The working class is not weak because it is divided –
it is divided because it is weak
Yet we reject the dismissal of the continued central importance of class struggle in social change. This dismissal is now a commonplace amongst mainstream media commentators – expressing an often unconscious fear that the past may come back to haunt them in the form of a sustained resurgence of struggle that threatens this society. In Britain the Winter of Discontent is most often the spectre/bogeyman referred to. But this rejection is also made by:
1) older, often former, (ultra) leftists who, once having put “the proletariat”/“working class” on a pedestal as the great saviours of society, in their disillusionment now fear that their god has failed and turn against it, with blame and condemnation (conveniently excusing and excluding themselves from any responsibility or blame).
2) those younger activists who have no experience or memory of a time when the class struggle was of central importance, an unresolved social question daily contested, and was recognised as such by all sides involved.
3) those who want to flatten out categories of class relations to reduce the world to a picture of a tiny group of nasty capitalist exploiters opposed by the rest of humanity. This is usually a response by professionals, particularly lefty/ultra-lefty academics, who, having faced pressures from bosses for increased productivity, now want to be counted as exploited workers like the rest. But this deliberately sidesteps the question of who and what the middle class and its professions now is, what their relationship to other classes is, how its function for Capital has been changed. It ignores the hierarchy in the division of labour, simplifying everything into an equality of alienation. It is conveniently blind to the fact that some ‘intellectual labour’ is certainly more proletarianised, and far less ideological, than others (e.g. teaching a foreign language, which in some parts of the world is extremely badly paid), whereas much of it is just plain middle class – i.e. it is work that clearly reproduces the hierarchical division of labour both in the nature of the authority roles and the ideology developed. The role of the intellectual section of the middle class is to develop ideologies that implicitly or explicitly justify their own definitions of themselves as having a consciousness of being objective and detached – ‘scientific’ rather than an unenlightened self-interested career move. If such people are to contribute to a radical opposition to this society they are going to have to take the risk of subverting these roles and ideologies, along with the rest of us – though it’ll probably take us who are lower in the hierarchy to first of all challenge the absurdity of their position.**
But while we reject these views (and comment on them here and there in some of the articles on our site) we do see the need for a re-assessment of class and struggle, its changing forms and content. We’d have to be blind not to be aware that the working class is not exactly the same as the one that fought its past struggles, and that its conditions of existence have in many ways been changed by the defeat of those struggles. We do not want to go into crude sociological definitions here, but it will be clear in some of our writings that we do have opinions as to who are and aren’t class friends and enemies; old class boundaries have both streched and shrunk. But there is still a working class, a middle class and a ruling class. The ‘petit-bourgeois’ small trader still exists alongside the ‘self-employed’ (at least in tax category) proletarian. There are perhaps more grey areas now; for example, some professions have had their work conditions more proletarianised while other aspects of their social status and function still keep them in a middle class role.
We also recognise that there are many people, as individuals and communities, from diverse backgrounds and situations, who are heartily sick of this society. Obviously a minority of the relatively privileged also find this society unbearable for reasons of non-economic poverty, such as the misery and boredom of their social relations. Equally a minority of the most exploited will actively defend this society in the most divisive manner – as scabs, fascists, racists etc.
The working class can only end this society by abolishing itself as a class – and thereby destroying the social relations that maintain a class society. So obviously putting “the proletariat” on a pedestal as our heroic vanguard and fetishising/glorifying all things working class is a pointless stupidity; like a slave hugging his chains. And it’s a way of seeing “the proletariat” as out there, separate, something we have to intervene in. We’ll leave that to the populists (if there’s any left). Strengths and weaknesses must be reassessed – our own and that of the history of struggle. In not struggling to find practical experiments and risks against the unresolved contradictions that keep us divided from our common best interests, we participate in and reinforce our own weakness and division:
“…As has often been pointed out, the working class is not weak because it is divided; on the contrary, it is divided because it is weak. And the reason why the proletariat ought to seek new ways is that the enemy has strength of such a kind that the old methods are ineffectual. The working class will not secure these ways by magic, but through a great effort, deep reflection, through the clash of divergent opinions and the conflict of impassioned ideas. It is incumbent upon it to find its own way, and precisely therein is the raison d’etre of the internal differences and conflicts. It is forced to renounce outmoded ideas and old chimeras, and it is indeed the difficulty of this task that engenders such big divisions.”– Anton Pannekoek.
