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Peter Waterman © 2004


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The fact that under the category of proletariat we understand all those exploited by and subject to capitalist domination should not indicate that the proletariat is a homogeneous or undifferentiated unit - it is indeed cut through in various directions by differences and stratifications. Some labour is waged, some is not; some labour is limited to eight hours a day and forty hours a week, some expands to fill the entire time of life; some labour is accorded a minimal value, some is exalted to the pinnacle of the capitalist economy. We argue...that among the various figures of production active today the figure of immaterial labour-power (involved in communication, co-operation, and the production and reproduction of affects) occupies an increasingly central position in both the schema of capitalist production and the composition of the proletariat.

(Hardt and Negri 2003/1999)

Never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one.

(John Berger, cited Roy 1997)

It seems to me that left international labour specialists are confronted by something of a paradox. Whilst there is a growing wave of interest in international labour and labour internationalism, there appears little such interest in what used to be - ought to be? - the social subject under or behind this, "the working class". It is as if enquiries into this social category or theoretical concept are considered as not yielding relevant information or inspiration. We seem to witness proletarianisation (in the broadest sense), to have growing numbers of workers (ditto), to have new waves of labour protest, to have unions, union internationalism, and even new forms of labour internationalism - but without much recent consideration of the "working class". An exception might be in the US, where the demonstration of working-class majorities (Rogers and Teixeira. 2001. Zweig 2001) could be considered itself an emancipatory - or at least subversive - act.

            Marcel van der Linden's essay on "conceptualising the world working class" (2003a) is thus more than welcome. It is not only learned and original but also, surely, timely. It is timely because we are really in a period in which it is becoming  necessary to reconceputalise emancipatory labour agency worldwide (Waterman 2001). It is timely, moreover, precisely because this seems to be also a moment of stasis in class theory, with socialist historians and sociologists settling for "hydra-headed monsters" (Linebaugh and Rediker 2000), for a "multitude" (Hardt and Negri 2000, 2003/1999), for an existential "scream" (Holloway 2002), for a movement of attention from the worker to "work" (Gorz 1999, Cleaver 2002). Otherwise we have to make do with assumptions of the continued centrality of Fordist autoworkers to emancipation and internationalism (Moody 1997); or with a defence of the received Marxist-Leninist analytical mode that implicitly recognises the vanguard role of the global justice movement (Harman 2002,  Commented Waterman 2003d)!

            In looking at the problem of conceptualising the working class, I would consider it rather important to consider not so much - or not only - the political-economy of "working class" but why it ever got the centrality it once had, how it functioned in relation to emancipatory theory, how the concept might be reconsidered in the light of globalisation on the one hand, and the "global justice and solidarity movement" (GJ&SM) on the other.

            Marcel van der Linden's is a fine piece of political-economic analysis, which is able to gracefully credit Marx and equally gracefully say adieu to his proletariat. Van der Linden leans toward a much wider definition, allowing for the inclusion of many categories or even classes, working for capital (those on-whose-work-contemporary-capitalism-is-dependent?). He comes up with this understanding:

Every carrier of labour power whose labour power is sold or hired out to another person under economic or non-economic compulsion belongs to the class of subaltern workers, regardless of whether the carrier of labour power is him- or herself selling or hiring it out and, regardless of whether the carrier him- or herself owns means of production. In a sense, this brings us back to the pre-Marxian concept of the "labouring classes." All aspects of this provisional definition require further research. (Original stress).

This is interesting in so far as it introduces the (Gramscian?) concept of the subaltern, and that it reconnects an industrial understanding of "working class" with a pre-industrial understanding of "labouring classes". In so far as the latter is also a non-industrial understanding, there is in van der Linden's argument an implication that it might be relevant for our increasingly post-industrial capitalist era.

            I do not, however, wish to further comment on this paper except to note that what van der Linden is writing about is less the "working class/es" than the "proletariat/proletarianised". We never quite seem to get to either the working class fr sich, nor to our globalised world, nor to any strategic implications - or imprecations - for the working-class movement or trade-union organisations (c.f., however, van der Linden 2003b).

            E.P.Thompson, said, famously, that the working class was present at its own birth (1970:1-15) and, less famously, that he feared that, in criticising political economy, Marx had created another political economy - within which he was himself trapped? (Thompson 1978: 249).

            I take both thoughts to suggest the necessity for an activist view of the working class - one which escapes the limits of political economy. If, furthermore, the working class - if working classes - are present at their own birth, then this is obviously a birth attended by particular histories, geographies, cultures, two genders and (today at least) a variety of sexual options (c.f. Peloso 2003)! Which is why Thompson was so careful to specify, in the title of his magnum opus, that he was only writing about the English working class.

