Notes on the Class Struggle

To speak of the class struggle means understanding how one of the fundamental contradictions of the capitalist mode of production develops, and how that contradiction evolves within the global social relations that define capitalism. You cannot treat economic transformations and their implications on the one hand, and – in a separate way – try to analyze the class struggle. And, it is also as a result of those very transformations, that you cannot analyze the movements of the exploited class as if that class was still one of massive concentrations of workers in factories organized on a Fordist model. The real domination of capital entails a profound transformation and evolution of the forms of production, and, therefore, of the forms of struggle and the way in which the proletariat sees itself as a class, conceives its capacity for action and resistance, represents the world and its place in it. How to struggle today, when you are isolated in front of a checkpoint on a production line; how to struggle, when you are a temporary worker, with no security whatsoever? Certainly not in the same way as when you are situated – by the very organization of the production process – within a collectivity linked together by those very procedures of production. So too, those transformations compel us to put aside the outdated distinctions between workers who directly produce surplus-value and those who do not; to develop a much more global understanding of the labor process, and of the activity of a “collective worker.” Workers that we would have formerly situated within the petty-bourgeoisie, today find themselves proletarianized by their conditions of work and existence. Even if this pertains most directly to the highly industrialized countries, and if what are cynically termed “emerging nations” by the international exploiting class are still characterized by older forms of the production process, the framework of the globalization of the economy leads us to define the proletarian in a different way. To speak of the class struggle, then, involves situating it within this global framework. So, to continue to analyze social movements with a vision of the working class of the past, entails an a-temporal conception that does not take account of the fact that a mode of production is something living, something that changes.

The movements of ’95 opened up what some comrades of IP termed a "new period," in which besides the traditional demands concerning working conditions, a diffuse questioning concerning the perspectives provided by capitalist society also made their appearance. This factor seemed to us to be particularly important both by virtue of its content and its newness. What makes it possible for struggles to assume a revolutionary dimension is the fact of passing from resistance to the effects of exploitation to a questioning of its very causes. It is in seeing that capitalism is not an eternal system, in separating themselves from its internal logic, that workers can progressively disentangle themselves from the alienation that perpetuates their exploited status, and permit them to create the space for collective reflection through which the idea of a different society can be born. It is also by connecting the different aspects of the deterioration of their conditions of existence (insecurity, violence, the destruction of nature, stress, and so many others) with the functioning of the mode of production, that this latter will be seen as a global economico-social relation the ramifications of which extend to every aspect of society and to the lives of all its members.

What Has Become of this Questioning?

Social grumbling is perceptible in a generalized way, especially in the majority of countries in Western Europe, as can be seen in several ways.

It is always tricky to attempt to quantify the extent of social discontent according to the figures for strikes, adding up the number of strike days, etc. Nonetheless, and this basically concerns Western Europe for which we have the most information, strike movements and demonstrations are regularly taking place. If we base ourselves on the criteria used in the past (autonomy from the unions, extension of demands and spread of movements), these movements are not on a "higher" level. Nevertheless, they bear witness to a dissatisfaction that nothing seems to quiet, and that extends to the most diverse sectors, such as teachers, health-care workers, youth, pensioners. These kinds of movements directly question the role of the state as a guarantor of social coherence and well being, and we can hope that this questioning potentially leads to a more global questioning about the very function of the state in capitalist society. The state increasingly appeals to private solidarity to compensate for the unraveling of local collectivities, and to take over the tasks officially assumed by the "public powers." In response, there has been a widespread mobilization of age groups, statuses, and social sectors. Countries, such as Italy, for example, have regularly seen massive street demonstrations.

The demands consist, above all, of an attempt to resist the loss of earlier gains: often, it is less a matter of demanding a raise in wages or improvements in this or that aspect of working conditions, than stopping the systematic degradation of systems of social security, the reduction of the number of workers assigned to a given task, or the increasing of the work load or the insecurity that accompanies a job. That could mean that there is no longer any hope of linking an improvement in living conditions to the continued existence of capitalism, and that all that is left is to try to protect what remains of the elements necessary to survival.

Even countries used to social calm (either through the ruling class’s capacity for social control or by virtual of more open terror), have experienced social agitation: in Germany, reactions against the cut backs in social allocations or reactions in key industrial sectors, such as the auto industry; in China, whose formidable economic development has come at the price of a systematic impoverishment of large segments of the population, already at the verge of starvation, workers’ struggles and peasant revolts have clashed with the forces of repression for many months.

There is a global anxiety that can manifest itself at any time, a fear for the generations to come. And there is a sense of the general disfunctionality of society: scandals in food production and processing, the destruction of nature, a climate of violence, all of which have begun to be seen, not as specific concerns (e.g., of ecologists or pacifists), but rather as phenomena generated by the very structures of the economic system, and therefore affecting the existence of everyone, where previously such concerns were esoteric, and left to scientists or to eco-freaks.

