The workers’ movement survived WWII and even thrived in its aftermath. It did so by sticking to one safe strategy: to whatever extent possible, workers’ organisations supported the war effort. They presided over a labour peace for the war’s duration, hoping to gain power and recognition in the war’s aftermath. Where fascists took power, no such peace was possible. All above-ground organisations of the workers’ movement were annihilated. It was thus communists, rather than social democrats, who took the leading role, giving their lives in the Resistance. Following the war’s conclusion, this Resistance served as a temporary irritation to the social democratic and communist leadership: armed revolutionary organisations, formed beyond the control of established parties and unions, had their own visions for post-war reconstruction. But these organisations were quickly disarmed, and then fell away. The same developmental strategy could then be pursued after the wars as before.
The postwar period was a triumph for communism in the East and social democracy in the West (although the latter often failed to obtain parliamentary majorities). The old regime was defeated on European soils, and in some cases, even in the wider world. Workers finally gained recognition as a power within society. And yet, in spite of these victories, it was becoming more difficult to see the way forward. The path from the development of the productive forces to the triumph of the class was becoming more obscure.
For the collective worker, product of the factory system, was ever more dispersed across a complex productive apparatus. As it turned out, the real links forged among workers were not found in their lived connection within workplaces. For the most part, their real links were formed outside of the factory gates: on the roads, in electricity lines, in the supermarket, on television. Instead of the “great evening” of the industrial worker triumphant, we got the groggy morning of the suburban commuter. The atomised worker revealed itself as the truth of the collective worker. Here was the unity-in-separation of capitalism, corroding the bases of workers’ solidarity, not just in the factory, but also across the city. Instead of the Workers’ Chorus there was Soul Train. Instead of the Thames Ironworks Football Club, there was West Ham on Match of the Day. Instead of neighbours filling up parks and seasides there were family holiday packages with Club Med. All this — it should go without saying — proved much more entertaining than a socialist meeting. Yet it wasn’t to last. The strange victories of the postwar period turned out to be only a temporary respite from the ravages of capitalist society. Crisis tendencies re-emerged, already in the mid 1960s and early 1970s. The glorious advances in production became overproduction, and full employment became unemployment.
World War II finally decapitated the European old regime. The Red Army marched through the central European blood-lands, making itself the inheritor of the opulent classes’ wealth. Along the way, large landholdings — which still formed the material basis of elite power in countries where more than half the population was engaged in agriculture — were confiscated. Initially, some attempts were made to distribute this confiscated land to peasants, but these efforts were quickly abandoned in favour of large-scale agricultural collectivisation. Meanwhile, Prussia, historic stronghold of the old regime in Central Europe, was wiped off the map.
In Western Europe, too, the aristocracy went into an unarrested decline. Outside of Italy and Greece, this decline was not the result of land reform. Instead, the end of the old regime was a consequence of interwar and wartime turbulence. Stock market crashes, followed by rapid inflation, wiped out fortunes that had long ago been disinvested from the countryside and then invested in modern forms of wealth-accumulation (in particular, government bonds).1 The loss of colonies and nationalisation of industries also wreaked havoc on upper class finances. This leveling down of wealth was then secured, politically, by high-rates of taxation.
Such material transformations were accompanied by cultural ones. Any lingering deference to established families was smashed in the war. The notables were no longer so notable, especially since so many had collaborated either with occupying forces or with discredited but home-grown Fascist regimes. From here on out, classes would no longer be distinguished by the head coverings (top hat, worker’s cap) they wore. The wars thus completed one of the main tasks of the European workers’ movement. They cleared the way for a further development of the productive forces, and, so too, for the expected triumph of the working class. In reality, Europe was now merely going to catch up to the United States, in terms of the commercialisation of life and the integration of all into the fully separated society.
It is true that, outside of Europe, old regimes remained in place, blocking the progress of such modernisation projects. However, precisely due to the war, colonial empires were significantly weaker, while socialist and capitalist models of development, within national zones of accumulation, were much stronger. By the 1950s, movements of national independence were sweeping through the world, extending the nation-state model to the edges of the earth (of course, there were holdouts: South Africa, the Portuguese colonies, etc). In the colonies, as in the metropoles, an attack was mounted against lingering economic backwardness.
