top of page
  • Writer's picturewritingtothink

Thoughts on Wright on class compromise

Found this in a folder, wrote it some time in the winter it to get clearer on something by Erik Olin Wright then forgot about it. In Class Struggle and Class Compromise in the Era of Stagnation and Crisis, Erik Olin Wright lays out a framework for understanding the best possible scenario within capitalism, modeled after the most humane achievements of social democracy. ( Wright stresses that this seems like the best we can do for the foreseeable future, and is ambiguous on whether this is the best we can do at all. This best possible scenario is what he calls a positive class compromise, wherein capitalists and the working class all benefit to some significant degree from institutional arrangements. This social condition, where everyone’s a winner differs from what he negative class compromises - characterized by deeper conflict and by relatively zero sum conflicts with winners and losers - and, he suggests, due to greater stability. The idea is that the relative interest convergence between workers and capitalists mean that once achieved, a positive class compromise will have at least some tendencies to reinforce itself, even though those tendencies can still be overcome, as with the erosion of social democracy over time.

In the essay, Wright spends some time speculating what kinds of policies might help construct and maintain a condition of positive class compromise. What he doesn’t articulate in the essay is why past positive class compromises occurred at all, or the degree to which past actually existing high points in capitalism fully mapped onto his model. In my view, to the degree that any developments approximating to Wright’s model occurred, they were the result of conflict and not rational discussions where mutual interests were calmly identified and then worked toward. Wright’s model can account for this in that there are conditions when the capitalists are especially powerful, being defeated by workers’ struggle straightforwardly makes their lives worse. Sometimes, though, capitalists can win by losing, because workers’ struggles impose on the capitalist class developments that are in the long term interests of both classes, specifically long term interests that capitalists can’t act on themselves because of pressures to be overly focused on the short term.

Marx’s account of the origins of the English Factory Acts (in chapter 10 of volume 1 of Capital) maps onto Wright’s model. As Marx argues, English capitalism was working workers to death due to overwork by pressuring them into overly long work days and insufficient rest periods. The English labor movement and some state personnel sought to create laws limiting work hours, legislation opposed by capitalists. Once these laws were won, they created incentives to mechanize production more fully, opening up new even more profitable avenues to capitalists, and fostering a version of capitalism relatively less disrupted by conflicts over the duration of work time. Thus in the long term, the capitalist class was better off after the creation of the Factory Acts, but they couldn’t get there themselves because they were pressured to be too focused on the short term prior to the factory acts. One way to think of this is that the capitalist class is more likely to come to act collectively as a class, rather than as a collection of individual capitalists, in response to workers’ collective action and through the mediation of state action.

In the example of the English Factory Acts on Marx’s account, workers and the state brought about an improvement to the capitalist class a whole despite the interests of the capitalist class. In the case of workers’ compensation laws in the US, created in the 1910s, capitalists and the state brought them about, with the working class the losing party. Compensation laws were far less of an improvement in workers’ lives than the Factory Acts were and created new additional harms, but they were still a qualified improvement. It seems likely that reforms wrought more by workers’ collective action will better benefit workers, while reforms from above imposed on workers will be less beneficial to workers. The example also helps clarify that not all positive class compromises are equal, and that the benefit to workers and capitalists isn’t necessarily the same degree of benefit.

Moments in the history of industrial relations fit Wright’s model to an important extent, and also help open up issues about the model’s limitations. In the 1890s, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) grew massively, from just under 21,000 members at the start of the decade to a quarter million in 1903. (Actually the story is even more dramatic than that, as they largely lost members until they were at less than 4,000 in 1897.) This growth was conflictual but also pushed forward developments that served the interests of both mine workers and mine owners, especially in the bituminous or “soft” coal industry (as distinct from anthracite or “hard” coal). Bituminous coal mining in the late 19th century was highly competitive with many small companies operating with slim margins. Under those conditions, the industry could easily overproduce, engaging in ruinous competition that tanked the price of coal due to oversupply and so threatened all the owners’ profits. The UMWA networked miners fighting individual owners into an organization fighting the mine owners collectively, and in doing so helped form the owners into a collectivity, specifically an association of owners that the UMWA could bargain with to set pay rates and safety standards. The UMWA in effect pushed forward a system of mutual governance over production, run by representatives of the owners and the workers. This system governed both the workers and the owners in a way that promoted stability, reducing the tendency to ruinous competition. As a representative of the owners’ association testified to President McKinley’s industrial commission, the stabilization benefitted both the owners and the workers, as predicted by Wright’s model.

