Events over the past months have been breathtaking. The global Coronavirus pandemic has, at the time of writing, infected 16 million people worldwide with over 630,000 associated deaths. Many governments took lockdown measures which have had direct, adverse impacts on the world economy and, specifically the standard of living of the working class has been hit hard, not least through massive hikes in unemployment, the worst of which lie ahead. And then, the grotesque and brazen murder of George Floyd in Minnesota inflamed the entire country and led to extraordinary confrontations between protesters and town, state and federal repressive forces. Important though these latter events are within the American context, the protests have reverberated across the world and, unlike many other police murders over the years, led not only to solidarity actions but also to explicit tie-ins to the treatment doled out to other racial groups by colonialists and home-grown exploiters, past and present.
These recent protests have not come from nowhere. A series of social eruptions has been going on for more than a decade now and have emerged from the specific developments of the capitalist world over the past decades in which the onslaught of the ruling class against the working class has heightened through increased exploitation and accompanied by the most widespread attack on humanity and all aspects of its humanness. We have been witnessing a blowback against this onslaught since 2010. However, the protest movements of 2020 have reacted to social conditions with yet more intensity.
Who would have expected, even in 2019, the conflation of a police murder, a politicised pandemic, a forthcoming American presidential election, a burgeoning trade war, the tearing down of statues of slaveowners, colonialists and Confederate generals, and the most widespread civil unrest since the 1960s? And who would have forecast that the price of a barrel of crude oil could fall below the price of a toilet roll? These are turbulent times.
There is clearly a need for Marxists to analyse these protest movements and their developments in the context of the evolution of capitalism. We are in new territory and need get a historical perspective on events. Where do they fit in this evolution and what do they portend for the struggle and its direction in the period ahead? Here, I give a broad-brush description of some aspects of recent history to provide context. This leads on to three key questions: Where is the working class? Where is the point of production? Where is the revolutionary subject?
This article does not aspire to be definitive and comments are welcomed.
The Worldwide Integration of Capitalist Society
The Ties That Bind
The creation of the world market in the 19th Century did not mark globalisation in the terms we use today. Our contemporary globalisation is an integrated system of production, financing and marketing. After implementing the Reagan/Thatcher policies of de-regulation and privatisation in the US and the UK, the world crossed a Rubicon with the unfettering of capital movements and the mushrooming of offshore financial jurisdictions; these changes facilitated more rapid and widespread investments in the global search for profit, much of which was concerned with the search for the cheapest labour costs.
The market liberalisation that followed in many parts of the world opened up opportunities for Western investment promoted forcefully and ruthlessly by institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF. But it was also recognised by factions in the ruling class of many countries that major changes had to be made to compete and survive in this new economic reality. One by one, the old command economies were restructured, the most globally significant being in Russia (by Gorbachev – perestroika), in China (by Deng Xiaoping – ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’) and in India (by Narasimha Rao – dismantling of the Licence Raj).
Alongside global financing networks, physical logistics networks also grew. Accelerated ship and aircraft manufacture further sped up international transportation. Fast electronic communications (first by satellite and then by fibre optic cable) completed the construction of the infrastructural basis for true globalisation: that is, where geographic distances shrank to the point where the harmonisation of international production processes could even meet the demands of just-in-time manufacture directly matched to the needs of highly segmented international markets.
Culturally, the population has been drawing together. Physically, the movement of peoples from the country to the town has now reached the point of more than 50% of the world’s population now live in urban environments. The use of English as the Latin for modern times (built on the British Empire, IBM and the American military) enables further connectedness. Treating the bulk of humanity as an audience, American, Indian and Chinese TV, film and other entertainment industries have achieved a substantial penetration. The widespread availability of smartphones and the associated use of social media have also woven peoples’ lives together in a manner inconceivable just over a decade ago.
This integration is, of course, one based on capitalist social relations, advancing with what Marx termed the real domination of capital. This domination penetrates into every aspect of human life in its rapacious search for profit; it aims to commodify and monetise everything and anything into the grotesque world system we have today. Every aspect of our environment is looted, social relationships deformed and mental lives pathologised – see, for example, DSM-5: Recipes for Madness, in IP 58/59.
