“In Search of Workers’ Power” by the Red Atlanta blog is an interesting Marxist attempt to grapple with the changes in the U.S. economic and class structure over the past quarter to half century. It combines fresh and original insights about the changes in the nature of the workforce, political organizations, and intellectual trends with a strong dose of ill-conceived nostalgia for the certainties of the past when Marxist orthodoxy concerning the industrial proletariat seemed to be confirmed by the course of the existing class struggle. Nowhere is the contradiction between the author’s forward-thinking and backward-looking approach captured than in the essay’s second paragraph:
If it’s true that the United States is becoming “deindustrialized,” then this does not bode well for the prospect of building workers’ power during the current period. After all, throughout the history of the twentieth century, workers employed in manufacturing and related industries played a vanguard role within the broader labor movement – a function that stemmed (and stems) from their strategic position at the heart of the capitalist production process. Indeed, to this day, no other segment of the working class produces as much surplus labor value or possesses as much power at the point of production as manufacturing workers.
Later, the author writes that it is “undeniably true” from an empirical standpoint that “the United States has witnessed a precipitous decline in manufacturing employment since the late 1970s.” But before we can begin to think the forbidden, that “building workers’ power during the current period” might no longer be strategically viable, the author reassures us that “the manufacturing industry still comprises a central part of the overall domestic economy.” This unwillingness to even briefly entertain ‘forbidden’ thoughts — that is, to question and rigorously interrogate dogmas, old assumptions, and inherited frameworks — aborts the kind of independent thinking that is evident in this essay and results in conclusions fixed in advance by the premises and framework upon which the investigation proceeded.
The bottom line is that the United States and other advanced capitalist countries are not deindustrialized but post-industrialized. What is the difference? Why does it matter? The difference is that the social division of labor — the starting point of any Marxist analysis of a given society — has not gone backwards to before the Industrial Revolution but has advanced further on the basis of the Industrial Revolution. Capitalism has gone through a variety of epochs or ages like this before. For example, before the rise of industrial capitalism in the 1800s there was the era of mercantilism which was crucial for industrial capitalism’s development since it established truly global markets, and with them, a global division of labor. The industrial capitalist world did not ‘de-mercantilize’ but proceeded forward on the basis of the social changes wrought by mercantilism. The division of labor under capitalism is becoming ever-more complex and interconnected as it progresses forward from one epoch or age to the next.
This distinction between de-industrial and post-industrial matters because it points the way forward to capitalism’s future rather than backward to its past. It means that the factory-based proletariat is not the end all and be all class for socialists (Marx never looked to the industrial proletariat because of how much surplus value it produced in any case, if the text of the Communist Manifesto is anything to go by). It means that while some parts of the world, such as China, India, and Brazil are experiencing their own industrial revolutions — with all the attendant revolutions in social relations that entails — the older, more advanced areas of the capitalist world such as the United States, Europe, and Japan have growing non-industrial working classes and proletariats that we have to account for and build strategies around.
This fetishism of unskilled factory workers was wrong to begin with and is utterly outdated now in the era of Google, Big Pharma, Starbucks, and huge sectors of the economy (health, education) that are only tangentially related to manufacturing. It is high time Marxists grow beyond this fetishism. “In Search of Workers’ Power” does an excellent job showing how some areas of the United States are anything but post-industrial, but it is also the case that the industrial workers of these areas have not exhibited any vastly greater propensity to struggle (or to support socialism) than any other sector of the working class or of the population. Seattle and Vermont have elected socialists while the industrialized, non-union areas of the country elect Republicans and right-wing Democrats. So there is nothing automatic about the fact that “throughout the history of the twentieth century, workers employed in manufacturing and related industries played a vanguard role within the broader labor movement.” Those struggles and the role industrial workers played in them was due not to the fact that industrial workers are naturally more progressive or enlightened or surplus value-producing but mainly to the difficult, brass-tacks organizing of generations of socialists, anarchists, communists, and radicals from the 1880s onward in the face of Pinkerton, police, and state attacks.
Essays like “In Search of Workers’ Power” are a good start at re-examining some of these issues but we need to go much, much further both in terms of empirical investigation and in terms of re-defining “workers power.” What sense does it make to talk about a “workers power” that by definition excludes or minimizes home health care workers, baggage handlers, single moms working fry side at McDonald’s or cashier at Wal Mart — that is, in the expanding industries like logistics and low wage services (as well as expanding social formations such as the precariat) — at the price of exaggerating the importance of and clinging stubbornly to the jobs and industries of the past that play only a subordinate role in modern capitalism?
Marx taught that the bourgeoisie constantly revolutionizes production, and with it, the relations of production and of society as a whole. The onus is on us to try to keep up with that politically and strategically.