In addition to creating a system of collective bargaining, mine workers also demanded state regulation of safety, programs in which both unions and employers had less power, with state personnel having the ability to investigate working conditions and order owners to make safety improvements. Loosely similar events played out in New York after a massive strike of garment workers in 1909 and 1910, which helped bring about an industrial relations framework known as the Protocol of Peace, negotiated in part by future Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. After the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory fire in 1911, New York also saw the growth of experiments in workplace safety regulation via a body called the New York Factory Investigating Committee (FIC). The Protocol and the FIC both created forms of positive class collaboration, and were especially influential in the New Deal later, as future Senator Robert Wagner - who sponsored the National Labor Relations Act, often called the Wagner Act - and future New Deal Secretary of Labor France Perkins were both active in these efforts in New York. New Deal industrial relations reform - in the form of the NLRA - are another example of a positive class compromise resulting from struggle, as the NLRA was a direct response to the massive strikes of 1933 and especially 1934.

In all of these cases, what led to the condition of positive class compromise was a combination of some degree of economic and social crisis plus heated class conflict. As the sociologist Robert Franzosi has written, “new forms of institutionalization of labor and new forms of class relations emerge out of these [kinds of] major clashes.” (Franzosi, Strike Statistics, 360.) In important respects the history of industrial relations, especially changes in forms of institutionalization in response to major clashes, exemplifies Wright’s model. In other respects, this history sheds a critical light on Wright’s model. It’s easy to think of the developments in coal mining, the garment industry, and the NLRA more broadly as straightforwardly wins for unions. Wright’s model of increasing or decreasing popular power encourages this same outlook. But changes in industrial relations institutions were not straightforwardly wins for the labor movement, in the important sense that these historical developments themselves acted back on the labor movement in a kind of feedback loop. That is to say, the unions before and after those institutions re-organizations were not exactly the same unions. Organizations are defined in large part by their institutional contexts, and changes in industrial relations were massive changes in those contexts, changes which shaped the politics of the labor movement. For example, Charles Romney’s book Rights Delayed analyzes the National Labor Relations Act and its effects in the canning industry. He found that the slow and relatively expensive legal processes under the NLRA favored larger, less democratic, and more conservative unions over smaller, more democratic, and more progressive unions, such that the these legal procedures inadvertently helped create the growth of the former and decline of the latter.

That the change in the labor movement’s institutional environment in turn changed the labor movement’s practices and politics is relevant to Wright’s account of positive class compromise. The organizations and movements that fight and so bring about such a compromise can find themselves transformed by that compromise, and not necessarily for the better. This also complicates Wright’s suggestion that class compromises meet workers’ and capitalists’ interests - it would be better to say that processes of both conflict and compromise are different ways to construct the interests of workers and capitalists. Collective interest constructed via conflict is not the same as collective interest constructed via relatively peaceful compromise - or worse, the atomization of collective interest into collections of individual interests in the aftermath of such compromises, as may result from the substitution of collective labor rights with individual employee rights under employment law.

The Marxist sociologist Simon Clarke offers useful concepts for rethinking Wright’s framework in light of these instances from the history of industrial relations. Clarke argues that the institutions that regulate capitalist society “are best understood as institutional forms of class relationships” or “institutional forms of class struggle” through which the conflict-prone “reproduction of capitalist class relations” occurs. ( page 69.) Actually existing class struggle is not neutral to its institutional context but is significantly shaped by that context, even though that institutional context is itself significantly a product of class struggle. The dialectic between collective subjects of struggle and the institutions they struggle in and against is an example of Marx’s famous remark that people make history but not in circumstances of their own choosing. Class compromises are achieved by conflict, but not only that, as Clarke helps underscore, they are modes of ongoing conflict, because capitalist social relations generate tensions and crises which the specific institutional forms of class compromise mediate. Furthermore, insofar as the institutional forms of class struggle and compromise are the processes through which capitalism is reproduced over time, these institutions are fundamentally “institutional forms of class domination” (85), because capitalism is a social relationship of domination. When it comes to domination, we can certainly do worse that Wright’s positive class compromise, but it’s important to note that we could also do better, and to remember that positive class compromise is still a form of institutionalized class domination.

