Gangsters for Capitalism: Why the US Working Class Enlists

Originally published by The Hampton Institute on February 2nd, 2017

By Colin Jenkins

Through its reliance on the relationship between labour and capital, fortified by state-enforced protections for private property to facilitate this relationship, capitalism creates a natural dependency on wages for the vast majority. With the removal of ‘the commons’ during the transition from feudalism to capitalism, the peasantry was transformed into a working-class majority that now must serve as both commodities and tools for those who own the means of production.

While those of us born into the working-class majority have little or no choice but to submit to our ritualistic commodification, we are sometimes presented with degrees of options regarding how far we allow capitalists, landlords, corporations, and their politicians to dehumanize us as their tools.

While we are forced into the labour market, for example, we can sometimes choose public jobs over private, therefore limiting the degree of exploitation. While we are forced to find housing, we may sometimes choose to live in communal situations with family or friends.

One of the areas where total choice is allowed is in the business of Empire, particularly in the maintenance and proliferation of the modern US Empire. Although governments worldwide are using technological advances in robotics to replace human bodies in their military ranks, and thus lessen their dependence on the working class, there is still a heavy reliance on people to act as tools of war. In ‘all-volunteer’ militaries like that of the United States’, ‘willingness’ is still a crucial component to the mission.

As global capitalism’s forerunner and guardian, the US military has nearly 3 million employees worldwide, including active duty and reserve personnel and ‘civilian full-time equivalents’. The US Department of Defense’s official proposed budget for FY 2017 is $582.7 billion , which, combined with corollary systems of ‘security’, swells to over $1 trillion.

According to public Pentagon reports , the US Empire officially comprises of 662 overseas military bases across 38 countries. Since the birth of the United States in 1776, the country has been involved in a war or military conflict in 219 of these 240 years.

Throughout this history, the US government, which has directly represented and acted upon the interests of capital and economic elites, has required the participation of many millions of its working-class citizens to join its military ranks in order to carry out its missions by force.

For many generations, the US working class has answered this call to serve as what US Marine General Smedley Butler once deemed, ‘gangsters for capitalism’. Millions upon millions have lost life and limb to clear the path for new global markets, steal and extract valuable natural resources from other lands, and ensure the procurement of trillions of dollars of corporate profit for a privileged few.

Why? Why does the working class willingly, even enthusiastically, join to serve in a military that bolsters the very system which undermines and alienates them in their everyday lives?

Cultural Hegemony and Capitalist Indoctrination

We can start to answer this question by drawing on Antonio Gramsci’s concept of cultural hegemony to see how capitalist interests have shaped the dominant culture in US society. Utilising Hegel’s binary of social influence, where societal power is jockeyed between ‘political society’ and ‘civil society’ Gramsci suggested that power is based on two forms: coercion (Dominio) or consensus (Direzione).

According to Gramsci, the battle over ideology between the ruling and subaltern classes is ultimately won through ‘the hegemony of one social group over the whole of society exercised through so-called private organizations, such as the church, trade unions, schools, etc.’

Under capitalism, the hierarchy relies on the state to control and dictate these central organs of ideological influence, thus establishing cultural hegemony. This isn’t necessarily done in a highly centralized or coordinated manner by a tight-knit group, but rather occurs naturally through the mechanisms of the economic system.

Just as the economic base shapes society’s ‘superstructure’, the superstructure in turn solidifies the interests of the economic base. In this cycle, the interests of the capitalist class are morphed into the interests of the working class.

Unearthing these dynamics allows us to explain why impoverished Americans living in dilapidated trailers and depending on government projects still proudly wave the red, white, and blue cloth; why tens of millions of impoverished people measure their value according to which designer clothes or sneakers they’re wearing; why these same tens of millions, who can barely afford basic necessities to survive, spend much of their waking time gawking at and worshipping obscenely wealthy celebrities; or why over 100 million working-class people show up every few years to vote for politicians that do not represent them.

It also allows us to explain, at least in part, why members of the working class so willingly carry out the brutalization of their class peers by serving in imperialistic militaries and militarized police forces.

This culture, which is ultimately shaped by capitalism, receives its values through many different channels, formal and informal. Part of this is accomplished through formal education, where traditional intellectuals become more specialized, and where the process of learning and thinking is replaced by indoctrination.

