In this period when the dominant ideology hammers us with the claim that there are no longer any social classes nor, consequently, class struggles, it is necessary to reaffirm that the proletariat represents one of the major contradictions within the capitalist mode of production (CMP) and in that, remains and carries the possibility of change for society. The existence of social classes thus defines a global social relation that evolves and is transformed hand in hand with the transformation of the CMP itself. One cannot speak about class struggle without taking account of these changes, and one cannot understand the current movements with an outdated understanding of the proletariat.
Thus, if in the period of the formal domination of the CMP, the exploitation of the working class was essentially carried out through the lengthening of the working day, the profound transformation that the ongoing passage to the real domination of capital brought about also entailed a profound transformation of the forms of production, of exploitation, and of the very composition of the proletariat and, consequently, its forms and its possibilities of struggle.
The transformation of the process of production/valorization into a global process means that this process is no longer instantiated uniquely by workers directly producing surplus value but by all those who participate in this total process of production. For example, the increasing introduction of technology into production entails recourse to a labor force ready to use this technology. The proletariat thus saw its ranks swell by workers previously forming part of the middle classes, but now proletarianized. In the same way, in this global process of valorization all workers and sectors are integrated that take part in it without necessarily taking part in direct production itself. This has as a consequence that the contours of the proletariat -- formerly clearly identifiable by the factory worker in blue overalls directly producing surplus-value – have become much more fluid today, both for revolutionaries but especially for the proletariat itself.
Another characteristic of decadent capitalism is the increasing insecurity of the working class. Production is geared more and more "towards flexibility" while adapting to the immediate needs of this production, to the immediate possibilities of realization, the maximum adaptability of personnel in terms of training, schedule, work place and type of work became one of the components of exploitation of the proletariat. Production "towards flexibility" brings the generalization of contracts of determined duration, of employment related to a specific project; the movement of the workers parallels the circulation of capital and its de-localizations.
Lastly, the introduction of new technologies involves the exclusion of increasing masses of workers from the process of production. They no longer constitute a "reserve army" which can be regularly reintroduced to the labor process but constitute a kind of surplus mass which, in the image of overproduction, can only be destroyed or thrown on the scrap heap. Throughout the world entire sections of the proletariat are completely marginalized and live on the fringes of the system, few even, having ever been integrated into the labor process.
These characteristics cause a considerable heterogeneity within the working class: a class with multiple functions, with multiple statuses; with many displaced individuals, more attached to a limited contract rather than a permanent site of work; and with many proletarians completely marginalized from the system. This poses to our class and to revolutionaries some new questions, among which are the capacity to recognize, in new forms of resistance, the existence of this many faceted proletariat, as well as the increase in the expressions of violence it is posing, as seen, for example, in the riots in the French suburbs last year.
When one looks at the class struggle in the world, one can make a two-fold observation: on the one hand, there is a permanent dissatisfaction which goes beyond the sphere of production (students, pensioners, unemployed...), being expressed by the movements of strikes and demonstrations, but also in various actions like sabotage, redistribution of goods, and acts of violence; on the other hand, there is the isolated character of all these actions, their impossibility to go beyond a very specific framework and a level of immediate demands. The general environment is, also, contradictory: on one side, we perceive a questioning of the whole future of capitalist society, a questioning of its future perspectives, and, on the other side, a tendency to fall back on oneself, on what is most local, and to search for immediate answers which populist and racist parties provide. These opposite tendencies make the appreciation of the class struggle difficult: at the same time that a disillusion is noted, sometimes a violence and a questioning as to the basic perspectives (which constitute positive tendencies, leading to a global awakening), there is an incapacity to translate this global questioning into the daily actions of the class struggle. These extremely contradictory expressions are the reflection of the very great heterogeneity of the proletariat and of its consciousness, as well as of the necessity for these struggles to situate themselves within a wider perspective and, thus, to develop so as to pose the question of class opposition at the level of the global system and not only at the level of a local struggle. Developing a project of transforming society can only occur through an understanding by the proletariat of its specific place in the social relations that constitutes the CMP and of the need for destroying the whole of those social relations so as to be able to free itself from the chains of exploitation within which the system keeps it. Posing the question of historical perspective implies becoming aware of the functioning of society as a totality. If the reign of the formal domination of capital still made it possible to resist the effects of exploitation by struggling, for example, against the lengthening of the working day, the functioning of capitalism under its real domination, and the extraction of relative surplus value, means for the proletariat not just a limited resistance to certain aspects of exploitation, but an opposition to the system as a whole. This is a requirement specific to the period of decadent capitalism, a potentiality of this period where capital assumes the form of a global system, but it is also a much greater requirement from the point of view of the development of the proletariat’s class consciousness.
