Seattle: Towards New Forms of Class Struggle?


Once again, we have decided to raise the issue of class struggle. And this for several reasons. First, it's a subject that regularly preoccupies us in our discussion meetings. Second, recent movements, as well as the upheavals that have occurred in the functioning of the economic system and in the composition of classes, have raised questions about the very criteria for evaluating class stuggle, and have posed the question of the new forms that this struggle can take in the future.

In particular, we want to situate the struggles of our class in an historical perspective so as to ascertain its evolution, and to see the new kinds of questions with which we are confronted since 1968. More specifically, we want to focus on the meaning of anti-globalization movements. With respect to these latter, although they do not constitute reactions of the working class, they have involved elements of it, and pose a certain number of new questions. In that sense, rather than denounce or deplore the existence of these movements, which seems to us to constitute a groupo-centric view, it is more important to understand why these movements, with their errors and weaknesses, have arisen and to what in the present period they correspond.

I must insist, that to understand the class stuggle today is not an easy task. The criteria and schemas of the past no longer suffice to understand the rapidly shifting period in which both we and our class find ourselves. There is no longer a single position within Internationalist Perspective; different views have been expressed in the course of the debate, in particular concerning anti-globalization movements. Nevertheless, we do not hesitate to raise an issue in a public manner, even if the discussion has not reached a degree of clarity and maturation within our group. Public debate is an asset that can make it possible to advance towards a deeper understanding. In that sense, we hope that this text, which is based on a talk given at a recent discussion meeting, will encourage a collective discussion and deepening of the issue.

This talk contains two parts. The first will seek to provide a perspective for the present struggles, by linking them to past movements. The second, will try to comprehend the present reactions to exploitation by linking them to the specific problems posed by the present period. By way of conclusion, we will briefly raise the question of the intervention of revolutionaries.

The present perspective

There is no direct or automatic link between an historical period and the path of class consciousness. Nonetheless, this latter is not separable from the context in which it must develop. One problem that we must face is the difficulty of evaluating any down turns in class struggle. We tend to analyze movements one after the other, and typically on the basis of criteria peculiar to those movements themselves. If we take a broader perspective, however, say the last thirty years in the activity of our class, and if one situates it in the evolution of the economy, it is possible to grasp a more general movement, whose immanent tendencies only gradually become clear.

Thus, if May '68 marked the reappearance of the working class on the international scene, that class nonetheless bore the marks of its own past experiences and many illusions besides. The end of the 60's allowed us to anticipate the specter of the great recessions of the 1970's, and some 25 years after the end of the second world butchery, the world trembled over its future. The workers struggles symbolized by May '68 therefore marked the reappearance of the international proletariat, and that point of rupture with the past calm was fundamental. However, we must admit that those movements were characterized by an incapacity to completely reject the control of bourgeois institutions such as the left parties and the unions, and did not constitute -- from the point of view of class consciousness -- a questioning of the bases of the capitalist system. Those struggles -- in spite of their amplitude -- unfolded in an economic context in which the crisis made itself felt to a much lesser extent than today, and which was therefore characterized by many more illusions. The political groups that emerged from those movements intervened in the struggles with the reflexes inherited from past conceptions, developing an intervention based on agitation and propaganda. We can also see in both the struggles themselves and the conceptions of revolutionaries a not negligeable weight of both self-management and their opposite, Leninist, conceptions. In the struggles, there were the experiences of self-management (Lip, Salik) as well as union control, and in particular the phenomenon of base unionism. Questioning about the future of society had not yet reached the point of radically challenging the very bases of the capitalist system, but rather had been recuperated by factions of the bourgeoisie, and diverted into partial struggles such as feminism, human rights, or fights for the defense of the environment. If the period was characterized by a renewal of social engagement, by the resurgence of class struggle, all that was strongly marked by an economic context which still left many illusions intact, as well as by the weight of experiences and traditions inherited from the past. Illusions that prepared the way for leftist groups and discourse.

The thrust of the economic crisis in the 1970's would propel a movement of economic transformation, with the beginning of the progressive liquidation of traditional sectors of the working class. Think of the struggles directed against the closure of the steel mills at Longwy and Denain (France), or the fight waged by the English coal miners. That pressure would worsen and lead, during the 1980's, to a movement of both disillusion and profound hesitation at the level of ongoing struggles. That can be linked to the insecurity and brutal competition that the economic crisis provoked amongst workers, but, even more fundamentally, to the progressive restructurations of the economic mechanism itself, which marked the beginning of a new class recomposition. This last element was not grasped by revolutionaries, and the situation, which was not clearly understood, left them in a state of denial, frenetic activism, immobility and a turn back to the past, or discouragement, with an abandonment of political activity. The proletariat, unsettled in its identity, under the impact of the failure of its illusions, and successive defeats in what had been the very bastions of its power, no longer found the path to class confrontations. These profound doubts led to the relative silence of the working class, as well as to a profound crisis in the revolutionary milieu.

