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The class beyond the workers’ movement

The contemporary workers' movement is not what it once was. Nostalgics idealise a semi-mythical past when the workers' movement was a forceful counter-society. There once was a time when the spare time of class-conscious workers was given meaning through the party, the union, the youth league, education leagues and cooperatives. These were the times of proletarian culture and proletarian literature and the road from dust to prize seemed obvious, regardless of whether it took the form of reform or revolution.

Obviously, this is not the case today, but how do we approach this new situation? The bourgeois answer is to declare the working class dead, and class struggle shares its grave. Today, we are told, we have new contradictions to grasp: worker–unemployed, between ethnic groups or between different generations. The post-industrial society wiped out the working class, or made it into a meaningless replica of the past, where those who do not fulfil the demands of contemporary society are placed. This is extremely tempting: without a working class the entire theory of Marxism falls like a house of cards, as will every conception of the world that seriously question capitalist order and aims at something beyond it.

Instead, vast layers of the left respond by closing their eyes and let the changes go unnoticed. Old forms of organisation and old symbols are made into fetisches. Sometimes they find the guilty party: the social democrats and the union bureaucrats sold their ideals, they betrayed the movement. If we replace the central committee we can still win back what has been lost. They often try to reconquer past forms: 'Create struggling unions!', 'Let's build a new workers' party!'. But each such attempt only becomes a pale glow from the glory days of the workers' movement.

We do not mourn the decline of the old workers' movement, nor do we try to declare class struggle dead. The connection between class struggle and the workers' movement is not that simple.

Of course class struggle exists today – otherwise the capitalistic system would be inconceivable. Because capital is basically nothing but labour: living labour and former living labour objectified in its dead form: machines, commodities and money. Capital is dependent on the worker for its own existence – as is the worker, as labour power, dependent on capital for his existence. This basic relationship between capital and labour makes all contradictions in terms of length of the work day or work intensity, in terms of wages and working conditions, as present today as they ever were. Capital has penetrated our entire existence, thus making more and more areas subject to the form of commodity and also the contradictions penetrate society in its entirety, far beyond the gates of the industry.

But if the class contradictions remain, how can we understand the decline of the workers' movement? Primarily we can not idealise the historical workers' movement. Neither unions nor workers' parties invented class struggle: riots, strikes and everyday struggles at and outside the workplace existed long before this movement. On the contrary, unions and parties were founded in order to channel already existing class struggle and came to act like a mediator between the classes. In order for this mediation to function it needed to give concrete advances on behalf of the workers on one hand, but discipline workers on the other hand, so the proletarian struggle did not jeopardise the existence of capital.

The entrance of capitalism always consisted of primitive accumulation, the separation of humans from their means of existence, thus being forced into wage labour. Moulding honest workers out of propertyless people in rural areas was not an easy process. Long working hours, poor working environment and unfree labour made it understandable to resort to different forms of begging, vagabondery and criminal behaviour, and in many cases this was a more prosperous choice than drudgery in the factory.

Careful regulations of the factory and mandatory public school became the tools to readapt the workers. There were also campaigns from philanthropists in the educated middle class aimed at the working class in order to counter the claimed depravity and moral chaos amongst the workers. To remedy this illness education circles and workers' societies were instituted in an attempt to organise time outside of the employer's control by reading literature and popular science.

When the workers' movement appeared they mantled this ideal of properness and honesty. The ideal came to be sober workers who were in time and behaved properly towards co-workers as well as superiors. Self-disciplination contributed to the creation of an honest working class, just the kind of working class capital needed: never late for work, no laziness, no drinking, but always performing their tasks as precise as possible. Thus, the workers' movement has not been a simple counterforce against capital, but it actively contributed to the creation of a new subjectivity, adapted to the needs of modern industrial capital. Workers' struggles have been completely dominated by the interests of organisations, where every action is made through representatives.

The real power of workers is to be found in their ability to stop being workers, refusing creation of value, which capital needs. The official workers' movement has left struggle against work as such behind. Most often the power over the labour process has been given to capital as well, while the unions focused on wage struggles and the parties focused on welfare reforms. We also have to remember that this organisation appeared within the confines of the nation-state. Indeed, only with the integration of workers in society, through the mediation of the workers' movement, the building of the nation state could be legitimised.

What is the cause of the crisis of the workers' movement? Why is it no longer able to mediate labour and capital, integrate, discipline and create identity? Why has it been so radically diminished, if not totally lost? Several factors work together:

  1. In compliance with the spread of mass consumption, identity has more and more become a product to buy and create through consumption. Old class identities seem more inhibitory and less luring than the ever-growing supply offered by the market. The subject has changed and it does not allow itself to be constituted at soberity lodges or in study circles within the workers' movement. We demand more than that.
  2. Because of the success of the workers' movement, primarily the large compromises of the post-war era, the workers' movement was integrated into the state to such a degree it lost its function as counter-society.
  3. When a wave of workers' struggles appeared at the end of the 1960's the workers' movement became an obvious opponent. Wildcat strikes and other independent forms of struggle broke with the compromise and showed that it was able to act outside of mediating instances. The sect-based left of the 1970's appeared in the forms of the old workers' movement, but only managed to channel a small part of the struggle, while most of these struggles appeared in other forms.
  4. When capital aimed at a new neo-liberal counter-strategy, partly as an answer to the increased resistance of workers, the workers' movement largely lost its function as class mediator and as warranty for the compromises. The workers' movement was no longer able to warrant neither industrial peace and honest workers nor rising real wages and social safety. Additionally, the globalisation of the flows of finance and chains of production within capital has diminished the space for national compromises.