With that in mind, Wright’s framework becomes one of laying out possibilities for institutionalized class domination to take on different general qualities and forms, which we could put crudely as more stick-based or more carrot-based, and one for assessing the relative stability of those different possibilities if actually put in place in society. While Wright is correct that there is a best possible scenario within capitalism, it’s good to bear in mind not only that the route to this attenuated (because still capitalist) best is through intense collective action, but also that the attainment of that attenuated best can at least sometimes erode the capacity for collective action needed to achieve and maintain that relative best. Furthermore, it’s important to note as well, as the history of industrial relations helps makes clear, that the institutions that make up an actually existing positive class compromise will at least some of the time have demobilizing current conflict and preventing future conflict as the conscious goal behind that compromise. That is to say, in achieving positive class compromise, the working class might lose by winning, even if the gains won in those victories are genuinely significant in workers’ lives.

Anton Pannekoek once wrote that there are times in class struggle when a “wave of solidarity has gone through the masses, they have felt the immense power of class unity, their self-confidence is raised, they have shaken off the narrow group egotism. Through their own deeds they have acquired new wisdom: what capitalism means and how they stand as a class against the capitalist class. They have seen a glimpse of their way to freedom.” ( Pannekoek here argued that experiences of collective action and solidarity can be transformative, creating both new competencies and capacities, but also new needs and values.

Those transformative elements of collective action, and the institutionalization of those elements as well as their increase, has revolutionary potential, creating the possibility that the working class can become a class against the existence of social classes altogether: a class in favor of ending capitalism and creating a genuinely better society. These qualities are not what is maximized by Wright’s positive class compromises. These positive class compromises, insofar as they are stable, have elements that prevent them from falling apart and sliding downward toward autocratic rule by capitalists. These compromises have elements that prevent the working class from advancing further, toward communist revolution. A positive class compromise creates a floor and limits the ability of the capitalist class to force workers below that floor, but it also creates a ceiling and limits the ability of the working class to rise above that ceiling via revolution. Positive class compromise, then, is not just second best to communist revolution, but rather is one of possibilities that would have to be overcome in order for such a revolution to occur. We should, then consider Wright’s positive class compromise as one possible scenario that a revolution workers’ movement would have to be ready to deal with.

As the historian Eugene Genovese once put it, "the great object of social reform is to prevent a fundamental chance in class relations.” As such, reformers “must fight against those reactionaries who cannot understand the need for secondary, although not necessarily trivial, change in order to prevent deeper change.” At the same time, reformers must also be on guard against the change that "lower-class beneficiaries of change may choose to seize a good deal more than they have been offered." (Roll, Jordan, Roll 49.) When that happens - when the working class threatens to go beyond the place on Wright’s curve where achieving workers’ interests can advance capitalists’ interests and reaching into a newly zero-sum condition - then reformers tend to be more comfortable with reactionaries and the unleashing of violence against the working class than they are with workers becoming disorderly in service of their own liberation according to their own definitions thereof. (For a relevant example, see Andrew Feffer's Bad Faith, about a liberal-led red scare prior to McCarthyism.)

That’s what we can expect from reformers when the working class manifests a real threat of “seiz[ing] a good deal more than they have been offered” and so passing beyond the area of positive class compromise into the area of zero-sum struggle to end class society. Short of such maximal developments, we should also expect that advances of the working class will generate not only repressive responses but reformers seeking to prevent more fundamental transformations. To put it another way, higher intensity and quality of class conflict generates higher quality antagonists to working class emancipation, not all of whom will seem to (or even realize they are) such antagonists.

31 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Marx and morality and whatnot

I thought I’d write up some thoughts I have periodically about Marx and morality. I’ve occasionally gotten into arguments with friends and comrades about some of this stuff, which usually surprises me

some self-study plans

I’ve started a blog/newsletter thing, no frills and low standards, just trying to get myself to think more, specifically about the pandemic and from a marxist perspective -

Socialism 2023 conference talk on social murder

I gave a talk on social murder at the Socialism conference. The text I used as the basis for the talk is below. The talk is informed by various things I've written on the covid pandemic, conversations

bottom of page