has lived at their expense - that is the reality we must explain today.