The rise of the “precariat”?

March 1, 2012

Geoff Bailey and Kyle Brown take up a debate about Occupy and the working class.

AMID A flurry of debates assessing the fallout from the two Occupy port actions in the Bay Area and the upcoming call for a general strike on May 1, an anonymous article posted by "Oakland Commune" aims to put the tactical debates surrounding the port shutdowns into a theoretical framework.

The author or authors argue that structural changes in the nature of capitalism have created conditions that require us to refashion our tactics around a new, more transient and precarious labor force.

In doing so, they defend an idea that has become almost common sense on the U.S. left: that the working class as it once existed--and was once seen as the central agent of revolutionary change for generations of radicals and revolutionaries--has been so diminished and atomized that new struggles and tactics are necessary.

While there can be no disagreement that profound changes have taken place over time, we want to argue that these changes have not lessened the importance of the working class globally or here in the U.S.

A road of shuttered factory spaces in Detroit
A road of shuttered factory spaces in Detroit

A central challenge for the Occupy Wall Street movement remains whether it can tie the broad activism that has developed around it to the power of the working class at the point of production. The attempts to "update" the theory of the general strike don't represent an advance for our movement, but a retreat.

Globalization and Precarity

The authors of the Bay of Rage article begin by distinguishing between three phases of capitalism.

The first mercantilist phase, they argue consisted largely of the circulation and trade of commodities across the first global markets.

The second industrial phase was distinguished by the fact that "the most important engine of accumulation is no longer trade itself, but the introduction of labor-saving technology into the production process," Oakland Commune writes. Whereas mercantilist profits were largely derived from buying low and selling high across large geographic distances, the profits of industrial capitalists came from the reinvestment of profits in new technology that allowed capital to increase productivity--producing more with relatively fewer workers.

The third phase, in the authors' view, began in the 1970s and saw a redirection of capital toward "firms focused on speeding up and more cheaply circulating both commodity capital (in the case of the shipping, wholesaling and retailing industries) and money capital (in the case of banking)."

Instead of reinvesting profits on labor-saving technology and the expansion of production, capital found that if it could rationalize the circulation of products and services for sale, it could increase profits by increasing the speed with which it brought goods to market. In other words, the more and faster you can sell, the more you can profit. The result, according to the article, was a shift in focus from the workplace to the circuits of capital--global trade and international finance.

This is a view that is shared widely across the radical left. Gayatri Spivak makes a similar observation in "General Strike," published in Tidal, one of the theoretical journals closely associated with Occupy Wall Street: "Today, the global workforce stands deeply divided as globalization operates through a system of finance--trading in uneven currencies--that has little to do with the workforce."

So according to Oakland Commune, as the main centers of accumulation have shifted away from the point of production, the working class has been displaced by a transient, rootless workforce that blurs the lines between worker, debtor and unemployed, creating a new class of workers that has been described elsewhere as the "precariat."

The authors use this to explain the character of the November 2 general strike call and day of action in Oakland:

This is why the general strike on November 2 appeared as it did, not as the voluntary withdrawal of labor from large factories and the like (where so few of us work), but rather as masses of people who work in unorganized workplaces, who are unemployed or underemployed or precarious in one way or another, converging on the chokepoints of capital flow.

Spivak also implies that this restructuring of the workforce means that the general strike needs to be broadened to include other historical models of action that are not focused on the workplace--specifically Gandhi's nonviolent "non-cooperation" movement.

The Oakland Commune authors go further and present the changing makeup of the working class as the theoretical underpinning for tactics that aim to shut down production even when opposed by workers themselves:

The subject of the "strike" is no longer the working class as such, though workers are always involved. The strike no longer appears only as the voluntary withdrawal of labor from a workplace by those employed there, but as the blockade, suppression (or even sabotage or destruction) of that workplace by proletarians who are alien to it, and perhaps to wage-labor entirely. We need to jettison our ideas about the "proper" subjects of the strike or class struggle.

So workers at the point of production are not only seen as peripheral to the general strike, they are seen as possible opponents to it.

There is a profound elitism at work here. Gone is the profoundly liberatory idea central to both Marxism and anarcho-syndicalism that the challenge to capitalism must be a bottom-up act of working-class self-emancipation. Instead, liberation is to be brought from without by self-appointed liberators.

