The disappearing working class?

December 16, 2014

Paul D’Amato has been a regular writer from the earliest issues of Socialist Worker. He has completed an expanded and updated version of his book The Meaning of Marxism. The book ends with a collection of answers to the most commonly voiced objections to socialism and Marxism. SW is serializing this section from The Meaning of Marxism--in part six, Paul examines the evidence for the belief that the working class has been effectively tamed.

Workers don't have power anymore

Some analysts claim we have entered a "post-industrial" society in which automation is shrinking, if not eliminating, the working class. As a result, workers no longer have the power that Marx attributed to them. "Capital has succeeded," writes French radical author André Gorz in 1980, "in reducing workers' power in the production process."[57]

History is full of speculation going back to Marx's day about how machines would someday replace all workers. Marx joked once "how dreadful that would be for capital which, without wage-labor, ceases to be capital!"[58] The point here is that living labor is the source of profits, not machines. Machines, moreover, as Hal Draper notes, "are not programmed to buy their own products and consume them." The tendency toward more machines and less labor "cannot work itself out to the predicted end without bursting the bounds of that system."[59]

After decades of decline in working-class living standards, it is difficult to make the case that workers are too prosperous to want change (see above). Instead, the explanation as to why workers have low unionization and strike rates has shifted onto a different terrain--that restructuring has rendered the working class powerless.

Many of these theories attribute the decline in unionization rates and levels of class struggle in various parts of the world to something not caused by contingent factors--like the shift of production to the non-union South or the unwillingness of the union bureaucracy to give up "partnership" with the employers--but to structural changes in the nature of the working class that render it no longer the central agent of social transformation. Workers today, it is argued, don't make things anymore, their jobs are increasingly precarious, unstable, part time, and without benefits, and there are a growing number of people relegated to a vast informal sector worldwide. These ideas are often attached to analysis of how capitalism has entered a new "weightless" era of global capitalism, an age of "information," of lightning-fast financial transactions, and so on, in which the old production relations no longer apply. Writes author Kevin Doogan,

Previous periods of capitalist development were powerfully symbolized by steam engines, aircraft and motorcars, and large factories where people had "real jobs" because "they made things." The new capitalist Zeitgeist is captured in global processes, in the instantaneous transfer of capital, planetary flows of information and communication, interconnection and networks....In leaving behind the concrete realities of industrial society the discussion of new capitalism is "dematerialized."[60]

Some argue that as a result of changes in the nature of work under capitalism, in the words of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, the industrial working class "has been displaced from its hegemonic position over other forms of labor by immaterial labor."[61] Jodi Dean, author of The Communist Horizon, for example, argues, "The changes...usually discussed under the headings of deindustrialization, post-Fordism, and the rise of knowledge- or information-based economy, suggest the inapplicability of the figure of the industrial proletariat as the contemporary subject of communism."[62]

We should stop talking about the "working class" at all. Hardt and Negri argue that it should be replaced by the term multitude, based on a conception of labor that "cannot be limited to wage labor." For them, class is merely "a collectivity that struggles in common."[63] Dean proposes substituting for working class the term people, and proposes that "class struggle," rather than referring to the clash between workers and bosses, should now refer to the struggle between "the rich and the rest of us."[64] Author Guy Standing argues that there is a growing new "precariat" class of insecure workers, distinct from the working class.

But precariousness has been the condition of the working class from the moment the first peasants were "suddenly and forcibly torn from their means of subsistence, and hurled as free and 'unattached' proletarians on the labor-market," to quote Marx in Capital.[65] The working class, by its nature, is that class that is "freed" from owning property, and is therefore compelled, on pain of starvation, to sell its labor. "This 'free' proletariat could not possibly be absorbed by the nascent manufactures as fast as it was thrown upon the world," wrote Marx. "They were thus "turned en masse into beggars, robbers, vagabonds."[66]

As capitalism has changed, so has the composition of the working class. But capitalism, as we've already discussed, depends upon a "reserve army" of the unemployed in order to discipline the class as a whole. Within the working class there is a varying spectrum, from the more stably employed to the precariously employed to the unemployed. But all are part of the working class. The degree to which a section of the working class is able to secure relatively more stable employment--for example, unionized industrial workers in Europe and the United States after World War II--is a product of the class struggle, and, as we have seen, is therefore not a permanent feature of capital-labor relations, but a highly contested one.

In the United States, there has been a considerable rise in the number of part-time workers, from 13.5 percent in 1968 to almost 20 percent today. But it remains the case that at 80 percent, a majority of workers are full-time employees.[67] In any case, there is not a wall between workers with full-time jobs and those without, or between workers with jobs and those without. They are all part of the working class and have the potential, as they always have, to unite and struggle on that basis.

