by Birrion Sondahl (originally published on An Appeal to Reason)
Class collaboration occurs when a member of one class is given special benefits by another class in order to contain or coopt revolutionary spirit. This happens in many different ways and is antithetical to the class struggle. The actions of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) at the Met Gala made quite the splash recently. Her “Tax the Rich” message at a multi-million dollar event only open to the rich was certainly cringeworthy. It is a good example of the larger systemic problem of class collaboration. As Earl Browder described, “It is not the personal corruption of an individual leader, but the ‘impersonal corruption’ of a whole section of workers that is involved. And it is far more important to understand such roots of class collaboration than the phase of direct bribery of individual leaders.” This is not an individual problem with AOC or other legislators, but rather a systemic problem which will require revolutionary system change to solve.
While this article will primarily be focused on class collaboration within the legislative caste, it is important to understand that this is an issue that impacts the entire United States proletariat. Because of exploitation of the global south, the United States’ proletariat enjoys a higher standard of living (even without healthcare) than most of the world. A quick glance at median incomes throughout the world shows how widespread this disparity really is. The working class in the United States receives better treatment from the capitalist class than the workers in Latin America, South America, or Africa. Indirectly we are benefitting from United States imperialism. This can make us unwilling class collaborators with the capitalist class because the comforts they give to us are taken directly from the working class of other countries. This is why an international perspective is so important to winning a better future.
Within the United States, there are varying degrees of class collaboration throughout the working class. A primary focus of socialists within the United States has been on revealing the class collaboration within labor movements which is especially prevalent within the leadership of many Trade Unions. The close relationship of the AFL-CIO leadership with the Democratic party is a good example of this. Union leadership are given benefits and privileges that are not shared by the rest of the working class and it is to their own personal benefit to collaborate with the ruling class. For example, the AFL-CIO president is given $292,140 in total yearly compensation while campaign coordinators salaries are rarely higher than $30,000. These added benefits given to leadership are one of the ways in which unions have been coopted and defanged by the capitalist class.
This brings us to the legislative caste. Members of Congress are paid $174,000 per year. The Senate and House Parliamentarians are also paid over $170,000, only slightly less than Congress. And in addition to this direct compensation, they are given direct access to the lobbyist caste – paid operators for capital. Cooperating with lobbyists gives legislators many benefits that they would not otherwise receive. This is a systemic problem – if a member of the working class is elected to Congress, they immediately start to receive benefits that differentiate them from their previous station as members of the proletariat. For this larger compensation, their work duties are quite light. For example, this month (September 2021) Congress is only in session for four days and the Senate for seven. Those are quite nice hours for the pay. It is only natural that given these privileges, legislators would begin to identify more with the bourgeoisie than the proletariat, no matter their origins. Class collaboration is different from corruption, of which there is plenty in Washington as well, but it is only by degree. These additional benefits and privileges are a more subtle form of control than direct bribery. When our legislators collaborate with the ruling class, this is still a betrayal.
Our movement has had experience with the timid progressives, who in words are loudly against the reactionary leaders, but who, when a decisive moment arrives, turn and run. In reality such progressives, if they deserve the name, are camouflaged followers and servants of the most reactionary officialdom. – Earl Browder
The Met Gala
These clips give us a blatant example of class collaboration. In the first clip, AOC identifies herself and her designer as members of the working class. Then in the second clip, AOC expresses that she wants to bring the conversation to all of the classes. But the class interests of the capitalist class are in direct opposition to those of the proletariat, so they do not deserve a seat at the table when any method of taking away their power is being discussed. This is not breaking the fourth wall, this is collaborating with the enemy and in fact playing along with the charade. These statements make AOC an easy target, but it is the entire system that feeds into this, not the actions of one individual.
The Met Gala is an elite event whose gate is kept by a $30,000 ticket. It is an event that is only accessible to the financial elite or those sponsored by the financial elite. According to the Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households, only 64% of adults in the US could come up with an unexpected $400 expense in November of 2020. More than one fourth of adults were unable to pay all of their monthly bills in full. While the working class struggles, the elite are doing just fine. Billionaires gained 62% in their worth during the pandemic.
Gains are not going to be made in the class struggle at the Met Gala. Having a conversation with the elite about taxing the rich is not the way to achieve an equitable society. While AOC was hobnobbing with the rich and famous, the scene on the street outside was very different.
These protestors are some of the most oppressed by capitalism standing up against the ravages inflicted upon them by the ruling class. As Mayor Bill DiBlasio attended the gala, these Black Lives Matter protesters called for defunding the police. The NYPD budget for 2022 is planned to be $5.44 billion. This is greater than the entire defense budget of Chile. AOC could have stood with the protesters. She could have had a dress that said “Defund the Police” or “Abolish ICE.” Instead, she chose one of the weakest slogans available. Taxing the rich is a good thing, but it does not fundamentally challenge the capitalist power structure.