We also believe that most of the new definitions of who or what is the new “revolutionary subject” are unconvincing – whether they be the new breed of anti-globalisation/anti- capitalist political protesters/campaigners or trendy buzzwords such as the “precariat”. Yet they do express partial truths about aspects of real opposition and changing conditions for the exploited. The new wave of anti-capitalist activists have varying degrees of understanding of what capitalism really is and how it can be abolished – many see capitalism as only an external force, merely existing as some bad institutions in need of reform, not seeing it as a social relation we all continue to reproduce in our daily activity. But despite these limitations, the ‘anti-capitalists’ have at least partially recalled to public awareness the question of a different kind of society. Unlike the traditional left – who merely want to reform the administration of existing society via the progressive conquest of various existing institutions – the less ideological and programmatic of the ‘anti-capitalists’ have a more vague, less precise but also less dogmatic, more open-ended approach to the possibilities of radical social change. (e.g. in the confused but nevertheless partly radical slogan “The world is not for sale”, which in other countries is usually “The world is not a commodity”, or in the simple openness of some of their gatherings). At the same time its sad weakness is that it is too open – many of them tolerate liberal journalists like George Monbiot (an ideological authority with a reformist eco-political agenda who has a wide influence across this spectrum of politics). This toleration of professional middle class experts by those lower in the ‘anti-capitalist’ hierarchy is supported by an ideology that denies the fundamental question of class, the fundamental question of hierarchy. It is tempting to see the “precariat” as the latest social subject thought up by autonomist marxist ideologues on a particularly rainy day at university, whilst pondering on why all their previous announced subjects (the ‘mass worker’, ‘socialised worker’) failed them in their historic destiny (typically, these paid ‘thinkers’ pretend they have something new to say merely by inventing a new word). It is true that most proletarians (and other types of worker) have been forced into more precarious conditions of existence. But this does not merit the implied renaming of a class, as if we were once the ‘securiat’. Trendy formulations and their formulators come and go – but proletarians we remain, some massively more precarious than others. How do the ‘common interests’ of a casualised university cleaner and a ‘marxist’ Professor – who unrealistically claims him/herself part of the same precariat/proletariat – compare with the massive differences in their status, income, housing, job security, pension etc? (It’s also worth noting that – whether for reasons of prejudice, anti-intellectualism or whatever – such often clumsily translated words rarely become naturalised in common English – for example, after over 150 years of socialist usage ‘proletariat’ is still a fairly exotic, specialist term.)
We cannot convincingly disprove the claim that the working class may have missed the boat on its revolutionary potential, that it may have become a weakened organism without sufficient vitality to make that great leap towards creating a new world (some suggest it never possessed this potential – even harder to prove). Immediate appearances would certainly suggest this – but one of the better insights of radical theory is its historical perspective which gives the ability to see beyond the immediate surface of things and grasp their larger historical significance. Even under the most totalitarian of regimes resistance and revolt occur. And if we,the proles, the producers and consumers convincing ourselves we’re not at the bottom of the pile, are no longer the crucial social force of change – then we see no other likely candidates in sight (Classless eco-warrior angels floating above real social relations? Marxist extra-terrestials?………………….??? – fill the gap).