The movement of an internal reorganization of capital gained steam in the 1990's, marking a qualitative leap in the process of the internationalization of economic circuits and profoundly modifying the contours of the social classes. It is in this context of a very basic disturbance to the very identity of the working class, the absence of a class perspective, a break with the experience of the struggles of the past, that movements of struggle reappeared in Europe in 1995-1997, particularly in Belgium and France.

At the time, Internationalist Perspective characterized those movements as marking the beginning of a new period. That entailed two elements: a reappearance of class struggle and, therefore, a break with the calm of the preceeding ten years; and the renewal of a questioning about the future and the perspectives offered by capitalism. The malaise expressed in '68 took on new life, but inscribed in an economic context which left few hopes, and which permitted a balance-sheet of the struggles that followed to be made. The illusions in leftism and the base unionism of the '70's had given way to an enormous distrust of all the political structures and instruments of control, as well as to a disgust with bourgois political organs. These reactions indicated the gap existing between human and social needs and the direction imposed by the capitalist system. In that sense -- and this is an important difference with the kind of questioning that prevailed in 1968-1970 -- it is more the overall perspectives offered by the capitalist system which were now being questioned, rather than certain partial aspects of its functioning. The struggles of 1995 expressed a global malaise inscribed in a context of an open economic crisis, palpable to everyone. These movements showed, albeit in a confused way, signs of a modification in both the forms and content of the struggle. Thus, this was a movement beyond sectors, borders, social categories, and partial demands, an expression of a difuse discontent whose overall content could be summarized by: "we are all in this together, all threatened, all one in our refusal of a global direction imposed by the system."

At the time, we emphasized the enormous weaknesses and confusions contained inn these movements. That was to be explained by the profound upheaval which the proletariat had just undergone, and which made it incapable -- even today -- of defining the identity and specificity of itself as a class, of its struggle, and its perspectives. Nonetheless, we also emphasized the novelty of the questions posed, as well as the difficult path to class consciousness since the resurgence of struggles in '68. If we are to characterize the path traversed from 1968 to 1995, we would have to emphasize the impact of the economic crisis, both on the functioning of the system and the disillusion that it has implied for the exploited class. That means that much more fundamental questions with respect to the way the economy functions and the place of workers within the system are posed, though with the added difficulty of knowing how to pose them and with what alternative. Thus, to take some examples, if one looks at some struggles that have recently occurred, they sometimes have the characteristic of a rejection of union representation. However, even these struggles do not concretize the most fundamental issues present in society and among the workers. Besides, these movements often break out in traditional sectors, even in enterprises that the the present mode of economic organization has made obsolete. For example, movements like those at Cellatex at Givet, Forgeval at Valenciennes, Adelshoffen at Strasbourg, Bertrand Fauré at Nogent, Continental at Meaux, have been characterized by a distrust of the union representatives and by a threat to the equipment and the means of production themselves. If one recalls that in earlier years many conflicts ended with a demand to preserve equipment and the means of production, one can say that the determination of the French workers represents, in that respect, a loss of illusions with respect to a defense of the means of production as a solution to the social problems that brought about the closure of a plant. In Belgium too, the determination and open opposition to the unions has been a feature of the six weeks long struggle of the bus conductors in Wallonia. But, there too, if that determination and that autonomy are emphasized as the products of a global disillusion, these questions have not yet been taken up and developed by a movement of struggle that is even more vast.

On another terrain, it is these same questions and these same weaknesses that are present in the anti-globalization movements. The inter-classism in which they are posed reflects the incapacity of the proletariat to define the contours of its own identity, and to pose problems on its own terrain.

Present problems and their impact on recent movements

After having attempted to trace the guiding thread in recent struggles and the path of the development of class consciousness, we can now focus more precisely on the impact of globalization and the recomposition of classes on present movements, and thereby reach an appreciation of them, including anti-globalization movements.

In the period of the formal domination of capital, things were simple: the identification of the bourgeoisie, the petty-bourgeoisie, and the workers in a given enterprise was easy. The bourgeois wore a shirt and tie, the worker wore blue overalls. there was no doubt who was who, no doubt about the class nature of the movements that took place.

The recomposition of classes makes things much more difficult to appreciate, both for the proletariat and for revolutionaries. At the risk of simplification, we need to ask if we still tend to see class movements through the lenses of the past; if everything that is not in blue overalls is suspect, and never enters our line of vision.

