In the second part of the review of Socialist Register 2014, Alex Snowdon discusses the changing nature and position of the working class

Socialist Register 2014: Registering Class (Merlin Press 2013), 352pp; Part Two: neoliberalism and the working class.

This year’s Socialist Register, marking fifty years of the intellectual journal, is about class. Part One of this review essay, published last week, focused on two contributions to Registering Class that concern the nature and composition of today’s ruling class. This is Part Two of the review. Here I examine a number of essays which look at the working class: its changing composition and conditions, its forms of organisation, and debates about such issues as whether there is now a distinct ‘precariat’.

Precariousness as proletarianization

Bryan D. Palmer’s ‘Reconsiderations of class: precariousness as proletarianization’ is a highly effective rebuttal of claims, by Guy Standing and others, that there is now a distinct precariat which has increasingly come to supplant an older proletariat. However, this is not achieved by downplaying the tendencies to precarity and insecurity in neoliberal capitalism. These are acknowledged by Palmer as all-too-real. Rather, these tendencies are viewed as an integral part of an ongoing process in the composition of the working class, which is never static but always evolving and being re-made.

Palmer demonstrates that precarity has in fact historically been a core component of the making and re-making of the working class, not a novel or distinctive phenomenon, and is indeed one of the things that has defined and characterised what it means to be proletarian for two centuries. In the age of neoliberal capitalism this is a more global phenomenon than ever, and in the advanced capitalist countries there are neoliberal stresses and strains that mean a revival of those features, broadly termed precarity, associated with an earlier phase of capitalist development. The job security (‘a job for life’) and full employment of post-war Britain, as in most other major capitalist countries during the same period, was more the exception than the rule in capitalist society.

Since the mid-1970s the return of capitalist crisis, and the neoliberal offensive, has restructured the economy and recomposed the working class. Palmer writes that the consequences in the advanced West are ‘declining material standards of the working class as a whole; the domestication of a once combative trade unionism to a machinery of concession bargaining; a generation of young workers robbed of a sense of class place, its future marked by insecurity, with employment prospects understood to be precarious’ (p.41).

Precariousness is a global phenomenon. One point four billion workers are ‘totally dependent on waged labour for their subsistence’ but the International Labour Organization designates a larger number – 1.7 billion people – as ‘vulnerably employed’ (p.42). That is today’s global army of reserve labour. It is, as Palmer argues, part of the proletariat, not separate from it.

Palmer interrogates the fashionable arguments of Guy Standing, the latest commentator to posit an alternative force for social change to the working class. The precariat, asserts Standing, has ‘a distinctive bundle of insecurities and will have an equally distinctive set of demands’ (p.42). This separate youth-led precariat – the ‘new dangerous class’ – will be responsible for the social struggles of the coming age. Palmer responds that ‘the end result of being drawn into this ideology will be to fragment the potential power of an amalgamation of the dispossessed by hiving off a sector of this class from all other components with whom this contingent might ally, thereby weakening the forces of anti-capitalism’ (p.44).

Palmer traces the theorisation of a new ‘precariat’ as emerging from the postmodernism of the 1980s and beyond, which revelled in the fragmented and the marginal, repudiating any attempts to either understand the world as a totality or to change it through collective class struggle. He also restores a sense of broad historical perspective by reminding us that precarity has historically been a core feature of working-class experience. It is not the basis for some new class formation, but part of what characterises the current working class as a whole, after forty years of recurring capitalist crises and neoliberal policies, and as the working class expands globally along with capitalism.

The working class of western Europe was originally formed out of dispossession and characterised by insecurity of work. In the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there was ‘a torrential river of class formation, fed by underground currents of enclosures, wars, technological displacements of handicraft labours and other forces of expropriation and displacement’ (p.47). This is the huge historical process charted by the great Marxist historian EP Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class.