Globalisation has enabled not only worldwide production processes but also an accelerated ability to move capital and industrial capability round the world; sometimes this is to seek lower labour costs, sometimes to avoid hostile (political or military) environments, or to embed them into favourable tax or legal environments. One social effect of these rapid movements is to increase the precariousness of working, and hence social, life.
The world is littered with cities, towns, villages, farming areas, abandoned over millennia – their emptying caused by changes in agricultural, mining or other environmental conditions. But, under capitalism, changes be made at astonishing rates at the diktat of boardrooms. In the present day, the movement of industrial manufacture (steel, automobiles, shipbuilding, appliances, electronics) from the West to East, South and South-East Asia is a case in point with testimonials left in the US rust belt, the rundown towns of the North of England and many other places. Whole societies can be stranded, unable to find livelihoods based on wage labour where there are few wages to be had. Poverty and hopelessness flourish in such environments, while those who can find solutions elsewhere leave.
Working conditions today can contain novel characteristics: workers in Amazon’s warehouses are kept under the tightest surveillance offered by today’s technology monitoring all their body movements not only for supervisory purposes but also to refine algorithms used to control their work more efficiently and to increase productivity. Meanwhile, the use of robots increases as part of the constant search for labour replacement technologies; these are the passport-less workers. With the ability to move jobs quickly, previous incumbents can be easily marooned. Further devices are created to tilt the balance even more in favour of the bosses – such as zero-hour contracts where there is no obligation for the company to give work to its workers yet the employee is obligated to be available for work at any time. Job security is continually weakening, with precariousness growing as a normal feature of today’s working life.
The Shadow Economy
In traditional examinations of world GDP, a significant proportion of economic activity is ignored. This is, without going too closely into definitions, the shadow economy – that portion of economic activity that includes smuggling of armaments and other outlawed materials such as narcotics, blood minerals and people trafficking. (Confusingly, the same term is sometimes used to cover the off-book activity of workers and small businesses, which can be a substantial portion of the economy of poorer countries and is essentially a means to avoid being taxed.) Though difficult to estimate its size, some commentators (including The Economist) reckon the shadow economy is now as much as 20% of the official economy; others express it as 15-20% of global turnover; obviously, this is a significant – and not a marginal – omission and one that has to be recognised explicitly.
The most obvious growth industries in the shadow economy have been in the trafficking of drugs and human beings, the latter for sex, slavery or both. Trafficking has been stimulated by and contributes to the immiseration of swathes of society by economic hardship and dislocations caused by political and military antagonisms.
Additionally, there has been mushrooming of industries based on the extraction of high-value minerals such as diamonds and various materials used in hi-tech industries. Many are located in areas where competing forces fight for commercial and political control; among them Africa and West Asia stand out. The vast monies involved stimulate the market for weapons which make the make the rivalries deadly; where combined with drugs, trafficking becomes all the more toxic.
Shadow activity goes across the board: theft of commodities, counterfeit fashion items and electronic devices, trade in endangered animal species for trophies and medicines, logging, … The list is endless and these sectors have been stimulated all the more by capital movement liberalisation, offshore financial jurisdictions and the ready supply of weaponry and social convulsions. Together, capitalism’s economic and military warfare generates massive flows of displaced and desperate people.
Again, we can say that while most of these activities are not new, their volume and connectedness has reached an unprecedented degree of integration, a key enabler being the universality of the American dollar.
The Violence of Capitalism
Unsurprisingly, the geopolitical forces and their militaries wreak the greatest overt physical damage on societies across the world. Armed conflict has never been a question solely of pitting an armed force against an armed force; populations have always suffered, at the very least, as collateral damage. But since the American Civil War and the industrialisation of warfare the concept of ‘total war’ entered the bourgeois vocabulary. Through the remainder of the 19th and all through the 20th centuries ever-wider swathes of humanity were drawn into the conflicts as the antagonisms became more global. The carpet bombing of German cities and the Tokyo fire-storming had brought mass annihilation of civilian populations into morally-legitimised military planning even before the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The MAD (mutually assured destruction) philosophy of the Cold War was in part based on this moral legitimisation.