The question of recomposition poses two problems. The first is that a whole group of individuals who are not directly producing surplus-value find themselves proletarianized by virtue of their participation in an indirect manner in the global process of the valorization of capital, and find themselves placed in proletarian conditions of labor and life. This gives to the working class a much more heteroclite composition than in the past. The second problem -- one already evoked -- is that of the identity of the class, the feeling of belongong to a class, which is now very feeble. For proletarianized youth, the proletariat as a class to which one belongs does not mean very much. The image of the proletariat is too often linked to old and obsolete industrial bastions. They are, therefore, cut off from a tradition of struggle, a class culture, and even, at times, from the very notion of class solidarity. The very being of these young proletarians is characterized by precariousness and mobility. They are, therefore, more preoccupied with the need to adapt to the immedite reality and to deal with their precarious status than with a concern with the history of the class transmitted by oldtimers, or forging solid links based on the site of labor.

Economic evolution and globalization contribute additional features to this already complex picture: if internationalized production entails the need to pose the question of struggle in an international context, in the short term it produces a fragmentation of sites of production, and makes it sometimes impossible to clearly identify the specific enemy against whom one must make demands. In addition, there exist today ever greater numbers of those totally excluded from production. That poses the question of the class terrain of those excluded. Where and how can they express their revolt against exploitation and against their conditions of existence? Although the perspective of linking up with the struggles of active workers remains correct, it does not seem to me to be sufficient, and requires much thought. This is no longer a matter of a marginal phenomenon, but of a new social status, especially if one thinks of the the countries of the third world or the fact that one American in ten has recourse to a soup kitchen because he/she lives on the threshold of poverty. It is clear that the exploited class cannot generalize its struggles as long as it has not grasped in a more profound fashion its current place in the actual functioning of capitalist society. There, where the worker can only recognize him/herself formally by the past (in the site constituted by the factory), it is much more difficult to identify what links the worker in an auto plant to the proletarian who works on a computer or to the long-term unemployed who has lost any social status. There exists for these workers different relations to the terrain of struggle, to the means of production, to blocages in production, to collective action, that we must try to define. Even if we have not yet resolved these issues, it is apparent that these features mean that struggles occur in a different way than in the past, and will take new forms in the future. While we cannot decide, in the place of the class, the forms that can only arise from its own experience of struggle, we must remain attentive to any new developments in the forms of class struggle and not try to analyze them on the basis of criteria utilized in the past.

Alongside movements of class struggle, we see the anti-globalization movements. What are they, where are they situated in the gamut of questions posed to the exploited class, and what are they the bearers of? By way of backround, they began in Seattle, and other confrontations have taken place in Washington, in Italy, at Davos, in Tokyo, and most recently in Prague. These movements are very heterogeneous: in their ranks one finds leftists, third worldists, "pure" anti-globalization militants, ecologists, and a whole gamut of legalist, non-violent, elements, whose goal is to set themselves up as a counter-power to the leading factions of capital. But, along with these elements, there are others, constituted by elements of the proletariat and individuals -- often young -- who are much more radical, who are prepared to confront in a direct and violent fashion the forces of order, the sacro-saint American or Czech democracy, and who directly challenge the symbolic representations of the functioning of capitalism: the international economic structures and political institutions. Thus, alongside the moustache of José Bové and his anecdotes about French camenbert, one finds slogans like "capitalism kills, let's kill capitalism" or the denunciation of the growing poverty engendered by the reigning economic evolution. Another characteristic element of these movements is their capacity to bring together a large number of people, and to generate important discussions.

For us, it is clear that these movements are not movements of class struggle, and have no perspective in themselves. Nevertheless, taking account of the important questions that they pose, and their capacity to tap into elements of the proletariat and youth, it is important to try to understand why these sometimes fundamental questions are being posed by this movement, and not on the terrain of worker's struggles. I must emphasize here that we do not have a single answer to that question within Internationalist Perspective. For some comrades, these anti-globalization movements are similar to the partial movements of opposition to certain aspects of the functioning of capitalism that have always existed. For others, notably for me, they pose much more direct questions with respect to the overall perspectives offered by the capitalist system. And they are the terrain for a violent and relatively massive confrontation with the forces of order, besides which they bring together proletarian elements. The question is, therefore, how to understand why these questions and these elements are brought together on a terrain that is not that of the working class, and why these movements have such a power of attraction for elements of youth and the proletariat. I refer the reader to the contribution on the events in Seattle that we published in Internationalist Perspective 37. The elements of the analysis that I am now going to present are therefore my own position, and will be contested, discussed, and refined through debate.

