Back in 2008, Wall Street banks triggered an international economic crisis that nearly brought down the entire system. The world’s governments bailed out the banks and saved the system by running up massive public debts. In turn, capitalists and national governments have used the debt crisis to justify a further assault on the living standards of workers and the poor. And Wall Street moguls are now rewarding themselves with record bonuses all over again.
It took a couple years from the onset of the crisis, but 2011 marked a return of mass resistance—from the Arab Spring, to Occupy, to the Chicago teachers’ strike. Most of these struggles have gone down in difficult defeats which have raised many important debates about why these struggles did not go further, what forces have the ability to beat back the ruling class austerity agenda, and what it will ultimately take to pose an alternative.
Related theoretical questions are being debated about how we understand neoliberalism. How has neoliberalism transformed capitalism and the working class? Does the working class still have the collective interest, capacity, and power to stop austerity, turn the tide, and challenge capitalism? If so, how might this take place, and how should the Left strategically situate itself to play a role in helping rebuild working-class consciousness, combativity, and organization?
The 2014 volume of Socialist Register entitled Registering Class includes essays that contribute to these debates and show the central role Marxism has to play in understanding the world today so that we can rebuild a Left better equipped to lead in emergent struggles. Co-editor Vivek Chibber’s contribution “Capitalism, Class and Universalism: Escaping the Cul-de-sac of Postcolonial Theory,” puts this project in context.
He argues that the defeats suffered by the working class and the Left during the neoliberal period have been accompanied by a corresponding theoretical retreat from Marxism: “The idea that capitalism has a real structure which imposes real compulsions on actors, that class is rooted in real relations of exploitation, or that labor has a real interest in collective organization—all these ideas, which were common sense of the left for almost two centuries, are taken to be hopelessly outdated.”
The new postmodernist consensus rejects materialism, common objective interests, and international workers revolution. It instead contends that everything must be understood in terms of local “discourse”; that each locality has its own completely unique culture and characteristics; and that there is no thread or link between them. Chibber shows that this way of understanding the world is incapable of acting as a guide to action for the Left today. At a time in which a Great Recession has swept the globe, when austerity programs have been imposed in country after country, and when people have fought back collectively taking inspiration from and in solidarity with each other, it makes little sense to argue that we are not part of an interconnected whole system.
Now is the time to challenge the many expressions of post-Marxism that have become widely accepted on the left today. One example is the idea that neoliberalism has restructured capitalism so fundamentally that there is no longer a working class of the type Marx described. The argument is that with the loss of manufacturing and the rise of the service sector, we no longer produce anything tangible.
We now live in a postindustrial economy dominated by finance, information, or virtual labor. Workers, as a result, have become atomized, transient, and powerless. Precariousness is seen as the defining feature of our society and a new class, the “precariat”, is in formation. If there is still a working class, it no longer has the objective power nor the ability to develop consciousness to challenge the system.
Ursula Huws challenges this argument in her essay, “The Underpinnings of Class in the Digital Age.” She contends that without real tangible products produced by human labor, there would be no Facebook:
“Virtual” activity is dependent on a highly material basis of physical infrastructure and manufactured commodities, most of which are produced out of sight, in the mines of Africa or Latin America, in sweatshops of China and other places in the developing world. Without the generation of power, cables, satellites, computers, switches, mobile phones and thousands of other material products, the extraction of the raw materials that make up these commodities, the launching of satellites into space to carry their signals, the construction of the building in which they are designed and assembled and from which they are marketed, and the manufacture and operation of the vehicles in which they are distributed, the Internet could not be accessed by anyone.
So while it’s true there are far fewer manufacturing jobs today, the production of commodities continues to be central to the capitalist system. In fact, neoliberalism has squeezed more commodities from fewer workers across a global production line. This has resulted in a need for more complex shipping, distribution, and transportation systems to move products more efficiently from production to assembly, and to the shelf. It requires new systems to ensure that those products are effectively sold in retail stores. In this way, much of what is considered the service sector should not be seen as separate from, but instead connected to, production.