As an aside, it is worth noting that Thompson’s writings, including The Making of the English Working Class, provide a key reference point in the penultimate essay in the volume, ‘Rethinking class: the lineage of Socialist Register’, in which Madeleine Davis traces Socialist Register’s theorising about class over half a century. Thompson’s masterpiece is still a touchstone for understanding the emergence of capitalism and the working class in this country, but it is also an exemplar of a way of conceptualising class formation as a contested and active process; an approach that has previously been a subject of debate in the journal’s pages, stretching back to the 1960s.

Palmer observes: ‘Class has always embodied differentiation, insecurity and precariousness’ (p.49). Thompson argued that, however stratified and differentiated the resulting working class might have been, it was nonetheless a single class with an identity of interests and the capacity to be, in Marx’s phrase, the gravedigger of capitalism. In analysing today’s working class (and its prospects for resistance and self-emancipation), it is necessary to understand its diversity and breadth: much of it, especially when we take a global perspective, is vulnerably employed, not in secure, full-time employment.

What about the prospects for class struggle and organisation in a stratified working class characterised by fragmentation and insecurity? Palmer cites what Engels wrote about the New Unionism in east London, around 1889-90, to indicate the potential for working-class layers once dismissed as precarious and unorganisable to become a collective social force. In a new 1892 Preface to his classic The Condition of the Working Class in England (1844), Engels wrote of London’s East End:

‘That immense haunt of misery is no longer the stagnant pool of misery that it was six years ago. It has shaken off its torpid despair, has returned to life, and has become the home of what is called the “New Unionism” … that is to say the great mass of “unskilled” workers’ (p.54)

At times in history it has been unskilled, precarious or unorganised workers who have taken the lead in struggle; or even, as with the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement in the 1930s, the out-of-work. It may well be so again. Palmer concludes by stating that ‘it is indeed class struggle – rooted in expropriation and forged in the increasingly agitated crises of capitalism – that remains the ultimate basis for changing the world through a transformative politics’ (p.57).

Unions and the city

In many countries (nowhere more than in the US, but to a great extent in the UK too) trade unions have been severely weakened by over three decades of neoliberal offensive. Two essays in Registering Class engage with the question of how working-class organisation can be reconstituted in the wake of the largely successful neo-liberal counter-revolution. One of these, by Ian Macdonald, concerns efforts at union building in the US. The other, by Andrew Murray, examines Britain, not just for the prospects for trade union organisation but for the Left and, in the widest sense, the movement.

Macdonald’s essay is called ‘Beyond the labour of Sisyphus: unions and the city’. Intriguingly, Murray also deploys the Sisyphus analogy, which reminds us of the reversible nature of trade-union victories and the limits of union organisation. Macdonald’s concern is with labour organisation renewal in the United States, a country with private-sector union density at the shockingly low level of 6.9%.

Macdonald’s starting point is the nature of the resistance that already takes place:

‘A great many of the social struggles we see today – and are sure to see more of in the future – do not arise from the workplace or from the wage relation narrowly conceived. They are sparked by the destruction of a park, a rise in transit fares, racist policing strategies, and the dismantling of public education’ (p.247).

I take this to be a global observation as well as one that applies to the US – his four examples of triggers for revolt might be linked, in the last few years, to particular cases in Istanbul, Rio de Janeiro, London and Chicago respectively.

This is nothing new. It was Rosa Luxemburg, in The Mass Strike (1906), who first cited the labours of Sisyphus as trade union metaphor. A key theme of her classic text was the fusing of political and economic issues in workers’ struggles. She noted that positive reforms won by trade-union struggles had often been counter-balanced by setbacks in spheres of working-class experience beyond the sectional focus of the unions. She bemoaned how ‘the simultaneous and immense reduction of the proletarian standard of life by land usury, by the whole tax and customs policy, by landlord rapacity which has increased house rents to such an exorbitant extent, in short, by all the objective tendencies of bourgeois policy which have largely neutralised the advantages of the fifteen years of trade-union struggle’ (p.248).

