Across the West, the last four decades have been marked by the large-scale collapse of the labor movement. Not only have trade unions withered but so have, with few exceptions, the social-democratic and communist parties and their roots in working-class life. Neoliberalism has not only created new market structures, reduced welfare provision, and privatized industries, it has also pulverized the social basis of many old working-class institutions. Yet as crisis-struck neoliberalism continues to spark all manner of social revolt, many activists insist that the fall of the mass parties is not such a disaster. Their demise is either celebrated — a liberation from bureaucratic control, opening up space for more radical alternatives — or at least seen as self-inflicted, given these forces’ inertia and conservatism. On this reading, the many failures of parliamentary socialism, from compromises to defeats and hierarchical organizing methods, just go to show that real direct resistance instead comes “in the streets” through strikes, occupations, and riots. These are held to be the site at which working-class people directly express their social power.
This reading can also be allied with a critique of the notion of class that structured the twentieth-century left. Not only have the forms of representation failed, but the subject who was previously represented has exited the stage, or, in any case, has become less central. An enormous body of writing is devoted to the notion that the socialist and communist parties were only interested in white, male, straight, married factory workers whose class identity was rooted in their employment in often polluting and dangerous industries. In many European countries, the decline of organized labor is closely connected to the political defeats of such workers, for instance the FIAT autoworkers’ strike in Turin in 1980, or, yet more symbolically, Margaret Thatcher’s crushing of the British miners in 1984–85. Such a trend was heralded already in 1978 by British communist historian Eric Hobsbawm, in his The Forward March of Labour Halted? 1 Here, he outlined the declining social weight of workers employed in manual labor, themselves ever more divided along sectional lines. In parallel to this, Greek political scientist Nicos Poulantzas discussed how the rise of white-collar employment was splitting the old battalions of labor.2