Can the working class still change the world?

April 14, 2015

Has the class that Karl Marx called the "gravediggers" of capitalism disappeared? Become irrelevant? Kyle Brown explains why the Marxists say no.

IN HIS famous speech "Where Do We Go From Here?" Martin Luther King Jr. quoted the then-president of the United Auto Workers (UAW) union, Walter Reuther, saying, "Power is the ability of a labor union like the UAW to make the most powerful corporation in the world, General Motors, say 'Yes' when it wants to say 'No.'"

This question of power continues to be posed for activists today. Where does the power lie to defend the Occupy encampments and the movement when the most powerful state in the world decides to carry out repression? Where does the power lie for the Black Lives Matter movement to actually realize the popular chant "shut it down" in order to win some of its demands for justice?

With labor unions and strike action at historic lows today, it's understandable that few people immediately think of the working class as the answer to those questions.

But contrary to the popular view, held even among people on the left, the vast social changes that have taken place since King's time and before haven't eliminated the potential of the working class as the key social force able to transform society and pose a radical alternative to capitalism. In fact, the working class is still, as Karl Marx and Frederick Engels put it in The Communist Manifesto more than 160 years ago, capitalism's potential "gravediggers."

Can the working class still change the world?

IN ORDER to figure out where the power lies to challenge capitalism, we need to understand how the system works.

At its most basic level, capitalism is an economic system of production based on competition for profits. So for Marxists, your class is based on where you land in relation to this production process.

There are two primary classes in capitalist society: the ruling class and the working class. Put simply, you're in the ruling class if you're part of the small minority of the population that owns or control what Marx called "the means of production"--that is, the workplaces and factories, the hospitals, businesses and the machinery or infrastructure needed for production. The other major class under capitalism is the working class. You're in the working class if you don't have any control over the means of production and you sell your ability to work in return for some sort of wage.

Note that this definition isn't based on whether you make minimum wage or $50 an hour. It's not about what kind of "social capital" you have, your lifestyle, or whether or not you know how to use Facebook. For Marxists, the working class is made up of wage earners--it amounts to about around 75 percent of the population.

There is a middle class made up of small business owners, lower- and middle-level managers, high-level professionals and so on. Their relationship to production combines aspects of both the ruling class and the working class, in differing proportions depending on the occupation. Because of this in-between relationship, the middle class tends to vacillate between the opposing interests of the two main classes.

Underlying the relationship between workers and capitalists is the system's unrelenting drive for profits. Companies compete with each other for profits and either accumulate more profits than the competition or are run out of business. Many businesses or enterprises that are officially non-profit or even run by the state are still generally driven to operate by the logic of the system where the competition for profits is king.

Since profits come from exploitation--that is, from employers, by virtue of their ownership and control of the means of production, paying workers less than the full value of their labor and keeping the rest--maximizing profits means maximizing exploitation. One way to do this is by introducing new technologies so that a business can produce more with fewer workers. Another way to increase exploitation is to get workers to work longer hours, for lower wages and fewer benefits.

For Karl Marx, the history of capitalism is, at its heart, the history of the ruling class trying to squeeze more out of the working class, and the working class struggling against their exploitation and oppression--put another way, "the history of class struggle."

Class struggle doesn't happen because the ruling class is particularly evil. Its members exploit workers because if they don't, they will go out of business, regardless of how good-hearted they are. Likewise, the working class doesn't struggle against its exploitation because workers posses some inherent heroic quality. They do so because this is the only way to stop their standard of living from being continually eroded so the ruling minority can accumulate greater wealth and power.

In this way, the nature of the system itself is responsible for working class struggle. It's an inevitable part of capitalism--and the fact that the working class is the source of the ruling class's profits gives them unique economic power to interrupt those profits.

SOME PEOPLE try to make sense of the low level of working class struggle today with the idea that capitalism in the U.S. has changed so much over the past 40 years that workers have lost their power to cripple the capitalist system. One extension of this idea is that there is no more working class, because we no longer produce anything tangible--that we produce services or ideas, or our labor is digital.

The first point is to challenge the myth that a worker is a white male in a hardhat and blue overalls. If the working class is made up of wage earners who don't own or control the means of production, and with little no control over their labor or working conditions, this most definitely includes secretaries, bartenders and baristas, fast-food workers, teachers and digital workers.

Even if you wanted to define the working class as only production (or manufacturing) workers, this argument still misses the boat. Production workers, while fewer in number--they amount to about 14 percent of the working class today--are still a central component to the U.S. economy.

According to the National Association of Manufacturers, in 2012 alone, manufacturing contributed over $2 trillion to the U.S. economy. For every $1 spent on manufacturing goods, another $1.37 is added to the economy--the highest multiplier effect of any economic sector. In other words, manufacturing is still the most profitable sector of the economy. This figure is the highest of any country in the world. In fact, taken alone, U.S. manufacturing would be the ninth-largest economy in the world!

