log in

  • Published in Theory
Striking teamsters battling police on the streets of Minneapolis, Minnesota, June 1934

Striking teamsters battling police on the streets of Minneapolis, Minnesota, June 1934. Source: Wikicommons / Public domain / cropped from original

In the second in the series on class, Chris Nineham shows that the working class is as central as ever to capitalism here and across the world

Part One: The Great Denial - why they don’t want us to talk about class
Part Three: Class analysis or identity politics?
Part Four: Capitalism and class consciousness
Part Five: Southern Storms - class in the developing world
Part Six: the working class and revolution

It has become a commonplace that the working class in the older capitalist countries has declined, and in some versions even disappeared, during the years of neoliberalism. A BBC journalist neatly summed up the received wisdom recently:

‘A lot has changed since the winter of discontent in 1979. The manufacturing based economy of the 1960s and 1970s is a distant memory. Only one in six of private-sector workers are in a union today. Many are self-employed, on short-term contracts or they work for small companies. Trade unionism is mainly in the public sector.’

The conclusion, naturally, is that although trade unions were once ‘a power in the land’, now their ability to fight has massively declined.[i] Unfortunately, some of the most extreme versions of the decline of the working-class thesis have come from the left. French socialist André Gorz led the way with his 1982 book, Farewell to the Working Class, arguing that the new economy had eroded the basis of traditional class solidarities. Variations on the theme were presented by a string of left intellectuals, including the British proponents of the theory of New Times, Stuart Hall and Charles Leadbetter. They argued that after the defeats of the 1970s and early 1980s and in the new ‘post-Fordist’ economy that followed, the working class was apparently no longer capable of, or interested in, resistance to exploitation.

Social-democratic parties enthusiastically took up the theme. Labour’s leader at the time, Neil Kinnock, refused to back the miners during their great strike, and spent the rest of the 1980s attacking the left in Labour and pulling the party away even from traditional social-democratic policies of renationalisation and trade-union rights. ‘Them and us are gone now,’ he insisted, ‘we are all in it together.’[ii]

He was following a trend set by German Social Democrat leader Helmut Schmidt, ultimately followed by French Socialist Party leader Francois Mitterrand, and taken to a new level by Tony Blair at the end of the 1990s who announced categorically, ‘the class war is over’.[iii]

Pessimism of the intellectuals

In the neoliberal gloom that followed, left-leaning writers suggested all sorts of new concepts of society without a working class at its centre. Italian autonomists Hardt and Negri replaced the idea with a loosely defined ‘multitude’, whose boundless creativity has somehow been captured by an ill-defined relation of ‘Empire’. More prosaically, British academic Guy Standing won widespread support for his view that the working class had been replaced by a new series of classes. These included the ‘salariat’, highly-paid and highly-skilled ‘proficians’; a dwindling core of manual workers; and the ‘precariat’, a rapidly growing sector suffering from chronic and structural insecurity with different interests and concerns from the narrowing groups of permanent workers. Standing helped clear the way to the notion of workers as a privileged layer exemplified in Slavoj Zizek’s comment: ‘Who dares strike today, when having a permanent job is itself a privilege? Not low-paid workers ... but those privileged workers who have guaranteed jobs.’[iv]

Even more ‘orthodox’ Marxists began to express unease at an understanding of society based on the central fact of the exploitation of workers. Eric Olin Wright and Richard D. Wolff were amongst the self-proclaimed Marxists first convinced that it was time to jettison Marx’s idea that the ‘labour-capital contradiction’ was the primary fault-line in society.  David Harvey has followed suit, claiming that ‘accumulation by dispossession’ is the central feature of the neoliberal economy.[v]

Meanwhile, theorists of what they called ‘the new capitalism’ claimed that labour, in so far as it exists, nowadays produces immaterial goods like information, knowledge, images and relationships, rather than tangible or quantifiable things. The service sector was widely assumed to be completely separate from the world of production and commodities. Influential sociologist Manuel Castells brought many of these ideas together in a series of studies which painted a picture of a networked society focussed on communication, and an immaterial knowledge economy whose ‘flows’ cannot be pinned down to concepts of commodity, exploitation or surplus value. In his 2010 work, The Power of Identity, Manuel Castells drew the conclusion that now has common currency, that all these processes render socialism hopelessly outdated and leave us only with a multitude of identity-based resistances.

