Workers slaving overtime in cramped, airless garment sweatshops in Dhaka, forging metal and plastic into electronic parts in grueling twelve-hour shifts in electronics factories in Shenzen, or producing auto parts under repressive and hazardous conditions in maquiladoras in Juárez are linked in their common experience of subjugation and exploitation by the global network of corporate capital. Is there a link between the experience of workers in Bangladesh, China, and Mexico and that of coal miners working on subcontract arrangements in West Virginia, contract workers building cell towers and networks for large mobile carriers like at&t in Wyoming, the newly employed autoworkers at a plant in Michigan, packers in an Amazon warehouse in Pennsylvania, temporary workers filling shelves at a big-box retail store in Alabama or flipping burgers at a fast food outlet in Florida?
Following Engels and Lenin it is argued that the upper stratum of the working class in the advanced capitalist core, in particular in the US, constitutes a labor aristocracy that draws its relatively higher standard of living from the exploitation of workers in the less developed periphery.1 A different argument that has been put forward recently is that the advanced capitalist countries extract imperialist super-profits by subjecting workers in the periphery to super-exploitation.2 US imperialism in these formulations systematically subjects workers in the US and workers in Bangladesh, China, and Mexico to different rates of exploitation. The US worker faces a lower rate of exploitation, and this lower rate hinges on the super-exploitation of workers in the latter countries. Instead of workers across the world finding common cause against the onslaught of capital, these arguments place workers in the US and workers in the periphery in structurally separate positions, and also implicate US workers in the mechanisms of imperialist rents.
Are these accounts of the relationship between imperialism and labor in the core and periphery a valid characterization of the contemporary world? Do US workers, in the advanced capitalist core of the global economy, actually benefit from the country’s exercise of imperial power? Are the interests of workers in the US at odds with those of workers in Bangladesh, China, and Mexico?
The answer to these questions is critical to political strategy. It is a mistake to pit the interests of low-wage workers in countries in the periphery against those in the US (or other advanced capitalist countries). The global economy has been drawn more tightly into the web of corporate capital in the past few decades. In the process, capital has subjected workers across the globe to the full force of competitive pressures that divide and fragment the working class. This pressure, imposed by capital in its drive for profits, has subjected these workers to increasingly vulnerable and impoverished livelihoods. Capital is united in its onslaught against labor — globally. Workers’ wages and living standards may be lower in the developing world, but the fact that they are part of a common pool of labor from which global capital wrests its profits means that their induction into the global labor pool also strengthens the power of capital over workers in the imperial center.