Producerism: Socialism and Anti-Imperialism For Fools

There is an old saying, known among socialists, that antisemitism is socialism for fools.1 I think something similar can be said about producerism: Producerism is socialism for fools. But what exactly is producerism? It is not exactly a well-formulated and systematized theory or doctrine, but rather it is a vague and reactionary populist outlook of the small business owners, labor aristocracy (i.e. the upper stratum of the working class), petit-bourgeois professionals (e.g. doctors, lawyers, and dentists who run their own practice) and others associated with the so-called “middle class.”

Since the dawn of world capitalism, producerism has a long history that predates Marxism. For example, in the context of the United States, Andrew Jackson inspired a populist movement of what he considers to be “productive” classes of society (e.g. white farmers, artisans, slave owning planters, laborers, and “productive” capitalists) against unproductive classes (e.g. bankers, speculators, monopolists, and people of color).2 Moreover, in the 20th century, Producerism as an ideology was articulated by national socialists, Italian fascists, the Strasser brothers, and others.

Producerist rhetoric and aesthetics can appear as expressing authentic working class sentiments, indicating real revolutionary potential, to an inexperienced and naive socialist. However, producerism is in fact another instance of an ideology, in the Marxist sense, that conceals the true class character of the outlook with familiar terms, rhetoric, and aesthetics. Producerism as an outlook is a Manichean outlook that divides society between producers and non-producers and it laments that we live under a social order imposed by non-producers. Historically, according to this outlook, there are two types of non-producers.34

The first type of non-producer are the non-productive “elites”: financiers, multinational corporations (including real estate), banks, speculators, hedge funds, and others associated with the financial sector. The second type of non-producers, which we can call “non-productive poor” or “non-productive underclass,”  are welfare recipients, homeless people, chronically unemployed, and the working poor in general. Because producerism expresses hostility against the non-productive elites, it can deceptively come across as an authentic expression of working-class populism and anti-capitalism. However, producerist rhetoric also expresses hostility against the “non-productive poor,” which is overrepresented by indigenous peoples, Black people, immigrants, single mothers, and so on. And historically anti-semites associate the non-productive elites with the Jewish people. So far I have explained two types of non-producers according to this outlook, but who are the producers? The “producers” is a heterogeneous category, as far as Marxist conception of class is concerned, that includes not only the industrial proletariat, but also small farmers, entrepreneurs, technicians, industrial bourgeoisie (e.g. Henry Ford), artisans, and small business owners. “Producers” as a category, however, is ideological in the Marxist sense because it conceals or overlooks the class distinctions between proletariat, small farmers, petit-bourgeois businessmen, entrepreneurs, industrial capitalists, and so on. Similarly, “non-producers” is also an ideological category because it conceals or overlooks the class distinction between the upper stratum of the bourgeoisie (which Lenin calls Financial Oligarchy) and lower strata of the proletariat (including what some Marxists call the “lumpen-proletariat”5). 

In the American context, producers are associated with historically upwardly mobile people who attained occupations or jobs associated with a quality of life that most of us would recognize as the “American Dream.” Historically, people who belong to this class of producers (in the non-Marxist sense) are predominantly (if not exclusively) white people who like to label themselves as the “middle class.” Producers are not only associated with being predominantly white, but they’re also associated with having a patriarchal nuclear family in which the male breadwinner provides for his family. Historically, during the postwar period, the breadwinners enjoyed relatively high paying factory jobs thanks to trade-unions and the postwar Fordist-Keynesian economy in which a majority stratum of workers (predominantly, but not exclusively, white) have access to relatively high paying jobs that can afford them the bourgeoisified lifestyle.  In contrast to the bourgeosified stratum of workers, the working poor are artificially trapped in racialized ghettos. Under this Fordist-Keynesian capitalist economy, people not only have access to relatively high income and unionized jobs in industrial sectors, but they also have an opportunity to accumulate just enough wealth to start a small business. This was the postwar era before the neoliberal era. During the neoliberal era, imperial core countries such as America have undergone de-industrialization, which was part of the broader process of globalization in which national circuits of capital transform into global assembly lines (global circuits of capital), leading to Global Capitalism.6 Neoliberal policies, deindustrialization, and globalization have created conditions that spark a producerist-populist movement that unconsciously yearn for Fordist-Keynesian Capitalism. Producerism is latent (or even explicit) white chauvinism that yearns for an era that can never be restored. 

