Is commodity production the correct axis to assess the strategic value of professions from the perspective of revolutionary potential and/or leverage to expropriate capital? By: Wade T. PatonRead Now
It's time to assess whether productivity is a useful metric in determining revolutionary potential and/or if it informs us on any profession's strategic value to expropriate capital.
Revolutionary potential and strategic value from the perspective of effective labor militancy has changed in the past three decades. Why? Because the international economy underwent an information technology revolution which changed its very structure. We now have a delicate yet complex supply chain that works on a 24 hour cycle. The most obvious and public facing example of which is Amazon. Their supply chain is a microcosm for the entirety of international logistics. But to understand how this change in the international business cycle requires we adapt our analysis we must first discuss what the supply chain looked like prior to its current incarnation, what caused the shift and how the supply chain works now.
In 1983 big retailers like Sears would estimate product demand quarterly. They'd send manufacturers their 'guess' for how much product they'd need over the next 3 months & purchase what they guessed would be enough to keep their racks/floor space full. This led to an entire overstock industry. Companies like Sears and KMart couldn't afford to have empty racks/floor space so they bought in bulk more than they could sell as their business model. And anything they couldn't sell in season they offloaded to bulk discount stores like Ross, Burlington Coat Factory, etc., as a loss. This made each quarter a gamble as projected earnings could falter in any season and then the surplus of overstock in the warehouses could amass into extreme profit losses, even if they could offset costs by selling said surplus to bulk discount stores. Oftentimes there was so much surplus of unsold commodities that bulk discount stores didn't have the capacity to buy more and the excess would rack up costs as unmovable products in warehouses. The ultimate loss was that product caught in this limbo more than often found its way into landfills. On the other extreme end, if a company experienced an excess of demand then they could experience a shortage of product that amounted to lost money in operating costs that could reach such severity levels that any profit made was offset. This led the commercial retail industry's labor market to fits of instability as in either case, retail workers were laid off in droves.
Enter Walmart. Apart from the reasons Walmart gives for its initial success (customer focused advertising campaigns/direct mail ads, a focus on pricing controls by purchasing and selling low cost imported goods and building warehouses that were close to its stores), what's really important is how it started an information technology/automation revolution that changed the model for the entire international supply chain. Walmart eliminated the guesswork that most retailers were subject to by streamlining their logistics through a computerized communications network that automated how shelves were stocked. It revolutionized the warehouse industry and made it so that the second a product was purchased their computing systems instantly sent a request to the warehouse to replace the item. This gave Walmart an advantage by providing them an almost real time picture of demand. They only stocked the shelves in accordance with what was bought. Anything that stayed on the shelves too long, they stopped carrying. Anything they couldn't keep on the shelves long enough, they adjusted by increasing the amount ordered. Overstock was all but eliminated and so too were the excess costs of overstocked warehouses as well as selling to bulk discount stores at a loss. Overnight other box stores started to fold as their outdated supply chain practices cost them greatly while Walmart seemingly provided more to the consumer for less without disruption to availability or having to deal with the pushy desperation of retail sales trying to offload unpopular/unwanted overstock on them. Any chain that failed to adopt Walmart's new automated logistics disappeared. Gone were the days of the overstock profit loss.
But why is this important? Because every last industry in existence was also forced to abandon their logistical model for the automated logistical system Walmart pioneered. And this is how and why every industry operates on the 24 hours supply chain cycle. Every business going forward was put on notice. Either streamline your supply chain to meet demand as close to real time as possible.., or stagnate and wither.
Now how does this affect productivity and why does it matter to the subject of assessing productivity value as a means for revolutionary potential? It marks a departure from commodity production having the lion’s share of importance to the capitalist system. Wealth generation is now dependent on a tightrope balance. In short, the strength of this new supply chain is also its weakness. Almost ANY disruption to the supply chain in the previous era could be waited out as warehoused overstock of product was used to stall strikes and militant labor action. In juxtaposition, in this era a single day's worth of disruption to the supply chain can SERIOUSLY damage the capitalist class. The revolutionary potential, strategic value and degree of leverage a profession has is now only weighted by its relative ability to disrupt essential sectors of the supply chain (for the purposes of expropriating capital). And the reason we measure strategic value this way is because expropriation of capital is the first order of process in sublating the capitalist system. History has proven time and again that class collaboration is a ruling class trap. Therefore our first priority must always be to dislodge our class enemies wherever they hold power to influence. That said, a profession that produces a commodity can be qualitatively measured for its strategic value in three ways; the degree of importance the commodity being produced plays in the operation of the supply chain, the relative size of the labor pool capable/qualified for the labor in relation to the demand for it, and how essential the particular industry is to the supply chain as a whole.
