Elements for an Understanding of the Class Struggle Today

I. A society in motion

As we point out in our editorial, it has been forty years since May ‘68. Those events marked the return of an offensive of the working class, and also expressed a profound discontent with society, a desire for change. We were then in the presence of a “Fordist” working class concentrated in huge industrial centers. And even if the May ’68 movement was focused on the contours of a future society, that society could only be conceived on the basis of past models: the class was to resume the historical struggles of the proletariat; the class organizations which reappeared with the movement of ‘68 linked up with the old conceptions put forward by the Left and the great political currents of the past.

We know today what illusions that dynamic of May ‘68 entailed, but we also know the profound transformations of the capitalist system since that time. We can ask whether the social discontent expressed in ‘68 testified in a still confused way to a perception of the major transformations that had rendered certain social forms and values obsolete. It is this dual vision – of the illusions and the recuperation of May ’68, and of the social transformations in the world -- that compels us to re-examine our theoretical conceptions about the evolution of society, of the working class, the function of its class organs, and the understanding of its struggle and the dynamic of the development of its political consciousness.

Today, the central point which serves us as a guide in our reflections about the class struggle is that of the re-composition of classes, its implications and the requirement of the period which forces the proletariat to perceive the context in which its struggles unfold as a global system where economic, political, social, and environmental stakes... are all connected. Today, the physiognomy of the proletariat assumes four modes:

The forms of resistance to exploitation are very different according to the place that these proletarians occupy in production, and the specific ways in which they are subjected to capitalist exploitation. The fundamental question that all these proletarians face is how to unify, with a common perspective, their sometimes very different forms of struggle. Indeed, if for example, the Fordist worker resisted exploitation by blocking production, the isolated worker who utilizes the virtual technologies in the most industrialized countries does not necessarily have direct access to production, nor to a centralized site of labor. They must thus invent other forms of struggle, protest, resistance, which are sometimes less concrete (because less concretely connected to the production process), often shorter, situated in fleeting networks and no longer linked to a concrete site of work. As examples, we can cite actions that block certain circuits through which sales are made and recorded, or the actions of isolated workers engaged in discrete tasks who contact one another on line or by mobile phone. Such actions are often more fleeting than a traditional strike, and leave no durable trace in the form of discussion groups or even contacts. It’s rather a matter of networks created for a determinate action, and dissolving immediately afterwards. As for the excluded, it is more by actions of plundering aimed at taking what they do not have, or of actions of break-in aimed at destroying what they will never have, that they express their anger and affirm their existence as excluded proletarians.

Too often, we have a tendency to create a kind of “hierarchy” among these various forms of struggles, by privileging the “classical” struggles, as if there were “good” class struggles and “bad” class struggles. That tendency reflects a difficulty in recognizing the re-composition of the class and of one of its fundamental characteristics: its heterogeneity. Today, we can see that there are forms of struggles that are more significant, which open more of a perspective, and other less so. But we must reaffirm that the class struggle is precisely the whole of these multiple forms that are part of a global dynamic of opposition to the exploitation and the living conditions within capitalism.

II. How to see the struggle of the proletariat today?

To answer that question, we must not make a balance sheet of the struggles of the world proletariat, simply listing its strengths and its weaknesses. Rather, we must try to determine the new tendencies, and the potential, contained in the expressions of the class, and that despite the weaknesses and difficulties encountered by its struggles. This orientation is linked to our conception of the role of revolutionary minorities, which is not to teach lessons, to show the class how to struggle, but rather to link the potential of determinate movements to an historical perspective.

On that basis, we can indicate two basic features of the class struggle today: on the one hand, its extension to the majority of the world geographical areas and on the other hand, the diffuse character of its demands.