As a function of the difficulties evoked above with respect to the recomposition of classes, I can offer the hypothesis that a proportion of youth, of proletarianized elements, of those excluded from production, who do not for the moment identify themselves as part of the working class, cannot express themselves on the terrain specific to that class. Anti-globalization movements then constitute both a catalyst for revolt and the site where a direct and immediate engagement with social problems seems possible (directly attacking the forces of order, inernational financial institutions). At that level, the inter-classist context in which these fundamental questions are posed reflects the present difficulty of the working class as a whole to see itself as a specific class, with an identity, perspectives, and a terrain of struggle that is its own. For me, these movements are therefore the expression of a double context: that of a fluid and temporary situation of the recomposition of classes, and that of confused questions which nonetheless go to the very foundations of the capitalist system and which have been present in a diffuse way in society since the movements and demonstrations of 1995-1997. Thus, the anti-globalization movements bear witness to the absence of a response by the working class to the need to elaborate its own perspectives, and to provide the new forms of struggle that the diversity of its own activity and non-activity impose on it.

Another element that must be considered concerns the historical perspectives (and the way they are put forward) that revolutionary organizations articulate in their intervention. Most often, the revolutionary alternative to the capitalist mode of production is presented in a language that appears self-evident to revolutionaries themselves. That language, these concepts, have been transmitted to us by the writings of past revolutionaries, and by the whole historical experience of the proletariat. However, young proletarians today live in a rupture with the past, without the direct transmission of the revolutionary tradition. For them "politics" is a source of power, of corruption; it is rotten. Communism and its organizations are assimilated to the Stalinism of Russia or China. One hypothesis that I can then formulate is that anti-globalization movements appear as a falsely neutral terrain, one removed from the danger of political recuperation, which may also explain the present craze for the anarchist discourse often linked to these movements.

The questions posed in a confused way in the worker's struggles of 1995-1997 concerning the perspectives offered by the development of the capitalist system, are today found again in the anti-globalization movements. And this leads us to a reflection on another concept: the subterranean maturation of class consciousness. Previously, we have defined it as the red thread that links together worker's struggles, preserving the aquisitions of one set of struggles and making it possible for subsequent movements to begin with a greater degree of clarity. I think that that definition is today too restrictive and too schematic. With respect to the higher level from which new struggles take off, that seems to me to be incorrect. It is indicative of a too linear vision, proceeding through successive stages, a vision developed by the ICC and which constituted its way of grasping the social dynamic, including the deepening of the economic crisis. That vision excludes errors, steps backward, improvements in the economic situation, none of which could be grasped by the ICC. On the contrary, I think that the process of subterranean maturation is a much more hesitant process, much slower, non linear, and also much more global. Thus, I think that it feeds on questions and experiences that affect the working class globally, without being elaborated solely on its own terrain or in its own experience of struggles. Just as with the development of individual consciousness, class consciousness can, by an association of ideas, or by an opposition of ideas, appropriate questions that are posed on a larger social terrain, reappropriating them so as to enrich its own consciousness. In that respect, embryonic or confused questions can participate in the global process of the elaboration of class consciousness, just so long as that elaboration occurs on a class terrain. In that perspective, questions posed by the anti-globalization movements, even if not posed on the class terrain of the proletariat, can be taken up by it and participate in this slow elaboration of its consciousness.

Conclusion

The analysis of movements of class struggle and of the state of development of consciousness is only possible if it is linked to an understanding of the successive stages and periods that it traverses, and if it is firmly connected to the general social context in which it is elaborated.

In that sense, the crucial questions posed in a confused manner since the movements of 1995-1997 are both the result of the progressive loss of illusions resulting from the confrontations of the 1970's and 1980's, and the reflection of the profound difficulties that the proletariat encountered in the perception of its own identity. The present period is therefore a sort of hinge period in which fundamental questions are present, but in which these questions cannot be really elaborated or advanced by the action of the working class. In spite of this difficulty, the questions posed today are inscribed in a continuity of experience of the working class since the re-emergence of its struggles in 1968, but also constitute a slow turning since they are impregnated with the characteristics and questions of the present period. The development of the experience of the working class must be envisaged on this level, and thereby is comparable to what one can see of the historical evolution of the economic system and its crisis. This should lead us to definitively turn our back on the groupo-centric perspectives which lead us to fixate on measuring the gap between our hypotheses concerning the class struggle and the reality of the struggles themselves.

The understanding of the difficulties with which our class is confronted should make us rethink our intervention. On the one hand, it is important to pay attention to every movement, to every question, confused though it may be, linking them to the general confrontation between the two classes and the antagonistic perspectives that flow from them. The transformations under way in the functioning of the capitalist system and in the composition of social classes will very probably lead class struggles to develop under new forms. The old schemas of analysis will then be insufficient to grasp the ensemble of questions with which we will be confronted. On the other hand, we live cut off from our class, attached to the concepts of the past and to the transmission of the historical experience of the proletariat. The way in which we present the alternatives to capitalism are often linked to representations that no longer make sense to the young proletarians of today. Our intervention must therefore make explicit the concepts that we wield in order to make them comprehensible for the proletariat now.



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