With respect to class movements, then, we are seeing an agitation that expresses itself in an ongoing way. This is significant, not to make a plea for the movement as such, quite apart from its content, but because it is by putting itself into motion that our class for a time breaks out of its isolation, its acceptance of the logic of exploitation, has the experience of collective action and ultimately of solidarity, can feel its power (as when the workers in the Opel factories of Germany through their strike blocked the factories of other countries), and can escape the apathy in which the reigning ideology has plunged it. We have also seen the workers of a particular enterprise or sector join a strike or demonstration of another sector, even if these links remain transitory, and are not transformed into a real extension of the struggle. All of these factors constitute so many positive steps.

With respect to their content, these are essentially movements of resistance. One possible hypothesis is that this attitude of resistance indicates that the class no longer has any hopes regarding capitalism, and that this might constitute the birth of a serious reflection on its future prospects. But, when we speak of the “future,” we need to situate it on an historical scale. This is a second positive factor. By contrast, and this is a negative factor, the attitude is still one of resistance, and not yet a reflection on the actual possibility of the emergence of a new society. Moreover, no links have been forged by the class between these movements, these local manifestations of resistance, and this constitutes an additional negative factor: everyone struggles for his own survival, and notions of solidarity and collectivity have great difficulty in expressing themselves in a framework that transcends the local.

Still, we must stress the fact that this social unease is present on an ever-larger scale in society, and finds extremely varied expressions. Linked to the strike movements and the demonstrations of workers, new or old, around the defense of their living standards and working conditions, there exists a climate of questioning, an inchoate turmoil, that can assume unexpected forms, and, therefore, which it is difficult to evaluate. This is especially true of youth who are often mobilized around ideas that can best be described as anarchist, of temporary or marginalized workers carrying out actions of social sabotage in the wake of what can be termed situationism, and of isolated individuals gathered up into a variety of movements, such as alter-globalism. While it is very clear that this assortment of movements and actions is not part of the action of the working class, it nonetheless expresses a broad-based social unease, a search for "solutions," and an expression of rejection of the way in which society now functions.

Even before we make an analysis of these diverse movements, it's important to evaluate their impact on the working class. Are they a factor of confusion or do they reinforce the climate of generalized social unease, out of which can emerge reflection on another kind of society? It seems to be a little of both at the same time. There is definitely an element of confusion sparked by these movements, inasmuch as they are not clearly based on class. But, at the same time, working class resistance itself does not go against the tide of the prevailing social climate. Everyone is discontented, anxious, and even if strikes remain limited to the sector or enterprise in which they break out, they still occur in a social framework tending to manifest a generalization of discontent.

There remains a question, one that I pose as such, and for which I now have no firm answer: how to make sense of this whole anarcho-situationist-nihilist mode of thinking. To make sense of it, because the role of revolutionaries is surely not to only see in society what appears to conform to their usual schemas, to ignore the rest, to say that it doesn’t exist, under the pretext that those factors and the praxis connected to them are not expressions of the working class. Since the anti-globalization movements, a social praxis has developed that especially involves youth. To understand why youth are more involved in these types of actions, rather than being drawn to more "classical" revolutionary groups and ideas, should make us reflect on what is probably a different way in which youth pose the question of perspectives, in which they perceive our own conception of communism, and all this as a function of the transformation internal to capitalist society, which has changed the way in which we can today represent the world and its future. The fall of the Berlin wall and the ideological turmoil around the collapse of the so-called communist regimes has had an undeniable impact on the question of perspectives as well. Specifically, I want to focus on two groups: youth and isolated marginal/short-term workers.

These latter are often workers integrated into production, but atomized by the functions that they fulfill. Here is how the newspaper Le Monde describes them: "There is a new category of workers, rather young, very educated, integrated into society, but without any real status and often with difficulty in making it to the end of the month. …. So long as these marginal/short-term workers come in all types and are atomized, it is difficult for them to organize real mass actions or large-scale demonstrations. …. Instead, their rebellion manifests itself in pin-point and violent acts, in blockades or work place occupations. Among these marginal workers, one also finds a host of collectives, of networks, and of associations that work in concert." Moreover, Le Monde signals the multi-national existence of these marginal workers, and, for example, points to the mass demonstration of 70, 000 of them on the streets of Milan, Italy on May 1, 2004. Compelled by their status to find other forms of expression for their discontent, these workers come together around specific projects for action, rather than in more traditional organizations for the defense of their interests and for reflection. This phenomenon seems to both intrigue and worry the ruling class, which makes it an object of academic research and organizes conferences in an effort to understand what gets these workers going. For us, this poses a question that goes beyond the actions themselves, which often seem festive and without real perspectives (although without more information, one hesitates to form a definitive opinion): are we seeing in outline form new kinds of contestation by workers that are the direct result of the technological transformation undergone by capitalism (e.g., programmers having a consultative status, and always moving from one enterprise to another, engaged in specific and short-term tasks, researchers, etc.)? It seems clear that we need to be attentive to – what are for us -- unusual kinds of contestation, that flow from new kinds of work relations.