The heterogeneity of the proletariat means that it resists exploitation wherever it finds itself and with the means specific to its individual conditions of work and life. If previously the struggle was concentrated in the factory, today we are seeing struggles that reflect the work of isolated proletarians, of insecure workers, and even of proletarians excluded from the system. This multiplicity of the contexts and the forms of struggle gives place to a dynamic that can be very different. Whatever the form that the struggle takes, it is important to stress that it constitutes one moment of rupture with the capitalist logic of functioning, and, in that, contains a potential dynamic that must be pushed to the furthest limit possible. It is also in this moment of rupture that the proletarians can escape their isolation and re-create the experience of collective action and collective reflection - the basic element of class consciousness. For the proletariat, the development of a consciousness of its place in the system as a whole can only occur through its daily practice of confrontation with the effects of exploitation and with the results of those class confrontations. It is in this way that the struggle against the causes, and not just against the effects of exploitation and the inhumanity of the CMP, can take place. The development of class consciousness rests on this fundamental unity between collective practice and collective reflection and we reject all visions which separate the activity of the class and a consciousness which would be brought to it, from the outside, by a revolutionary vanguard. The open struggle is also a privileged moment for the assertion of class identity, of a development of a consciousness of a community of interest that makes it possible to go beyond the current heterogeneity of the class.
Nevertheless, if what links all these actions is the refusal of one’s conditions of existence, the struggle against increasing exploitation, they can be placed in a very different dynamic with regard to their interdependent and unifying character. Thus, in recent years, Europe (and France in particular), knew movements of proletarian revolts (often of young people) completely excluded from the system and one can reasonably imagine that the world economic crisis will accentuate this phenomenon of exclusion and thus will involve the development of entire groups of workers living on the margins of the system. The revolt against the conditions of existence of these proletarians occurs where they find themselves (underprivileged districts) and have no other means of actual expression than the violent appropriation of that to which they do not have access or by the violent destruction of that which excludes them. And this raises the question of violence and the articulation of these scattered actions with other actions of class struggle. They constitute one moment of refusal of the conditions of existence, but they also present a danger: when violence does not fit in a dynamic of solidarity, of recognition of community of interest with a class, it is likely to fixate on itself and to solidify on the level of the local group, with the risk that the stress is laid on what differentiates – belonging to a radical religion or to a race -- and not on what is common or shared, and that allows extension to all sectors of the same interdependent class. All violent action is thus not on the same level, or a factor in the development of class consciousness. Thus, violence which leads to a religious or racial outcome constitutes a very fertile soil for the establishment of Islamist ideology and the recuperation, by the bourgeoisie, in false oppositions which have nothing to do with the action of a class which is conscious and unified in its struggle, but rather with the oppositions which divide the proletariat between proletarians of the south and those of the more industrialized countries, Muslim proletarians against those of other religions, proletarians defending the "freedom" of their “holy soil” against a foreign imperialism.
It is clear that the re-articulation of all these movements, of the violent actions, of the parts of the proletariat still integrated in production and those that are no longer, can be done only in the concrete development of the class struggle. As long as we do not see broad social movements that constitute the terrain for such a development, we are likely to see the continuation of the scattered actions of the various parts of the proletariat and the multiplication of actions of violence without any precise goal.
The fundamental element needed to envision a transformation of society is indeed the capacity of the only class that can bring about that change by becoming conscious of the perspective of which it is the bearer. And that development of class consciousness is above all a political process which is rooted in the material context of crisis and of the degradation of the conditions of existence of the proletariat, but which does not develop in an automatic, deterministic way, simply on the basis of the growing insecurity. The development of revolutionary consciousness is therefore situated at the articulation between objective and subjective elements. These are the real stakes of the present struggles: the proletariat reacts to the degradation of its living conditions, the increase in its exploitation, and it begins to raise questions about the future that this society has in store for it. That is the starting point for the present situation of class struggle, despite its weaknesses and heterogeneity, to instantiate the potential for the development of class consciousness.
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