Debating the Revolutionary Subject: Working Class or Proletariat?

This comes from Bay of Rage.

"Struggles that emphasize the fact of exploitation – its unfairness, its brutality – and seek to ameliorate the terms and character of labor in capitalism, take the working-class as their subject. On the other hand, struggles that emphasize dispossession and the very fact of class, seeking to abolish the difference between those who are “without reserves” and everyone else, take as their subject the proletariat as such. Because of the restructuring of the economy and weakness of labor, present-day struggles have no choice but to become proletarian struggles, however much they dress themselves up in the language and weaponry of a defeated working class ...Worker’s struggles these days tend to have few objects besides the preservation of jobs or the preservation of union contracts. They struggle to preserve the right to be exploited, the right to a wage, rather than for any expansion of pay and benefits. The power of the Occupy movement so far – despite the weakness of its discourse – is that it points in the direction of a proletarian struggle in which, instead of vainly petitioning the assorted rulers of the world, people begin to directly take the things they need to survive. Rather than an attempt to readjust the balance between the 99% and the 1%, such a struggle might be about people directly providing for themselves at a time when capital and the state can no longer provide for them."

This piece raises the important question of how we think about the revolutionary subject today. Does it still reside in the working class, or at the point of production, as traditionally conceived? How have changes in capitalism transformed class composition? How does this affect revolutionary strategy? We are posting this in order to generate discussion. We will soon post responses from others. Posting should not suggest endorsement.



Blockading the Port Is Only The First of Many Last Resorts

Posted by OaklandCommune • December 7, 2011


By any reasonable measure, the November 2 general strike was a grand success. The day was certainly the most significant moment of the season of Occupy, and signaled the possibility of a new direction for the occupations, away from vague, self-reflexive democratism and toward open confrontation with the state and capital. At a local level, as a response to the first raid on the encampment, the strike showed Occupy Oakland capable of expanding while defending itself, organizing its own maintenance while at the same time directly attacking its enemy. This is what it means to refer to the encampment and its participants as the Oakland Commune, even if a true commune is only possible on the other side of insurrection.

Looking over the day’s events it is clear that without the shutdown of the port this would not have been a general strike at all but rather a particularly powerful day of action. The tens of thousands of people who marched into the port surpassed all estimates. Neighbors, co-workers, relatives – one saw all kinds of people there who had never expressed any interest in such events, whose political activity had been limited to some angry mumbling at the television set and a yearly or biyearly trip to the voting booth. It was as if the entire population of the Bay Area had been transferred to some weird industrial purgatory, there to wander and wonder and encounter itself and its powers.

Now we have the chance to blockade the ports once again, on December 12, in conjunction with occupiers up and down the west coast. Already Los Angeles, San Diego, Portland, Tacoma, Seattle, Vancouver and even Anchorage have agreed to blockade their respective ports. These are exciting events, for sure. Now that many of the major encampments in the US have been cleared, we need an event like this to keep the sequence going through the winter months and provide a reference point for future manifestations. For reasons that will be explained shortly, we believe that actions like this – direct actions that focus on the circulation of capital, rather than its production – will play a major role in the inevitable uprisings and insurrections of the coming years, at least in the postindustrial countries. The confluence of this tactic with the ongoing attempts to directly expropriate abandoned buildings could transform the Occupy movement into something truly threatening to the present order. But in our view, many comrades continue thinking about these actions as essentially continuous with the class struggle of the twentieth century and the industrial age, never adequately remarking on how little the postindustrial Oakland General Strike of 2011 resembles the Oakland General Strike of 1946.

The placeless place of circulation

The shipping industry (and shipping in general) has long been one of the most important sectors for capital, and one of the privileged sites of class struggle. Capitalism essentially develops and spreads within the matrix of the great mercantile, colonialist and imperial experiments of post-medieval Europe, all of which are predicated upon sailors, ships and trade routes. But by the time that capitalism comes into view as a new social system in the 19th century the most important engine of accumulation is no longer trade itself, but the introduction of labor-saving technology into the production process. Superprofits achieved through mechanized production are funneled back into the development and purchase of new production machinery, not to mention the vast, infernal infrastructural projects this industrial system requires: mines and railways, highways and electricity plants, vast urban pours of wood, stone, concrete and metal as the metropolitan centers spread and absorb people expelled from the countryside. But by the 1970s, just as various futurologists and social forecasters were predicting a completely automated society of superabundance, the technologically-driven accumulation cycle was coming to an end. Labor-saving technology is double-edged for capital. Even though it temporarily allows for the extraction of enormous profits, the fact that capital treats laboring bodies as the foundation of its own wealth means that over the long term the expulsion of more and more people from the workplace eventually comes to undermine capital’s own conditions of survival. Of course, one of the starkest horrors of capitalism is that capital’s conditions of survival are also our own, no matter our hatred. Directly or indirectly, each of us is dependent on the wage and the market for our survival.

