Left to its own devices, the workers’ movement might have gone on indefinitely in a sclerotic form. Yet, as it turned out, the triumph of the workers’ movement in the great post-war settlements was a Pyrrhic victory — and not because the workers, in ‘68, came to reject the best that capitalism had to offer. The end of the postwar compromise was the result of the re-emergence of capital’s objective crisis tendencies after 1965. This is what we above called the “external limit” of the workers’ movement, and it played out as 1) a global dynamic — in competition between regional blocs of capital, and 2) sectoral shifts within each bloc.
In the course of the twentieth century, the number of national zones of accumulation multiplied. Each zone developed its own factory system, and, moreover, the productive capacity of the factories was compounded exponentially over time. These were not automatic tendencies of an expanding world capitalism. As we have seen, late development was politically mediated; given prevailing class dynamics, in which old regime elites and colonial administrations played starring roles, ongoing industrial development was an uncertain prospect, even in parts of Europe. Moreover, late development became more difficult to pull off over time, since the technological frontier was always being driven outward and the necessary infrastructural support for industrial expansion became increasingly technically complex.
In the postwar period, new geopolitical realities helped some states overcome these impediments. During the war, Stalinism had expanded its sphere of influence; then the Chinese Revolution opened a new era of communist insurgencies, across the low-income world. Both encouraged the US and European powers (except Portugal) to relinquish strategies of isolationism and — after 1960 — empire, and instead to promote industrial development within the bounds of the “free world”. International trade was encouraged and industrialisation promoted (although programmes of radical land reform were crushed). The gap that had opened up between advanced capitalist countries and the rest of the world did not close; however, it was no longer expanding. Yet these changed global conditions were momentous only in Western Europe and in developing East Asia, where increasingly large, regional “blocs” of capital rapidly expanded their reach.
Twentieth century economists imagined that national zones of accumulation were the proper space for late development. In truth rapid economic expansion in the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was already predicated both on exporting industrial goods to foreign markets, and on importing raw materials and sources of energy, usually from other markets in the low-income world. Nevertheless, a qualitative transformation took place in the postwar period. The expanding industries of the second industrial revolution pushed against national boundaries, in search of new markets, to be sure, but also eventually in search of new sources of industrial parts production and sites for industrial assembly. The evisceration of old-world elites in the World Wars and the threat of a creeping Stalinism permitted the establishment of new regional zones of accumulation, as new containers for these industries, for it weakened protectionist interests.1
Thus much of the world was divided between an American bloc under US management, a European bloc under Franco-German management, an East Asian bloc under Japanese management, and a Soviet bloc under Russian management. Tying these together were transnational institutions like the UN, NATO, the GATT, etc. The brief triumph of the workers’ movement was partly due to a transnational component: in the influence of Russia on its opponents during the cold war, the military-industrial expansion of the state (enabling various experiments in social planning), and the extension of industrial firms into new regional markets without yet offshoring production itself. The workers could get a seat at the table both because of their strategic position in the heart of this growth machine, and because “state capitalism” was, for a brief moment, really on the cards.
Yet without the possibility of war between these regional blocs, their simultaneous growth inevitably led to a saturation of export markets. Competition between national blocs of capital — centered in the US, Western Europe and East Asia — intensified, in the mid-1960s. Global markets became increasingly oversupplied, eventually making it so that no one bloc could grow quickly unless it did so at the expense of the others.2 The result was a decline in rates of industrial output growth, which fell below rates of labour productivity growth in the 1980s.
This point should be emphasised: de-industrialisation was not the result of a miraculous technological discovery, pushing productivity growth-rates to new heights. Rather, it was due to chronic overproduction, which pushed output growth-rates down, with less severe effects on productivity. The same trends of slowing global output growth, and mediocre productivity growth, have continued down to the present, even taking into account Chinese expansion. On this basis, industrial employment growth finally went into reverse, not only on a temporary, business cycle basis, but permanently, over crests as much as busts. De-industrialisation replaced industrialisation as a worldwide tendency, although like industrialisation, it was never a simple secular trend. Capital’s trajectory was thus different from what the workers’ expected. The development of the productive forces turned out to mean not the becoming majority of the industrial working class, but rather, its tendential dissolution.