By using “The Walmart Working Class” as a case study, Arun Gupta makes an important contribution to our understanding of the neoliberal transformation of capitalism, the production process, and the working class. Gupta shows that Walmart “ruthlessly rationalized global supply chains, pushed the flight of US manufacturing and normalized precarious low-wage jobs.” He shows how this restructuring has created more difficult conditions to organize.
Those that ascribe to the concept of a precariat see these changes rendering the working class fragmented, powerless, and ultimately dead as an agent of social change. By contrast, Gupta shows that Walmart workers continue to be fundamentally connected to each other and the system of production, albeit in new and reorganized ways. Just like their working-class forbearers found ways to organize themselves to fight precarious conditions, Walmart workers today have come up with new and creative ways to fight back.
Take, for example, the thirty-eight subcontracted Walmart warehouse workers in Will County, Illinois, who went on strike for three weeks in 2012. They shut down sections of Walmart, costing the company $8 million, and finally forced management to conced to their demands for better conditions. In the neoliberal world of “just-in-time” production and distribution, these warehouse workers have tremendous power because they are strategically located at the hub of Walmart’s distribution system. Their warehouse processes a phenomenal 70 percent of the imported goods Walmart sells in the United States.Right now, strikes like the one Gupta describes are the exception. There is no doubt that the working class is divided, unorganized, and weak. Bryan D. Palmer’s article, “Reconsiderations of Class: Precariousness as Proletarianization,” is right to argue that the danger with the concept of a precariat is that it champions these divisions and weakness into a “politics of fragmentation” when what is needed instead is solidarity and unity. But while Palmer accurately identifies a problem, he is less helpful (if not harmful) in his proposed solution.
Palmer proposes that we can overcome divisions within the working class by simply expanding its definition to encompass all those who are dispossessed. From this, Palmer draws a number of problematic conclusions. For example, he argues that Marx was wrong to distinguish between the proletariat (working class) and the lumpenproletariat (or chronically unemployed). Also, he argues that the Left has been “usurped” by “identity-driven social movements,” which he argues are problematic because they are divisive.
By enlarging the definition of working class, Palmer actually obscures the power that workers continue to have in today’s neoliberal capitalism. It is in the relations of production that workers have capacity to shut down the system by withholding their labor. Gupta’s account of the strike at Walmart is a perfect example. This is an ability that the unemployed and dispossessed do not have, because they do not work.
Likewise, Palmer is wrong to downplay the importance of struggles against oppression. Combatting oppression must be part and parcel of the working-class struggle, not counterposed to it. Why? Because the ruling class uses oppression to divide and conquer the working class to maintain its control and drive up its profits. As a result, the fight against specific oppression is not a distraction, but a necessary part of the struggle to overcome divisions and unite the working class into an effective fighting force against the bosses. That is encapsulated in the classic slogan, “An injury to one is an injury to all.”
The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) strike in 2012 is a great example of such solidarity. Before they went on strike, the CTU positioned itself as the defender of public education as a right for all and in particular for African Americans. They made fighting Chicago’s “educational apartheid” a key part of their fight. That strategy enabled the CTU to win mass support for their strike. This example shows how the working class can win by championing the special demands of the oppressed. It also demonstrates how workers continue to be in the best position to lead a much broader social movement needed to beat back austerity, challenge neoliberalism, and pose an alternative to the system.
In the chapter “Beyond the Labor of Sisyphus: Unions and the City,” Ian MacDonald suggests that it is not surprising that public-sector workers like Chicago’s teachers are leading some of the most inspiring working-class struggles. He argues that they are uniquely positioned to “mobilize their members and the broader working class around issues that link demands from the workplace to the nature of what is being produced and to social reproduction.” MacDonald references Andre Gorz to show how social and political demands are wrapped up in working-class economic interests generally:
This possibility is inherent in the close connections which exist in the life of every worker between the three essential dimensions of labor power: 1) The work situation: that is to say, the formation, evaluation, and utilization of labor power in the enterprise. 2) The purpose of work: i.e., the ends (or productions) for which labor power is used in society. 3) The reproduction of labor power: i.e., the lifestyle and milieu of the worker, the manner in which he [sic] can satisfy his material, professional and human needs.