From the 1970s on, one of capital’s responses to the reproduction crisis has been to shift its focus from the sites of production to the (non)sites of circulation. Once the introduction of labor-saving technology into the production of goods no longer generated substantial profits, firms focused on speeding up and more cheaply circulating both commodity capital (in the case of the shipping, wholesaling and retailing industries) and money capital (in the case of banking). Such restructuring is a big part of what is often termed “neoliberalism” or “globalization,” modes of accumulation in which the shipping industry and globally-distributed supply chains assume a new primacy. The invention of the shipping container and container ship is analogous, in this way, to the reinvention of derivatives trading in the 1970s – a technical intervention which multiplies the volume of capital in circulation several times over.

This is why the general strike on Nov. 2 appeared as it did, not as the voluntary withdrawal of labor from large factories and the like (where so few of us work), but rather as masses of people who work in unorganized workplaces, who are unemployed or underemployed or precarious in one way or another, converging on the chokepoints of capital flow. Where workers in large workplaces –the ports, for instance– did withdraw their labor, this occurred after the fact of an intervention by an extrinsic proletariat. In such a situation, the flying picket, originally developed as a secondary instrument of solidarity, becomes the primary mechanism of the strike. If postindustrial capital focuses on the seaways and highways, the streets and the mall, focuses on accelerating and volatilizing its networked flows, then its antagonists will also need to be mobile and multiple. In November 2010, during the French general strike, we saw how a couple dozen flying pickets could effectively bring a city of millions to a halt. Such mobile blockades are the technique for an age and place in which production has been offshored, an age in which most of us work, if we work at all, in small and unorganized workplaces devoted to the transport, distribution, administration and sale of goods produced elsewhere.

Like the financial system which is its warped mirror, the present system for circulating commodities is incredibly brittle. Complex, computerized supply-chains based on just-in-time production models have reduced the need for warehouses and depots. This often means that workplaces and retailers have less than a day’s reserves on hand, and rely on the constant arrival of new shipments. A few tactical interventions – at major ports, for instance – could bring an entire economy to its knees. This is obviously a problem for us as much as it is a problem for capital: the brittleness of the economy means that while it is easy for us to blockade the instruments of our own oppression, nowhere do we have access to the things that could replace it. There are few workplaces that we can take over and use to begin producing the things we need. We could take over the port and continue to import the things we need, but it’s nearly impossible to imagine doing so without maintaining the violence of the economy at present.

Power to the vagabonds and therefore to no class

This brings us to a very important aspect of the present moment, already touched on above. The subject of the “strike” is no longer the working class as such, though workers are always involved.  The strike no longer appears only as the voluntary withdrawal of labor from a workplace by those employed there, but as the blockade, suppression (or even sabotage or destruction) of that workplace by proletarians who are alien to it, and perhaps to wage-labor entirely. We need to jettison our ideas about the “proper” subjects of the strike or class struggle. Though it is always preferable and sometimes necessary to gain workers’ support in order to shut down a particular workplace, it is not absolutely necessary, and we must admit that ideas about who has the right to strike or blockade a particular workplace are simply extensions of the law of property. If the historical general strikes involved the coordinated striking of large workplaces, around which “the masses,” including students, women who did unwaged housework, the unemployed and lumpenproletarians of the informal sector eventually gathered to form a generalized offensive against capital, here the causality is precisely reversed. It has gone curiously unremarked that the encampments of the Occupy movement, while claiming themselves the essential manifestations of some vast hypermajority –  the 99% – are formed in large part from the ranks of the homeless and the jobless, even if a more demographically diverse group fills them out during rallies and marches. That a group like this – with few ties to organized labor – could call for and successfully organize a General Strike should tell us something about how different the world of 2011 is from that of 1946.