Finally, class composition has changed the last few decades, which also influences organisation and forms of struggle. Within industry the entire chain of production has been transformed into one single production line, with lean production and just-in-time as words of honour. By the minimisation of bufferts and stock the entire work organisation is put under pressure, from the subtractors to the truck drivers. Quite often work teams with responsibility for quality are used, and sometimes piece work in groups are used, in order to put pressure on everyone in the group to maximise performance and to assist one another. These work teams are also used to split the workers in competing groups.

Simultaneously there has been a displacement of the labour market, at the pace of rationalisation of industry, thus making a majority of the working class part of the service sector. But the service sector has at the same time been 'industrialised'. Cashiers in the supermarkets have been working at production lines for quite a while, where EAN codes and computerisation makes the work more and more monotonous. At fast-food restaurants delivery is performed just-in-time and work is strictly standardised. We can find the most obvious industrialisation in offices, where modern computer technics is used to disassemble and standardise labour, in parallel with the precise supervision of employees. The number of call centres have grown quickly, but changes are happening everywhere: in banks, insurance companies and in the administration units at the industries. In hospitals and other caring professions, as well as in schools, labour is changing too, since each of these activities have become units needed to provide results and with the demands of competition over 'customers'.

Lean production, with its zero policy on margins, as well as the rationalisation of the service sector, forces capital to require flexible and on-demand labour power. Capital needs to use working hours at a maximum in order to increase surplus value. The last fifteen years the different forms of temporary employment has increased in numbers, as well. More and more people are travelling through a jungle of temping, trial employment, project employment, internships, on-demand employment and hourly employment. We should also add all the employment agencies, where employees are placed in one company after another with working conditions constantly shifting.

In order to make this possible, the politics of the labour market has shifted. Today politicians do not strive to create full employment, they strive to make unemployment productive; they want to make the unemployed into a truly effective army of reserves, by making them constantly search for jobs and be on-demand employable. They should be prepared to assist when capital needs them, at temporary and part-time employments. More and more actions of coercion are put into practice in order to accomplish this. One clear example is the social democratic project 'Welfare for All' in Malmö, where existential support is hard-wired to demands of labour and thousands of internships are instituted in a cojoint venture of the City of Malmö and local entreprises.

We can often hear the mourning song in relation to the lost strength of the workers' movement when the power of capital seems total and when the net of globalisation is hurled over the world. Then it is important to emphasise, once again, that class struggle by no means is the equivalent of parliamentary work, union negotiations or even strikes.

Struggle has always happened in silence, faceless and clandestine – sometimes breaking through at a larger scale. Of course we can spread experiences of struggle, but there is no point whatsoever in trying to fetischise former forms of struggle and organisation. New conditions alter the forms of struggle. One clear-cut example of this is the wave of wildcat strikes from 1970 up until 1990, when it suddenly tumbled. One of the reasons behind the decline can probably be found in the increase of fines for participants, but surely the changed class composition is a player too. For part-time workers, workers at employment agencies and unemployed working in internships hidden resistance can be far more fruitful and successful than entering into open conflict, while the union road seems to become even more distant.

We have to see the advantages of the present situation. Capital is still in desperate need of labour in order to create surplus value. Rationalisations would not be necessary, nor would the attempts at increase of control and exploitation, if capital had conquered once and for all. We have the power to destroy capital, by refusing to be workers and sabotaging production of surplus value.

For the sake of capital the decline of the workers' movement implies that there is no longer any effective, mediating instance. For the sake of the working class this implies that it does not need to remain within given frames anymore, not limited by compromise or social responsibility. Within the decline of the workers' identity we find a dismay with labour, a resentment of being workers in capital's line of duty, as well as a longing for something else.

Indeed, just-in-time has made capital more vulnerable than earlier. The aim of removing all margins was increasing pressure on the working class in order to benefit capital. At the same time it means that even limited actions of the working class can have a huge impact on capital. In order for production to run smoothly the entire chain of production must run without serious interruptions. With lean production even a sudden, local conflict, entailing transporters or production line workers, can be enough to paralyse the mightiest of corporate giants. As a corollary, lean production effectivises forms of struggle such as overtime blockades, slow-downs, absenteeism and calling in sick, which can cause huge problems for capital.

Neither are workers as easily fooled as corporate head quarters would like to believe. New forms of team work often become forums for criticising leadership and the workers do not fall for new-speak on increased participation in decision-making. Nor are part-time employees and employment agency workers as emotionally attached to a certain company as a regular employee. They lack loyalty and see work as 'abstract' labour, i. e. emptied of all purposes but wage-earning. Increased mobility contributes to the comparability of different workplaces and experiences are more easily spread.

The industrialisation of the service sector implies that earlier boundaries between different layers are dissolved and a larger part of labour power is put directly under capital's demand for increased yield. Globalisation leads to the linkage of new groups of workers from across the world. Contrary to the attempt of capital to divide us, new ways and new possibilities of spreading struggle and achieving unity is thus created.

Fredrik Samuelsson

Published in Arbetaren no. 25 (24–30 June), 2005.

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