The nature of public-sector work is to provide key services for society as a whole and specifically the working class. Neoliberalism has targeted the public sector for cuts and privatization, making it less and less able to meet the growing needs of workers and the unemployed. This very attack, however, enables public-sector unions like the CTU to contend that their fight to defend their own jobs, wages, and working conditions is in the interest of all workers. If they are able to win, they can better serve all in society. There is a material basis for the slogan: “Our working conditions are our community’s living conditions.”
On the other side of the class divide, neoliberalism has enabled capitalists to accumulate more and more wealth throughout the world. Just as we need to have a clear picture of the working class today, we need same of the ruling class. Claude Serfati’s “The New Configuration of the Capitalist Class” gives us a clear picture of who and what exactly we’re talking about when we say “the 1 percent.”
Their wealth is astonishing. “One study found,” according to Serfati, “that, as of 2010, between $21–32 trillion in global private financial wealth has been invested virtually tax-free throughout the world.” This stash of cash is ultra-concentrated in the hands of a very few. In fact, “fewer than 100,000 people (that is, .001 percent of the world’s population) now control over 30 percent of the world’s financial wealth.”
While the Occupy movement rightly targeted the financial kingpins of Wall Street, a much bigger proportion of the 1 percent is made up of CEOs, managers, and supervisors: “In the US,” writes Serfati, “the share of executive, managerial, and supervisory occupations in the top 1 percent of incomes (excluding capital gains) was 42.5 percent in 2005, with the financial professions at 18.0 percent.”
The enormous concentration of wealth in the hands of rulers that run globalized capitalism has led some to argue that an international capitalist class is emerging. They contend that this new capitalist class transcends and trumps the interests of national boundaries and states. Serfati shows that this is not the case. He argues that transnational corporations (TNCs) are dependent on their home country and state through “public funding of research and development, procurement, national ‘security’ and ‘sovereignty’ strictures, tax exemptions, and interpersonal and institutional links between corporations and specific branches of the state.”
“Brazil’s New Imperial Capitalism” by Virginia Fontes and Ana Garcia shows that understanding the mutually reinforcing relationship between the state, banking/finance, and TNCs is essential for understanding the meteoric rise of emerging imperial powers such as Brazil. Fontes and Garcia quote the Brazilian National Social and Development Bank, which argues, “In a globalized economy, the competitiveness of national companies in foreign markets becomes increasingly important to the performance of the country as a whole. . . . Without internationally competitive companies, a country cannot improve its economic performance.”
Brazil’s emergence as the fifth largest economy in the world has not benefited its population equally. In their essay “Mass Protests: Brazilian Spring or Brazilian Malaise,” Alfredo Saad-Filho and Lecio Morais show how Brazilian capitalism’s exploitation and oppression of workers, the poor, and the oppressed has fueled mass resistance struggles like the one against public transportation fare hikes last year.
Saad-Filho and Morais discuss the challenges of organizing under a populist government that was once able to balance between granting reforms to workers and the poor while accommodating capital in the past, but is now finding it more difficult in times of economic crisis. By pairing these two articles, Socialist Register provides excellent background to the struggle in Brazil against FIFA’s World Cup 2014, and in anticipation of the forthcoming Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Readers will find that much of the data, history, and analysis in the volume similarly useful. While not the best entry point for those new to the debates regarding neoliberalism, much of Registering Class deserves to be read and debated in the Marxist tradition of attempting to understand a dynamic and changing world in order to fight for a better one. If you finish this volume and are looking for more, keep an eye out for the second volume of Registering Class to be released in 2015.