Without drawing mistaken conclusions from the first feature, and therefore seeing revolution around every corner, one must note that social agitation, the expression of social dissatisfaction, manifests itself everywhere throughout the world, whether in strikes, demonstrations, confrontations with the forces of repression (which are also, moreover, not deprived of the possibility of going on strike). As examples, just in March of this year, there has been a wildcat strike of workers at Hyundai in South Korea, numerous demonstrations of Iranian workers demanding that their unpaid wages be paid, a strike by 3, 000 bus drivers in Barcelona, and a general strike in Greece against the pension “reforms.” This is not a complete list, but just a partial “photograph.” These struggles relate to and involve all the sectors of the proletariat: active workers, pensioners, peasants without land “renting” their labor power to the great landowners, hospitals workers, teachers, researchers, etc, thus encompassing the various zones of the functioning of capitalism.

These struggles affect much broader realms than simple wage demands: they concern also the quality of life of workers (strikes of train conductors and Belgian bus drivers for job security, strikes by nurses of several European countries, various movements for access to housing, demonstrations against the high cost of living in several European countries, etc.)

If these two characteristics intersect, one can see a dynamic of social protest much more global than in the past and concerning many aspects of the functioning of the capitalist system. This constitutes a potential; it makes it possible for the various protesters to be recognized in the claims of others: access to housing, to energy sources, health care for all... are felt as general claims which reverberate everywhere, contrary to demands that are specific to one sector or to one geographical zone.

This constitutes a fundamental element in the passage from demand struggles to political struggle, from defensive struggles to the struggle for a different kind of society, without, of course, defining the current period and present struggles as already being struggles for a new society! ! ! It’s still a matter of a simple potential which must be situated, on the one hand, in a process of political awakening and, on the other hand, in an historical dimension which sees various levels of struggles and claims unfolding and, sometimes, mixing. A strike movement which starts as a precise demand can lead to a demonstration gathering strata of the population expressing a broader and more diffuse discontent like the future of our children, the perspectives for jobs, retirement in the future, etc., in such a manner that a diffuse anxiety comes to be grafted onto a movement of protest by a sort of association of ideas, all of them being the expression of social discontent. Perhaps here too we have a possible answer to the question of how the various heterogeneous struggles of the class can one day come together with a common perspective. We have stressed that one of the great weaknesses of the class struggle was to confine itself to the partial economic demand, without managing to establish the link with the problems of the functioning of the system as a global social relation. The very heterogeneity of the class, if it currently constitutes a great difficulty for the proletariat in recognizing itself as a class with common interests, can also lead to going beyond the partial demand: the perspective of loss (loss of work, then social welfare, then of housing and social integration) is increasingly present for active workers still integrated into the system. In a sense, the existence of increasing masses of the excluded, ghettoized in the poor suburbs or neighborhoods, represents the concrete perspective that the current socio-economic system provides. If, initially, the included have the reflex to cling to work and their last welfare benefits, by saying “anything, but not that; for them but not for me,” we must also see the contradiction contained in this situation: anything but not that, but all the while knowing that “that” is inescapable. Thus, all the struggles that break out against the loss of jobs, the closing of plants, etc., contain the awareness that those struggles are pitted against a much more general, ineluctable, movement, which is that of the very dynamic of the capitalist economic system and its crisis. The current struggles, in spite of their weaknesses, their diffuse character and heterogeneity, nevertheless thrust the resistance and the discontent onto another level than that of the partial struggle alone. It is a slow transformation that contains a great potential which can develop in the future. In the same way, when one sees demonstrations where the slogan is opposition to war, to the consumer society, to the demand for a better quality of life, etc., one can detect something beyond what one could find in the ‘70’s, in the great pacifist, anti-nuclear, mobilizations, etc. We are today seeing a concern more profound in relation to society and the future, where the various facets of anxiety, formerly expressed separately, are in a way more connected, more integrated into a general questioning about the future.

