Near the beginning of his outstanding book Marx, Capital, and the Madness of Economic Reason, David Harvey quotes a very famous passage from Karl Marx’s Capital that describes how the capitalist deployment of technology degrades workers to the level of a machine’s appendage.1 It alienates them from their intellectual potential just as science is incorporated in production, and it deforms the conditions under which they labor, be the payment high or low. Later in the book, Harvey quotes another very insightful passage, in which Marx went beyond the dehumanizing impact of technology as deployed by capital to address its ultimately destructive implications for capitalism itself.

As large industry develops, the creation of real wealth comes to depend less on labor time and the amount of labor employed than on the power of the agencies set in motion during labor time, whose “powerful effectiveness” is itself out of proportion to the direct labor time spent on their production. As Harvey notes, in this context, the capitalist is trapped: there is a limit to how much surplus value (profit) can be extracted from that one worker who is putting the mass of social labor to work. Marx concluded from this that capitalist production will ultimately have to come to an end. Of course, a century and a half later, we know better. Capitalism will never come to an end of its own accord — even if it ends up resembling a dystopia like Blade Runner — until we end it.

Changing Structures

As capitalism persists well into the twenty-first century, one of the most important questions for class analysis today concerns the changing structure of capitalist classes themselves and its transformative impact on capitalist political rule.2 Class analysis in this context requires close attention to the changing configuration of the capitalist classes. This means careful study of the ways in which capital is organized, amidst the interpenetration of old and new capitals across both finance and manufacturing, and of its strategies for exercising hegemony at a global level.

That is not to claim that there is now anything like a global capitalist class with a cohesive identity and agenda. Indeed, as we can see from meetings of the G20 finance ministers, these political actors are engaged in a difficult process of trying to align and coordinate the interests of distinctive ruling classes — a very difficult task in today’s world.

Profound changes in the way capital accumulation takes place, both technological and geographical, have brought about the reorganization of capitalist classes. Those changes have also interwoven working classes at an international level, not only through the global value chains of networked production, communication, and distribution, but also in much more localized ways, reflecting new patterns of migration. Contemporary migrations that are simultaneously induced and resisted amid a globalizing capitalism — so central to the rise of “patriotic” scoundrels like Donald Trump — have rendered a great many households increasingly connected across borders.3 But globalization and migration do not make it any less important for us to recognize the specificities of class formation, and the role they play in changing the forms of political rule in each particular nation-state.

The history of class formation cannot be understood without incorporating the history of migration, which includes its oppressive, even genocidal, impact on indigenous peoples — as we know in this hemisphere especially, all the way from Argentina in the South to Canada in the North. Yet the very specificities of class structures and relations in these two countries alone should remind us that classes are always distinctively shaped — whether we like it or not, whether we are internationalists or not — by their historical formation within particular nation-states that have emerged over the last two centuries.

Class Formation

Our discussion of class in the twenty-first century needs to go far beyond what can be captured by contrasting old and new labor processes, or by probing the effect of those changes on workplace relations. However important all of this is, it needs to be placed in the context of ongoing class formation, not least the specific contours and modalities of what is happening to the “middle classes” economically, socially, and politically, as well as to capital and labor.

The Left should not consider the use of the term “middle class” to be simply an ideological device, a trope of political discourse intended to obscure fundamental social relations and potential conflicts between capital and labor. Nor can the formation of middle classes as distinctive collective actors in each nation-state be registered by superficially mapping either the “old” or the “new” middle class in terms of simplistic and unhelpful polarities (white-collar versus blue-collar, or service versus industrial workers — still less “unproductive” versus “productive” labor). Class theory in the 1970s described the “contradictory social locations” of the “new middle class,” a phenomenon that can increasingly be observed among those who occupy positions of coordination and supervision in production, distribution, logistics, and communication, as well as among those who perform comparable roles within many agencies of social reproduction and administration, public and private.4

However, this trend coincides with the persistence and even growth of “independent commodity producers” and “petty-bourgeois” vendors of many kinds, old and new. This includes the small-entrepreneur-cum-manual-laborer — famously identified in the United States as “Joe the Plumber” — who is more concerned about taxes on small business than labor standards. But it goes well beyond that, embracing a whole range of occupations, from local shopkeepers and market stallers all the way to traders and gamers in global cyberspace; and from those who provide cleaning, hairdressing, or physical-training services as independent producers all the way to those on contract in both private and public sectors as consultants, instructors, and researchers.

Middle Class or Working Class?

The forms in which these social relations will take shape, in terms of new middle-class or working-class formation, is one of the most important questions for this century. The gig economy’s new putting-out system — epitomized by companies like Uber and Lyft — is explicitly designed to induce middle-class formation. Yet those drivers who are struggling to organize as Uber or Lyft employees are engaged in working-class formation. I have been told there is a similar struggle over class formation taking place among the vendors in the La Salada market outside the train station here in Buenos Aires, to determine whether they will be organized by La Confederación de Trabajadores de la Economía Popular (CTEP).

We can see another dimension of this in the new public-management practices of outsourcing state and parastate work — service, clerical, and maintenance alike — to individual contractors, from management consultants and data processors to nonunionized cleaners, who often work side by side with unionized state employees. Their coworkers can even be militant trade unionists.

