As globalization, union busting, and automation remake the world of work, leaving current and future generations to subsist on contingent and informal employment, can we still defend the idea of the working class as the principal agent of radical change? Does a “historic force,” as Eric Hobsbawm put it in 1995, still exist to support the socialist project? With few exceptions, Marxists have come late in the day to this existential debate, often armed with little more than philosophical slogans. This paper argues that, to confront the issue, we first need to specify a baseline of comparison: that is to say, a sophisticated understanding of how proletarian agency was construed in the era of classical socialism.
Starting from scattered clues left by Marx and his successors, above all Rosa Luxemburg, this essay outlines a theory of class formation and socialist hegemony in consonance with the historical, revolutionary experience of the working class’s actual lives and ideas. The basic thesis is that “agency” in the last instance is conditioned by the development of the productive forces but activated by the convergence (or “overdeterminations”) of political, economic, and cultural struggles. Even in socialism’s classical era, workers’ power did not reside exclusively at the point of production in the great factories; urban movements and international solidarity campaigns were also crucibles of class consciousness, perhaps with the most immediate relevance to our brave new jobless world.
In a 1995 interview shortly after the publication of The Age of Extremes, Eric Hobsbawm was asked about the future currency of socialist ideas. It depended, he answered, on whether a “historic force” would still exist to support the socialist project. “It seems to me the historic force rested not necessarily on the ideas but on a particular material situation … the major problem of the Left being that of agency.” In the face of the declining ratio of variable capital in modern production and thus of the social weight of the industrial proletariat, he said,
we may well find ourselves back in a different pattern to a society, like the one of the pre-capitalist society in which the largest number of people will not be wage workers — they will be something else, either, as you can see in the large part of the Third World, people who are operating in the gray area of the informal economy, who cannot be simply class as wage workers or in some other way. Now, under those circumstances, clearly the question is, how can this body of people be mobilized in order to realize the aims which unquestionably are still there and to some extent are now more urgent in form?1
The decline of traditional working-class economic and political power — now including stricken BRICS like Brazil and South Africa — has been indeed epochal.2 In Europe as well as the United States, the erosion of industrial employment through wage arbitrage, outsourcing, and automation has gone hand in hand with the increased precarity of service work, the digital industrialization of white-collar jobs, and the stagnation or decline of unionized public employment. The new social Darwinism, while inflaming working-class resentment against the new credential elites and the high-tech rich, has also narrowed and poisoned traditional cultures of solidarity, leading to the rise of anti-immigrant movements of the neo-right.3 Even if the hurricane of neoliberalism were to pass — and there is yet little sign this will happen — the automation not just of production and routine management but, now, of professional expertise and scientific research threatens the last vestiges of job security in core economies.4