Circulation and Production

THERE OBVIOUSLY have been profound changes in the organization of the global working class over the last 40 years. You only need to walk through the streets of Detroit, or past the empty Kodak plants in Rochester, or into the North Carolina textile mills being converted into luxury condos to understand that something has changed. A shift has taken place that has decimated the lives of millions of working-class families in this country.

But authors like Oakland Commune use these changes to go further.

Circulation is not an independent process under capitalism. It is both the continuation and precondition of production. The restructuring of the circulation process that began in the mid-1970s wasn't an end unto itself. The aim was to streamline circulation in order to increase the production of surplus value.

While the initial phase of restructuring led to the decimation of industrial production in the Global North, the overall effect was a global expansion of industrial production. Take the example of the steel industry: between 1973 and the late 1980s, 350,000 jobs were destroyed in the U.S. as large steel mills were shut down. However, by 2000, the combined output of Brazil, China, South Korea, India, Taiwan and Mexico was almost three times as large as U.S. production.

Restructuring has expanded casual and temporary work on the one hand, while simultaneously leading to the intensification of exploitation at the point of production on the other.

The $67 billion worth of iPhones and iPads sold by Apple last year were produced in a Foxconn factory in Southeast China that employs somewhere between 200,000 and 400,000 workers (mostly young women), working under near-militarized conditions. By 2011, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates that more than 200 million people had been drawn into urban areas to join China's exploding industrial working class.

The increase in global production, while centrally focused in Southeast Asia, has not been limited to there. Industrial production has been increasing by 6.5 percent per year in Latin America (and 11 percent in Brazil alone), driven largely by exports to Southeast Asia.

Even North and Central Africa are seeing a dramatic increase in investment and production. Walk a few miles outside the slums of Lagos, Nigeria, to the industrial export zone of Ikeja, and you'll find shiny new factories owned by Guinness, Dunlop, Dulux, Berger Paints, and Nigeria Steel and Wire.

The globalization of production has not led to a decrease in the importance of either the production of commodities nor the workers who produce them. The exploitation of workers at the point of production remains the center of capitalist production. And as the Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg once wrote, "where the chains of capitalism are forged, there they must be broken."

The Precariat?

Related to the supposed shift away from production is the claim that the working class is disappearing. Reverting to an earlier, Roman definition of the word "proletariat" as those without property, the Oakland Commune distinguish between people who work and a new precarious, "wageless" class:

The working class is defined by work, by the fact that it works. It is defined by the wage, on the one hand, and its capacity to produce value on the other. But the proletariat is defined by propertylessness [sic]...As the crisis of capitalism intensifies, such "wageless life" becomes more and more the norm.

Thus, according to the authors, the struggles of workers against their exploitation are being replaced by the struggles of this new "precariat."

First, we need to distinguish between what is new and what is not in the picture being described. Precariousness, informality, unemployment and underemployment are nothing new for the working class. The experience of immigrant day laborers lining up in the morning and hoping for a days' work would not be unfamiliar to dockworkers, construction workers or autoworkers a century ago.

It was only the rise of the very unions derided by the Oakland Commune authors that brought a measure of security to a generation of workers in this country. The spread of precariousness for many workers has less to do with the rise of a new class than the effects of a nearly 40-year-long one-sided class war that has hammered union power.

Second, the working class has never been static. Capital is always attempting to break down work, undermining earlier forms of labor and labor control, and reducing complex, skilled tasks with replaceable, redundant ones. Artisanal craft workers were replaced by unskilled industrial workers. Professional office jobs were replaced by the modern office worker.

The image of the average worker as a white, male, industrial worker is simply a stereotype. The more than 1.5 million low-wage employees at Wal-Mart, the more than 4.5 million retail workers, and millions of poorly paid service workers are every bit as much a part of the working class as those who work in mines or factories. The working class in the U.S. wears just as many white collars as blue. And today, workers are just as likely to be a woman, an immigrant or a person of color.

But we should be careful about accepting too quickly the image of the U.S. as a post-industrial, service-based economy--and more hesitant still to accept the "knowledge-based" image. There are still more than 8 million manufacturing workers in this country, with another 600,000 in resource extraction and 4.2 million in construction.

Moreover, the power of workers at the point of production is not limited by their numbers, especially as the production process has become more global. A 1996 strike by 3,000 autoworkers in Dayton, Ohio, shut down General Motors' entire North American production chain for 17 days. A picket of 3,000 Occupy protesters could never match that power.

