What Changes Has the Working Class Undergone?
Like goods and services ideas don’t tend to fall from the sky. Why are some people deceived into thinking that “we are all middle class now”?
The working class has undergone immense changes in the last 30 years. These changes have not transformed the working class into something else – its essence, working for labour, has not changed. But historical trends that we will detail below have changed the working class in important ways.
After the Great Depression and World War Two capitalism went through a “golden age”: rising living standards and productivity smoothed out the sharp conflicts between rich and poor that defined the 1930s.
In the 1970s there arose a conflict – between democracy and workers’ rights on the one hand, and profitability for big business on the other. This came to a head in most advanced capitalist countries. Victory for big business in this conflict (through Reaganism in the US and Thatcherism in the UK, for example) defined the world we live in today.
International Division of Labour
The massive deindustrialisation of Europe and America and the industrialisation to a spectacular level of China and other countries has led to an international division of labour, with the dirtier, poorer-paid jobs going to countries where people have no democratic or workers’ rights.
So on the one hand, trade unions and social-democratic parties won huge gains for working people in the advanced capitalist countries of Europe and America in the middle decades of the 20th century. On the other hand, these gains have not been enough. Businesses don’t like democracy or workers’ rights, and if left to their own devices they’ll pack up and leave for somewhere more repressive and backward. This race-to-the bottom is the reason why China and other heavy-handed states with poor populations have boomed industrially.
For a sketch of the world economy today we should look at the two most crucial economies, those of the US and of China, in comparison. China, on the basis of the Communist Party’s planned economy through which it overcame warlordism, foreign domination and economic backwardness, is a colossus of industrial production.
To list just a few examples:
- Cement production: 2,000 million tonnes to the USA’s 68.4. Since 2005, China’s output has doubled, while the USA’s has nearly halved.
- Car production: 18.5 million to the USA’s 8.6
- Steel production: in 2011, 683 to the USA’s 86.2. In 2007 this stood at 98.1 for the USA and 495 for China.
Meanwhile in indicators of consumption, the US outstrips China spectacularly. In 2008 every 2.25 watts used in China was overmatched by over 11 used in the USA.
The interrelations of the world economy are defined by this nexus of production and consumption. The US sustains China through being a market for its goods; China sustains the US by buying up its currency massively. Other countries to a greater or lesser extent fit into this picture as either producers or consumers.
The implications of this for our observations on the working class are clear: it is bigger and more powerful and more concentrated than ever. It is more like the “traditional” view of class than ever. You would not think it if you took a superficial look around Dublin or London. But if you look a little deeper the signature of today’s working class is everywhere. Who made the clothes I am wearing? Some of the two million garment workers in Bangladesh. Who made the cars that line the roads? Workers on the eastern seaboard of China.
Again we remind ourselves that goods do not fall from the sky. They are built by the labour of working-class people and, for the sake of profit not of rationality, transported absurd distances.
Shopping centres are generally boring places for me. But they become interesting when I really think about the commodities around me. I imagine the exotic places these mountains of mundane objects came from, and the incredible people whose hands made them – an unspeakably great mass of humanity who will someday stand organised, will demand their desires and interests, and shake the world to its foundations.
Back in Europe and the US, since the 1980s the banks and financial institutions have exploded in size and influence. This led directly to the great financial crash of 2007-8. The essence of this age of the domination of finance was the attempt to smooth out, by means of illusions won by gambling, the essential conflict between the capitalists and the working class, revealed by the crisis of profitability of the 1970s.
It was only by financial trickery that decent living standards could be maintained in an economy based on “services”, stripped of manufacturing, whose essential role in the world economy was to be a market. But if you’re a boss, how do you turn a working class into a buying class without paying them higher wages than you can afford? Capitalism “solved” this problem as it usually “solves” problems: by storing up a greater crisis for the future through creating enormous bubbles of imaginary wealth.
Since the predictable crisis hit, the role of governments has been to turn national and regional economies into creaking props for this failed system. The more wealth they pump into the banks, the more the bankers gamble or hoard.
Imagine a dam is built above a city. It is poorly-built using shoddy materials. The dam begins to give way, and the city council steadily dismantle the city brick-by-brick and plank-by-plank in an effort to build up material to fortify the slowly-collapsing dam. This farcical and terrifying situation is what we’re living in. The substantial – jobs and public services – are being sacrificed to save an insubstantial and fake world of fictional wealth whose time has passed and which has nothing to offer humanity.
Alongside the financialisation of the world economy came the collapse of Stalinism. The Soviet Union and its satellite states in Eastern Europe fell in a great revolutionary wave. While these were planned economies which, especially in the Soviet Union, achieved economic miracles impossible under capitalism, they were ruled over by bureaucratic tyranny. As well as denying the people basic freedoms, this led to the economies stagnating and collapsing. The result was the restoration of capitalism, which was a social, economic, cultural and even a demographic disaster.
Effects on the working class
The historical stages that passed in the last 40 years or so, which I have just briefly outlined, made fools of the two dominant trends in the workers’ movement of the 20th century, in strangely similar ways.