Another group on which I want to focus some attention is youth. Whereas just a few years ago, it seemed as if youth was a period lived in a virtually egotistical state, without social questioning, without the least collective activity, and without political action, this "whatever" generation, as it has been called, now seems somewhat involved in a broader form of social contestation. Whether it's a question of mobilizations of youth joining demonstrations of workers, of student movements, or – in a new, still hazy form – a sometime radical movement, apparently generated by anarchist speeches and slogans, they come together, here again, rapidly and for specific projects (a discussion forum, a mobilization, etc.). What is positive in this situation is the mobilization of this age group around concerns linked to the future of society (and their own future in particular), and not just around immediate interests, though these mobilizations seem to occur in a scattered, though pin-point way.

What seems common to both these groups is the new and generalized character of their activity, their somewhat diffuse character, their independence from any political group, their rejection of any permanent kind of self-organization, the new means for contact that they utilize (the internet, mobile phones, more or less informal networks), as well as their coming together around a specific project rather than around more general and long term perspectives.

What Provisional Conclusions Can We Draw Concerning the Social Climate?

It seems clear that a profound social unease continues to express itself on the most varied terrain. This is the case whether we are dealing with the working class (and proletarianized sectors) or with segments of the population that are sometimes difficult to clearly put into a familiar social class, such as youth or marginalized workers. This social unease, which regularly manifests itself in struggles, marks a break with the reigning order, and to that extent, constitutes a positive experience of collective action for those involved in it. We have a tendency to underestimate it.

The presence of the unions in these various movements is a reality that cannot go unnoticed. First off, we have to acknowledge the "crisis" through which the great trade-union organizations of Europe have passed, the expression of which is the significant fall in the rate of unionization, and sometimes too the open revolts by shop-floor delegates. More and more, the unions are seen as the specialists in the negotiation and administration of the conditions of work. Just as one goes to a lawyer when you have to deal with the judicial system, so one goes to the union when you need to settle a work dispute. To a certain extent, the real function of the union is thereby revealed: it exists to permit the logic of exploitation to be perpetuated, so that the two opposed parties can make concessions without putting the very logic that has brought about the conflict to be put in question. Even so, the unions are less and less seen as the real defenders, the allies of the exploited, in any sense. But, they remain present, and I believe that they will be there for a long time to come. Their work of sabotaging struggles, of not putting into question the veritable bases of exploitation, will remain possible so long as a questioning of the factors that produce the degradation of working conditions does not explicitly occur as a struggle winds down. There are, therefore, two levels on which to oppose the unions: the first is that of the actual struggle which seeks to resist the recuperation and sabotage of the strike; the second level is that of a comprehensive understanding of the role and class nature of union organizations. It seems clear that an understanding of the function of unions in maintaining capitalist relations of exploitation cannot be left to a repetition of the partial opposition of shop-floor delegates at the moment of conflict. But, while these delegates can be conspicuous in strike movements, and if the rate of unionization continues to fall in a significant way, the path to self-organization on the part of the workers necessitates a more global political understanding, which remains a long-term project. This is also what explains how very radical workers in the midst of a strike can be opposed to union delegates and at the same time still harbor illusions in the radical expressions of base unionism.

This raises another issue: the difficulty in questioning the perspective provided by capitalism, which would lead to a serious reflection on the possibility for the emergence of a new society. A generalized unease and anxiety pervades all strata of society, manifesting itself in various ways as a function of the terrain of the social class in which it is felt. Nevertheless, there has been little by way of serious reflection on what is to be done, and even less by way of connecting it to the resistance of the working class. What reflection there has been, can be situated within the logic of the reigning system: "capitalism as it is doesn't work; therefore, we must re-think it by making it a more equitable system, one that is respectful of the individual" is the discourse á la mode on the elimination of Third World debt, fair trade, micro-loans, etc., etc., which are spawned by the various social forums and alter-globalists. What must be said is that it is extremely difficult to extricate oneself from the prevailing logic, and to claim that something other than capitalism, however reformed, is possible. The collapse of the so-called communist system, and all the analyses of it, has reinforced the feeling that Marxism and the whole historical heritage of the working class constitutes no perspective. The dominant ideology hammers home the idea that nothing other than this system is possible (that that’s the way things have always been): capitalism is eternal, and it is useless to think of ways of eliminating it. It is undoubtedly the weight of this ideology that leads some of those who engage in protest to mobilize around limited projects rather than to engage in a broader activity of reflection on the positive prospects for a totally different way for society to function.

However, those contestationist elements represented by youth and marginal/short-term workers (among others) show us another way to react: affirming a will not to be incorporated into any sort of political organization, unable to organize in a permanent way, to become a part of a long-term activity and perspective, these elements organize in a more immediate, rapid, way, within the framework of a specific project rather than at the traditional class sites, with a multitude of small networks (in the image of the internet and its sites), and in a movement that constantly organizes and re-organizes in actions as it goes along. Apart from an appreciation of the actual content of these actions, we need to be aware of the fact that we might be seeing new forms of contact between workers that correspond to the ways in which capitalism has profoundly modified the very structure of the labor process. We must, therefore, focus our attention on these forms of communication and group activity, which we have so far ignored (discussion forums via the internet, elements gravitating around ideas, the anarchist press, seemingly non-class mobilizations like the one of 70,000 marginals in Milan, etc.).


Home Issues of IP Texts Discussion IP's French site Links