Yet, among the victorious independence movements — which unfolded alongside peasant insurgencies in Latin America — it was only the few that were led by romantic revolutionaries and inspired by Russia and then by China that were able to overturn the domination of rural elites decisively. Revolutionaries reabsorbed elites’ landholdings into collective farms, creating the conditions for Russian-style big-push industrialisation (even if their success, in that regard, was usually rather limited): the removal of old regime elites freed technocratic communists to focus on the developmental tasks at hand — namely, breaking up peasant communities and displacing peasants to the cities, where they could be put to work in gigantic mills.2
Everywhere else, where the red flag was defeated — either because peasant insurgencies were too weak, or because peasants were drawn into anti-colonial alliances with local elites — movements for land reform either failed completely, or were so watered down as to become largely inconsequential.3 As a result, old regime elites survived the transition to national-developmental capitalism, just as they had in the Europe of the nineteenth century, except that now, late development under “Iron and Rye” alliances was no longer viable.
Of course, the persistence of the old regime was not only a matter of elites: there was also a large remainder of the peasantry in the global countryside. Not only was this peasantry still a large minority in Western and Central Europe. In Southern and Eastern Europe, as well as in East Asia, the peasants accounted for the majority of the population. Where the old regime was cleared away, real domination unfolded rapidly in the countryside: within twenty to forty years (depending on the region), the peasantry had all but disappeared. That was partly a matter of reduced political protections for agricultural producers, and partly the result of new technologies that allowed the real subsumption of agricultural production to proceed rapidly. After the war, agriculture began to look more like a branch of industry.
Still, technical developments in agriculture could not have annihilated the heavy remainder of the peasantry worldwide by themselves. That task was left to demographic growth. Postwar developments in public health — including antibiotics, immunisation and DDT — led to an unprecedented drop in infant and child mortality levels. The resulting boost to population growth undermined the peasantry on a global scale. It was also associated with urbanisation. Today the majority of the world’s population lives in cities. The urban proletariat, numbering more than three billion people (more than the global population at the end of WWII) is entirely dependent on market production and exchange to survive. We have yet to see full communism but, in the last hour, we are finally approaching full capitalism.
With the old regime defeated in Europe — and at risk of revolutionary overthrow across the world — the workers’ movement seemed to have triumphed, even where its parties were kept from power. By showing themselves to be valiant soldiers and capable co-managers of the war economy, the workers not only defeated the old regime: they also won recognition within national zones of accumulation. Workers’ dignity was enshrined in law.4 Not only were unions recognised as workers’ official representatives; union bargaining was given legal support. Corporatism reigned, in the US from the 1930s, and then throughout Europe after the war.
Meanwhile the very success of big-push industrialisation put the romantic revolutionaries in the East on the same footing as the social democrats, if always a few steps back. The 1950s were, according to some, the Golden Age of socialist planning; consumer goods finally became more widely available. Yet at the same time, any remaining appeal to a working class identity or class solidarity was reduced to a kitsch aesthetic, the source of many bitter jokes. The workers’ movement thus tendentially completed (or participated in the completion of) the project of proletarianising the world’s population, in “First”, “Second” and “Third” world variants.
Paradoxically, at least from the perspective of the workers’ movement, this same process depleted revolutionary energies, for two reasons. (1) The past, which the workers’ movement set out to annihilate, turned out to be a fundamental support of its revolutionary vision. (2) The future, when it finally arrived in the form of a highly developed productive apparatus, turned out not to give birth to the collective worker; instead, it reinforced the unity-in-separation of capitalist society. The workers’ movement persisted as a social force, but in a sclerotic form. It could probably have gone on forever had it not been defeated from an unexpected corner — that is to say, by the reactivation of capital’s fundamental contradiction.
It was the lived experience of the transition — from peasant and artisan communities to capitalist society — that gave the workers the sense that another transition was possible — from capitalist society to the cooperative commonwealth. In some sense, this “transitional” perspective was simply about the visibility of ways of life that were not founded solely on the cash nexus.5 But the transitional impulse was not just about the existence of alternatives.
It was also about the experience of history unfolding. The immediate obstacles to the arrival of that future — the persistence of the old regime — had provided a focal point around which to rally workers at the national level. Indeed, the privileges retained by lords reminded everyone of the failure of the bourgeoisie to stand up for its liberal values. That empowered workers to take the lead in a cross-class coalition: in defense of secularism, democracy and (formal) equality. The idea of “hegemony”, made famous by Gramsci, extended the key question of 19th century French politics into the 20th century: which class can represent to other classes their true interest? And in the period in which social democrats and communists alike were running up against the impasse of the workers’ movement, this interest appeared as a national one. As long as the “bourgeois revolution” appeared to be stalled, the workers could claim this mantle for themselves. That was their historic mission. Of course, it didn’t hurt that it was easy to find hatred for the “high-born” among the lowest orders — and that the distinction between the aristocrat and the capitalist was often rather slim.