The 21st Century strategic realignments are still in some flux. Gone are the two blocs of the Cold War; in their place are alliances that are precipitating out of its residues compounded by economic and political changes. The hubris of what was heralded as a unipolar world following the collapse of the Soviet Union and its ‘socialist allies’ led to heightened American and Western aggression culminating in the post-9/11 invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq; the social and political reactions have been widespread and included locally-based state forces and jihadist groupings, including the Taliban, al-Qaeda and Daesh. The turmoil also provided fertile soil for Russia in which to develop a renewed international impact; and, along with its enormous economic expansion, China is also driven to create a global military reach – raising tensions particularly in the west Pacific..
The scale of the ‘War on Terror’ is rarely advertised. The US has spent over $7 trillion on this ‘war’ since 9/11. As well as over a million deaths associated with the fighting, over 21 million people have since been displaced. The suspension of civil liberties in the pursuit of terrorists has led to unimaginable levels of repression. The US is currently engaged militarily in counter-terrorism activities in over 80 countries. Not every war going on today derives from this source, there are always plenty of local antagonisms to keep the tensions high or the carnage going: such as in Kashmir, DR Congo, Sudan, the Mexican drug wars.
Transnational Organised Crime: Gangs, Franchises and States
Gangsterism has existed since time immemorial, but it flourishes in today’s world at many levels. And today it takes on a weightier role than ever because of the way various entities are connected through material and financial networks.
Some organisations have had a strong existence for many years: such as the Mafia, Camorra, ‘Ndrangheta, Tongs, Yakuza. More recently there has been a mushrooming of extortion, drug and trafficking gangs and cartels in the Balkans, Turkey, Israel, South and Central America, the Philippines, Indonesia and elsewhere. The Russian and ex-Eastern Bloc experiences have provided a model for so many other countries where state institutions have fragmented or decayed: the old institutions of repression and state security take the opportunity to carve out their own commercial niches and to enter the expanded global cohort of racketeers. All such enterprises – and rulers, gangsters and other wealthy people – need the (predominantly) Western international banking system. They use its financial security jurisdictions so as to interface with official financial systems to launder their money, to enable them to participate in the ‘legitimate’ world and to protect their assets which would otherwise be open to theft or seizure in their own countries.
To facilitate their businesses, these organisations need cooperation with parts of state apparatuses, as the state (reciprocally) needs them; whether for profit or to lubricate the management of society and economy, whether at the levels of individual petty corruption or massive criminal syndicates or wholesale kleptocracies. The boundaries between licit and illicit, legal and illegal, honest and corrupt are all subject to definitions made by bourgeois interest groups. Through the FSB, the internal security force succeeding the KGB, Putin has effectively given the Russian oligarchs life-rents (ie do what I say or you die), a degree of extortion perhaps matched only by the head of the House of Saud. Integral to the faction fights that go on incessantly in gangs and states are arguments over the distribution of wealth and these can indicate important power plays as with ‘anti-corruption’ campaigns of Xi in China, Kim in North Korea and Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia.
Taken together, these forces constitute an international franchise of the world bourgeoisie operating via the global financial system.
The Chinese state’s fear of internal unrest is well-known (and explains why it spends 50% of its military budget on internal security). The state’s policies towards the Uighurs in Xinjiang province have led to the internment of a million or so in what are effectively concentration camps under the guise of receiving ‘vocational skills education and training’. As forced labour they are hired out to other provinces; women are subjected to sterilisation programmes; children are separated from their families and assessed for ‘centralised care’. (Shades of the American southern border here.) The Myanmar army launched a campaign to expel the Rohingya people from the Rakhine state bordering on the strategically significant littoral beside the Bay of Bengal; the government has the support of both China and India (both of whom are vying for Myanmar support for their economic and political projects).
The state apparatus is not the only source of violence. Gang violence accounts for astonishingly high numbers of murders round the world: in 2016, murders in Brazil matched civilian casualties in Syria; some Mexican provinces are nearly on a par with this. Across Central and South America there are many similar events.