Luxemburg was commenting on a time of frequent trade-union victories. We now live in an age characterised by a sustained ruling-class offensive in the world of work, and of weak trade unions, as well as the kind of ‘bourgeois policy’ Luxemburg refers to in other aspects of working-class life. Macdonald urges a broad social and political trade unionism as the means to rebuild union power:

‘In order to shift the struggle from the economic to the political level – and to be at the political level – unions must mobilize their members and the broader working class around issues that link demands from the workplace to the nature of what is being produced and to social reproduction’ (p.249).

A political trade unionism is especially suited to a context characterised by weakness at the level of individual workplaces, and a lack of confidence among workers to take strike action. It can go a long way to compensating for such weaknesses and, in the process, begin to rebuild workplace confidence. In Britain it is worth recalling that the powerful and combative unions of the 1970s had been built on the back of full employment, boom conditions and sectional union strength in the post-war period. These conditions no longer apply, so the shape of trade unions is very different. A fresh strategy for trade-union renewal is needed.

Macdonald comments on community struggles over issues like social housing and public education, for example in Chicago, where there has been a neoliberal agenda of entrenching class and racial divisions and privileges. In Chicago it has been overwhelmingly schools attended almost entirely by African Americans that have been subjected to closure or ‘consolidation’. Urban space is often a battleground: ‘State-led gentrification constantly redistributes wealth upwards and expels workers outwards, only to then selectively reintegrate them ‘depending on the needs of production and consumption’ (p.252). Macdonald points out a number of campaigns, from Occupy Wall Street to Stop School Closings that address such issues as these, remarking that this is ‘where the real movement is’: in militant community campaigns, sometimes involving the occupation of public space, over day care, housing, libraries and education programmes.

Trade unions can play a part in these struggles, though they often do not. Such participation requires grasping that the issues affecting working-class people, including union members, are often outside the workplace. Unions are more effective when building coalitions and taking action in communities, and such campaigns outside the workplaces are frequently more fertile territory than inside the workplaces, precisely because of problems of low union density, insecurity of working conditions and a lack of recent militant traditions among workers. Trade unions can play a substantial role because, notwithstanding low density, they are still sizeable organisations with membership and finance, and they are organised.

Two concrete examples, noted by Macdonald, are worth mentioning here. Chicago teachers in 2012 had a successful city-wide strike, which rested upon building coalitions against school closures with parents, and on articulating a set of political arguments around class, race and inequality. Teachers and their allies repeatedly took to the streets as well as taking strike action. I am active in the National Union of Teachers (NUT) in Britain and I am aware that the Chicago example is a source of inspiration for some left activists in my union. The other example, again a source of inspiration for some socialist activists here, is that of fast-food workers’ unionisation campaigns in many American cities. These campaigns have involved community organising and street actions, feeding into greater workplace organisation.

Macdonald remarks that the unions are at their most successful and relevant when they assume ‘the mantle of popular tribune’. He concludes with these words:

‘The memberships of urban-based unions do not respect a separation between workplace and social needs when they look to union staff for help with landlords, accessing public assistance or any number of personal or family crises. The most active and conscious layers of the union membership do not respect these separations when they choose to direct their political activism as workers towards community struggles, rather than union politics. A labour left can be rebuilt by drawing these elements behind a clear strategic vision’ (p.261).

The future of the British labour movement

Andrew Murray’s essay, ‘Left unity or class unity? Working class politics in Britain’, is particularly excellent and, certainly from a British perspective, an invaluable part of the volume. An earlier version of it caused some considerable online debate and controversy due to its polemical critique of the nascent Left Unity organisational project. Although I share most of Murray’s criticisms of Left Unity, this is not in fact the most important feature of his essay.

Murray is justifiably gloomy about electoral politics for the British left, noting that ‘the post-Blair/Brown Labour Party is taking only the most timorous steps away from its luridly neoliberal past’ while ‘the left-of-Labour scene is a wilderness of wrecked or aborted initiatives’ (p.266). The medium-term alternative, in Murray’s view, is a focus on developing broad unity on major political and social issues, especially opposition to austerity. This is the ‘class unity’ he refers to in his title: essentially a project of re-building the trade unions, but on a rather different model to previous eras, and linking that project to the power of social movements.