Views like Gorz's, Hardt and Negri's, and Dean's, moreover, are based on the mistaken idea that workers' power depends on the absolute size of the industrial working class. But industrial workers exhibit a concentrated power far beyond what numbers alone would suggest. Surely this is one of the important lessons of the Russian Revolution, in which the industrial working class was less than 2 percent of the total population, but had its hands on the economic jugular of Russian capitalism and played the central role in its downfall. The same logic applies even more so today. The US manufacturing working class alone is six times larger than Russia's in 1917, and it is far more productive.

Undeniably, there has been a relative shift in employment in the United States and other advanced industrial countries since the late 1960s--from industry to the service sector. About a third (32.7 percent) of workers were employed in manufacturing, mining, and construction in 1963, whereas just over a fifth, or 20.8 percent, were employed in this sector thirty years later. By 2004, the figure had dropped to 17 percent.[68] One author estimates that the United States lost "3.5 to 4 million jobs between 1978 and 1982, or one out of every four jobs in large manufacturing facilities."[69] The manufacturing workforce in the United States stood at 22.5 million in 1979, and had dropped to 18.1 million by 2002.

But that isn't the whole picture. While economic restructuring was shrinking the size of the manufacturing workforce in the United States, industrial growth was increasing it dramatically in countries like China, Brazil, Mexico, and South Korea. In South Korea, for example, the size of the manufacturing workforce increased from 1.2 million in 1969 to 4.7 million in 1994.[70] China, which has become the world's industrial workshop, had an estimated eight million workers sixty-three years ago. By 2011, conservative estimates put the number of workers in China at three hundred million--the total population of the United States.[71]

What about in countries where farmers are being driven off the land in droves and into big cities? In these places, the growth of industry does not keep up with the growth of the dispossessed, creating a larger and larger "reserve army." In many of these societies, workers are not the majority, but they can, as in the past, play a powerful, leading role in broader social struggles. South African author Leo Zelig, in reference to the working-class neighborhoods and slums of Soweto in South Africa, notes that, "The jobless and formally employed are not hermetically sealed from each other." "The township," he writes, "might be viewed as a meeting point--indeed a hotbed--for trade unionists, university students, graduates, the unemployed, informal traders. The specter of unemployment infects all layers of society. But these groups are not distinct or permanently cut off from each other, and may be found in the same community and even in the same household supporting and encouraging and influencing each other."[72] This creates the potential for struggles that bring together the unemployed, the informal sector workers, and formally employed workers.

The relative decline in the number of industrial workers in the older industrialized countries is really just another indicator of the increase in labor productivity, a fact that strengthens rather than weakens the potential power of workers at the point of production. In the United States, manufacturing output increased by 44 percent between 1992 and 2002, at the same time that manufacturing employment declined by 7 percent, representing a 55 percent increase in productivity.[73] In the decade of the 2000s, the US economy shed 5.6 million manufacturing jobs, while productivity increased by 38 percent and output remained relatively stable.[74]

The working class consists of more than just industrial workers, and industrial workers are not just factory workers but also transport, communications, and construction workers. To cite Engels in his 1847 Principles of Communism, the proletariat is "that class in society which lives entirely from the sale of its labor."[75] White-collar, service, and public-sector workers are thus also part of the working class. Cashiers, nurses, orderlies, janitors, truck drivers, warehouse workers, waiters, sales workers, social workers, schoolteachers, call-center workers--these are people who work for a wage. They are subject to the same logic of exploitation, and share the same interests, as workers in factories, shipyards, mines, warehouses, building sites, and fields.

Though the number of workers engaged in industrial production has declined, the economic weight of industry in the US economy hasn't. As labor analyst Kim Moody notes, "The ratio of service output to goods and structures, as the government measures these, has not changed much in almost half a century." He concludes that the "industrial core remains the sector on which the majority of economic activity is dependent. Hence it is the power center of the system."[76]

The idea that the age of information and the Internet means we are moving away from material production and industry is only plausible for those whose minds are addled by the endless talk of "cloud computing" into thinking that "cloud" is more than a self-serving metaphor. The age of the Internet, computers, and personal electronic devices requires the mining of materials, the construction of components, and the assembly of those devices we all have come to depend on. The Chinese company Foxconn, made famous when several of its workers committed suicide, employs a million workers, almost half of them at one facility in Shenzhen.[77] Then there is the massive use of energy and space devoted to creating the servers that house all the date we use on our personal devices. "At the heart of every Internet enterprise," writes the New York Times, "are data centers, which have become more sprawling and ubiquitous as the amount of stored information explodes, sprouting in community after community."[78]