Producerism as an outlook that I described so far, however, isn’t merely a contemporary American phenomenon. Producerism doesn’t have a specific origin, but rather it is a recurring outlook that emerges every now and then since the dawn of world capitalism7. However, producerism was more or less well articulated by 20th century fascists (to be clear: all fascists are producerists, but not all producerists are fascists). A notorious example of fascists who articulated producerism is the Strasser brothers Otto and George. The Strasser brothers articulated a producerist outlook in which they drew a sharp and Manichean distinction between Finance Capitalism and Productive Capitalism8. Finance Capitalism was seen as an unproductive and parasitic system that doesn’t aim to develop the productive forces, but extract wealth from producers in the form of usurious loans and rent. Productive Capitalism, in contrast, is industrial capitalism in which the primary function of loans is to help the industrial bourgeoisie develop productive forces rather than extract interest from them. The Strasser brothers denounce Finance Capitalism as “Jewish Capitalism,” expressing a form of economic anti-semitism, while lauding Productive Capitalism. 

Before the Strasser brothers and the Nazi party, there were prototypical National Socialists such as Friedrich Naumann and Theodor Fritsch who articulated a Manichean producerist outlook that not only draws a sharp distinction between producers and non-producers but presents this distinction as being the primary social cleavage, replacing class antagonism between proletariat and bourgeoisie with “producers” and “non-producers.”9 In other words, the National Socialists  rejected the Marxist view of class struggle for the producerist view that the primary contradiction or division is between producers and non-producers. Unlike Marxists who wish to expropriate the means of production from the bourgeoisie, the national socialists promote harmony between classes under the label “producers” against non-producers. Recall that “producers” and “non-producers” are not classes in the Marxist sense. Producerism lumps people from disparate social classes under two artificial categories, producers and non-producers, for the purpose of channeling away revolutionary energy from socialism. 

The Strasser brothers drew a Manichean distinction between Finance Capitalism and Productive capitalism while the pre-Nazi National Socialists drew a similar Manichean distinction between producers and non-producers. These Manichean distinctions, which were made in the past, reappear in contemporary online discourse. Specifically, the Manichean distinction between producer and non-producer reappears again in contemporary discourse as “productive workers” and “non-productive workers.” There was an online debate a couple of years ago on what constitutes “productive labor” and “unproductive labor.” There were some who insist that service workers, retail workers, the so-called professional-managerial class, and so on are “unproductive workers” while industrial workers (including workers in logistics and transportation) are “productive workers.” There is even a meme that includes landlords under the label “working class” while implying that service workers aren’t real workers. 

The underlying thinking of those who insist that service workers, PMCs, and retail workers aren’t productive workers is essentially producerism. The rationale is that in a post-industrial economy dominated by service/retail sectors and finance, insurance, and real estate sectors (FIRE), both of which largely replace industrial sectors, labor has largely degenerated into a de-industrialized form and therefore becomes unproductive. This has led some to argue against unionizing service workers, retail workers, and professional-managerial workers in favor of unionizing the new industrial workers such as Amazon workers. Again, this hostility towards non-industrial workers expresses the producerist schema that presents an antagonism between producers and non-producers. 