The organization of traditionally middle-class professionals like teachers and nurses also reflects struggles over class formation. Staunchly status-conscious, schoolteachers in the twentieth century were often the main socializing agents of xenophobic nationalism. It is one of the most positive political developments of our time that this seems to be changing in the twenty-first century — not least in the United States, where many teachers’ unions have become militant and even created a new sense of working-class community by painstakingly building links with parents. This sense of community has often embraced and protected recent migrant families.

Jane McAlevey led and chronicled another recent example of struggle for working-class formation at private hospitals in the anti-union, “right-to-work” state of Nevada, which involved the collective organization of all the relevant workers, from nurses to cleaners.5 The setting of work-time shifts was the most important common issue for the predominantly female labor force in these hospitals, who were still carrying the burden of social-reproduction work for their families. Mobilizing around this demand proved crucial in uniting the intensive-care nurse with the cook in the basement kitchen preparing the patients’ food.

Yet most teachers’ and nurses’ unions remain distinctly craft-oriented, even when they are militant. I was once invited to give a keynote address at the convention of the United Nurses of Alberta in Canada, shortly after they had undertaken a very successful, albeit illegal, strike that enjoyed enormous popular support. In my address, I suggested that for the next round of collective bargaining, they should build on their success by making it a priority to secure an hour a week of paid time during which all the workers on each hospital ward would be brought together to discuss the labor process. In the following round of bargaining, their priority should be to win another hour of paid time, to be used for collective meetings of workers with the patients on the ward.

I got a standing ovation for this proposal. However, the very first item on the agenda was a resolution from the executive, supporting an application from the hospital orderlies to become part of the union (orderlies are responsible for tasks such as moving patients, sterilizing medical equipment, cleaning rooms, and changing bed sheets). To facilitate the debate over this, there were two microphones on the convention floor: one for speakers in favor of the resolution and one for those against. Not a single nurse took the “yes” mic; they all wanted to argue against the motion. This, too, was a struggle between middle-class and working-class formation.

Inventing New Forms

How does this relate to the increasingly precarious conditions workers face today, even when they belong to unions? It’s not useful to identify a “precariat” as a new class that is distinct from the working class or middle class.6 Employers have always tried to gain access to labor when they want it, to dispose of it as they please, and to use it with as few restrictions as possible during the period in between.

There is less and less value in drawing tight sociological nets to determine who is in the working class and who isn’t (or doing the same for the middle class, for that matter). Instead of limiting our strategic discussions to whether we should concentrate at any given time on organizing nurses or baristas, teachers or software developers, farmhands or truckers, salespeople or bank tellers, our main concern should be visualizing and developing new forms of broadly inclusive working-class organization and formation for the twenty-first century.

The mass trade unions and working-class parties that emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as the first permanent organizations of subordinate classes in world history were trying to do exactly this. There are a multitude of struggles taking place today, rooted in the different facets of workers’ lives that encompass so many occupations, identities, and diverse communities in the face of an increasingly exploitative, chaotic, and irrational capitalism. But our inability to discover novel organizational forms that might facilitate processes of class formation has once again allowed far-right political forces to mobilize popular anger and frustrations.

We have seen, over the last decade, some credibility being restored to the democratic-socialist case for transcending capitalism — even in the United States, of all places. After the Occupy movement, there was a marked turn from protest to politics on the Left, and this still defines the new conjuncture. There is a growing sense that capitalism can no longer be bracketed while we protest against the many other oppressions and ecological threats of our time, combined with a feeling that you can protest forever outside the halls of power, but you won’t change the world. As opposition to capitalist globalization thereby shifted from the streets to the state, this transition from protest to politics has especially targeted massive inequalities of income and wealth.

But as Andrew Murray, chief of staff at Unite, the UK’s largest trade union, has noted, this turn has been “more class-focused rather than class-rooted.”7 The strategic question raised by this relates to what the Communist Manifesto identified as the first task of all communists: to engage in “the organization of the proletariat into a class.”

Given the tremendous and manifold changes in class composition and identity, as well as the great limits and failures of the old working-class parties and unions, how does a class-focused politics actually become rooted in the working classes again? The profound defeat suffered by so many working-class organizations in the final decades of the twentieth century was an important landmark in paving the way for a fully global capitalism under the aegis of the US informal empire. Yet there are more workers on the face of the earth today than ever before. And while new technologies restrict job growth and employment in certain sectors, they foster job growth in other sectors, as well as introduce entirely new ones with the potential for collective organization.

Also of great strategic importance, as Kim Moody has shown, have been strikes at component plants or interruptions of supplier chains at warehouses and ports can force shutdowns through a globally integrated production network.8 Similarly, whistleblowing among data processors can expose vast stores of information that are kept hidden by corporations and states.

Working-class organization has suffered from an Achilles’ heel: even when it has gotten into the state, it has not known what to do with it. Above all, it has not known how to transform the labor process inside the state, so that the state becomes an agency for socialist transformation rather than the reproduction of capitalism. Linking the ambitious aim for renewed working-class formation, inside as well as outside the state, with the development of new creative strategies for state transformation must be a priority for intellectuals in trying to make historical materialism a better analytical tool for the twenty-first century.9

This a revised and updated version of a keynote address presented to the 36th International Labor Process Conference, “Class and the Labor Process”, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Buenos Aires, 23 March 2018.

About the Author

Leo Panitch is coeditor of the Socialist Register and coauthor, most recently, of Searching for Socialism: The Project of the Labour New Left from Benn to Corbyn (Verso).

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