Of course, this did not signal the end of the working class. Along with the above-mentioned technical and infrastructural innovations came the enormous growth of administrative, bookkeeping, logistical, service, communication and instructional labour: “white collar” jobs. These jobs grew even as industrial jobs were disappearing. Thus whilst the new industries (contra Marx’s prediction) created jobs and temporarily saved the industrial working class from decline, it was this latter sector which absorbed most of the decline in the agricultural workforce. And whilst the old unions could organise this new sector, victories were far less consistent, for the hegemonic working class identity tended to dissolve on this new terrain. However, this is explained less by the nature of these jobs, and therefore not by their absolute growth, than by the fact of a sluggish demand for labour.
In part, service jobs grew because most services are not internationally tradable. There cannot be international overproduction in services, as there can be in both industry and agriculture. But the non-tradability of services is part and parcel of the fact that services, almost by definition, are only formally but not really subsumed. That is to say, the production process in services is resistant to the sort of capitalist transformation that would make those services amenable to regular increases in labour productivity. In other words, services aren’t produced in factories (where direct human labour gives way to machine production).
It is the resistance of economic activities to real subsumption that makes them into lasting sources of employment growth. That was why, within industry, assembly processes saw the greatest increase in employment, in the course of the twentieth century. More rarely, whole industrial sectors resisted real subsumption, past a certain point. Those sectors saw massive employment growth, too: in the apparel industry, the sewing machine was the last great technological development. Clothing is still mostly sewn with those nineteenth-century machines in sweatshops across the world.
But most of what was resistant to real subsumption was not industry at all — but rather services. With notable exceptions, it has generally proven difficult to transform service-making processes, to make them amenable to constant increases in labour productivity. In fact, “services” is something of a false category. Services are precisely those economic activities that get left behind: they consist of all the activities that prove resistant to being transformed into goods (that is, self-service implements). To be transformed into a good is the typical way that an economic activity becomes really subsumed: carriage drivers are replaced with cars, washerwomen are replaced by washing machines. Because services are not really subsumed, productivity growth remains modest. Even if output grows more slowly in services than it had in industry (during the latter’s heyday), it is nevertheless the case that the number of service jobs steadily increases. Here is the long-term tendency of capitalism: to produce a post-industrial wasteland, where employment grows slowly, and workers are very precarious.
The growing segment of the working class who occupied these not-yet-really-subsumed jobs had an experience of work and the capitalist mode of production that differed from the industrial workers who formed the core of the workers’ movement:
The response of the workers to this change in fortune was — against the standard interpretation of May ’68 — in fact quite weak. The relatively low-amplitude of the wave of struggles in the advanced industrialised countries from 1968 to 77, the fact that they never directly challenged the mode of production, is largely explained by the depletion of rank-and-file-militancy in the earlier period. When confronted with the external limit, the unions proved to be hollow monoliths, unable to appeal either to the membership they had systematically dis-empowered, or to the state on which they had become increasingly dependent. It was the prior incorporation of aspects of the workers’ movement into the state that dampened the response of the workers to capital’s restructuring. But that defeat was inevitable, since the very industries on which the workers’ movement had been based were the ones that were undermined by the restructuring.
All that remains of the workers’ movement are unions that manage the slow bleed-out of stable employment; social democratic parties that implement austerity measures when conservative parties fail to do so; and communist and anarchist sects that wait (actively or passively) for their chance to rush the stage. These organisations have hardly been consigned to the dustbin of history. Yet none is likely to rejuvenate itself on the world scale. The workers’ movement is no longer a force with the potential to remake the world. That it was such a force was what gave life to these currents within the workers’ movement: they no longer make sense; their coordinates have been scrambled.