Social Democratic and Labour parties rested cosily on the achievements of the post-war boom, and on that basis became so bureaucratised and conservative that when the 1970s came and all the gains of that boom were under attack from big business they could not make an effective fight. Thatcher claimed that her greatest achievement was New Labour – the transformation of Britain’s Labour Party into a sad imitation of a bosses’ party, which is mirrored all over the world.
Stalinism was equally complacent and conservative. It was no more prepared for historic change, for the accumulation of contradictions which can tear down empires. Without the Stalinist states of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, their sister parties in the West were utterly discredited and left without an anchor in the world.
It is this context which has shaped and defined the working class as it exists today.
Both of these trends in the working-class movement, formerly all-powerful, deserved their fate because the historic period which had sustained them passed. But in dying, following on from defeats such as the miners’ strike and the PATCO dispute, they dragged the working class down with them. The 1980s and 1990s were demoralising experiences which struck the international working class with one blow after another.
Moreover the social-democratic and labour parties retain a zombie-like existence, retaining a prestige among workers based on their past, and making the odd radical noise. This fools people into supporting them as the “lesser evil”. Supporting them and being betrayed by them can further depress working people – making them pessimistic and cynical instead of radicalising them.
A similar bureaucratic obstacle exists in the leadership of the trade union movement. This problem is particularly sharp in Ireland. A time of relative prosperity in the late 1990s and 2000s, a brief historic episode, allowed for a system known as social partnership, whereby scraps are thrown to the working class in exchange for the trade unions becoming tame and timid organisations.
This experience weighs on the working class of today. The memory of Stalinism and social democracy are obstacles on the road of the people toward socialist ideas and mass action. When the crisis hit in 2007-8 and working people were suddenly under attack from all angles, they did not begin from scratch. The working class started with memories of past betrayals and defeats still weighing them down, and with a legacy of disorganisation and complacency inherited from the boom. Every minute of the 1990s and 2000s the workers’ movement grew weaker, and every minute the stranglehold of the bankers and bosses grew stronger. This explains the slowness of the turn toward radicalisation and struggle in most countries.
To briefly summarize the changes we have just outlined:
- The working classes in the Advanced Capitalist Countries work less in manufacturing, and more in services. This is in an economy that is unsustainable in and of itself, but has been artificially sustained pre-2007 by financial trickery and post-2007 by a massive transfer of wealth from society to the super-rich.
- The failures of Stalinism and of social democracy and the triumph of neo-liberalism have left a heavy burden of defeatism and demoralisation on the shoulders of the working class globally. It is further weakened by a general disorganisation, retreat, complacency and death of fighting spirit that took place in the last few decades. These factors are holding the working class back from struggle today.
- The working class is bigger, more developed and more powerful than ever. This fact can be obscured by the international division of labour and by the fact that the working class has low morale and consciousness at the moment. But like the heights of the Celtic Tiger, this apparently all-conquering and eternal reality is merely an episode, an aberration.
So these are the changes: international division of labour, demoralisation and massive potential strength. What basis is there really to claim that there is no working class? As many British people work in call centres today as at one point worked in mines.
What basis is there to think that the colossal working class of today will fail to make its mark on the 21st century? Greater potential for class struggle and revolution exists today than existed 100 years ago, at a time when a far smaller part of the world was industrialised and capitalist, and the working class was a fraction of the size it is today. Revolutionary events greater than those of the 20th century will unfold in the 21st. The further development capitalism has undergone in the meantime promises a greater chance of victory for socialism: wider and deeper foundations now lie ready in most of the world’s countries.
Computational scientist Stephen Emmott has written a book in which he predicts disaster and possible extinction due to population growth and humanity’s unsustainable relationship with nature. On the one hand these predictions are hard-headed and convey the seriousness of the situation as regards the environment and the organisation of human society. On the other hand amid all his “realism” he leaves out of consideration most of humanity.
Achieving a democratic socialist society with a planned economy is the only way we could even begin to address the challenges he outlines through a changeover to green energy and enforcing conservation and efficiency as opposed to the profit-driven chaos of capitalism. Yet he doesn’t even approach such an idea. Instead he concludes, and these are his exact words, “We’re fucked.”
I don’t believe we’re fucked. I know from history that constant radical change is the rule, not the exception. I know the massive progressive power that is unleashed in those moments, revolutions, when the masses intervene actively and consciously in historic events. Once the working class collectively and democratically controls all means of production, distribution and exchange, our species will not only save the environment from complete destruction, but begin to raise civilisation to a higher level.
It would be strange to imagine a future in which for some reason today’s working class fails to leave a decisive stamp on world history. There are obstacles – dictatorship, reactionary ideas, sectarianism, the bitter memory of past defeats. But human beings will look out for their interests; this great mass of human beings, the global working class, has a common interest against the bosses of this world, and is potentially the most powerful force that has ever existed. If even limited sections of this class become conscious, organised and militant, this will be enough to change the course of history. These simple facts trample over all relative obstacles.
- Class Today, Part One (ranksavagespit.wordpress.com)