In his 1926 examination of the ‘Southern Question’ , Gramsci wrote of this phenomenon:

The old type of intellectual was the organizing element in a society with a mainly peasant and artisanal basis. To organize the State, to organize commerce, the dominant class bred a particular type of intellectual… the technical organizer, the specialist in applied science… it is this second type of intellectual which has prevailed, with all his characteristics of order and intellectual discipline.

While Gramsci was specifically referring to the dominant intellectuals in northern Italy during his time, and how they influenced the ‘rural bourgeoisie’ and their ‘crazy fear of the peasants’, he was also expounding on the general development of a cultural hegemony that characterizes the capitalist system:

The first problem to resolve… was how to modify the political stance and general ideology of the proletariat itself, as a national element which exists within the ensemble of State life and is unconsciously subjected to the influence of bourgeois education, the bourgeois press and bourgeois traditions.

Uncovering these hegemonic elements stemming from society’s economic base, according to Gramsci, was crucial in exposing the ruling-class propaganda that seeped through layer upon layer of working-class and peasant cultures of the time.

So, how does Gramsci’s analysis play out today? Within systems of formal education, it exposes the strict parameters set by the capitalist modes of production and the social norms that result. It explains why formal education, even at its highest level, often takes the form of indoctrination.

A prime example of this indoctrination can be seen in the field of Economics, whose students at the most prestigious institutions and earning the highest academic achievements seem unable to apply their thought beyond the narrow confines of classical liberalism and its modern form of neoliberal capitalism.

They may be Ivy League PhDs, members of the Federal Reserve, or highly influential presidential cabinet members, but all exhibit an unwillingness or inability to see the most obvious of contradictions within their theory.

The indoctrination that has essentially taken over all fields of formal ‘study’ and ‘expertise’ inevitably flows throughout society, originating from elite institutions that are specifically designed to justify and maintain the economic base, and transferred from there into so-called public policy.

In turn, public education programmes that are shaped by the capitalist hierarchy are not concerned with the students’ ability to comprehend or critically think, but rather with turning them into ‘docile and passive tools of production’.

Part of this process is focused on the creation of obedient workers who are minimally competent to fulfil their exploitative labour role; and another part is focused on preventing the same workers from being able to critically think about, and thus recognize, their exploited labour role within this system. The former fetishizes obedience, control, and ‘work ethic’; the latter obstructs awareness and resistance.

These formal, ‘public’ structures of dominant ideology are naturally coupled with more informal arrangements deriving from the market system, notably the consumption process. As such, workers are moulded through a structured progression that begins at birth.

In fulfilling this role, workers become consumers in the market for both necessary and conspicuous consumption. As the US capitalist system has become ever more reliant on conspicuous consumption (evidenced in the ‘supply-side’ phenomenon of the 1980s), this way of life once reserved for the ‘leisure class’ has now taken hold of the ‘industrious class’ (working class).

This intensification of the consumption process has exposed the working class to informal channels of indoctrination, established through advertising and marketing, popular entertainment such as television shows, movies, and video games, and the arrival of a billion-dollar voyeur industry based on worshipping the ‘cult of personality’ and celebrity (and, thus, wealth).

Clearly, when consumption becomes the only goal in life, people are pushed to consume more and more. In doing so, the working class is serving capitalist culture even in its ‘personal life’. And through this manufactured encouragement to consume lies a complementary ideology that convinces working-class folks to literally buy into, become vested in, and thus serve and protect, the capitalist system.



Colin Jenkins

is founder, editor and Social Economics Department chair at the Hampton Institute. He is published on Truthout, Common Dreams, Dissident Voice, Black Agenda Report, Popular Resistance, and in Z Magazine. 
Colin is an interdisciplinary researcher and writer with a B.A. in Historical Studies and M.A. in Social Policy. His academic work includes concentrations in Community & Government, African American Studies, and Political Economy, with focuses on Marxian and Anarchist analyses. He is the author of A Fatal Agenda: The Social, Economic and Democratic Consequences of Neoliberalism. Colin is a military veteran, a former world record-holding powerlifter, and a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). He currently resides in Albany, NY.

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