But of course the end of the workers’ movement is not the same thing as the end of either capital or the working class. Even as more and more workers are rendered superfluous to the needs of capital, the relation between these two terms continues to define what counts as a life worth living. Thus, the class relation has outlived the real movement that was supposed to destroy it. Indeed the class relation has only become more dominant since the end of the workers’ movement: for women everywhere, for peasants, etc.
What has changed in this period is that the diverse fractions of the working class no longer shape themselves into a workers’ movement. Except in reactionary ways (when one part of the class defends its access to a diminishing pool of stable jobs), workers rarely affirm their shared identity as workers. There are a number of reasons for this transformation, all of which have followed from the “restructuring” of the class relation in the 1970s. As the profit rate declined after 1973, a surplus of workers and capital swelled into existence. It became possible to attack workers’ material existence, and necessary to do so, since competition among capitals was intensifying. Because they were under attack, nationally situated workers’ movements found themselves unable to score the material gains that had been their final reason for existence. Workers abandoned the organisations to which they had — even as those organisations proved to be counter-revolutionary — formerly clung.
Everywhere, the working class is less homogeneous — it is stratified across high- and low-income occupations; its work is more precarious; and it switches jobs more frequently. More and more workers feel like work has no purpose; for more and more are employed in dead-end service jobs, or are unemployed or unemployable. Like the housewives of an earlier era, they produce little more than the everyday reproduction of the class relation itself. For these reasons, we cannot follow the autonomists in supposing that an “objective” recomposition of the class will find its correlate in a new “subjective” affirmation of class identity.
It’s not that it’s impossible today to glorify work or workers; it’s that those who can do so are necessarily a minority. They can no longer pose their activity, or the activity of any concrete fraction of the class, as having universal significance. The workers’ movement rested on a vision of the future that turned out to be a dream. In the second half of the twentieth century workers awoke from this dream to discover that all that was supposed to bring them together had actually separated them.
The machinery of accumulation is breaking down. As yet, no revolutionary force appears ready to oppose its global reign. It makes sense then that we mourn the workers’ movement, that we look back nostalgically on a time when that movement presented itself as a counter-force, even if a problematic one. How could one not feel a nostalgia for the past, living in a time when there is little to stop the ravages of capitalist social dynamics? But we must not let nostalgia cloud our understanding, making us believe that it would be possible to renew the struggles of an era that has come to an end. People do not make history under self-selected circumstances, but rather under existing ones. Humanity has survived the era of the birth of capitalism, although not without trauma. Now, we must get on with its destruction.
How is this task to be accomplished? The workers’ movement embodied a certain idea about how it was to be done. At its heart was a metaphysical conception, that of the collective worker, which has since dissolved.3 Society is still the product of all these working people: who grow and distribute food, who extract minerals from the earth, who make clothes, cars, and computers, who care for the old and the infirm, and so on. But the glue that holds them together is not an ever more conscious social solidarity. On the contrary, the glue that holds them together is the price mechanism. The market is the material human community. It unites us, but only in separation, only in and through the competition of one with all. If the world’s workers stopped working — turning their attention instead to routing the capitalists and their goons — they would not find at their disposal a ready-made mode of social organisation, born of their “actual” unity (that is, the collective worker). Instead, they would be thrown into a social void, within which it would be necessary to construct human relations anew.
The reason it is no longer possible to believe in the collective worker as the hidden truth of capitalist social relations is simply this: the extension of capitalist social relations to the ends of the earth was not associated with an ever more class-conscious workforce; quite the opposite. In the period immediately following World War I, a number of theories emerged to explain why this was the case.4 After all, revolution had taken place in “backwards” Russia but failed to come off in “advanced” Germany, where the working class had been more industrialised. Why had industrial organisation failed to generate class consciousness?
