From the unions to the Labour Party, it’s common to hear the idea that Britain’s manufacturing base is now all but destroyed. “We don’t make things any more,” they say.
Against this comes the call for a more “balanced” economy, with fewer City spivs and more British factories. It’s easy to see why. Every week it seems like there’s another factory closing down.
But manufacturing isn’t as dead as some would have you think. There are still over 2.5 million jobs officially classified as manufacturing—around one in ten of all workers.
Of course this has fallen a long way since the 1970s. But millions of workers can’t be written off as if they didn’t exist. Manufacturing workers remain a large and relatively well organised part of the working class. And although there are fewer of them, they are more productive than they used to be.
This is because capitalism is constantly throwing up new technology as the bosses try to produce more, faster and cheaper. That technology allows fewer workers to produce more now than they ever did in the past.
Take the car industry. It’s true that the number of workers employed is a fraction of what it used to be. But until the recession set in, more cars were being made in Britain than in the 60s or 70s.
At worst, the idea that manufacturing is under threat can make unions hesitate to go all out against bosses. It can lead them to negotiate cuts to “save the factory”, like the Unite union did recently with Vauxhall at Ellesmere Port.
But the changes in the sector are a double-edged sword for the bosses, because they give the workers who remain a lot of industrial power. Even a smaller number of workers withdrawing their labour can have a disproportionate impact on production and profits.
That’s not to say that factory workers are the only ones who have power or produce value. It is often argued that the lost manufacturing jobs have been replaced with jobs in the much-maligned “service sector”, like supermarket jobs.
But all sorts of things are classified as service sector jobs—such as driving a bus or a train. When these services stop, like in the London bus strike, it shows how important their role in the overall economy is. A supermarket strike would certainly be a big issue too.
So saying that only jobs in manufacturing produce value is drawing an artificial distinction—and it’s not one Marxists make. Instead, as Karl Marx argued, workers’ labour produces wealth. This is true whether they manufacture actual objects or not.
Even public sector jobs like teaching and healthcare are important to the system as well as to ordinary people. After all, the capitalists want a workforce that is educated and healthy enough to work.
This economic role is what gives workers power, as they can disrupt the bosses’ profit-making and the smooth running of the state with strikes.
This is because class is not about whether you work in a factory or a school. It’s a social relationship to production. It’s about whether you have to work for a living or whether you can live off the labour of others, as a manager or a capitalist boss.
Whether you’re in the private or public sector, manufacturing or services, you can be a key part of the battle against the bosses and the Tories.