The Manichaen distinction between Finance Capitalism and Industrial Capitalism is also reappearing in contemporary online political discourse. Caleb Maupin, a self-identified communist, argues in one of his tweets that workers should form an alliance with the industrial capitalists against finance capitalists in order to return back to industrial capitalism from finance capitalism. How does Maupin, a self-identified communist, come to this very surprising conclusion? Maupin has recommended people to read the Lyn Marcus book Dialectical Economics in which the author more or less gave a producerist interpretation of Marx’s analysis of capitalism. In particular, Lyn Marcus argues in favor of unfettered industrial capitalism in which productive forces are made more efficient for “unlimited” economic growth. Lyn Marcus is none other than Lyndon LaRouche who is known for advocating unfettered industrial capitalism against finance capitalism. One of the views associated with Orthodox Marxism, and to an extent subsequent Marxists, is the importance of using the market economy to develop productive forces as the precondition for socialism. Inspired by this tendency of Orthodox Marxism, LaRouche emphasizes the progressive nature of industrial capitalism in developing the productive forces while criticizing that finance capitalism does the opposite.10

One of the recurring themes of LaRouche’s work is that we have transitioned from industrial capitalism to finance capitalism and we need to return back to industrial capitalism. This also informs and guides the geopolitics of LaRouche and Maupin, sometimes under the label of being “anti-imperialist,” who see the world divided between countries that uphold the global finance capitalist order and countries that oppose it for industrial capitalism. According to this geopolitical outlook, the U.S., Western Europe, and other allies of the U.S. uphold the global finance capitalist order, dominated by institutions such as the IMF, World Bank, World Trade Organization, and so on, in which wealth is primarily extracted through rent, usurious interest, bonds, and a petrodollar recycling system. In these countries, wealth is not primarily produced in the “real economy,” but primarily extracted through rent and debt. In contrast, countries such as Russia, China, Iran, and others attempt to create an alternative to the global finance capitalist order by pursuing an industrial and “developmentalist” path that prioritizes the “real economy” over a financialized economy. LaRouche and Maupin, following their producerist predecessors, make a distinction between “city builders” and “vandals,” which is not too different from the producerist distinction between “producers” and “non-producers.” In fact, LaRouche and Maupin calling some countries “city builders” while denouncing others as “vandals” is not too different from fascists praising Germany and Italy as “proletarian nations” while denouncing the British Empire as a “plutocratic nation.”11 LaRouche and Maupin call countries like the U.S. that uphold the global finance capitalist order “vandals” (plutocratic nation), but they call countries such as Russia, China, Iran, and so on as “city builders” (proletarian nation).12 This producerist-style geopolitics, held by fascists and nationalists alike, gives the appearance of anti-imperialism, but in fact it promotes class collaboration.

Producerism is not not only a recurring theme of the works of Maupin and LaRouche, but it is also a recurring theme in the works of a Marxist economist Michael Hudson. It should be emphasized here that unlike LaRouche, Michael Hudson is by no means a reactionary, anti semitic, and far right-wing populist. Hudson is a Marxist economist who provides invaluable insight in his work Super Imperialism where he explains the origin and development of the US-led finance capitalist world order in which the U.S. dollar functions as the world currency which countries must use to purchase fossil fuel and U.S. treasury bonds.13 Unlike most Marxist economists, Hudson is deeply influenced by the tradition of classical economics of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and John Stuart Mill and his reading of Marx’s works is heavily informed by that tradition. 