As workers' wages and benefits are slashed across the country, we've also begun to see a re-industrialization of parts of the U.S., especially the "right-to-work" states of the Southeast. Alabama has seen a significant increase in auto-related jobs, adding more than 30,000 in the last 10 years. Mercedes-Benz, Honda, Hyundai-Kia, Nissan, BMW and Toyota have all opened manufacturing plants in the Southeast. If a walk through the streets of Detroit tells you one thing about the state of the U.S. working class, a walk through the streets of Smyrna, Tenn., or Georgetown, Ky., tells you another.

There are two developments that are new--at least in scale, if not in form.

The first is that the "proletarianization" of white-collar work has reached new heights. The neoliberal attempt to transform public services into new sites for accumulation has led to the rapid expansion of attacks on health care, public schools and higher education.

Like millions of office workers before them, people who 20 years ago were in the upper echelons of professional work--university professors, computer programmers and doctors, for instance--are now being threatened by deskilling and replacement with part-time, more flexible workers. Graduate students and medical residents who once saw their position as a stepping-stone into a stable and often lucrative career now find themselves being thrust down into the ranks of the working class. It's not an accident that some of the most militant workplace struggles in recent years have been fought at universities and hospitals.

Still, this doesn't make a new class. One suspects that some of the hyperbole that surrounds the claims about a new class reflects the shock of academic writers about their newfound class position.

The second new development is the scale of mass urban unemployment and underemployment in the Global South. While there has been a tremendous expansion of global production, it has not lead to the same expansion of employment as past periods of growth. Because of the tremendous increases in productivity, when new factories are opened, they employ far fewer workers than they once did. South Africa's economy has almost tripled since 2000, but unemployment has fallen only 7 percent in the same period.

This is a question that is far too broad for a short article, but it is worth saying that the relationships between the working class and the unemployed and underemployed in the Global South are far more fluid and interwoven than is usually portrayed.

For example, the recent general strike by Occupy Nigeria against cuts to fuel subsidies shows the potential power of uniting the organized working class with a wider social movement. A strike call led by Nigerian unions was able to draw around it a struggle of the urban poor. The mass demonstrations and occupations were strengthened by the shutdown of public services and transport, and most importantly, by the threatened shutdown of oil production.

From the Ashes of the Old

The weakness of the working-class movement is not a permanent structural problem. It is a problem of politics and organization. Global restructuring has left the workers' movement weakest where it once was strongest--and the working class is growing the fastest in areas with little in the way of workers' organizations or recent traditions of radical struggle.

The occupation of public squares and foreclosed houses, and community pickets have all become part of our movement. But we should remember that none of these struggles can be counterposed to the struggle of workers to shut down and ultimately take over production.

The Oakland Commune authors are right to point to the importance of the blockade and flying pickets as examples of tactics that could effectively bring a city of millions to a halt. But these are, in fact, old strategies developed by the working-class movement in struggles such as the Flint sit-down strikes, the Seattle general strike in 1919, and the multiple general strikes of 1934. They are in the process of being rediscovered today.

In Argentina, during the mass social upheaval of the early 2000s, the piquetero movement of unemployed and underemployed workers became famous for erecting barricades at transportation chokepoints--these actions were able to paralyze the economy.

But the piqueteros were critically strengthened when they were able to link up with workers' occupations of closed factories. And both movements stalled in part because of the inability of the movement to spark industrial action among the employed working class.

Likewise, in Egypt, the mass occupation of Tahrir Square was decisively strengthened in the final days of the Mubarak dictatorship by the spread of the movement to the factories with a wave of strikes.

Given the current weakness of the workers' movement, it's no surprise that many people would look first to struggles outside the workplace as the hope for building the movement. But that is a limitation, not a strength of our movement. It is a product of past defeats, not a strategy for our future. The perspectives put forward by the Oakland Commune authors elevate our weakness into a point of principle, leaving us at a dead end.

Our movement will be stronger if we can build links between Occupy Wall Street and workers at the point of production. But those links need to be built and nurtured on the basis of shared struggles and common aims, not the adventurism of a small group claiming to act on behalf of others.

The Occupy movement is at a crossroads. It has inspired millions of workers around the country, just as the upsurge by union workers, students and others in Madison, Wis., set the stage for the rise of Occupy Wall Street. The movement has stirred the imagination of millions of people and convinced them of the need for protest and activism. We can squander that support or we can find ways to build on it and connect it to the other struggles throughout society.

Further Reading

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