One set of explanations focused on the role of bourgeois ideology: the emergence of a class consciousness had been blocked by a false consciousness, which was implanted in workers’ minds by the apparatuses of bourgeois society: its presses, its schools, its churches. This institutional machinery was putting drugs in the workers’ drinking water. Another set of explanations focused on the role of mediating institutions of the working class itself. Trade unions and parties were supposed to shape workers’ wills into an immense hammer, with which the old world would be smashed. Instead, this hammer either sat idly by, or else was turned against the class itself (such betrayals were frequently explained as a matter of a certain embourgeoisement of party and union leaderships).
In reality, it was neither bourgeois ideology nor the mediation of workers’ organisations that was to blame, most fundamentally, for the failure of a revolutionary consciousness to generalise. As it turned out, the extension of capitalist social relations gave birth not to the collective worker, but rather to the separated society. The more workers’ lives were imbricated in market relations, the more they were reduced to the atomised observers of their own exploitation. In the course of the twentieth century, socialist revolutions did not emerge where the full efflorescence of capitalist social forms had been achieved. Rather, they emerged where those relations had only recently extended themselves.5 With time, revolutionary potentials appeared to diminish everywhere that capitalist society developed. At that point — except in rare circumstances, which we will come to momentarily — workers could embody their combative will only in mediated forms, such as trade unions and parties. These institutions were part of this society, and as such, reflected its basic character. It took almost half a century after 1917 for this reality to clarify itself. For all its inadequacies, Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle intuited at least this sad reality: the extension of capitalist social relations was reflected in the increasing separation of workers from one another, even as they became increasingly dependent on one another for their survival.
Constructing an “actual” unity, under these conditions, had to be a political project: it was that of the workers’ movement itself. Acting within this society — against a current that became ever more intense — the movement pressed forward. It became lost, however, in a sea of differential interests: those of women and men, young and old, “white” and non-“white”, and so on. Workers could bridge the gaps among their sectional interests only insofar as they believed, and convinced others to believe, in a shared identity: the collective worker. However, the unity thereby named was not a “real” unity, given immediately by the full flowering of capitalist social relations. It was a fiction presupposed and posited by the movement itself.
On this basis of shared identity, workers’ day-to-day struggles — from which many workers benefited only indirectly, if at all — appeared to be universally utilitarian: “an injury to one” became “an injury to all”. By some measures, this project was wildly successful. By means of solidarity and sacrifice, workers were able to win social protections for the unemployed, the elderly, and the destitute. Furthermore, by limiting the circumstances under which they were obliged to sell their labour, workers also compressed wage hierarchies. However, their efforts did not produce a revolutionary rupture. Eventually, the corrosive character of capitalist social relations dissolved the fictive unities of the workers’ movement. And here we are, today.
Today there is everywhere a commonly felt absence of the institutional forms of solidarity that formed the backbone of the workers’ movement. When we need to find a job, or when we have problems with a landlord, there are no chambers of labour, no mutual aid societies to which to turn. We are left with nothing but the state and its ancillary charities. Today’s strategic thinkers thus urgently try to invent new organisations of this kind (places to dwell and share), or seek to revive those of the past (union, party, co-op). But these new or revived structures lack staying power, for they are built on the shifting sands of the fully separated society: no matter how much water one pours on them, they refuse to cake up.
It’s true that in many ways the differences among workers that the labour movement had to overcome, in the first half of the twentieth century, have been significantly reduced. In the high-income countries, and in many low-income countries as well, the vast majority of workers live in urban areas. Their only country of residence is commodity-land. They obtain almost everything they need — paying mortgages or renting apartments, buying food, clothing, and assorted gadgets, and purchasing entertainment — by selling their capacity to labour. In this context, subcultures emerge and die off, but these are all overlaid on an abiding cultural flatness. For many people, national identity has become little more than a matter of national languages and cuisines. National monuments stand in for any more engaging historical awareness. Meanwhile, there are women CEOs, black CEOs, gay CEOs, and so on.