With all that being said, there is a recurring producerist-style theme in Hudon’s works. For instance, in Hudson’s article “Finance Capitalism versus Industrial Capitalism: The Rentier Resurgence and Takeover,” Hudson explains the difference between finance capitalism and industrial capitalism. Hudson argues that Marx’s work Capital (Volume 1), which primarily focuses on the production process within a circuit of capital, mostly describes industrial capitalism and one of the key features of industrial capitalism is that the profit motive of capital accumulation tends to incentivize innovation and development of productive forces. Industrial capitalists who make a profit are incentivized by the process of capital accumulation to reinvest their profit into not only purchasing more constant capital (machineries, resources, instruments, and so on) and variable capital (labor power), but they must also spend some of the money capital on improving production, including the labor process, to lower cost of production in a competitive market. Because of these incentives for improving production, lowering production cost, developing (and building up more) productive forces, purchasing labor-power, and so on, industrial capitalism appears to encourage economic growth. But the same forces that encourage economic growth also create a crisis. When commodities are mass-produced thanks to technical improvement and development of productive forces and thereby lowering cost of production, including lowering wages, this creates a crisis of overproduction. Because improving production and lowering its cost not only lead to a mass production of commodities, but also lowering real wages relative to the profit made by industrial capitalists, workers on the whole aren’t making enough in wages to purchase back enough of the commodities they produced. This predicament leads to an excessive surplus of commodities that can’t be absorbed by the market and the amount of capital accumulated in the form of profit can’t be invested efficiently. The uninvested profit, when accrued beyond a threshold, becomes an overaccumulation of wealth. Because of this inherent logic of industrial capitalism, overaccumulation of (unused) money capital also means that workers will suffer from unemployment, lower living standard, or excessive exploitation. Because of this intense contradiction between capital and labor inherent in industrial capitalism, Marx was optimistic that industrial capitalism will transform into socialism through a proletarian revolution. 

But a world proletarian revolution hasn’t occurred. Hudson argues that the reason is because industrial capitalism has been transformed into finance capitalism where the economic incentives inherent in industrial capitalism are largely missing. The economic incentives of industrial capitalism manifest an insoluble contradiction that would create objective conditions for a socialist revolution (or at least a gradual evolution to socialism), but these economic incentives are largely absent under finance capitalism. Under finance capitalism, the dominant economic incentive is to not necessarily develop productive forces, but to extract wealth in the form of rent and interest; productive forces are developed only to create wealth in order to be extracted in the form of rent and interest. This dominant economic incentive that was at best secondary under industrial capitalism was the primary economic incentive under feudalism in which feudal landlords and banks extract wealth through rent and interest respectively. In this sense, according to Hudson, finance capitalism has more in common with feudalism than it does with industrial capitalism because just as feudalism was dominated by its own rentier class (feudal landlords, the Church, and banks), finance capitalism is dominated by its rentier class of financial oligarchs. The rentier class of financial oligarchs consists of people who enjoy their class power through economic sectors in finance, insurance, and real estate (FIRE). 

What makes finance capitalism so troubling for Hudson is that it develops productive forces only to be “cannibalized”  later by the rentier class through debt. Consider an example: a lot of readers may remember that Toys R’ Us was eventually dismantled because of the amount of debt it accumulated from borrowing loans from venture capitalists. From the perspective of Hudon’s theory of finance capitalism, this isn’t an isolated incident, but rather this kind of incident is prevalent because the rentier class gives out loans by purchasing bonds from corporations and as a result many of these corporations who accrue profit don’t invest sufficient amount of it into developing productive forces, but rather most of the profit is used to pay off interest to the rentier class. Hudson isn’t claiming that development of productive forces isn’t happening at all under finance capitalism, but the development of productive forces is heavily constrained by the rent-seeking motive (as opposed to the profit-seeking motive) that is structurally incentivized by finance capitalism. In this sense, according to Hudson, the rentier class is more of a parasitic class than industrial capitalists. Finance capitalism, driven primarily by rent-seeking, is a parasitic system whereas industrial capitalism, driven by profit-seeking, is far less parasitic since it is incentivized to give priority to developing productive forces. Given Hudson’s critical diagnosis of finance capitalism (and assuming that he’s correct), what is his solution? Hudson’s solution is to return back to industrial capitalism because unlike finance capitalism industrial capitalism has an innate potential to become socialism (either through reforms or a revolution).14