However, it was not only the myth of workers’ historic destiny that had depended on the existence of the old regime. Many aspects of working-class culture were inherited from proletarians’ direct experience of old-world forms of life. The workers’ movement told former peasants to forget the past, but in spite of these entreaties, recent urban migrants found ways to build a new culture of resistance on the old foundations of face-to-face community and an uncompromising solidarity. Likewise, the workers’ movement admonished the artisans — who knew the whole production process and really identified with their work — for their unwillingness to give up control over that process, which was the real basis of their pride in their work (and so also of their affirmation of their class identity). Spanish anarchism in particular drew on old world resources for its political intransigence. Once those resources were gone, so too was the most intransigent wing of the workers’ movement.
In order to survive into the post-WWII era, the Social Democratic parties and the trade unions found themselves forced to disempower their own memberships as a means of steadying their course on the road to power. During the wars, the workers’ organisations had become organisations for managing labour-power. Indeed, at key moments those organisations showed that they were willing to put down the radical wings of their own movements in order to demonstrate their capacity to rule within the bounds of capitalist society. But success in repressing memberships only tended to undermine the power of the leaderships in the long run.6
That was because the further development of the productive forces, in which the workers’ movement put its faith, undermined the very basis of that movement. More and more workers were employed in industry, as the movement had hoped. However, the increasing fragmentation of the industrial labour process made it ever more difficult for workers to identify with their work as a source of dignity and pride. What each worker did was increasingly just one step in a large process, unfolding across multiple production sites, which individual workers could not possibly hope to understand. Factory work was both boring and unfulfilling, especially for young workers entering modern factories built in the 1950s and 60s.7 The falling away of an affirmable working-class identity did not need to wait for deindustrialisation to begin. New anti-work, or at least, anti-factory-work sentiments within the factory led some theorists to question not only the form of the revolution (that is to say, the role of the party, or that of the state), but also “the content of socialism”:8 a better form of life had to be something else than the endless development of machinery and large-scale industry.
That workers would lose their ability to understand their work, and also their sense of fulfilment in work, had been anticipated by many movement strategists. Nevertheless, workers were expected to take pride in the fact that — even if they could no longer understand the entirety of the production process themselves — their understanding was still somehow embodied in the savoir-faire of the workforce as a whole, that is, the collective worker.9
In spite of the development of the productive forces, labour, it was insisted, remained the source of all wealth, its latent power and knowledge reflected precisely in that development. That turned out not to be true: knowledge of the production process was no longer located in the place of the collective worker, but rather (if anywhere), in the place of the collective technician. That was a key point because — while it upended the foundation-stone of the workers’ movement — it also finally confirmed Marx’s perspective in the “fragment on machines” (reproduced more soberly in Capital).
Here was the real obsolescence of the value form, of a social relation which measured wealth in terms of labour time. It was increasingly the case that human labour was no longer the main productive force; science — often applied to the worst ends of industrial “development”— took labour’s place. That profoundly affected workers’ self-understanding, their experience of what they did and their place in the world: workers could no longer see themselves as building the world in the name of modernity or a better, more rational way of living. On the contrary, that world was already built, and it was entirely out of their hands. Modernity presented itself as this imposing thing, which workers’ confronted, not as subject, but rather, as an object to be regulated and controlled.
The factory was only one part of this new reality. It was in the total transformation of the environment, both human and ecological, that the fully separated society really came into its own. Society is no longer just the means of production, a set of factories that can be taken over and self-managed by the workers who run them. Those factories, as well as everything else about modern life, rely on a massive infrastructure. One cannot hope that workers will storm the bosses’ offices as if they were so many winter palaces. The bases of social power are now much more dispersed. They are located not just in the repressive apparatuses of the police, the jails and the armed forces and the so-called “ideological” apparatuses of schools, churches, and television. They include also power stations, water-treatment plants, gas stations, hospitals, sanitation, airports, ports, and so on. Just like the factories themselves, all of this infrastructure relies on a legion of engineers and technicians, who keep the whole things running from minute to minute. These technicians possess no collective workers’ identity, nor were they ever included in the programmes of the workers’ movements.10
In this new context, the role of the socialist state could no longer be simply to add up the federated workers (a role it retained in the vision of council communists). The socialist state had to embody the technical rationality of the whole system, in all its complexity. It would have to become the central organ of coordination, handing down directives, but without replicating the authoritarianism of the USSR. Social democrats were at a loss in terms of figuring out how to achieve this new goal. Hence the growing identification of social democracy with a form of technocratic planning that would manipulate but not displace markets, in order to ensure full employment. This new vision owed much to military planning in the world wars and the (negative) example of the Soviet Union. But it was possible because of the Keynesian Revolution. We will discuss the promises of that “new macroeconomics” shortly.
