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What is class in the 21st century?

This article is over 8 years, 6 months old
Apparent changes to the way we work can make it seem as if the working class no longer exists. But Joseph Choonara argues that we still have the potential to change the world
Issue 2466
Workers line up to get jobs at a new Foxconn factory in China
Workers line up to get jobs at a Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou, China (Pic: Flickr: Photo Giddy)

One of the most famous works in Marxist literature, the Communist Manifesto, ends with the battle cry, “Workers of the world unite.” 

When the revolutionary Karl Marx wrote those words in 1848, the world’s workers constituted about ten or 20 million people.

They were just 2 or 3 percent of the global population, confined to just a few areas.

Today everything is different. In 2013, according to the International Labour Organisation, the majority of people participating in the global labour force were, for the first time in human history, wage labourers.

There are now 1.6 billion wage labourers, an increase of 600 million since the mid-1990s.

Yet there is a huge debate about the ability of the working class to challenge capitalism.

For instance, in 2011 the left wing academic Slavoj Zizek described a recent 

2.6 million-strong public sector pensions strike as “a revolt of the salaried bourgeoisie”. 

He wrote, “The chance to be exploited in a long-term job is now a privilege.”

His article combined two arguments. First, the mass of people are too downtrodden and precarious to resist. Second, a small minority is too privileged to have any interest in fighting.

To understand class in the 21st century we have to start somewhere different. 

Marx argued that the working class occupies a specific position within capitalism. This gives it special interests and capabilities, and will tend to push workers into struggle.

Workers don’t own the means of production. They have to work for a capitalist. And in that process they are exploited.

A number of things follow from this.

The working class is the only class with the numbers and social weight to drive through revolutionary transformation. And capitalists depend on it to make profit.?

This makes exploitation different to oppression. 

For instance, being subject to racism gives me no particular power. But when I’m subject to exploitation, I have a power over capital.

The working class is also a collective class. Capital is compelled to draw together machinery and workers in huge concentrations. In Britain roughly half of workers toil in workplaces of 100 people or more.

Capital then puts workers in similar positions, so they can understand and identify with one another.

And the constant pressure on capital to extract more profits from workers pushes them to organise and fight.

The working class is the most consistently militant class in history. Slave revolts took place every 100 years or so. Peasant revolts broke out every 20, 30 or 50 years.

With workers there are strike waves or revolutions every few years somewhere in the world.

Workers can feel powerless a lot of the time and so can accept ideas that run contrary to their own interests. But an alternative set of ideas—based on solidarity, common interest and so on—always coexists with that.

The situation is dynamic.


Workers’ ideas usually change because of two things. First, mainstream ideas begin to break down in moments of crisis. 

Second, ideas change when workers fight. They can recognise their common interest and capacity to resist capital and transform the world.

At their high points working class struggles open up the possibility of revolution. They show that capitalist wealth depends on labour—and that a world without need is possible.

But when the working class isn’t fighting, it can seem that it no longer has this power. 

Some people think changes such as the decline in manufacturing in Britain mean workers are too weak to challenge capitalism.

But manufacturing never employed over half the workforce in any country. 

And manufacturing output remains high even though the industry employs fewer workers.

This gives small groups of manufacturing workers power. Those at one point of the production chain depend on others. Small groups can shut down entire networks.

The decline of manufacturing is not a decline of the working class. Marx never argued that production was about the production of stuff. He argued that the working class produces profits for the capitalists.

Amazon workplaces, for example, employ up to 3,000 people in the run-up to Christmas. Work is monitored constantly. 

But they have the potential to organise and fight because they are drawn together and exploited.

That’s also true of workers who don’t directly generate profits, such as finance workers. They don’t create new value but they are central to the smooth functioning of the financial system.

Privatisation in the public sector means many of these workers have acquired a power to hit profits. And even when non-privatised public sector workers fight they have power.

The 2011 pensions strike cost the economy £2.5 billion—partly because schools shut and people had to take time off work to look after children.

Such strikes also help others see that resistance is possible

Some say work is more precarious now and this affects workers’ power

Most people accept the argument that there has been a sharp rise in temporary work. 


But there are no more workers in temporary jobs in Britain now than there were 20 years ago. It still stands at around 6 or 7 percent of the workforce.

There are attacks on workers. But the form of attack isn’t predominantly moving permanent workers onto temporary contracts.

Some writers, such as Guy Standing, overstate what he calls “the precariat” because he throws in other groups such as part-time workers.

However, part-time work isn’t a way of making workers peripheral. It’s a way that huge numbers of people, particularly women, have been drawn into the workforce and given permanent jobs.

They do not have different interests to other workers.

And the longevity of employment has gone up. More workers are in long term work than ever before in advanced countries, especially in Britain and the US.

There are, and always have been, some workers in weak positions. 

In Marx’s day the biggest occupational group was domestic servants—often young women who were quite isolated.

But other workers in weak positions, who were said to be unorganisable, such as dock workers, did organise, struggle and improve their conditions.

We can’t generalise from the situation of the weakest workers.

And it isn’t always easy for bosses to sack workers. 

In Britain the latest crisis hasn’t seen mass unemployment. 

It has seen bosses holding onto workers while attacking their conditions.

It can be disruptive to kick people out of work. It affects morale and can lead to struggle. 

It can be costly. Almost every group of workers has some degree of training and experience that is valuable to the capitalist class.

So why do we feel so precarious? Since the 1980s working class people have been hammered. 

There have been extraordinary defeats on a global scale from which the working class movement has not yet recovered.

The ruling class has been able to engage in an offensive against labour. 

In Britain restructuring has drawn new workers into new areas of employment. 

Many in the 30 million-strong workforce have little direct experience of class struggle. Socialists and left-wing ideas have also been marginalised.

In this situation people can feel much more vulnerable than they are.?But the reorganisation of the working class doesn’t rob it of its potential power. 

As US socialist Hal Draper puts it, workers don’t simply exist. They mature with the experience of struggle.

This begins to restore confidence. Workers in new areas of the economy will ultimately fight because of their position in capitalism.

We have to anticipate those struggles. They will open up a much wider audience for socialist and revolutionary ideas.

But even today the audience isn’t tiny. A recent Guardian newspaper poll found that 

6 percent of people in Britain said they were very left wing. That’s four million people.

We have to relate to that audience and patiently try to win an argument about working class power if we want to break this rotten system.

This is an edited version of a talk given at Marxism 2015.

The two total shutdowns of the Tube showed the power of workers
The two total shutdowns of the Tube showed the power of workers (Pic: Guy Smallman)


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