The basic reason for this concerted swing to the right of the officialdom, for this studied and systematic co-operation with all the varying forces and institutions of capitalism, is the fact that the masses are swinging to the left, are being disillusioned, are becoming radical. The reactionary officialdom cannot go along with the broad, sweeping radicalization of the masses, without making a clean break with their peaceful past. They are either corrupt agents of capitalism, or are timid bureaucrats seeking nothing but a peaceful office life with a secure salary. In either case, their reaction toward the seething rank and file unrest is one of fear, and retreat to the protecting arms of the masters, the capitalist employers. – Earl Browder
What is rich? What is class?
In this clip, AOC in somewhat vague terms indicates what she considers to be “rich.” A huge problem today comes from a misunderstanding of what class is. Class is not wealth. Class is the relationship one has to the means of production. Does one own the means of production or does one work the means of production? Rather than educating her followers on this basic element of Marxist theory, AOC is attempting to circumvent this issue of class by defining “rich” as someone with hundreds of millions of dollars. When she says “Tax the rich,” this is what she means. Rather than “Tax the rich” we should be crying “Expropriate the capitalist class!”
By her own definition, she wants to tax “like 10 people.” This is not some type of bold statement. This is not making the capitalist class uncomfortable. Rather it distracts from where the battle lines should be drawn – capitalist class vs. working class. Not nesting doll yacht rich vs. slightly less rich vs. less rich vs. wish they were rich. All capitalists have profited directly from exploitation of the working class. These are oppositional class interests, you do not collaborate with those who are directly opposed to you and expect to gain.
Lee Camp has one of the best takes on this weak slogan of “Tax the Rich.” This must be emphasized. Taxing the rich as part of a Democratic party approved plan to make incremental change is not going to save us from the ravages of capitalism. Rather than having a conversation about taxing the rich, we should be talking about class struggle and uniting the workers of the world.
There is one fundamental trouble with these progressive friends of ours-they want progress only if they can get it for nothing. They will not pay any price for it. In fact, they become as indignant at a suggestion of risking anything in a fight, as they do at a suggestion that they are not genuine progressives. But sadly it must be recorded, that these timid progressives are not progressives at all. Always, when they come up squarely against a situation that calls for decision and action, the only real test of progressivism, they halt, waver, and run· away. They fly to the “cover of the official oligarchy.” – Earl Browder
Class collaboration is a very pervasive tool used by the capitalist class to distract from the opposing interests of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. AOC is not the first legislator to fall for this trap. Kristen Sinema was once a Green Party progressive who wrote, “Until the average American realizes that capitalism damages her livelihood while augmenting the livelihoods of the wealthy, the Almighty Dollar will continue to rule.” Now she happily votes down a 15$ minimum wage. The ‘Almighty Dollar’ does indeed continue to rule. Nancy Pelosi once supported universal single payer healthcare and now she refuses to even put it up for a vote. Bernie was far more radical in 1989 and even said in 2011, “My suggestion was literally to the Democratic leadership, simply change the name of the party from the Democratic Party to the Republican-lite versus Republicans and say, ‘Yeah, we’re bad, but we’re not as bad as these guys.’” This is a long shot from his capitulations to corporate owned candidates in 2016 and 2020. Bernie hasn’t sold out, he’s not directly corrupt, but his years in Congress have led to him collaborating with the exploiting class. This is a systemic problem.
Lenin addressed class collaboration as he prepared for revolutionary action in Russia:
You want to have revolutionary enthusiasm in the army, Citizens Chernov and Tsereteli? But you cannot create it, because the revolutionary enthusiasm of the masses is not begotten by a change of “leaders” in cabinets, by florid declarations, or by promises to take steps to revise the treaty with the British capitalists; it can be aroused only by acts of revolutionary policy patent to all and undertaken daily and everywhere against almighty Capital and against its making profits out of the war, a policy that will make for a radical improvement in the standard of living of the mass of the poor.
Even if you were to hand over all the land to the people immediately, this would not end the crisis unless revolutionary measures were taken against Capital.
In order to fight class collaboration, Lenin proposed that bureaucrats be paid the same as workers. As he wrote in The Dual Power:
officialdom, the bureaucracy, are either similarly replaced by the direct rule of the people themselves or at least placed under special control; they not only become elected officials, but are also subject to recall at the people’s first demand; they are reduced to the position of simple agents; from a privileged group holding “jobs” remunerated on a high, bourgeois scale, they become workers of a special “arm of the service”, whose remuneration does not exceed the ordinary pay of a competent worker.
This would have prevented the creation of a bureaucratic caste, which happened under Stalin. In the US, if the legislators were paid the same as workers, it would prevent this class collaboration of the legislative caste with the capitalist class. Without the special privileges being accorded to them, Congress would be subject to the will of the people and would truly represent them. There would be no oligarchy, but a people’s government.
This is the heart of the matter. Wearing a gown to an exclusive gala will not build revolutionary enthusiasm. Capitalism is the enemy. This is the message that must be spread. Not tax the rich, abolish private property! Once the means of productions are back in the hands of labor, those who work will be rich from the fruits of their labor. No longer will their surplus value be leeched away by the bloodsuckers of the bourgeoisie. Only then will we be free.
We discuss and debate this topic further in the video below:
**To read more of Birrion Sondahl’s work, subscribe to his substack by clicking here.**
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Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art