A critic of Hudson, J.W. Mason argues that while there is merit and insight to Hudson’s work on finance capitalism, Hudson appears to overstate his view that finance capital and industrial capital are in an antagonistic relationship with one another.15 Mason gives an example of August Belmont (no relation to Trevor Belmont, the vampire slayer), a land speculator who owned a company that was developing the first subway system in New York City. The company, under the control of Belmond, would extend transit service to a land already owned by Belmon and Belmont would later sell the land at a higher price than original price since its value has been augmented by having a transit service. Mason uses this example to argue that Belmont occupies two positions: a finance capitalist and an industrial capitalist. As someone who uses a corporation to build the first subway system in New York City, Belmont appears as an industrial capitalist. In contrast, as someone who purchases a land only to sell it off at an inflated price, thanks to extending a transit system to a land he happens to own, Belmont appears as a finance capitalist. But these two positions that Belmont occupies aren’t antagonistic to one another, but rather they are two sides of the same coin. Mason uses this example to make the point that finance capital and industrial capital aren’t necessarily antagonistic to one another, but they are two sides of the same coin: capital. 

While the criticism Mason offered above is insightful, he raises a more interesting point about Hudson’s analysis. Mason raises a concern that Hudson’s theory has a troubling political implication. In particular, Huson’s theory presents industrial capitalism as more preferable to finance capitalism, it is not far fetched to use Hudson’s theory to justify forming an alliance with industrial capitalists against financial oligarchs and real estate developers. Recall that Caleb Maupin, who I mentioned earlier, argues that workers should form an alliance with industrial capitalists against finance capitalists. Lyndon LaRouche and his supporters also argue for a return to a Fordist-Industrialist capitalism.16

To be clear, Michael Hudson is not a fascist. Hudson might appropriately be classified as a producerist, but not all producerists are fascists even though all fascists are producerists. What makes Hudson arguably a producerist is that his theory leads to an inevitable producerist conclusion that not only repudiates finance capitalism, but calls for workers to form an alliance with industrial capitalists against finance capitalists. The reason why Hudson’s theory inevitably leads to a producerist conclusion is that his conclusion rests on his premise: his manichean-style contrast between industrial capitalism and finance capitalism; the former incentives development of productive forces while the latter incentivizes rent-seeking which limits the development of productive forces. In this respect, Hudson’s theory inadvertently gives ammunition to fascists.

There is another sense in which Hudon’s theory is producerist. Hudson’s theory implies that workers are no longer proletarian per se, but they’re becoming more like modern-day serfs.17 Since most corporations and small businesses exist to make profit in order to pay off interest to the rentier class, workers employed in those businesses are effectively working to create wealth as rent or interest for the rentier class. In this respect, workers appear less proletarian and appear more like serfs whose surplus labor becomes rent and interest for the rentier class. Since the rentier class as Hudson understands it is defined by extracting rent and interest from their property, then dialectically people who work in their property are functionally similar (if not identical) to serfs. What makes this line of thinking producerist is that it can potentially lead to the conclusion that most workers are unproductive workers whose labor creates wealth in the form of rent and interest rather than in the form of profit. Strictly speaking, from a Marxist perspective, productive labor is productive insofar as it is employed by capitalists to valorize capital in the form of profit.18 However, under finance capitalism, a majority of labor is unproductive because it ultimately doesn’t valorize capital in the form of profit, but rather labor is used for creating wealth as rent and interest. This creates a third type of non-producers (as opposed to being non-productive elites or a non-productive underclass): workers whose labor is no longer “productive” in the Marxist sense because their labor only creates wealth as interest or rent rather than as profit. 