Some say that ‘workers’ are merely a category – as are ‘women’. For example, the Bhopal declaration of the World Social Forum says that the WSF “must make space…for workers, peasants, indigenous peoples… women…minorities, immigrants…” etc.etc. This kind of reified reduction of proletarians to a constituency is clearly an insult to every ‘category’ of proletarian. Clearly it’s an insult to women and the working class, and especially working class women, an insult to their particular differences, as well as what is common, in their experience of alienation. The struggle of women is inseparable from the class struggle: the struggle of the women in mining areas during the ’84-5 miners strike is just one obvious example of how self-defeating it is to separate the struggle against the division of labour into ‘feminism’ v. ‘class struggle’. Though it’s often been pointed out that the struggle against the oppression of women is as much against the women who have taken on the modern rôle of class oppressor as against the old mainly male oppressors, it’s not so often pointed out that this struggle was and is also dependent on a struggle against the masculine/feminine division of labour amongst the proletariat itself, a division which in periods of intense struggle clearly breaks down and reveals the interconnectedness of all forms of hierarchical power and conditioning. And if there is to be a clear global community of struggle it is primarily on the basis of class identity, not gender (or any other) identity, although challenging the particular experience of alienation that is associated with some identitiy or other is often the starting point for recognising a general class identity (e.g. gays recognising that dominant morality, and its hierarchical mode of judging behaviour, has its base in the private property of sexual relations, which is one of the means of repressing individuality in this society). However, compartmentalisation of proletarians into a narrow identity is often pushed quite consciously by sections of capital – e.g. the Ford Foundation – within the World Social Forum and the NGOs, for example, to stop the spread of any possible class identity. This is not the same as subsuming the question of the separation between men and women, for example, into the class struggle but is, on the contrary, a way of understanding this separation also in class terms; in terms of the division of labour and the way this hierarchy has changed with the development of feminised aspects of capitalism.
If a distinction is sometimes made between proletariat and working class, it is so as to distinguish different aspects of the same class at different times in its history; the proletariat being the class for itself , consciously and actively challenging its allotted role in bourgeois society, while the working class simply exists passively as a functioning component of class society. Of course in practice this is a somewhat artificial division, the two roles are necessarily intermingled and subversion springs from this contradiction being played out in people’s real lives; but at any one time, and sometimes for long periods (as at present), one tendency tends to dominate.
Footnotes added 30/9/05:
For us the fundamental struggle can be expressed in the phrase “the struggle of the masses of individuals”, a struggle to re-appropriate all the powers that have been repressed and expropriated from us; it is at one and the same time a struggle to re-discover our individual point of view and desires and a struggle for community and communication in the various movements of proletarians, the dispossessed, against the world of alienation. It is, therefore, a rejection of both bourgeois individualism (the separate isolated “individuality” reduced to submission to the market economy) and of the traditional collectivism of the old workers movements, in which the individual was subsumed in a hierarchical collectivity representing “the masses” as an abstraction, existing apart from the needs of each dispossessed individual. **This includes a small group of academics, and their more unthinking proletarianised followers who defer to the apparent excellence of their intellectual superiors, who in this hierarchy solidify the very class relations that they attack the rest of the working class for being integrated into. But then these people think even mentioning class or class struggle is outmoded, because apparently the proletariat is co-opted, class movements are only movements within capital. Apparently this doesn’t apply to them. Though their movements – of the fingers on their keyboard, of their lips in the lecture halls – lead to not one single practical risk, apparently such an absolutist abstract critique of the commodity has nothing to do with being a movement within capital. Apparently the University is beyond social relations, beyond the commodified division of labour. They dream of changing the world. But then who needs to do anything, let alone attack the University as a product and producer of ideology, when you can sit around and prove your radicality by “having a critique of the commodity”.