Before we do, however, it is worth reiterating this point. The postwar technocracy wasn’t simply an ideological effect of an era that deified the scientist and engineer. It was a real problem of management that arises in a world that embodies the separation of each from each — and their reunification through markets — that is the value-form. This separation is first and foremost one between workers, a literal division of labour. This division means that workers can only come together on the basis of their prior separation, as so many operatives, as representatives of this or that workplace, in order to somehow decide what to do. In this context, getting rid of the state — without some degree of simplification of life — is extremely difficult to imagine.
In the aftermath of WWII the socialists still expected that they would win. They imagined a glorious future would soon wash over them. But if they could deliver the goods in the meantime, by being better managers of capitalism than the capitalists themselves, then all the better. Indeed, for the workers’ parties and unions in Europe, the post-war years were filled with promise. Having already (long before the war) diluted their class character to gain votes — embracing the bourgeois notions of “the people” and “the nation”— these parties (the British Labour Party, the SPD in Germany, the French SFIO) were in a position to capitalise on popular resentment for the old political establishment (and to draw on the apparent success of the planned war economies and the New Deal), to put forward a state-led reconstruction effort under the banner of Keynesian economics.
Keynesianism allowed socialists to maintain their ideological role as champions of the working class, but to shift away from the problems of power and autonomy on the shopfloor, towards policies that would affect wealth and income distribution at the national level. This move also coincided with a transfer of power and influence from union representatives to electoral representatives. Yet, in office, the latter were forced to behave like any other party — respecting the interests of those who control investment, and thereby their chances of re-election. Having abandoned all dreams of “revolution” in the name of “reform”, the social democrats were increasingly forced to abandon all hope of “reform” in the name of “peace” and “stability”.
The result was a hollowing out of the old workers’ movement, the gutting of the collective identity that had undergirded it. There were two dimensions to this, prior to the revenge of the external limit in the 1970s. First of all, new forms of government stimulus to consumer demand were often taken directly from the workers’ movement: unemployment benefits, pension schemes, collectively subsidised health care. When the state adopted these measures, workers could be forgiven for believing that they had won. But without these key elements of its programme — and having meanwhile abandoned the project of socialisation of the means of production — the social democrats were at a loss as to what to do. The same was true of the unions: “trade unionism lost its credentials as a progressive force,” since “workers’ well-being” now derived from “a wider public charge” (that is, the welfare state); consequently, “collective bargaining slid more easily into sectionalism, less attentive to a general working-class interest or to effects on other unions and categories of workers.”11 As wages were bolstered by post-war growth, unions were left to hash out the contractual fine print in each sector.
However, in taking on this management role, the distance between union leaderships and the rank-and-file widened to a chasm. State recognition of unions ended up putting officials at yet another remove from their memberships, while simultaneously increasing their responsibilities as accepted co-managers of society. Under new conditions, the optimal size of unions increased; as a result formal grievance procedures were substituted for shop-floor militancy. At the same time, union officials had more and more functions to perform above and beyond the representation of workers to the employer: unions provided accident and unemployment protection, as well as pensions. While the partial de-commodification of labour power associated with government-recognised unions (and extensive labour regulations) gave workers more bargaining power, it simultaneously rendered union organisations more conservative in outlook. Management of ever more gigantic pension funds and insurance schemes turned unionists into bureaucratic functionaries, fearful of any disturbance that might hurt their — and they could reasonably claim, also the workers’ — bottom line.
Whether they act as liaisons of state functionaries, or as quasi-state functionaries themselves, the pressure for union leaders to behave “responsibly” increased, and the distance from their base widened. Thus organisations formed in the defense of workers become organisations that co-manage labour markets on behalf of the regulated economy, ensuring labour peace on the one hand, and protecting wage gains on the other, all in the name of stabilising the business cycle. This move, on the part of unions, was not really a selling-out. Unions were pursuing the same course they always had, and to its logical conclusions: attempting 1) to preserve the organisations, and 2) to defend the membership, in a context in which most of the formal rights they had fought for had been won (the old elites had been destroyed) and the wage-earning population was less new, less unstable, and increasingly differentiated.
Combined with the fact that workers had much more difficulty identifying the world around them as “made” by them (rather than the machines, the engineers, or the state-planners), these transformations spelt the decline of a shared, affirmable workers’ identity, even prior to the downfall of the workers’ movement.