Working class and the multitude
2003 Life After Capitalism Essays
Starting point - everywhere since Genoa and 11 September movement faces question not merely of opposing existing system, but of how to win against it. Another world not merely possible, but also necessary
View outline by Marx and Engels - capitalism is a system based on pumping value out of workers- the accumulation of stolen labour -
But this means that those who create value have ability to confront system
Furthermore, dynamics of system concentrate them together in a way in which no previous oppressed class was concentrated
It also forces them to collective, not individual solutions - a peasant family can extend its bit of land, a worker has to combine with other workers if they are to improve their conditions
Finally, drive by capital to increase labour productivity means it produces an oppressed class with level of culture - reading, writing, arithmetic, general understanding, higher than any previous exploited class in history.
This view of working class as agency of change challenged by many in the 1980s
André Gorz wrote a book whose title, Farewell to the working class
In Italy ‘autonomist’; thinkers began to portray workers with secure jobs as a privileged group, cut off from the ‘real’ proletariat
academics who had played with Marxism now began to insist that gender and ethnicity were as important, if not more so, than class, before these categories in turn were drowned by a deluge on competing ‘identities’.
anti-capitalist movement led people as varied as Susan George, James Petras, Naomi Klein and Hardt and Toni Negri to challenges to the enormous fragmentation associated with ‘identity politics’. But none of them put the working class centre stage.
In Naomi Klein’s No Logo the working class is presented as decisively weakened by the spread of globalisation, ‘a system of foot loose factories employing footloose workers’, with a ‘failure to live up to their traditional role as mass employers’
In Hardt & Negri’s Empire a whole series of formulations --so we are told ‘in a previous era the category of the proletariat centred on and at times was effectively subsumed under the industrial working class whose paradigmatic figure was the male mass factory worker. ..Today that working class has all but disappeared from view. It has not ceased to exist, Built has been displaced from its privileged position in the capitalist economy….’
This leads them to see the ‘multitude’ – a sort of updated rainbow coalition of fragmented identities, as the agency of change.
But one of thinnest sections of book is when they try to indicate what ‘multitude’ is
Nevertheless, the idea has had wide impact, among disobeddiente in Italy and in Latin America, eg among supporters of ?? in Argentina
changes in capitalism in the last quarter of a century - we have been through at least three massive cycles of restructuring - spectacularly in some countries, like Britain, where such great features of the scene of the 1960s like the miners, the steel workers, the shipyard workers, have virtually disappeared - number of manufacturing workers cut by half.
But does this do away with central concept and importance of working class
I want to begin by drawing attention to a few facts, and then by making points about their significance in terms of agency for social change
the number of industrial workers in the world’s biggest single economy, that of the US. At the end of the 1980s there was much panic n the US about ‘deindustrialisation’ in the face of challenges to US industrial pre-eminence in fields like auto production and computers. But in 1998 the number of workers in industry was nearly 20 per cent higher than in 1971, roughly 50 per cent higher than in 1950 and nearly four times the level of 1900
ie growth of industrial workers from eleven million in 1900 to just under 21 million in 1950, to 26 million in 1971 and 31 million in 1998
That, of course, is not end of story. Employed population of US had been growing massively - so proportion of industrial workers began to fall - but not a disappearance as Naomi Klein would hint and Negri & Hardt would employ
They write of:
‘a service economy model…led by United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. This model involves a rapid decline in industrial jobs and a corresponding rise in service- sector jobs. ‘_
The Japanese figures are even more astounding. The industrial workforce more than doubled between 1950 and 1971 and then grew bay about another 13 per cent by 1998.
number of important countries were industrial employment fell sharply between 1971 and 1998 – in Britain by third, in France by more than a quarter, in Belgium by more than a third. But this does not represent disappearance of industrial working class everywhere.
For the advanced industrial countries as a whole, the number of industrial jobs in 1998 was 25 million more than in 1951 and only 7,4 million less than in 1971.
But what is are the new sorts of employment that are advancing at greater speed than that in old industries?
Hardt and Negri claim:
‘they are characterised in general by the central role played by knowledge, information, affect, and communication. In this sense many call the post-industrial economy an informational economy. …Through the process of post-modernisation all production tends toward the production of services, toward becoming informationalised.’
But any proper breakdown of the figures for ‘service’ employment provides a very different picture to this. Most of the jobs are as routinised, as tedious, as brain numbing and in many ways as ‘manual’ as traditiional manual jobs - warehouse, security, filing, inputting into computer terminal, call centres, store checkouts, fast food outlets,
So in Britain
In September 2001 'Distribution, hotels, and restaurants' accounted for, 6.7 million jobs and 'transport and communication' for 1.79 million, postal services and telecommunications for 400,000 jobs, refuse disposal and 'cleaning services' for 293,000 jobs, laundries, dry cleaners, hairdressers etc for 175,OOO jobs, and hospitals, nursing homes, etc for 1,307,000 jobs. Nearly 60 per cent of all 'service' employment is covered by these categories.
Meanwhile, ‘in Spring 2000, there were 855 thousand people employed in IT- related occupations in the United Kingdom,’- at the height of the new tec boom about 3 per cent of workforce!!!
In the US in 2001, the total service related occupations of 103 million, included 18 million in routine ‘service occupations ’ with a decidedly manual cast to them ( ‘household services’, ‘protective services’, ‘food services’, ‘cleaning and building services’, ‘personal services’).