Capitalism’s violence is not only physical. It can be highly successful in profitably creating problems for people and then posing solutions in which more profit is generated. The current opioid crisis in the United States is generating substantial profits for big pharma who pressed doctors to prescribe these drugs and deal with the resulting addictions by increasing dosages – and thereby increasing sales for big pharma; the only problems for patients and families are misery and death – over 63,000 in 2016. There are parallel examples in psychiatry where, for example, DSM-5 (about which I have written extensively elsewhere) promotes the prescription of psycholeptic drugs developed (again) by big pharma and used to control behaviours; sort of mental coshes. The tie-up between doctors, academics and big pharma generates massive, global, revenues in dealing with their patients many of whom have fallen victim to the madness of life under capitalism.
In recent years the development of surveillance methods has affected many aspects of social life. Big data harvesting of the activities of billions of people – via their use of smartphones, social media, internet browsing and purchasing habits – has brought new insights into human behaviours through the development of analytical techniques (including AI) which combine data from multiple sources along with its metadata. This technology enables close surveillance of the people contributing the data (knowingly and unknowingly) and feeds into novel applications which in turn enables precise targeting and influencing by all kinds of commercial and political agencies. Sections of the bourgeoisie are enabled to transmit their various truths as they wish, for commercial and political advantage. One example will serve. Trump has famously introduced the concept of ‘fake news’ into bourgeois political discourse, coupling his use of social media with supportive broadcasting networks on television and radio. This has put the traditional establishment media on the back foot and they have taken years to get their act together to respond to the unremitting tirades against them. Globally, this is changing the ideological management of the populations by the various factions of the bourgeoisie.
And all the while – Austerity
Examples across the world are legion. However, it is salutary to look at what American workers – living in the richest country in the world – have suffered over the last decades. An example from the New York Times Editorial Board, 24 June 2020 : adjusting for inflation the average meatpacker made $24 per hour in 1982 and today (despite a significant increase in productivity) only $14 per hour. Over this period the US economy has increased by almost 80% (adjusting for inflation and population growth) . Yet, the after-tax income of the bottom half of earners has risen by only 20%, the middle 40% of earners has risen by 50% and the top 20% by 420%. All in all, this represents a shift of $1 trillion annually from workers to the owners of the means of production. There are many measures of wealth movements across the classes over this period but the long and short of it is that the American workers have been living under austerity for decades.
In the UK, currently the sixth wealthiest country, assessments generally agree that around 22% of the population (including 34% of children) are living in poverty. Austerity in Russia, and several South America countries follow the same general pathway. ‘It’s the same the whole world over’, one could say.
It is highly likely that to pay for the huge debts they’ve built up to deal with the Covid-19 crisis, governments will again impose Austerity Programmes – as if so many workers aren’t living under permanent austerity anyway. Among bourgeois economists, the efficacy of Austerity Programmes has been seriously questioned – since Keynes’ time, in fact – as being counter-productive. But whether those who follow the Keynes and Krugman’s arguments or those who follow Reinhart and Rogoff prevail, the ‘natural’ class reaction of the bourgeoisie is to look to further extraction of surplus value from the working class as the response to such crises. Whatever reactions to the current economic crisis the bourgeoisie settles on, you can be sure it will involve bludgeoning the proletariat.
In the West, the 1980s brought together several strands of bourgeois political and economic ideas, changes in the strengths of various political forces (in their domestic contexts) and global investment forces – still within the framework set by the Cold War antagonisms between the two Blocs. Among the most striking was the conflation of the economic policy of monetarism (and the liberalisation of capital markets) and the political policies of Reagan and Thatcher towards the working class. The resulting recomposition of the working class has been discussed over the years in IP. (See, for example, IP15, 3rd quarter, 1989.)
As concentrations of industrial production shifted from the West to other areas of the world so too did the growth of strikes and workers struggles. This is not surprising – one would expect that similar conditions would give rise to similar behaviours among workers. China and India thus demonstrated a classic struggle profile with the transfer of a high proportion of heavy industrial production from the West. It would be followed by strike waves in other countries as they followed on as they took up the role as centres for large-scale industrial production – a noteworthy example being that in Vietnam from 2006 to 2011. However, the reaction to capitalism’s ever-increasing strictures on human life is not confined to the factory. In the past decade, we have seen substantial social movements resisting capitalism’s policies.
The Arab Spring. The curtain was raised by Mohamed Bouazizi who self-immolated on 17 December 2010 in Ben Arous, Tunisia; made desperate by police abuse and poverty, being unable to pay police bribes, this street trader committed suicide in the most painful and public way, voicing the distress of the whole population. There followed a wave of protests which led to the overthrow of the Tunisian government the following month.