Actually existing capitalism

Any serious analysis of recent production trends, class relations and patterns of struggle shows that these attempts to downplay class were and are completely misleading. Neoliberalism has re-organised production and traumatically reshaped the working class internationally. In both the older capitalist economies and the developing world, whole industries have been destroyed, new technologies have sprung up, production has been relocated and state support for workers and the poor has been slashed.

There has been breakneck technological innovation, some de-industrialisation, a big expansion in the so-called service sector, an explosion of outsourcing and the associated privatisation of swathes of the public sector. All of this is part of a sustained employers’ offensive on many fronts, leading to wage cuts, de-unionisation and the introduction of new, inhuman, lean and high surveillance management methods. The result has been a sharp decline in working-class living standards as well as a record low level of industrial resistance. But it has not produced anything approaching a world of immaterial labour, a frictionless economy, the end of the working class or all-pervading precarity.

It will surprise many people to hear that in fact in this period there has been a sharp growth in the size of the global working class. As the International Labour Organisation reported in 2014, for the first time in history, wage-earning is now the majority experience globally.[vi] The global wage-earning non-agricultural workforce grew from 1.5 billion in 1999 to 2.1 billion in 2013, making it about half of the world’s workforce. At the same time, the number of industrial workers rose from 533.2 million in 1999 to 724.2 million in 2013.[vii]

Most of the growth in the working class, as we shall see later in this series, has taken place in the Global South. But we need to very careful about the idea of ‘de-industrialisation’ in the core, and the accompanying idea of terminal outsourcing to the south. The number of industrial workers in the developed economies did fall in the same period by about one sixth. The UK has been amongst the worst affected, as manufacturing employment here has halved since 1978. This is still, however, an awfully long way from terminal de-industrialisation. The US still employs more than twelve-million manufacturing workers, and the figure has been rising recently. In Germany, more than a quarter of workers still work in manufacturing industry.

In terms of actual output, as opposed to employment, manufacturing remains a crucial, often growing, sector of all developed economies. US manufacturing output in particular has in fact been rising for years. As The Economist magazine pointed out recently, ‘for all the bellyaching about the “decline of American manufacturing” and “the shifting of production en masse to China”, real output has been growing at an annual pace of almost 4 per cent since 1991, faster than GDP growth’.[viii]

So, even by official calculations, which we will see are profoundly misleading, there is still a numerically very important manufacturing working class in the west. What these figures show too is that the bulk of capitalist accumulation still takes place through standard forms of work-based exploitation, rather than through land grabbing or the ransacking of the public sphere or commons, David Harvey’s ‘accumulation through dispossession’. Harvey points to real processes which have had devastating effects, but as other writers have shown, the increase in productivity and the number of workers internationally makes claims that such types of accumulation are the defining characteristics of neoliberal capitalism completely implausible. 

Pressure points

Neoliberal globalisation has massively boosted communication, transport and other ‘service’ sectors. It is clear from these figures and crucial to understand however, that this mushrooming of ‘services’, and what has been called a ‘logistics revolution’, have in fact taken place in the context of a huge increase in the production of physical commodities globally and in the old capitalist economies.

