Working Class or Multitude as agent of change?

Commentary- Joe Carolan

In Marcos’s rallying call of “We are you”, the worker is not referred to as a striker or exploited, but as unemployed. Motivated by the Zapatistas, many of those attracted by the new autonomism within the Global Justice question the power of workers to fundamentally change society. Most dismiss trade unions as reformist, hierarchical organisations, equating their leadership who believe in Social Partnership between unions, employers and government with an increasingly exploited and dissatisfied rank and file membership. Many activists see socialist preoccupations with the ‘working class’ as Victorian and outdated.

In Italy, the ‘hot summer’ of 1969 deeply radicalised Italian society- by the 1970s it had several sizable revolutionary organisations to the left of the Stalinist CPI. These groups largely imploded when confronted by economic downturn and an inability to relate to the rise of the new movements against sexism, race and homophobia. As unemployment increased and many leading militants were sacked from their jobs,
the autonomia grew out of this milieu, finding a spokesperson in the young Antonio Negri. [54]

Negri, who once only saw the struggle in narrow ‘workerist’ terms (i.e. its only legitimate site was inside the factories) now flipped completely, and rejected western workers as a privileged labour aristocracy, one which benefited from imperialism. Instead, he celebrated the Multitude- all those who were oppressed outside the economic sphere. The unemployed, black people, women, the peasants of the Third world and the gay community were to be the new revolutionary force. The Italian autonomia were later to coalesce around Zapatista solidarity groups such as Ya Basta!, and the squatted ‘Social Centres’ found within many major cities.

This debate is now a central one within the Global Justice movement between most autonomists and socialists. Some of these concerns are raised by the authors of the recently published book Equality- from Theory to Practice, in the section ‘Class Politics and egalitarian change’.

The authors argue that “the social movement model of egalitarian change challenges the Marxist idea that progressive politics should be centred solely on class. But since this idea continues to have a strong influence on egalitarians, it is important to review the main factors that weaken social class as the primary force for political mobilisation.”[55] Briefly summarised, these are that-

(a) The working class itself has changed dramatically,
(b) Large groups of people have little connection to paid work,
(c) There are important divisions within classes,
(d) Many people have ceased to identify themselves as working class,
(e) Being working class is culturally depreciated,

It is true that globally, the working class has changed dramatically- it has gotten a lot bigger. When Marx was writing, the global working class was equivalent in numbers to the workforce of modern South Korea. Today, the vast majority of the world’s population (and poor) are urban workers, be they in London or Berlin, or in the sprawling conurbations of Sao Paola, Jakarta or Lagos. Although there are many millions of people unemployed, underemployed and homeless within these cities, the vast majority of them are exploited in badly paid jobs. In the Global South, activists such as Dita Sari in Indonesia have organised tens of thousands of people into unions, who fight against sweatshop conditions- she was imprisoned for many years by the Suharto regime that she eventually helped to topple by mass strike action.

Within the Global Justice movement, socialists are attempting to create an alliance with oppressed groups and the economic power of the unionised working class. Many of the working class are victims of oppression themselves- they are black, gay, from ethnic or religious minorities that are persecuted by the state. Often accused by some within academia of being solely concerned with class and thus being crude economic reductionists, socialists are active in struggles against homophobia, racism, sexism and bigotry, because they believe these forces are used by neo-liberal governments and capitalism in general to divide the movement. The Russian revolutionary Lenin famously argued that socialists should be ‘tribunes of the oppressed’, that gentile workers had a political imperative to fight against anti-Semitism in order to unite the workers movement.

Unionised workers in the Global South have often been the driving force in toppling dictatorships and neo liberal regimes through mass strikes. COSATU in South Africa organised gigantic “stayaways” against apartheid in the 80s and the neo- liberal polices of the New ANC government in recent times. Korean workers in the KCTU bravely organised massive actions throughout the 80s and early 90s under a military junta that was forced to introduce democratic reforms. In Brasil, workers in the trade union federation similarly led a movement against a military regime- the steelworker who helped unionise them is Lula, now the President of the country.

Although other groups within these societies were oppressed, it was the power of workers to shut down the economy of these regimes that forced them to concede or collapse. Other oppressed groups in these societies, such as the landless peasantry, the unemployed, the ‘precarious’ (those with unstable, part time flexi jobs), the student movement and the indigenous, realised that the economic power of workers to strike was a key weapon against the system that subjugated them. In many countries, they thus formed alliances with workers organisations- for example; the PT (Workers’ Party) in Brasil was historically the ‘party of the movements’.

In the developed world, there is a popular view that class has something to do with lifestyles, income or status. Working class, ‘middle class’ and ruling class people are supposed to have certain accents, different kinds of jobs and housing in separate geographical areas that define their class. Class is often thought of as a culture or an identity, and not a social construct. Nevertheless, subjective approaches that attempt to define class by what people consume, where they live or how they speak focus on how people behave, but not on what created class society in the first place. Judging people by these behavior patterns only focuses on surface appearances and does not explain the underlying social relationships that exist within capitalist society.
Many theorists have attempted to explain the phenomena of class, but Marx’s contribution to social theory was an examination of how modern class society was created, based on the economic processes of exploitation.

In modern times, there has been a debate around who constitutes the working class- traditionally; they have been thought to consist of workers in highly unionised manual industries such as mining, shipbuilding, construction etc. However, the expansion of the service industries in recent years has seen nurses, bank officials and teachers not only unionise but also take strike action to defend conditions in modern Ireland. These workers although “white collar”, still sell their labour for a wage and are considered by modern Marxists to be members of the working class. [56]

Marx defines the working class in his masterwork, Das Kapital, noting that
“This specific form in which unpaid surplus-labour is pumped out of the direct producers determines the relationship of domination and servitude, as this grows directly out of production itself… On this is based the entire configuration of the economic community arising from the actual relations of production and hence also its specific political form.” [57]

Marxists in the movement today argue that the central dynamic of capitalism is based around the exploitation of the majority of people in society, who are compelled by economic necessity to work, by a small ultra-wealthy minority of corporations and capitalists. Wage labour and its resultant surplus value (the unpaid wealth created that the employer keeps as profit) is the base of this system. Those who work to earn a wage from this exploitative minority form the working class. Socialists argue that this gives workers the power to shut down the system through mass, general strikes, which can point the way to a democracy based on grassroots workers councils and a society built on human need.


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