With populations in other Arab countries suffering in a similar way to that of Tunisia, including under the most repressive regimes, protests erupted that January in Oman, Yemen, Egypt, Syria and Morocco, Palestine and elsewhere. The intensity of the demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and elsewhere led to the fall of the Mubarak regime. Further protests then took place in Benghazi starting the Libyan Civil war in which Gaddafi’s regime was finally overthrown in August, 2010.
Demonstrations took place in Bahrain, first in solidarity with the Egyptian population and then for themselves. In Saudi Arabia, a wave of protests against the government began with yet another self-immolation in Samtah. In Iran, too, after the quelling of the (Green Movement) protests in the 2009 presidential election a resurgence of anti-government protests in major cities grew after 2011. In Gaza, Palestinian youths could protest with “Fuck Hamas, Fuck Israel, Fuck Fatah, Fuck UN, … Fuck USA …”
In Tunisia and in Egypt the ruling class was profoundly shaken by the protests; following ‘advice’ from Western rulers who encouraged them to not to simply resort to brutal repression – as was their custom – ‘softer’ approaches were taken and the unpopular heads of government (Ben Ali and Mubarak) stood down; however this further encouraged the spread of revolts. On the other hand, rulers in other countries began to think that these first two had capitulated too readily and determined to resist the popular movements; hence the resistance of Gaddafi (who was ousted) and Assad (who still survives). Quickly, these individual episodes were further penetrated by the interference of foreign imperialisms looking for advantage by direct intervention and by the financial and military support of proxies: Syria and Libya have shown starkly the immense carnage that results. Heightened repression is used everywhere. Nonetheless, even in recent months social demonstrations have taken place in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.
The Indignados. The Indignados Movement in Spain was a continuation of the anti-austerity demonstrations and strikes that started in Greece in May 2010. One of the greatest sources of discontent was the astoundingly high level of unemployment and especially of youth unemployment (which, in March 2011 stood at 43.5%). The scale of action in Spain further encouraged the upsurge of protests round the Mediterranean, notably feeding back into those in Greece. In return for a massive IMF/EU loan the Greek government imposed severe austerity measures on the population in May 2010 and these triggered massive demonstrations in the major cities.
The Occupy Movement. This started off in New York with the occupation of Zuccotti Park next to Wall Street. Though having inspiration from the anti-austerity protests taking place round the world, the focus was on the exponentially increasing inequalities in society with common cause being identified within ‘The 99%’. It also saw the key to advancement through ‘real democracy’. It has been estimated that by the end of 2011 protests had taken place in nearly 1000 cities across over 80 countries in every continent. (See IP56, Spring 2012)
The Gilets Jaunes. Thee demonstrations started in October 2018 and continued up to the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic against Macron government’s tax reforms which were seen to fall disproportionately on working and middle classes; the trigger was a fuel tax rise. (See the article by RV on the IP website – 10 December 2012)
Hong Kong. The conflicts between the population of Hong Kong and the Chinese state began in early May, 2019, and then intensified each week for many months. The demonstrations were triggered by the intention of the Hong Kong government (a lackey of Beijing) to enact a law enabling deportation of Hong Kong citizens to the mainland to stand trial. The police counter-attacks increased anger of the population and as one rose so did the other. The demonstrations were further fuelled by the many grievances of the population – including the appalling housing situation and low wages. Week after week, demonstrations took place involving almost every segment of society, and among them substantial numbers of young people faced down an increasingly violent police force pushed on by Beijing and supplemented by street-fighting water cannons, Tong gangs and a PLA mobilisation over the border.
Over the months the demonstrators widened their denunciations of the ruling authority and their Beijing backers to demands for greater democracy. However, at the time of writing, the massively increased threat from Beijing has silenced the protests.
And elsewhere … Scarcely any part of the world has been unaffected by struggle against governments – whether by the 2019 teachers’ strikes in the US, or by demonstrations in Argentina or Venezuela or Turkey, or Zimbabwe or South Africa over corruption and the poverty and destitution it brings. None of these elements is new; they have all been long in existence. However, the current period seems to have brought a remarkable simultaneity.