When you think about it, this is hardly surprising. The new economy may not be quite as thoroughly globalised as some of its boosters suggest, but the ‘logistics revolution’ is precisely the product of the fact that commodities of all kinds circulate the globe to an unprecedented degree. Such mobility relies on an enormous, immobile, material infrastructure, on networks of industry, logistics, communications and commerce. Although those millions that staff them are categorised as service workers, as Kim Moody argues, logistics workers who help link the production chain and bring goods to the market are part of the process of production: ‘The supply chain, from raw materials to the very doors of Wal-Mart is, in the Marxist view, a production assembly line.’ As he goes on to say:

‘Millions of service, sales, and even office workers now work in larger, more capital-intensive workplaces. They are increasingly linked together in vulnerable technology-driven supply chains, themselves organized around enormous logistics clusters that concentrate tens and even hundreds of thousands of workers in finite geographical sites.’[ix]

These workers have tremendous power, not just because of the direct impact their actions have on their immediate employers, but also on the upstream/downstream impact of the failure to deliver goods, services and people to their destination in the new highly networked economy. It hasn’t occurred to the prophets of ‘immaterial capitalism’ that networks are actually material things which ironically depend very much on their exact location. Few ‘spatial fixes’ are available to the capitalists here. As David Harvey has pointed out: ‘Roads, railways, canals, airports, etc., cannot be moved without the value embodied in them being lost.’[x]

So much for logistics. More generally, the distinction between services and manufacturing is in any case often quite arbitrary and certainly can’t be seen as differentiating between productive and non-productive or non-profitable parts of the economy. The reality is that huge numbers of other ‘service-sector’ jobs in fact involve the physical transformation of inputs into increased-value outputs: capitalist exploitation in other words. Jobs in, for example, food services, cleaning, hotels, hospitals, maintenance and entertainment are mainly in the private sector, organised along capitalist lines, and producing some sort of commodity. A huge proportion of these jobs are low-skilled and low-paid. Very few are recognisably white-collar, let alone ‘immaterial’. Most of them are routine, many are manual and they often require little training.

Even where services remain in the public sector, they constitute a social cost to the capitalists that they have to fund partly out of their profits. The neoliberal years have been marked by the introduction of internal markets, incentives and heavy surveillance into the public sector, often making the work experience there virtually indistinguishable from the private.

The reality is that the working class in the West has not been terminally atomised, shrunk, exported, or otherwise made marginal to the economy. What has happened is that it has been reorganised as part of a massive restructuring of the production process. It has turned many people’s experience of work into a nightmare and massively weakened working-class organisation. As in previous such restructurings, however, new concentrations of labour and potential centres of working-class leverage and power are emerging.

If the initial impact of the neoliberal offensive in the 1980s was one of decentralising production and outsourcing, particularly in the so-called service sector, the expansion of capital accumulation has centralised capital once again and reorganised the production of goods and services across large spaces. Cleaners, caterers, security staff and maintenance workers in corporate office buildings, call centres, government buildings, as well as universities and hospitals, are essential to the accumulation of profits, or at least the daily functioning of key institutions. This is a fact recognised in their designation as ‘key workers’ during the pandemic. They are more and more employed by huge international companies. Strikes in this sector have immediate and damaging impact.

Education is an important pressure point in the global production process. While we don’t live in the free-flowing knowledge economy of some commentators’ fantasies, data and information processing have become increasingly important elements of the production process. The number of teachers worldwide began to rise sharply in the second half of last century, growing from eight million in 1950 to 47 million in 1990. By 2014 there were an estimated 83 million teachers around the world.[xi]

Teachers are highly skilled workers and therefore relatively difficult to replace at short notice, but as their importance in producing new generations of workers has increased, they have had less and less control over their curriculum, and have faced a more and more bureaucratised labour process. This contradiction between their social role in developing other human beings, and an increasingly unmanageable and ‘industrial’ work process has created immense dissatisfaction. Perhaps no surprise then that education was one of the few sectors that has seen a rising trend of labour unrest over the last few decades, and that teachers’ strikes have been a central feature of resistance to cuts and austerity across the developed and underdeveloped world.

Recomposition of the working class

Neoliberalism has also had a profound effect on the diversity of the working class. In the US, women’s participation in the labour market has nearly doubled since 1950, to almost 57% in 2016. The proportion of women working has gone up across the core countries and beyond, but everywhere it has been combined with a massive gender pay gap.[xii] At the same time, women continue to do the vast bulk of unpaid labour at home, and state support for families has been slashed. One of the results has been a new wave of women’s activism focussed partly on the pay gap, and partly on the sexual violence and harassment so prevalent in workplaces and across many of the institutions of capitalist society. 