The explanation for organized labor's decline, writes Moody, cannot be attributed to the "rise of a post-industrial economy, the displacement of goods production by that of services, or even by imports or foreign competition more generally. The economy," he continues,

remains an industrial economy in terms of its final output despite the rise of service jobs. The rise of retail, finance, and producer services industries rests primarily on the growing complexity of both producing and circulating goods....The loss of manufacturing jobs, the only group of industrial jobs to decline, occurred almost entirely in three industrial groups: primary metals, textile products, and garments. Thus, the decline of unionism in such manufacturing industries as auto, rubber, machinery, electrical equipment, and food production, not to mention non-manufacturing industries such as construction, communications, and transportation, is largely explained by geographic shifts within the US and technological displacement, on the one hand, and the failure of the unions to follow the jobs and organize the now nonunion sectors of their industries, on the other hand.79

The current weakened condition of the working class, therefore, cannot be attributed to some intrinsic change that has rendered it permanently powerless. Provided workers organize it and manifest it, their power is still as strong as ever. Indeed, capitalist production has become so integrated that a single strike by a few thousand workers at a strategically critical factory can shut down an entire industry. An eighteen-day strike in 1996 of 3,200 workers at a brake parts plant in Dayton, Ohio, for example, forced General Motors to shut down fourteen assembly plants and sixteen parts plants across Mexico, the United States, and Canada, costing the company thirty to forty million dollars per day.[80]

According to Jodi Dean, classes are not materially constituted forces with a particular relationship to the means of production, as Marx argued. "Communism," she therefore insists, is no longer "the mission of the proletariat."[81]

"The challenge for communists is thus not to identify a particular class vanguard but to clarify why communism is the best alternative to capitalism and to participate in organizing and furthering the struggle toward it."[82] Since there are no defined classes, the struggle of "the rest of us" can take lots of different forms that aren't really driven materially by any class interests. Dean seems to have taken us back to the utopians, who look to a better world but fail to put workers at the center of it, or Bernstein's conception of socialism as a moral imperative rather than one to which workers, because of their position in society, are particularly drawn.

But capitalism remains a system, to quote Engels, where "the capitalist, the owner of the means of production, employs, for wages, laborers, people deprived of all means of production except their own labor-power, and pockets the excess of the selling price of the products over his outlay."[83] This will not change so long as capitalism remains, whatever the composition of the working class at any particular stage of capitalism's history. Hence, when Dean proposes substituting for working class the term people, she is reverting to populist terminology that blurs class distinctions that are still fundamental to understanding capitalism and what social forces are central to its transformation.


57. André Gorz, Farewell to the Working Class: An Essay on Post-Industrial Socialism (Boston: South End Press, 1980), 28.
58. Quoted in Hal Draper, Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution: The Politics of Social Classes vol. 2 (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978), 576.
59. Ibid.
60. Kevin Doogan, The New Capitalism (Malden, MA, Polity Press, 2009), 228–35.
61. Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (London: Penguin Books, 2004), 223.
62. Jodi Dean, The Communist Horizon (London: Verso, 2012), 77.
63. Hardt and Negri, Multitude, 104, 105.
64. Dean, Communist Horizon, 82.
65. Marx, Capital, vol. 1, chap. 26.
66. Ibid., chap. 28.
67. Doug Short, "The Full Time–Part Time Employment Ratio Shows Little Improvement," January 10, 2014.
68. Barry Bluestone, "Economic Inequality and the Macrostructuralist Debate," in Political Economy for the 21st Century: Contemporary Views on the Trend of Economics, ed. Charles J. Whalen (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1995), 177; Kim Moody, US Labor in Trouble and Transition: The Failure of Reform from Above, the Promise of Revival from Below (London: Verso, 2007), 37.
69. Cited in Barry Bluestone and Bennett Harrison, The Great U-Turn: Corporate Restructuring and the Polarizing of America (New York: Basic Books, 1988), 37.
70. "Total Employment by Economic Activity, Republic of South Korea," International Labor Organization Web site.
71. Zhang Yaozu, "Notes on the Transformation and Development of the Chinese Working Class During the Past 60 Years," China Left Review 4, 2011.
72. Leo Zelig, "Introduction," in Class Struggle and Resistance in Africa, ed. Leo Zelig (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2010), 17.
73. "The Productivity Surge," Washington Times, November 3, 2002.
74. James Sherk, "Technology Explains Drop in Manufacturing Jobs," Heritage Foundation, October 12, 2010.
75. Frederick Engels, Principles of Communism (London: Pluto Press, 1971), 5.
76. Moody, US Labor in Trouble and Transition, 39.
77. Joel Johnson, "1 Million Workers. 90 Million iPhones. 17 Suicides. Who's to Blame?," Wired Magazine, February 28, 2011.
78. James Glanz, "The Cloud Factories: Data Barns in a Farm Town, Gobbling Power and Flexing Muscle," New York Times, September 23, 2012.
79. Moody, US Labor in Trouble and Transition, 245.
80. Keith Bradsher, "Strikes' Effect Widely Felt in Auto Plants," New York Times, March 12, 1996;
"The General Motors Strike," New York Times, March 23, 1996.
81. Dean, Communist Horizon, 83.
82. Ibid., 84.
83. Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, 1892 English Introduction.

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