Moreover, this concern today has a basis in a real and accelerated degradation in living and working conditions, even in the so-called prosperous countries: one can no longer speak of abstract things, which occur “elsewhere” or constitute a threat for the future, but of concrete things that each one feels in his/her daily life. Specifically, an element that reinforces these links between the various zones of the world is the real and direct impoverishment that involves also the “rich” countries (one wonders rich for whom). Previously the illusion existed in the poor countries that one was better off elsewhere and for the rich countries one was better off at home...Today, the famines, wars and extreme living conditions of entire zones of the world continue to push masses of famished and desperate people toward zones where their life is perhaps less directly threatened. But, concerning the rich countries, there is a growing awareness that living conditions are less and less comfortable and start to approach, under certain aspects, types of functioning seen in the poor countries (it is enough to see the vertiginous increase in the number of homeless people and, especially, the speed of this social decline). Another example relates to the access to health care in the “rich” European countries. It is now clear that an increasing mass of the population no longer has access to this health care. The increasing proportion of people being looked after in the emergency rooms (free or almost so in Belgium, which pushes the state to take coercive measures), rather than having decent care provided for everyone, is significant. “Doctors without borders” now has facilities in the large European cities. A last example, when one looks at the last report “on poverty” made in Belgium, one notes that 14.7 % of Belgians live below the poverty line. And if one adds to that all those who are not included in the figures, but who live just at this famous threshold, that includes a lot of people for a rich country... We know that Belgium still has, with Germany, an enviable system of social security, but that the situation is much worse in France, in the United Kingdom or in poorer countries like Italy, Spain, Portugal and the old Eastern European countries recently integrated into Europe. This can thus give us a sense of the perspective for real impoverishment towards which this industrialized European zone is moving. The situation with the United States, a strong economy and model of domination and economic success, is hardly better: one knows the situation of pensioners obliged to work until 80 years of age to survive, the absence of the system of social benefits and medical coverage and the precariousness of employment for an appreciable sector of the population which, even if it works, often finds itself below the poverty line. And the famous “sub-prime” crisis only exacerbates this situation. Even if we know that there are no mechanistic links between impoverishment and the class struggle, we also know that the aggravation of the conditions of existence constitutes a factor of destabilization and questioning about perspectives and that is favorable to reactions of social revolt. This potential is all the more interesting as it relates from now on to the “rich” countries and can stimulate reflection in the poor countries about the illusion of a democratic-capitalist El Dorado.

III. How can the ruling class keep the “pot” of discontent from boiling over?

One element among the many transformations wrought by the trajectory of capitalist society concerns the control of the proletariat and, in particular, the role of the left parties and the trade unions. If these latter continue to convey the image of a protective barrier for the workers of countries with openly repressive political regimes, that is no longer true for the “democratic” states, which have long had those reformist organs. Thus, if the European countries are looked at, one must note a deep crisis of the Social-Democratic ideologies that have led the left parties into the opposition. The current period pushes the ruling class to more and more clearly reveal the cogs of its economic, social and political system: the economic crisis is global and permanent, there is no more work for everyone, it is necessary to share the social misery: to eliminate the system of early retirement, to lengthen the duration of working time and career; it is necessary to understand commercial logic and to adapt to it: to be able to sell oneself, to find a job, in short, to yield completely to the laws of the market surviving as an individual learning how to live in a climate of permanent insecurity where social violence forms part of everyday life, just as police and official violence: acceptance of controls, raids, phone-tapping, surveillance cameras, etc. In this context there emerges an idea: there are no more illusions about making it, concerning capitalism. There are indeed funny “alter-mondialists” who dream of an “equitable” and “green” world, but that is an ideology of the non-politicized petty bourgeois, skillfully utilized by capitalist production. Equitable commercial products, which preserve the environment, constitute a juicy market for those who still have the financial means to buy a good conscience and to calm their anguish. For the others, i.e. the majority of the proletariat, everyday life constitutes a long struggle about how to cover the expenses of food, housing, schooling and health, without illusions as to improvement. The discourses of the left did not know how to adapt to this social “realism”. At best, with the image of Mr. Blair, they are openly relentless capitalist managers who no longer seek to hide the real goals of their decisions. In the worst case, they stick to the discourses of the past and are returned to the opposition. The question that one can pose is the significance of this cure of opposition: does it create the conditions for a return to power, or does it represent the bankruptcy of an obsolete discourse? We lean to the second hypothesis.