So let's break that down. A clear example of an essential and productive profession is the energy worker. We’re talking refinery workers, drillers, extractors, etc. Without fuel for transportation and electrification there IS NO supply chain. We’re all very aware of this and are quite comfortable assessing the leverage they possess to expropriate capital, their revolutionary potential and their strategic value. Now consider the factory worker that produces fidget spinners. If all the producers of fidget spinners were to go on strike the supply chain would carry on without a hiccup. Thus the strategic value of their productivity is not important at all. Their factories could close and not a single monopolist, imperialist or capitalist of any note or importance would suffer in the least. They could strike forever and the system would remain unmoved. So as we see here, the value of productivity from a strategic and revolutionary approach, is only as relevant as its ability to expropriate/leverage power away from capital.
But let us be VERY clear, a worker’s value as it pertains to the disruption and expropriation of capital is NOT their only virtue. The aforementioned point made is only to demonstrate how productivity is the wrong axis to evaluate the measure of power any single profession or industry has in expropriating capital.
Now let’s examine the service sector in the same manner. Since the international economy shifted into operating in a 24 hour supply cycle, productivity as a metric has been somewhat diminished. It’s now only a small portion of what can disrupt the supply chain. These days flight attendants can go on strike and shut down half the supply chain. This is why they, as service workers, can be and currently are more revolutionary than say.., a sex toy factory worker. And that's why their union is far more militant and has become far more influential in these past years. If you need proof, look only to the time the flight attendants union put an end to gov't shutdowns just by threatening to go on strike a couple of years ago.
So now we see that there are productive AND service professions/industries essential to the 24 hour supply chain cycle that can disrupt and expropriate the power of imperialists, monopolists & capitalists. But despite spending all this time explaining why we should be assessing occupations/industries based on their strategic value we must also consider another metric. Because the truth is that only a small portion of the working classes occupy professions critical to the international supply chain and thus they are a minority easily crushed.
Truth is service work, like that done by the barista, and commodity production as done by the factory worker making fidget spinners, really doesn't affect the economy in any substantial way. Neither could strike to any effect and both add marginal value to products they deliver. That said, their value lies in their solidarity. In coordination, the least essential workers are still needed to be a bulwark for the more strategically potent and revolutionary professions that will be doing the lion's share of expropriation. They are, in fact, ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY!
Labor history is chock full of examples that prove this. In the history of labor militancy, any time strategic professions/trades were used to disrupt capital to make labor gains without popular support or a massive mobilization of labor from other unions to defend them, the bourgeoisie has been able to crush them by mobilizing the military, mercenaries, and police.
And any time the masses have revolted without planning around labor militancy.., without using strategic leverage to expropriate capital and coordinating a defense based on protecting that maneuver, the event typically dissipates with the ruling class managing to recuperate the struggle without compromising anything but token symbols.
So just because some professions carry with them greater strategic value to expropriation doesn’t mean they’re capable of accomplishing their purpose without protection. And this is why all workers of any kind are still essential. Marx himself stated it best when he said, “communists everywhere support EVERY revolutionary movement against the existing social & political order. In all these movements they bring to the front the property question as the leading question, no matter what its degree of development at the time.”
In some ways, we need to radicalize the leverage-less masses more so because they have the most grueling and punishing of jobs.., that of sentinels. They have to absorb the unbridled aggression of capital in the defense of the strategic minority.
However, we cannot ignore that most service work and even some productive work of little to no revolutionary relevance WILL phase into obsolescence as we expropriate capital from our ruling class. To this end we all must acknowledge that we’re not trying to preserve the current system but transform it. Socialism will require us to unleash productive and creative forces. To this end we must prepare to transition our honored labor sentinels (in particular the non-essential service workers & non-essential commodity producers) into professions where production is the primary concern. China’s cultural revolution proved that communism/socialism is not possible in poverty. Instead, the only way to achieve a lasting and stable socialist society is to produce in such an abundance that all needs for a state wither away.
I say this to acknowledge that Marxism-Leninism is dialectical. And what’s true in one phase of sublation may cease to be in a new phase. Therefore, we should not seek out ways in which to disagree. Instead, we MUST understand one another and synthesize the bigger picture. We must always look to the past to understand the motion of history, be mindful of the present so as to adapt to our material reality and make use of scientific socialist theory to sublate the current world order into one that serves the people.
Wade T. Paton is a reformed intelligence analyst and US Army veteran. He is the lucky husband to a wonderful wife, proud father of two children and dedicated member of the Communist Party USA. When he isn’t serving his community, he can usually be found playing video games with the kids or down at the VFW talking Marxism with his working class brothers and sisters.