Likewise, there have long been populist politicians, those who are carried on the emotion of the deprived many against the elite few. Peron in Argentina and Chavez in Venezuela were exemplars. However, in their day(s), they acted in local or regional contexts. Today populism is far more widespread and is simultaneously showing its power in in the right-wing ruling parties of particularly strong economies: Modi in India, Trump in the US, Johnson in the UK, Erdogan in Turkey, Orban in Hungary, Duterte in Philippines, among others. And elsewhere it shows as a strengthening feature in nationalist politics, as in France and Germany. Associated with the populism is a strengthening of authoritarianism, to the detriment of liberalism, and the ideological use of anti-elitism (with no sense of irony) and anti-corruption (again with no sense of irony).
All populism encourages the materialisation of the Other, as an ideological construction, usually immigrants or a minority grouping of some kind seen against Us, usually this dynamic is based on a mythological nationalism. The one common factor is the ideological attempt to define community in a world that is constantly undermining it. But, one man’s brother is another’s Other.
What Developments in Struggle can be Identified?
In the aftermath of the Second World War, the working class in the West was demobilised slowly, within a capitalist policy framework aimed at reconstruction and the anticipatory undermining of such social unrest as had been seen in the revolutionary wave following the First World War. The Marshall Plan was the international framework for this. In the nascent Eastern Bloc, the working class was subjected to heightened exploitation under overarching Russian rule; its resistance led to confrontation not only with its national state but also with the Russian state. The balance of forces was hugely against the working class. In the rest of the world, the major framework was that of colonialist exploitation transitioning to a post-colonialist world. The working class was adjusting to conditions very different from the 1930s.
By the late ‘60s, the dominant social unrest was characterised by struggles at the point of industrial production in the economically strongest countries showing the world that post-war capitalist development did not solve workers’ problems. In the West there followed an ideological conflict between opposing state structures which resulted in Reaganomics, Thatcherism and brought the emerging monetarism to the fore. Implementation brought about heightened class struggle against which, over a period of years, the overwhelming power of the bourgeoisie brought about a quiescence in the working class. (During this period, several governments attacked their trade union apparatuses in part as a proxy for their real target – the proletariat – and in part as an ongoing conflict between different parts of the state apparatus.) In the East, struggle was smothered to a considerable degree by the domination of the Russian state, especially its military, thus confusing class matters with nationalism. Economically, the increased power of the West grew and the Soviet Bloc was taken to the point of near-collapse, although this did not happen until the end of the ‘80s.
Subsequent globalisation of production has brought double-edged weapons into the class struggle. The ability to move capital and production across the world strengthens the hand of the bourgeoisie; however, it also has the effect of homogenising social and working conditions that contribute to the potential unification of the working class as it faces capital. This is an important element for the future.
The War against Terror prosecuted by the West, and especially by the United States, drowned struggle in many parts of the world – especially where the character of struggle has been more widely social rather than narrowly focused at the point of production.
Since the financial crisis of 2008 struggles all over the world have had a more explicit social character. It’s as if there is a growing recognition of the connections between all aspects of social life under capitalism, Two points:
- First, class struggle can emerge from the present social conditions in a more integrated way than, say, fifty years ago. Revolutionary Marxists must seek a class perspective on the issues without getting sucked into the protest movements as constituted.
- Second, with the complexities and novelties in capitalist society today it isn’t possible to forecast how clear expressions of the proletarian class will arise; but we do know that they and their activity will be determined in the context of evolving international social conditions.
Where is the working class?
Marx regarded the proletariat as that class in capitalist society owning no means of production and surviving by selling its labour power. Most of the time, bourgeois society pays it little attention despite the working class being everywhere. As soon as the Covid-19 pandemic showed itself, so did the reality of who carries out much of the essential work in society: truck drivers, delivery workers, supermarket shelf stackers; care home workers; nurses, hospital cleaners, doctors, paramedics, lab workers.
