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The power that is able to transform the world

This article is over 18 years, 1 months old
Kevin Ovenden explains what is special about the working class
Issue 1879

WHAT A tremendous year for the movements against war and corporate globalisation. The European Social Forum in Paris, which drew over 50,000 activists from those movements together two weeks ago, was proof of that. It reflected the vibrancy of the movement and also the increasingly intense debates about how to go forward.

One strand of discussion was over what force could successfully challenge capitalism. There was unanimity over maintaining the diversity of the movement. But there was division over whether the working class-those forced to sell their capacity to work to the bosses-have any special role to play in creating a better world.

There are those who argue that the working class has never played such a role. For them the last 150 years is a history of enlightened reformers (or scheming leaders) bringing change on behalf of the mass of the population (or cynically manipulating them).

That is an important argument to take on. It underpins those who would like to see the growing movement turned into little more than an appendage of Labour-type parliamentary parties. But a second argument chimes much more with the radicalism and initiative of the tens of thousands of activists in the movements.

It is that while the ‘traditional working class’ was central to the fight to change society in the past, its place has now been taken by a ‘multitude’ of different struggles and forces.

The leading thinker behind this view is the Italian philosopher Toni Negri. His writings are an example of how even principled opponents of capitalism and imperialism-Negri was jailed for many years by the Italian state-can slip into accepting claims made by the system’s defenders.

Negri claims that the nature of capitalist production has changed so radically that the working class as it was a generation ago is fading away. In its place across the globe stands a multitude of temporary workers, landless labourers, semi-employed and other layers.

It would be foolish to suggest that capitalist production and the nature of the labour force have not changed over the decades. And it would be un-Marxist. Karl Marx first identified the working class as ‘the gravedigger of capitalism’ when it was a minority of the population in those small areas of the world-Britain and parts of north western Europe-which had industrialised.

He also described capitalism as a system that constantly ‘revolutionises’ the methods of production, restructuring the labour force and aspects of society. That has happened in great waves of technological change at the end of the 19th century, in the 1920s and 1930s, in the 1960s, and over the last 15 years. Each time most commentators have mistaken real changes in the composition of the working class for something else.

They say the changes mean workers are no longer the class of people on whose exploitation at work the system depends, and who therefore have the power to strike at the heart of the system.

The changes in the world of work today point to no such thing. The World Bank produced figures that showed the world working class in the mid-1990s numbered something over 700 million people. Taken together with their dependants and former workers who are pensioners it produces a total figure for the working class of between 1.5 and two billion. And the size of the working class is increasing as millions of people are drawn off the land and into cities across the globe.

It is not only the creation of new concentrations of industrial workers in areas such as the south east of China. The number of industrial workers in the industrialised countries remains hugely significant.

There were 112 million industrial jobs in those countries in 1998-25 million more than in 1951 and only 7.5 million less than in 1971.

There has been a dramatic decline in some countries, including Britain. But even here what are classed as white collar jobs are increasingly subject to the same regimentation as ‘traditional industrial’ jobs. And many ‘service jobs’ are very traditional work-bin workers, hospital ancillaries, dockers, lorry drivers, bus and train drivers, postal workers, hotel and catering workers.

Nor are most workers now on temporary or short term contracts despite two decades of attacks by bosses. The proportion of permanent to non-permanent workers in Europe did not change throughout the second half of the 1990s-82 percent to 18 percent.

The current drive for flexibility is centred much more on lengthening working hours and increasing the intensity of work rather than replacing permanent contracts with temporary ones. This drive has fuelled the return of explosive workers’ struggles over the last year-from the May-June strikes in France to the general strike over pensions in Italy and the militant battles of public sector workers in Greece.

On a smaller scale in Britain we have seen the wildcat strikes by check-in staff at Heathrow and by postal workers last month. Both were able to humble powerful corporations. Arguing that the working class has a strategically central role to play in breaking capitalism does not mean that other struggles are unimportant. But it does mean arguing for a direction for the anti-war and anti-capitalist movements that brings them closer to the organised working class, fusing the hope and vibrancy of the one with the collective power of the other.

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