Overall, Hudson belongs to a broader zeitgeist of a producerist-populist movement that expresses discontent with Global Capitalism. Since the dawn of Global Capitalism, beginning around the 70s or 80s, the circuits of capital that were demarcated by national borders as national assembly lines have transcended such borders by becoming global assembly lines.19 This is largely thanks to institutions that support free trade and use structural adjustment loans as leverage against most of the world, especially the third world, to open up borders for the unmitigated export of capital. A significant stratum of the capitalist class, who own circuits of capital that were more or less demarcated by borders of nation-states, have become transnational capitalist class.20 The result of globalization, and later the financial crisis, is that the petite-bourgeoisie, labor aristocracy, small entrepreneurs, and others face an increasing risk of proletarianization. This creates a mass populist movement that opposes the new order of global capitalism, but they oppose it from the right. They have no revolutionary consciousness because their ideological consciousness tends to be producerist in that they perceive themselves the real “producers” of society’s wealth, while the rest of society are unproductive elites, unproductive underclass, and unproductive debt peon workers in the service and retail sectors. 

This way of dividing up society into producers and non-producers obfuscates class antagonism, thereby preventing people from developing revolutionary consciousness. It also leads to class collaborationism in that it calls for sections of the petite-bourgeoisie, entrepreneurs, labor aristocracy, and other upper strata of the working class to form an alliance. Obfuscation of class struggle and class collaborationism under populist and producerist slogans and rhetoric is an early sign of fascism. This producerist populism, which has attracted fascists and non-fascists alike, has a real potential to become a full blown fascist movement that could take over state power if socialists fail to mobilize and organize the working class. 

  1. Max Paul Friedman, Rethinking Anti Semitism: The History of an Exceptional Concept in American Foreign Relations (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 264. ↩︎
  2. “The Producerist Narrative in Repressive Right-Wing Populism,” in Political Research Associates (2000). ↩︎
  3. Chip Beret and Matthew N. Lyons, Right-wing Populism In America: Too Close For Comfort (New York: Guildford Publication, 2016), 8-9. ↩︎
  4. Jeff Schantz, “Producerism: The Homegrown Roots of Trump,” in the Anarcho-Syndicalist Review 70 (2017). ↩︎
  5. Vladimir Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism ↩︎
  6. William Robinson, A Theory of Global Capitalism: Production, Class, and State in a Transnational World (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2004). ↩︎
  7. Jeff Schantz, “Producerism: The Homegrown Roots of Trump,” in the Anarcho-Syndicalist Review 70 (2017). ↩︎
  8. C. T. Husbands, “Militant Neo-Nazism in the Federal Republic of Germany,“ in L. Cheles, R. Ferguson & M. Vaughan, Neo-Fascism in Europe, (London: Longman Group UK, 1992), 98. ↩︎
  9. Asaf Kedar. “National Socialism Before Nazism: Friedrich Naumann and Theodor Fritsch, 1890-1914.” (Doctoral Dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 2010), 8. ↩︎
  10. Donald Parkinson, “LaRouche: A Warning For Us All,” in Cosmonaut Magazine (2019). ↩︎
  11.  “Germany: Reich v. Plutocrats,” Time (1940). ↩︎
  12. Caleb Maupin, City Builders and Vandals In Our Age (Growth Engine LLC, 2019). ↩︎
  13. Michael Hudson, Super Imperialism: The Origin and Fundamentals of U.S. World Domination (London: Pluto Press, 2003). ↩︎
  14. Ibid. ↩︎
  15. J.W. Mason, “‘Comments on Michael Hudson: Making Capitalism Great Again? A Critique of the “Rentier Takeover’ Thesis,” Review of Radical Political Economics Volume 53 (2021). ↩︎
  16. Donald Parkinson, “LaRouche: A Warning For Us All,” in Cosmonaut Magazine (2019). ↩︎
  17. Hudson comes close to saying that workers are modern day serfs in his work “The Road to Debt Deflation, Debt Peonage,and Neo Feudalism,” published by Levy Economic Institute of Bard College. ↩︎
  18. Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, (London: Penguin Books, 1976), 1043-1044. ↩︎
  19. William Robinson, A Theory of Global Capitalism: Production, Class, and State in a Transnational World (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2004). ↩︎
  20. William Robinson and Jerry Harris, “Towards a Global Ruling Class? Globalization and the Transnational Capitalist Class,” Science and Society 64 (2000). ↩︎



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