We find it helpful here to distinguish between the working class and the proletariat. Though many of us are both members of the working class and proletarians, these terms do not necessarily mean the same thing.  The working class is defined by work, by the fact that it works. It is defined by the wage, on the one hand, and its capacity to produce value on the other.  But the proletariat is defined by propertylessness. In Rome, proletarius was the name for someone who owned no property save his own offspring and himself, and frequently sold both into slavery as a result. Proletarians are those who are “without reserves” and therefore dependent upon the wage and capital. They have “nothing to sell except their own skins.”  The important point to make here is that not all proletarians are working-class, since not all proletarians work for a wage. As the crisis of capitalism intensifies, such “wageless life” becomes more and more the norm. Of course, exploitation requires dispossession. These two terms name inextricable aspects of the conditions of life under the domination of capital, and even the proletarians who don’t work depend upon those who do, in direct and indirect ways.

The point, for us, is that certain struggles tend to emphasize one or the other of these aspects. Struggles that emphasize the fact of exploitation – its unfairness, its brutality – and seek to ameliorate the terms and character of labor in capitalism, take the working-class as their subject. On the other hand, struggles that emphasize dispossession and the very fact of class, seeking to abolish the difference between those who are “without reserves” and everyone else, take as their subject the proletariat as such. Because of the restructuring of the economy and weakness of labor, present-day struggles have no choice but to become proletarian struggles, however much they dress themselves up in the language and weaponry of a defeated working class. This is why the Occupy movement, even as much as it mumbles vaguely about the weakest of redistributionary measures – taxing the banks, for instance – refuses to issue any demands. There are no demands to make. Worker’s struggles these days tend to have few objects besides the preservation of jobs or the preservation of union contracts. They struggle to preserve the right to be exploited, the right to a wage, rather than for any expansion of pay and benefits. The power of the Occupy movement so far – despite the weakness of its discourse – is that it points in the direction of a proletarian struggle in which, instead of vainly petitioning the assorted rulers of the world, people begin to directly take the things they need to survive. Rather than an attempt to readjust the balance between the 99% and the 1%, such a struggle might be about people directly providing for themselves at a time when capital and the state can no longer provide for them.

Twilight of the unions

This brings us finally to the question of the unions, the ILWU in particular, its locals, and the rank-and-file port workers. Port workers in the US have an enormously radical history, participating in or instigating some of the most significant episodes in US labor history, from the Seattle General strike of 1919, to the battles on the  San Francisco waterfront in 1934 and the sympathy strikes that spread up and down the coast. The ferocious actions by port workers in Longview, Washington – attempting to fight off the incursion of non-ILWU grain exporter EGT – recall this history in vivid detail. Wildcatting, blockading trains and emptying them of their cargo, fighting off the cops brought in to restore the orderly loading and unloading of cargo – the port workers in Longview remind us of the best of the labor movement, its unmediated conflict with capital. We expect to see more actions like this in this new era of austerity, unemployment and riot. Still, our excitement at the courage of Longview workers should not blind us to the place of this struggle in the current crisis of capitalism. We do not think that these actions point to some revitalization of radical unionism, but rather indicate a real crisis in the established forms of class struggle. They point to a moment in which even the most meager demands become impossible to win. These conditions of impossibility will have a radicalizing effect, but not in the way that many expect it to. They will bring us allies in the workers at Longview and elsewhere but not in the way many expect.

Though they employ the tactics of the historical workers’ movement at its most radical, the content of the Longview struggle is quite different: they are not fighting for any expansions of pay or benefits, or attempting to unionize new workplaces, but merely to preserve their union’s jurisdictional rights. It is a defensive struggle, in the same way that the Madison, Wisconsin capitol occupation was a defensive struggle – a fight undertaken to preserve the dubious legally-enshrined rights to collectively bargain. These are fights for the survival of unions as such, in an era in which unions have no real wind in their sails, at their best seeking to keep a floor below falling wages, at their worst collaborating with the bosses to quietly sell out workers. This is not to malign the actions of the workers themselves or their participation in such struggles – one can no more choose to participate in a fight for one’s survival than one can choose to breathe, and sometimes such actions can become explosive trigger points that ignite a generalized antagonism. But we should be honest about the limits of these fights, and seek to push beyond them where possible. Too often, it seems as if we rely on a sentimental workerism, acting as if our alliance with port workers will restore to us some lost authenticity.