The numbers are huge – and they are in addition to those who work in industrial and service production: the builders of ships, aircraft, trains, cars, trucks, electronic devices and those who operate and maintain them; operators in power stations, server farms, internet management. If this – though obvious – needs stressing it is because of the emphasis in some corners of academic Marxism on post-Fordism, on cognitive capitalism as if this is a historical phase of capitalism that has superseded all that has gone before. While technological developments have affected all aspects of economic, political and social life the workers who use the technologies coexist with workers who live under the rule of capitalism’s work-legacies. A few examples:
- The cognitive workers who develop their ‘immaterial’ products on hi-tech computers are using devices built by workers on assembly lines under exacting, long-used conditions using components manufactured from such metals as cobalt and copper mined for a pittance by child labour in Congo.
- When sewers in Delhi get blocked the companies in the gleaming office buildings hire workers to immerse themselves naked into the shit to unblock them.
- The world today has more people in slavery than at any time in history. These slaves work across many occupations and are the raw material for the global human trafficking networks.
The working class is all around us, acting collectively in every function needed by society.
Where is the point of production?
The term, point of production, is often used to mean the point of industrial production – a mine or assembly line. Today’s capitalism, however, has a production process which uses a highly complex, global system of networked, overlapping institutions.
Still at the heart of capitalism is the production of commodities, but capitalism has become much more than a straightforward production process. Education, for example, usually directed by the state is essential – among many other things – to ensure the next generation of workers is equipped to build and operate the material and intellectual processes through which capitalism reproduces and expands. So, apart from attending actual manufacturing processes, workers extract, deliver, ship, re-work, plan, distribute, take to market, process payments, bill and so on. They educate children and bury the dead. In the health system they diagnose, test, scan, transport, clean and care. Depending on the country and the health system they are dispensing part of the social wage or working in a major industry that delivers huge profits to its owners. There is no point of production but a web of production and support processes interwoven with myriad social institutions.
Where is the revolutionary subject?
The short answer is: gestating. The remarks above highlight the global integration of the capitalist system, the global onslaught of the bourgeoisie against humanity and the blowback from the population in general, especially over the last decade or so when substantial protest movements developed – sometimes slowly, sometimes spectacularly. The protests have covered a multitude of issues: wages, unemployment, racism, environmental matters, climate change, warfare and mass murder, repression, extra-judicial state murder, rigged elections … In other words, everything and anything in social life today. They absorbed more people, more widely, and for a longer time, than for many decades before. This, then, is the background for this year’s events in which the social conditions and the international response to them represent a real difference from the past. And today there is more acceptance that the social conditions of our time aggregate into what is an existential crisis for humanity. How, then, to go from ‘popular protest’ to class action?
Evidently, a major issue today confronting the proletariat across the world is that of racism whose foremost function for the bourgeoisie is to disunite the working class. This has been especially powerful in the US where the murder of George Floyd has been the spark for waves of anger at the actions of the repressive forces of the state and the terrible effects of the pandemic falling disproportionately on working class communities and the callous indifference to it of much of the ruling class. Positively, the demonstrations and protests have been truly multi-ethnic – across the world and not just in the US. There are deep rumblings in the working class as many workers are trapped between staying at home on no pay or going to work and risking infection by the novel coronavirus. Indeed, the American ruling class has concretised this by Trump using the Defense Procurement Act to force the meatpacking facilities where the virus has rampaged (see above) to continue production. However, unions and bosses aim to keep the focus on race. Unions launched a campaign – Strike for Black Lives – supported by the Teamsters, Service Employees International and others, as well as assorted politicians. They attempt to hide class behind race. In contrast, in various strikes and proto-strikes in the US and elsewhere workers have struck for greater protection against infection, pay increases for risk, and paid sick leave. The struggle of the working class enables a unity of races.
In the course of these struggles and protests, in the context of a capitalism that pushes to extract the maximum surplus value it can, the connections between the specificities of the protests and the condition of the protesters as members of the working class can become explicit.
The emphasis on class, though emanating from a particular economic relationship in society, highlights the shared interest of the members of the working class – which are not only economic but also moral and therefore aspirational as to what sort of society we want to live in. This dovetails with Marx’s and Engels’s words in the German Ideology: “Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men on a mass scale is necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; this revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fit to found society anew.”
The actions of this year appear to be a substantial move forward even over the events of the past decade and there is clearly the potential for further development in future. There is no blueprint for the way ahead. There will be evolution from the past together with spontaneity – a characteristic of the working class that can always surprise us.
31 July 2020