A few additional facts concerning the situation now in Corsica (Sept.30th 2005):
The whole island is now blockaded, because the airline workers have now come out on strike in solidarity, and because nothing is getting into or leaving Marseille. Workers in Corsica held the Town Hall under siege, occupying it, until the last remaining sailors arrested for the mutiny were released, which happened the evening of September 30th, though the charges – which carry a maximum of twenty years inside – haven’t been dropped. This might be a bit of a setback for the French State’s project of Thatcherising the country, and may hopefully be an encouragement to further subversive initiatives. The word “Freedom” in Corsican has been rapidly painted onto banners, whilst the Corsican nationalists are clearly trying to represent this movement even though workers on mainland France have also been at the centre of things. The “Chamber of Commerce”, a state enterprise that deals with the bureaucracy of businesses, has also been briefly blockaded. A terrorist rocket attack on one of the “Prefectures” (administrative building) – in Ajaccio – led to workers to put up banners saying “Terrorists – No! Workers – Yes!” and even a politician said the terrorist attack (in which, by chance, no-one was hurt) was an attempt to distract from the events on the island (one could have added “and in Marseille”), though he didn’t say whether he thought it was the French State or Corsican nationalists who wanted to do the distracting. Meanwhile, de Villepin, the P.M., deliberately connected the terrorist attack with the unarmed mutiny, saying they were equally horrifying (though clearly, the mutiny was far more horrifying for him and his class). On the evening of 1st October, after the riot cops had managed to get rid of the blockade of the ports (Marseille, however, remaining totally blocked), mini-riots of a few hundred youths attacking the riot cops, erupted in Bastia and Ajaccio (the main port towns of the island), whilst a Customs boat was severely damaged by a small explosive device (no-one hurt). Who says the proletariat is definitively integrated (whilst pretending that they are not)? Sure this is France, and amongst many there’s almost a jaded complacency that these kinds of eruptions will continue unabated as they have done, on and off, for the last 216 years. But then in the 80s in the UK there was a similar feeling. But who can tell? Precisely because the State does want to reverse this historical and living memory, and precisely because the resistance to this still sporadically explodes in its face, it seems really possible that in France the clashes will be particularly intense (written 0ctober 3rd). Final update on this story (Oct.24): Sadly, our intial optimism has so far proved unfounded, as the ferrymen strikers were forced back to work (via a ballot) with the threat of everyone being made unemployed by making the firm bankrupt, the government refusing to bail the company out. The strikers would have had to spread their strike to the rest of Marseille (where there’s a long-running bus strike and where the dockers have shown an exemplary solidarity because they know that they too will face privatisation and redundancies) and beyond, and they would have had to organise outside the unions and refuse the isolation of the ballot box: nowadays, if proletarians are to win anything, they virtually have to make a revolution before the State backs down for fear of losing absolute control. The ins and outs of this ‘all or nothing’ situation certainly need to be elaborated on, but for the moment, we’ll leave it at that.
Are these ‘theoretical’ holders of the perfect critique down in Marseille scrawling on the walls, ‘Privatisation is irrelevant! Here is the true slogan of struggle “Down with the commodity economy!” ‘ Those who realise that theory is a practical matter might begin to respect them a little if they at least dared to do this, however simplistic the content, but they’re above such ‘activism’.
This seems very relevant to the comments section of Anarchist News…
The following is an excellent comment by Red Marriott in response to those who see the weakness of the working class as due purely to the external forces of Leftism etc. (from here: https://libcom.org/forums/news/david-graeber-dead-03092020#comment-619425 ) :
“… if the working class is seen as capable of self-determination it has to be seen to have some responsibility for where it is at present; it is never solely determined by external forces. If it has no responsibility for its present condition where is the possibility of an agency that can self-determine? The abstract constituency we call ‘the working class’ is concretely composed of individuals and collectives with a margin of choices. It’s never the case that working class weakness is due to it’s not having had the right ideological offer from the left.
The period of defeat of w/c struggle over the past 30+ years is unprecedented and there is much to worry about over where it’s leading. It seems that, as the working class has lost its powers and fragmented, its self-awareness of its collective potential has been largely lost. ‘Working class identity’ is a problematic double-edged sword – but a minimum requirement for understanding the function of this society is recognition of its class nature and that this determines one’s conditions of existence in this society. If you don’t see class division as crucial you won’t see the importance of acting as a class for class interests.
But, for many, other identities have replaced class as ones that deliver a primary collective sense of belonging; particularly race and nation. Older organisational models emerged from different historical situations, from different cultures. Those cultures were based largely on groups of workers that shared locations and workplaces – often for a working lifetime over several generations. The self-identity with one’s trade, workplace and related local communities was the primary defining collective identity in those lives and their strongholds.
Now that’s all gone, we’re deep in the shite and desperate solutions that seem to promise at least some improvement unsurprisingly sometimes gain traction. But we live in an age of incredible self-delusion and ‘post-truth’, examples of which can be found in political behaviour and beliefs expressed on and offline constantly; where people seek a comforting narrative and facts that refute it become irrelevant.
When Thatcher was asked what she regarded as her greatest achievement she replied, “Tony Blair”. The general ever-rightward shift in politics has shifted what is considered radical and realistic rightwards with it.