The People’s Assembly Against Austerity – broad, combative and backed by major unions – is a signal case here. Indeed both the People’s Assembly and Unite Community, a major initiative by the union in which Murray is a senior national official, can be regarded as efforts to broaden the social and political reach of unions and link them to community campaigns, as advocated by Macdonald in the American context, in the process reinvigorating workers’ struggles and developing a stronger left labour (with a small ‘l’) politics.

Murray observes that on-going disenchantment with Labour co-exists with the Labour Party’s continuing domination of left-wing space in electoral politics: ‘Electorally, the space to the left of Labour is filled by … the Labour Party. That is, many people whose views are to the left of the Labour leadership still vote for the Labour Party’ (p.269).

A number of further factors militate against the growth of effective left-of-Labour electoral vehicles: the first-past-the-post system for many elections, which is hostile to smaller parties; the continuing allegiance of many trade unions to Labour (including Unite); the divisions on the Left among a range of competing initiatives; and, perhaps most importantly, the difficulties of mounting a challenge to Labour this side of the 2015 general election. As the official Opposition, Labour is a repository for anti-austerity sentiment, however feeble its own policies may be. Of course some of these conditions will change after the next election – and I think Murray may somewhat under-estimate this – but the essay is undoubtedly correct in its extremely sober assessment of the current prospects for ‘left unity’ in electoral politics.

The weight of Labourism in the British movement means that socialists outside Labour must, if they are to build a successful anti-cuts movement, work with the more left-wing elements of Labour and appeal to many of the party’s members and supporters. The other vital constituency for any anti-cuts movement is the trade unions: Murray acknowledges the profound long-term decay in union strength, but also highlights their continuing potential as mass organisations of the working class with around seven million members between them.

The unions’ response to austerity has been uneven and ultimately inadequate, but they have still provided the bulk of numbers for mass mobilisations like the huge national demonstrations in March 2011 and October 2012, and the co-ordinated national strikes of 2011 indicated of what they are capable.

Murray was Chair of the Stop the War Coalition for a decade and he, with much justification, draws on the record of the anti-war movement to suggest how the left can make itself relevant, and be renewed, through a focus on building a mass movement. He contrasts a Left which has been passive and abstentionist in response to a far-reaching economic crisis, and subsequently the imposition of austerity, with those elements of the Left that have proved non-sectarian and outward-looking, dedicated to broad unity and the reconstitution of a broad left-wing culture through meaningful joint activity. The experience of Stop the War suggests that the left can indeed play a dynamic leading role – politically, strategically, and organisationally – in a mass movement.

Murray regrets the marginalisation of the Left: the separation between most of the existing Left and ‘the working class it seeks to speak for’. He argues: ‘What left politics today lacks is that union of socialism with the mass movement which can be the only real foundation of social transformation’ (p.279). The People’s Assembly is one part of the solution; re-building the trade unions on a ‘social movement’ model, reflecting the working class as it really is, with a broad campaigning reach beyond the workplaces, is the other vital ingredient. He writes:

‘Reconstituting the labour movement so that it becomes a powerful expression of the working class interest, and thereby a means of the working class giving a lead to everyone interested in a new and better society, needs to be seen as the main task for socialists to address’ (p.280).

This question of working-class agency is a minor theme of the volume and could perhaps have been given greater prominence, although it may be developed in next year’s volume, but Murray provides a stimulating starting point by insisting that discussion of agency must be shaped by analysis of developments in the economy and the recomposition of the working class under the impact of neoliberalism. In mainstream political and academic discourses class remains unfashionable, but class struggle is positively taboo.

The potential, and the challenge, for the working class to become a serious collective actor in shaping the next stage of history seems an appropriate note on which to end. If class, however much the classes may be re-structured, remains as relevant as ever, as demonstrated by many of this volume’s essays, then class struggle, too, must remain a live subject.

Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).

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