This has been accomplished by getting fewer workers to labor more and more productively, while eroding their living standards--just as Marx described. Seen in this way, the neoliberal restructuring of the economy over the past 40 years was not to get rid of production. It was to make production far more profitable. This is what's behind the gap in wealth between rich and poor in this country that has grown astronomically over the past 40 years--as starkly illustrated by the ballooning ratio of workers' wages to CEO compensation, which grew from an average of 42-to-1 in 1982 to 354-to-1 in 2012.

These changes don't mean that production workers have less power today than they did in the 1970s. In fact, it means the opposite. Fewer workers today create more profit for the ruling class than in the 1970s. Therefore, those workers have far more potential power. If they collectively decided to stop producing and went on strike, they would immediately stop producing profit. And because of the way that the overall production process has been increasingly broken up into parts along a global production line, a strike by workers at one factory has the potential to reverberate much further beyond that single workplace.

While there are few examples of workplace struggles at the point of production today--at least in the U.S.--the recent strike of 70 auto parts workers at the Piston Automotive factory in Toledo, Ohio, shows that this potential power still exists. That the bosses conceded after just eight hours gives you a sense of how quickly strikes at a part supplier can potentially impact globalized production lines.

WHAT ABOUT service workers, who make up a far bigger section of the working class numerically?

The boom in the service industry over the past 40 years is often talked about as if it services have replaced production--as if they are two unconnected or autonomous processes. But a much better way to understand the service boom is as the result of, and as a necessary accommodation to, the way production has been restructured in the neoliberal era.

As Kim Moody wrote in his book U.S. Labor in Trouble and Transition:

As the capitalist economy expands, from local to national, from national to global, the problems of circulating products, distributing goods and determining which firms get what share of the total profits produced requires more and more "services." They are necessary for the fulfillment of production and the final sale of products.

So for one thing, more complex shipping and distribution systems are needed to move production parts over greater distances along global production lines. And as the number of products being produced increases, there needs to be a more complex and efficient transportation system to move products from the production line to where they are sold--which requires dock, railway, truck, warehouse and other workers.

There needs to be a system to make sure all these products are efficiently sold, requiring more retail workers in mega-stores. With increased competition, corporations need marketing and advertising workers to devise clever ways to ensure people buy their products, rather than the competition's. And digital workers are needed to program the computer systems and run the networks that allow this complex production chain to function.

The more each of these workers is squeezed at each point along the chain, the more profits that the capitalists can realize at the end of the day.

Another result of the increased rate of exploitation at the point of production is that there is more and more of a burden on the working class, physically, mentally and emotionally. This means there is a greater need for public hospitals, outpatient treatment facilities, social workers and the like to cope with the worsening conditions of the working class.

On one level, increased mechanization at the point of production requires a more skilled workforce to create, run and repair new technology. A more advanced and expanded public education system is therefore needed to train the next working class. But the opposite dynamic is also at play--with a restructuring of public education aimed at preparing young students for a life of low-wage, de-skilled service jobs.

The point is that increased exploitation at the point of production has resulted in a rapid expansion of workers whose role is to help reproduce workers' ability to work, in a way that meets the changing needs of capital. This is sometimes referred to as reproductive labor.

WHILE WORKERS in these other spheres of the capitalist economy have a different relationship to production than manufacturing workers, their power as workers is still based on their relationship to production and their ability to shut the system down.

So when dock workers strike, products are neither shipped nor received overseas. According to one report, if the 13,600 dock workers who run the West Coast's 29 ports go on strike, it would cost the U.S. economy $2 billion a day.

Or take the example of the 38 subcontracted Walmart warehouse workers in Will County, Illinois, south of Chicago, who went on strike in 2012. Twenty-one days into their strike, Walmart had lost $8 million, and management conceded to workers' demands for better conditions.

In the neoliberal world of global production, distribution has become more and more central to capitalism's functioning. This means transportation and warehouse workers are more strategically located to shut the system down than ever before. As Arun Gupta pointed out in The Walmart Working Class, the Will County Walmart workers are at the heart of a massive hub of Walmart's distribution infrastructure. The two warehouses process a phenomenal 70 percent of the imported goods Walmart sells in the U.S.

This illustrates an important point. Despite worsening conditions, workers continue to be connected fundamentally, to each other and to the system of production. But these relationships are not always easy to see because of how workers are connected to each other and how they are connected to the system has been transformed with neoliberal restructuring over the past 40 years.

Another example to illustrate this point is the U.S. Census data from 1980 to 2007 that shows very little change in workplace size. In other words, similar numbers of workers are concentrated in large workplaces today, but neoliberalism has reorganized what types of workers are in those centers. According to an article in Socialist Register 2015, the number of transportation and warehouse workers has increased by 55 percent from 1985 to 2013, concentrated in huge centers, like the Will County Walmart workers.