Then there were 18 million in routine clerical jobs, and six and three quarters million sales assistants,
These are jobs with wages and conditions barely distinguishable from those in many ‘manual’ occupations -things characterised by insistence on strict time keeping (even under flexitime), managerial bullying, increasingly attempts job evaluation and payment by results system.
there were a minimum of 42 million American ‘service sector workers’ engaged in routine white collar or manual occupations
Some people speak of ‘post fordism’ More accurate to speak of generalisation of fordism eg to retail and fast food sector, Macjobs
But even that is not end of matter- tendency for same methods to be imposed in sectors like teaching and nursing -this explains increasing proneness of these sectors to strike and union action in recent decades
If the ‘working class’ has ‘disappeared from view’ for Hardt and Negri, it is because they have been looking in the wrong direction
Nor is it true that all these are transitory jobs,
-every time there is a crisis, employers slash some jobs - and then try to make up with temporary employers - this part of attack on workers - But important limits to it.
So across Europe
‘In the year 2000 population in work totalled 159 million people, 83% of whom were employees and 17% self-employed, same ratio as in 1995’
And while ‘precarious employment’’ increased substantially during the first half of the 1990s, the relative proportions of permanent and non-permanent jobs remained almost unchanged between 1995 and the year 2000: permanent (82%), non-permanent (18 per cent).‘
Eighteen percent precarious employment is far too high - but it is not same as all jobs becoming temporary, the picture painted by Negri and Hardt claim that:
‘Entire labouring population have thus found themselves in increasingly precarious employment situations’
This idea tied to idea that jobs are flowing incessantly out of advanced countries to parts of third world. This is implication of some passage in No Logo and in Empire. But at Bob Rowthorne has pointed out: total job loss from all the advanced countries through this shift has only been about 6 million jobs, or 2 per cent of the total
At this point I will move on to look what has been happening in world as a whole
Two trends have been taking place. First is the penetration of capitalist relations everywhere by end of last century, with massive increase in urbanisation - from 37 per cent of world population in 1975 to 45 per cent in 1995 - and forecasts of 49 per cent of developing country population in towns by 2,015.
Within this a growth of waged labour, but often slower than growth of urbanisation - with enormous variations from one part of world to another
But recent estimates I could find from Deon Filmer in 1995
2.5 billion million global non-domestic labour force -a fifth in industry , a third in services and two fifths in agriculture
Many of these not workers - employers, self employed in each sector, especially in agriculture
Filmer concluded that the overall number of employed people world wide was about 880 million, compared with around a 1000 million people working for their own account on the land (overwhelmingly peasants) and 480 million working for their own account in industry and services
\\But this ignores way in which very large numbers of peasants also involved to a greater or lesser extent in waged work - eg biggest peasant country China, but 100 to 150 million people from peasant workers flock to towns each year seeking employment -
A survey has shown that for 15 developing countries where recent statistics are available, the percentage of the rural labour force engaged in non farm work was 30 to 40 per cent and was rising
So picture of employment world wide best seen as a third waged workers, a third fully self-employed, especially peasants, and a third semi-workers.
Pattern worldwide uneven - actual fall in level of waged employment - most other parts of world a rise - but a tendency for informal jobs to grow more quickly that formal sector jobs
in Latin America during what is often called ‘the lost decade’ of 1980s
the number of people in the employed non agricultural labour force rose from 68 million in 1980 to 103 million between 1980 and 1992. But employees in ‘large business’ only grew from 30 to 32 million.
The joint share of informal and small business activities of non-agricultural employment rose from 40 per cent in 1980 to 53 per cent in 1990
This, it should be stressed is not disappearance of working class - but does represent changes its internal composition
But why go on about working class
Growth of working class also accompanied by continuation or even growth of intermediate class between working class and ruling class
- influence of ‘new middle class’ over many white collar workers, influence of small employers and self employed over working class populations in cities - especially where over people whose lack of permanent employment leads them intermittently to forms of self employment, scrabbling for any way to get an income
Hence, for instance, situation in India, where great strikes like textile strike of 1983 can draw urban population of say Bombay behind workers movement, but then after defeat of strike ability of a class petty bourgeois semi-gangster formation, the Shiv Sena, to dominate wide sections of the poorer population
= similarly, picture in Britain in 1980s, where Thatcherise ideas from section of petty bourgeoisie did influence sections of workers after defeats of workers movement.
This was also true, it seems to me, in Argentina in the early 1990s
One danger of talk of multitude is that in such cases you get rival multitudes, some pulling towards collective, left wing inclined action, the others towards right-wing, racist and individuals forms of action
We have visible sign of this with growth of crisis in Europe - on one hand anti capitalist movement, new defensive strikes, anti-war movement etc
- on other hand, rise of new far right movements
There is a sense in which the anti-capitalist and anti-war movements are ‘multitudes’ - made up of people from all sorts of backgrounds
- This characterises all sorts of new movements - true of re-emergence of socialist movement in Britain in mid 1880s, true of movement of late 1960s, true now
-But two dangers with this - lacks power - can rise like rocket - but then, feeling powerless - fall like a stick
Second danger, in any movement made up of disparate forces, tendency for those relatively advantaged in existing society to dominate at first - tend to take their own importance for granted - so in anti-capitalist movement, keynote speakers are middle aged, middle class, mainly white men.
To change this, need for special emphasis towards workers - Language of multitude obscures this.
Key question in decisive confrontations - involvement of workers - question in Argentina over last year -
Key question in Venezuela is degree to which ordinary workers are involved countering the power of the managers
Remember lessons of Portugal in 1975