            I wish to here raise other questions, about the whys and wherefores in the conceptualisation of the working class(es). After all, it is not as if Marx and Engels started with political economy, arrived at the proletariat/working class and then discovered, by a process of induction or deduction that  - wunderbar! - the latter is the privileged revolutionary and internationalist class. It was, surely, the other way round, or at least through a process of complex interaction between their emancipatory aspiration, utopia or teleology (Communism), sociological observations (the formation of an industrial proletariat in Britain) and theoretical specifications (political-economic) that their thoughts about the working class were developed.

            That the Marxists get - and got - it wrong about the articulation Working-Class-Revolution-Internationalism seriously qualifies but does not deny their contribution to either emancipatory thought or struggle. Seeking emancipatory and universalist capacity within an early-19th century world of unprecedented, dramatic and revolutionary capitalist industrialisation and trade, in which "all things solid melt into air", it is hardly surprising that they invested all internationalist/emancipatory capacity in this chosen people. Any more than it is surprising that, whilst criticising "utopian socialism", they reproduced it -- if with a scientific veneer.

            That the Marxists (later Leninists) did get it seriously wrong was revealed by them, themselves, when the working class failed to fulfil its assigned role. Marx, Engels, Lenin and others then invented categories that explained (away) its non-revolutionary, nationalist or imperialist nature - the "labour aristocracy", the "lumpenproletariat" and the "semi-proletarianised peasantry".

            Whilst Marcel accords recognition to labour specialists on/from the South for undermining the simplistic Marxist understanding of "working class", he forgets about the extent to which some of these also depended on and promoted these rationalisations. There was a lively empirical/theoretical debate about such matters, over a decade or so, amongst Africanists. My own contribution to such was to argue the non-theoretical nature of these authentically Marxist-Leninist terms, their varied and changing social address, and their erroneous predictive powers. This was in relation to "aristocrats" and "plebeians" in the Lagos cargo-handling industry of the 1970s (Waterman 1983a:1-19). Not that this stopped - or stops - Marxists rabbitting on about the "Labour Aristocracy". [1] But, then, who has ever been able to prevent Marxists rabbitting on about anything with traditional Marxist licence?

            There is also the problem of the empirically revolutionary working class. The most successful case (but for how many decades, years, months?) is that of the Russian Revolution, or at least that of the key role of the working class within this. It could be argued that this success was due in part to the 30 percent growth of the industrial labour force 1910-14 and, therefore, to the combination of the experienced and unionised "labour aristocrats" with the youthful and unruly "semi-proletarianised peasantry"! Plus, of course,  the phase of early industrialisation, the war, authoritarian government. One could continue with further specification of the unique historical circumstances (Waterman 1983b). Since then there have been a number of "working class" revolutions and countless such parties, but typically based on peasants rather than proletarians.

            Back to the contemporary, actually-existing - if still problematic - proletariat. We can pick up some more evidence from Dan Gallin (1999, 2001), where the former international union leader considers "informality". Gallin notes that the overwhelming majority of the world's working class is in "a-typical" employment. In the so-called developing countries it is the "typical" worker who is a-typical. But the "a-typical" are not only increasing here, they are becoming a considerable proportion of the working population in the industrialised countries - particularly in comparison with the declining proportion of the unionised. Moreover, he says, we are not here confronted with a split between "modern" and "non-modern" labour or production, since teleworking, sweatshops and the outsourcing of auto-parts are more "modern" than steelworks. Gallin ends up with an understanding close to that of van der Linden: "At the end of the day, everyone who works in a dependent situation is a worker". Gallin does not here concern himself with conceptualising the working class. What he is worried about is the problem this new (post-industrial?) working class creates for the trade-union movement. There remain, in his account, it seems to me, two black holes. One is consideration of what we might call high-end a-typical workers (professional, managerial and technical workers, programmers, graphic designers and others in the computer industry, who are often outworkers or homeworkers, individualised yet highly dependent on the most modern branch of capitalist production) [2] . The other is whether any of the three types of worker I have just sketched have the consciousness, desire and capacity to organise themselves, sectorally or collectively, in a form (the union) that Gallin does not really problematise. Work may still be the Big Issue [3] , but how are we to conceptualise those that do it, and to appeal to them to 1) articulate themselves in a manner that is effective within highly differentiated sectors of the labour-force, 2) in a manner also effective for those in other sectors, 3) in the rest of a radical-democratic-global-civil-society-in-the-making? What do we call these people, when we remember that "to call" is to appeal? This aspect of identity-formation/recognition has been called "interpellation", but I see no reason to use this translation from the Althusserian French (?), rather than the English word "hailing". [4] It is, in any case, a process through which mutual recognition and approval is established. We also need to remember that a "calling" is an occupation with an ethical logo. Long into the 20th century, "work" gave many workers not only a sense of identity but of pride. I was reminded of this just a couple of years ago, in Lima, when Lucho, who does part-time private taxi driving for a living, told me how happy he had been when he worked in the factory from which he was expelled for his union activity. That factory, like so many others internationally, has long gone. But we still need a name that simultaneously indicates a position within capitalist society, which can create or re-create a sense of common identity, and which has within it some sense of ethic or mission.