And consider this: Rochester's General Hospital rents cheap apartments to their workers on campus allowing them to be more available to work on a moment's notice. In one sense, this makes the hospital workforce more "flexible." In another, their life circumstances have become more centrally tied up with their workplace.

The point is that workers have not lost their power to shut down the system. They have not lost their connection to each other or to the system of production. They still collectively make the system work, and so they can still shut it down if they act collectively.

NOW IF all of this makes sense, the next question to ask is: How will the working class, which has not lost its objective potential power, come together subjectively to realize this power? Put another way, how will the working class be able to overcome its divisions in order to act as an organized and unified force?

The starting point for answering this question is that divisions within the working class are built into the nature of the capitalist system. Workers are divided because they are forced to compete with each other for the same jobs.

Further, the working class is divided by race and ethnicity, foreign- and native-born, sex and gender, and just about anything else the bosses can think of to prevent them from organizing and fighting back effectively. Keeping workers divided is also extremely profitable. So the ruling class invests considerably in trying to convince workers that they all have different interests from one another.

For years now, we've heard from all corners of the media and political establishment that public-sector workers--with their "high salaries," "Cadillac health care plans" and, worst of all, "unions"--are the reason for our economic problems.

Unfortunately, versions of this argument are echoed by sections of the left. For example, radicals within the Occupy movement wrote on their website, "It is hard to tell poor, unemployed, undocumented, immigrants, people of color that we, too, have a stake in the struggles of union workers, especially relatively privileged workers...But really, what materially is in the struggle to defend union workers...?"

There are a few things to say in answering this question.

First, our shared terms of exploitation mean that we share a common interest in fighting back. Neoliberalism may have begun by attacking autoworkers in the 1980s, but the economic crisis has generalized the ruling class attack, and the current austerity agenda is spreading it further.

There's a growing understanding that we--"the 99 Percent," as the Occupy movement called it--will no longer be able to live life as before because we have to pay for the crisis caused by "the 1 Percent." This is why the Occupy Movement exploded on the streets across the country, and it's why we are seeing more examples of solidarity, not fewer.

Look at Madison, Wisconsin, the precursor to the Occupy movement, where thousands of people took to the streets and took over the state Capitol building for weeks in early 2011 to oppose anti-labor legislation proposed by the new Republican governor, Scott Walker.

The Wisconsin Uprising began with a mobilization of public- and private-sector workers from all over the state, not to mention students and community activists. And then the solidarity went far beyond state lines, with people from across the country flocking to Madison to show their support for the struggle. International working class solidarity was demonstrated on signs that read "Walk like an Egyptian" and "Scott Hosni Walker"'--that is, connecting the labor struggle in Wisconsin to the Egyptian revolution against a U.S.-backed dictator.

While workers may have initially moved into action to defend their own immediate personal interest, there is no denying that through the course of their struggle, they saw their fight as a broader movement against austerity and for social justice.

This process is a unique feature of the working class. As other social forces in history have struggled for radical change, the tendency has been for various sections among them to splinter, fragment or eventually dissolve. Look at the fight for democracy in Egypt. Everyone--students, workers, the Muslim Brotherhood, sections of the middle class, even the military--started out united in struggle against Mubarak. But as the struggle continued, interests diverged.

Because the divisions within the working class are used by the ruling class to increase the exploitation and oppression of everyone, the working class must directly challenge oppression in all of its manifestations and overcome those divisions if it wants to carry out the most effective fight against its own exploitation. This is why Marxists see the working class as the revolutionary agent--a class whose members, in struggling for their own interests, have the potential to lead the fight against class domination in general and for the liberation of all.

That this potential still exists in today's neoliberal world was demonstrated in the Chicago teachers' strike of 2012. The members of the Chicago Teachers Union understood that their working conditions are directly linked to their students' learning conditions and the community's living conditions. In this way, the strike became more than economic--it became a social and political struggle against racism, the Democratic mayor and his political machine, and social injustice more broadly.

This was a case where workers couldn't win without championing the needs or demands of the oppressed. And in doing so, they were positioned to lead a much broader social movement that goes beyond their own immediate ranks.

The Chicago teachers' strike tells us a lot about where the power lies to force the 1 Percent and its servants in government to say "yes" when they want to say "no." Far from extinct, dislodged or bought off, the working class still deserves its title as "gravediggers" of capitalism in today's neoliberal world.

Most of the social movements of today are not beginning in the workplace, yet they will continue to confront the question of power. It is the job of socialists to organize based on an understanding of the distinct power of the working class. Whether we win will depend on it.

Further Reading

From the archives