Yet even so, certain social differences have hardened. The wage scale continues to instantiate a hierarchy among workers, generating differential life chances for workers and their children. These life chances are also determined by differential accumulations of assets: the children of some workers inherit handsome sums, which may not allow them to stop working, but at least ensure that they will live no less well than their parents did in their later years. For most workers, however, there is no such personalised safety net. Nor are unemployment and underemployment randomly distributed across the class. They continue to correspond to differences of gender, race, nationality, immigration status, etc. Interests among workers tend to diverge most strongly when the economy is growing slowly, or stagnating. Of course, in most countries the economy has not grown quickly for a very, very long time.6
Today crises are more frequent. More and more people are shunted into an existence defined by low-pay, irregular work, and informality, in other words, everything we have called surplus populations. The division between the still regularly employed and the fractions of the surplus population is becoming the key division within struggles, today. Because we reiterate this point, our analysis is often taken to imply that we think things are looking up because everything is getting worse: la politique du pire. It is certainly unlikely that revolutions will take place in a time when things are simply getting better — nor when they are statically bad.
However, there is no hope in things getting worse, by themselves. Revolutionary hopes are found only in revolts, which tend to emerge out of a frustrated optimism. That is, revolts follow a disruption of everyday life, or a series of such disruptions, that fractures the dream by which humanity is cowed into believing that the rigged game of social life will work out in their favour. The picture of calm and unanimity presented by the forces of order breaks down; conflicts among elites are suddenly on display before the people. Anger building up for years or even decades rises and spills out onto the surface. There is hope, then, only in the opening of a new cycle of struggle, in the flight of populations into ungovernability.
Indeed, the real unity of the class lies neither in some organic unity given by the development of the forces of production, nor the mediated unity achieved by means of the unions and parties. Rather, that unity has and always will be forged in self-organised struggle, when workers overcome their atomisation by creatively constructing a new basis for collective activity. In the previous issue of Endnotes, we tried to find a way to describe that unity without appeal to a pre-existing metaphysical entity, the collective worker. We showed how a historically specific form of struggle emerges out of the historical specificity of class relations in capitalist society (determined by the unity-in-separation of the exploited).7
This way of understanding struggle — grounded in but also taking leave of the perspectives of left communists — can be applied equally to the past as the present. But it is important to recognise, here, the chasm that separates us from the past. The creative generation of new forms of organisation, new tactics, new content — all immanent to the unfolding of struggle — is orientated toward a given horizon of communism. In the past, revolutionary rupture was orientated towards a particular project, which we have described in detail in this article. We have also shown why this project is no longer given today.
Thinking through the new context in which struggles are taking place requires a pivot at the deepest level, in the very categories of communist theory. We can no longer appeal to the notion of class consciousness, with all it implies. We are forced to confront the fact that the working class is a class of this mode of production, unified only in separation. Of course there are still moments when, in their struggles, workers come together in a mode that interrupts their unity for capital, allowing them to organise both within and across lines of division. However, today when they come together they no longer do so as a class, for their class belonging is precisely what divides them. Instead, they come together under the name of some other unity — real democracy, the 99% — which appears to widen their capacity to struggle. In such moments a conflict can open up between this ideal unity of the class, as something other than a class, and the fact of the actual disunity of the class, as a class of this mode of production.
It is in such diverse and diversified conflicts that the communist horizon of the present may announce itself, not in a growing class consciousness, but rather, in a growing consciousness of capital.8 At present, workers name the enemy they face in different ways: as bad banks and corrupt politicians, as the greedy 1%. These are, however, only foreshortened critiques of an immense and terrible reality. Ours is a society of strangers, engaged in a complex set of interactions. There is no one, no group or class, who controls these interactions. Instead, our blind dance is coordinated impersonally, through markets. The language we speak — by means of which we call out to one another, in this darkness — is the language of prices. It is not the only language we can hear, but it is the loudest. This is the community of capital.
When people make the leap out of that community, they will have to figure out how to relate to each other and to the things themselves, in new ways. There is no one way to do that. Capital is the unity of our world, and its replacement cannot be just one thing. It will have to be many.