The ‘new economy’, its accompanying wars, record migration flows and incarcerations have created new and recharged existing forms of racism. At the same time, neoliberalism has sharply increased the ethnic diversity of the working class in many countries. By 2012, black people, Latinos and Asians made up around 40% of the workers in the core sections of the economy, a massive increase in just a few decades. Not surprisingly, this has led to a big increase in the proportion of black people, Asians and Latinos in unions. Black people in both the US and the UK are now more likely to be in trade unions than white people.[xiii]

This disproportionate concentration in the working class, of course, is itself a product of racism. Huge inequalities between workers, based on ethnicity and gender, continue and have to be actively challenged. At a time, however, when struggles against both racism and sexism are on the rise, this location of some of the most oppressed groups at the heart of the working class brings them new sources of power and opens up explosive possibilities for struggle.

Class struggle doesn’t tend to rise on a gradual incline. Rather it escalates suddenly and explosively in leaps and waves. Since the second half of the nineteenth century, there has been a succession of such massive outbreaks of unrest. Insurgent struggles in the years before and after the First World War, following the Second World War, and from the mid-1960s to the late 1970s, affected all the core capitalist countries and reverberated way beyond them. They were the result of accumulated tensions which ignited suddenly after years of compression. They arose at the intersection of dramatic economic and technological change with wider social crises, often including war, and the failure of established politics to deal with the needs and aspirations of new, radicalised working populations.

There are, of course, signs in Britain and some other countries of a welcome revival of class struggle. Making detailed predictions of how such complex processes are likely to play out in the future would be foolhardy. It would, however, be equally mistaken for the left to ignore the fact that many of the characteristics that marked these great historical upsurges can be observed around us. It is not just that the working class continues to exist, but that working people are angry, alienated and much more active than is usually recognised, all in the context of a multi-level crisis in society.

 

[i] Anne McElvoy, ‘Across the Red Line. Can going on strike any longer be justified?’, BBC Radio 4,16 Aug 2022.

[ii] Neil Kinnock, Making Our Way (Basil Blackwell, London) 1986, p.56.

[iii] ‘Leader's speech, Bournemouth 1999, Tony Blair, Labour’, British Political Speech Archive, Available at: http://www.britishpoliticalspeech.org/speech-archive.htm?speech=205.

[iv] Slavoj Žižek, ‘The Revolt of the Salaried Bourgeoisie’, London Review of Books 34:2 (2012): pp.9-10.

[v] David Harvey, Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism, Oxford University, Oxford 2014), p.68.

[vi] International Labour Organisation, Key Indicators of the Labour Market, 8th ed. (ILO, Geneva 2013)

[vii] Kim Moody, On New Terrain: How Capital Is Reshaping the Battleground of Class War, Haymarket, Chicago 2017), p.8.

[viii] Quoted in Moody, On New Terrain, p.22.

[ix] Ibid. pp.74-5.

[x] David Harvey, The Limits of Capital (Verso, London 1999), p.380.

[xi] Max Roser, ‘Teachers and Professors’ (2017), published online at OurWorldInData.org: Available here: https://ourworldindata.org/teachers-and-professors.

[xii] Esteban Ortiz-Ospina, Sandra Tzvetkova and Max Roser (2018) ‘Women’s employment’ (2018), published online at OurWorldInData.org. Available here: https://ourworldindata.org/female-labor-supply.

[xiii]  Kim Moody, On New Terrain, pp.64-5.

Before you go...

Counterfire is expanding fast as a website and an organisation. We are trying to organise a dynamic extra-parliamentary left in every part of the country to help build resistance to the government and their billionaire backers. If you like what you have read and you want to help, please join us or just get in touch by emailing [email protected] Now is the time!

Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.

Help boost radical media and socialist organisation

Join Counterfire today

Join Now