The ruling class has other mystifications to advance: the fear of terrorism, the danger of religious fundamentalism, etc. Nonetheless, two factors undercut those campaigns: on the one hand, the tendency to pauperization in every part of the planet has a unifying potential, despite the efforts of the bourgeoisie to fragment the proletariat. On the other hand, it becomes more and more apparent that the ruling class has no real alternative to propose, and has lost any credibility. If there are still countries where illusions persist, the tendency to a loss of credibility is becoming general. We must be alert to the control strategies that the ruling class will attempt to wield against the threat of a social explosion. One possible response will perhaps be the development of populist parties.

As for the trade unions of the industrialized countries, they are no longer seen as the defenders of the interests of the proletariat, but as specialists in labor law and negotiation. The trade-union affiliation is often conceived as a social affiliation (to obtain the payment of unemployment benefits, legal recourse in the event of dismissal, etc.). But, in conflicts, the trade-union organizations have a hard time holding on to their troops. Very often overwhelmed, even decried, they are far from being anywhere near the origin of conflicts. By way of example, the Belgian bourgeoisie acknowledged that the conflicts that took place in rail transport and in Brussels transport during 2007 were largely spontaneous conflicts. Even if it is only two sectors, nevertheless it concerns a country and two sectors where the trade unions traditionally have had an important role. We have to think about a tendency to disillusion related to the class nature of the trade-union organs that seems to have started. Against this, the ruling class in the democratic countries is reacting more and more like the ruling class in the emerging countries: with recourse to the judicial system and making strikes illegal.

IV. Conclusion

This article is in no way a triumphalist apology for the class struggle, but rather has tried to delineate some of its broad features. Without denying the weaknesses of struggles, their limits, we have sought to focus on their contradictory aspects and the potential contained in them. To emphasize that potential does not mean tracing an ineluctable line that the proletariat must necessarily follow. We know that a potential is meaningless if it is not inscribed in a process of the development of a political consciousness. So, if we can see certain unifying tendencies in a general pauperization, we also know that such a pauperization can lead to a closing in on oneself, or into the trap of religious and ethnic ideologies. To emphasize the tendencies and the potential, as we have, does not entail hiding the complexity of the situation of class struggle, or the fact that its development comes about through a contradictory, a living, process, that unfolds overtime.

If capitalism continues its trajectory of profound transformations, the class struggle is also caught up in a dynamic of fundamental change. These changes are not to be seen with regard to the immediate aspects of the struggles, but must be considered on an historical scale, on the basis of the economic transformations of the capitalist system.

A first great transformation of the class struggle is its more global character - although still diffuse and confused. Wage demands are linked to -- and sometimes lead to -- the expression of social discontent, to a more general anxiety related to living conditions and to the future. This constitutes a kind of linkage to the specific demands and a questioning of the mode of functioning of the system, as well as a possible link to aspects that, in the ‘70’s, were the object of huge mobilizations without any link being established between these several aspects or between them and the overall functioning of the capitalist system.

A second characteristic is the heterogeneous character of the proletariat and its struggle. “Included,” “excluded,” “Fordist” workers, and workers in the most advanced countries and industries, represent the different facets of functioning of the same capitalist economic system throughout the world. Each one struggles on the terrain where they are, and with the means that it has, and the class struggle is to be seen as the whole of this mosaic in its different forms. If this heterogeneity represents a difficulty, it also contains a dual potential: that of going beyond the sectoral, partial, demand, linking up to other aspects of social dissatisfaction, and paradoxically providing a homogeneous vision of an economic and total social system. If the past was characterized by a majority of those included in the capitalist system in the rich countries, the present of these same countries seems to offer the perspective of the worker, pliable like rubber and seamlessly coming to enlarge the ranks of the excluded. If the poor countries could once dream of the “paradise-like” conditions of the democratic liberalism of the rich countries, they perceive today at which price this economic development takes place (China is a sad example), and they can see the economic and social conditions which are worsening in the rich countries. If the rich countries were not concerned with the sad fate of the poor countries (for example their colonies), they now see an increasing mass of their own population living in conditions that dangerously approach those in which the populations of the poor countries live.

Finally, a last characteristic relates to the extent of this social resistance throughout the world and across sectors of the proletariat, which represents a potential for the globalization of a questioning about the overall functioning of the capitalist system.


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