            In so far as Marx's "proletariat" and "working class" was created to meet a utopian aspiration and to fill the role of unique or privileged emancipatory agent, we might consider the argument of Hardt and Negri (2003/1999), for whom it apparently serves, today, a related, if relativised, function. I am here drawing on the text from which my introductory quotation is extracted. This seems to me to address itself to not only the nature of the category and its emancipatory potential, but also the original internationalist vocation and even to organisational and strategic issues. I am not opposing this to Marcel's argument. I am, rather, posing it as the most economical (in the sense of brief) striking and imaginative extension of such. It would seem to me here, that when we add this to the various post-industrial re-conceptualisations mentioned above, we may recognise that we have a family of interpretations that lean toward a broader understanding of the category. In the case of Hardt and Negri, there are added, perhaps, certain implications.

            Hardt and Negri's 1999 piece actually ranges over the whole of what was then a still-to-be-published book - and thus with nationalism, globalisation, methodology, ontology and other such exotic matters. Where, however, it begins, is with a quotation from William Morris, which for me strikes a classically Marxist, if somewhat pathetic, chord:

Men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and then it turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.

            H&N also appeal to Marx (as well as to Italian operaismo and Gilles Deleuze) to argue that in the beginning there was not Power but Resistance (I would say "Protest" since this seems to me closer to "assertion" and "surpassal"). They further admit that this position is axiomatic rather than proven, but they continue to argue the positive political implications of such an understanding. They wish not to celebrate protest, but to recognise its continual existence, and its potential. In arguing, along with Marx, that proletarian protest stimulated the development of capitalism (today hegemonic globalisation), one leaves open the possibility of its one day surpassing these. H&N seem, in other words, to be seeing "proletariat" as - or also as - a heuristic concept. They start their argument on the proletariat as a broad category that includes all those whose labour is directly or indirectly exploited by capitalist norms of production and reproduction.

So far, so common to our other authors. They then continue with the long passage  quoted above, which makes one highly-specific point on the increasing centrality of labour involved in "communication, cooperation, and the production and reproduction of affects".

            Although these kinds of labour are here neither specified or distinguished, H&N are pointing in the direction of labour in the new economy of a globalised networked capitalism. This includes, it should be remembered, not only information workers in general (which could be taken to include those in call centres - hightech sweatshops), but also those involved in housework/caring and such waged personal services as domestic work, health, tourism (the world's biggest employer) and social services. Communication here would also, presumably, include the growing cultural and media industries. Whilst H&N do not suggest that these workers provide a new vanguard, we could consider them as workers who are, on the one hand, often individualised and hard to organise, but, on the other, and in so far as they are information/communication/cultural workers, commonly familiar with computerised equipment and therefore open to the "networked union of the future" (Hyman 199:112).

Click here to continue on to read Part Two of this article

[1] There are 11,000+ entries on Google for "labour+aristocracy+today". This can be increased by searching for "labour+aristocracy" (29,000+). And could, no doubt, be reduced by finding a way of restricting the search to positive mentions.  The figure of 11,000 is nonetheless impressive for a concept the function of which is commonly to explain away shortcomings in a major theory.

[2] In one of those ironies of history dear to the more dialectical Marxist, the internationalism of the pre-industrial journeyman may now be being re-invented bythe managerial, technical and professional workers! Union Network International now has a UNI Passport for such workers (m/f), announced, of course, on its website, and offering, of course, computerised services. The passport not only promises the support of host-country unions. It also admits to the weakness of unions vis--vis corporations, and invites the passport holder to take the opportunity of his/her employment abroad to advance unionism!

[3] Actually, a British weekly, reproduced internationally, not proletarians, even an sich, but on homelessness, and sold by the homeless/unemployed in the streets on which they often live.

[4] As an example of hailing, consider that classic of dissident Polish cinema, Wajda's "Man of Marble", from 1976. This is about a Communist model worker, one of a group being being specially fed for their task - and hated by their fellow workers. The film is simultaneously about the relationship to the workers and the state of the intellectuals - in this case the director filming this new brick-laying record. When the workers emerge from their hut, cross themselves and slouch toward the building site, the director tells them that they have to return to their hut and to "come out like workers". The builders then return, to march out, arms swinging, heads high, conforming to the state-socialist model. Latter-day "semi-proletarianised peasants"?

[5] "Working Families" seems to have been downgraded on the AFL-CIO website, in favour of  "Working America - a Powerful Voice for Non-Union Workers", The appearance and disappearance of such slogans from AFL-CIO discourse is a fascinating indicator of problems for which the AFL-CIO does not have solutions. Consider "Buy American", now condemned to another site, For some - possibly contradictory - reflections on "working families", see Clawson 2003: 68, fn 35, 214.




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