Let’s remember that, in the present instance, the initiative is coming from outside the port and from outside the workers’ movement as such, even though it involves workers and unions. For the most part, the initiative here has come from a motley band of people who work in non-unionized workplaces, or (for good reason) hate their unions, or work part-time or have no jobs at all. Alliances are important. We should be out there talking to truck drivers and crane operators and explaining the blockade, but that does not mean blindly following the recommendations of ILWU Local 10. For instance, we have been told time and again that, in order to blockade the port, we need to go to each and every berth, spreading out thousands of people into several groups over a distance of a few miles. This is because, under the system that ILWU has worked out with the employers’ association, only a picket line at the gates to the port itself will allow the local arbitrator to rule conditions at the port unsafe, and therefore provide the workers with legal protection against unpermitted work action. In such a situation we are not really blockading the port. We are participating in a two-act play, a piece of legal theater, performed for the benefit of the arbitrator.

If this arbitration game is the only way we can avoid violent conflict with the port workers, then perhaps this is the way things have to be for the time being. But we find it more than depressing how little reflection there has been about this strategy, how little criticism of it, and how many people seem to reflexively accept the necessity of going through these motions. There are two reasons why this charade is problematic. For one, we must remember that the insertion of state-sanctioned forms of mediation and arbitration into the class struggle, the domestication of the class struggle by a vast legal apparatus, is the chief mechanism by which unions have been made into the helpmeet of capital, their monopoly over labor power an ideal partner for capital’s monopoly over the means of production. Under such a system, trade unions not only make sure that the system produces a working-class with sufficient purchasing power (something that is less and less possible these days, except by way of credit) but also ensure that class antagonism finds only state-approved outlets, passing through the bureaucratic filter of the union and its legal apparatus, which says when, how, and why workers can act in their own benefit. This is what “arbitration” means.

Secondly, examined from a tactical position, putting us blockaders in small, stationary groups spread out over miles of roads leaves us in a very poor position to resist a police assault. As many have noted, it would be much easier to blockade the port by closing off the two main entrances to the port area– at Third and Adeline and Maritime and West Grand. Thousands of people at each of these intersections could completely shut down all traffic into the port, and these groups could be much more easily reinforced and provided with provisions (it’s easier to get food, water, and reinforcements to these locations.) There is now substantial interest in extending the blockade past one shift, changing it from a temporary nuisance to something that might seriously affect the reproduction of capital in the Bay Area given the abovementioned reliance on just-in-time production. But doing so will likely bring a police attack. Therefore, in order to blockade the port with legal-theatrical means we sacrifice our ability – quite within reach – to blockade it materially. We allow ourselves to be deflected to a tactically-weak position on the plane of the symbolic.

The coming intensification of struggles both inside and outside the workplace will find no success in attempting to revitalize the moribund unions. Workers will need to participate in the same kinds of direct actions – occupations, blockades, sabotage – that have proven the highlights of the Occupy movement in the Bay Area. When tens of thousands of  people marched to the port of Oakland on November 2nd in order to shut it down, by and large they did not do it to defend the jurisdiction of the ILWU, or to take a stand against union-busting (most people were, it appears, ignorant of these contexts). They did it because they hate the present-day economy, because they hate capitalism, and because the ports are one of the most obvious linkages in the web of misery in which we are all caught.  Let’s recognize this antagonism for what it is, and not dress it up in the costumes and ideologies of a bygone world.

People in this conversation

  • Guest - Carl Davidson

    I hope this is not another 'lumpen as vanguard' and 'skip over the union's' discussion--I've been there and seen that too many times over the decades. It's mainly people who should know better seeking 'an easier, softer way' to proletarian revolution.

    On the other hand, it could be quite fruitful in other directions. The 'working class' as conceived here, generally speaking, is only about two paychecks and a missed mortgage payment from those considered 'proletarians.' And things aren't improving.

    You'll find huge numbers of them working at Walmart, other big boxes, and what's left of the manufacturing sector.

    There are many ways, also, to 'directly take' what one needs to survive. I think the workers taking over their factories, as in Chicago last week, is miles ahead of looting a store during a 'riot'. The fight for unions, or any kind of workplace worker organization, is very difficult. But the revolution, in large part, proceeds through it, not around it. The 'easier, softer and quicker' ways, thus far anyway, have been illusory.

    But we'll see. Left the discussion unfold.

  • Guest - lycophidion

    The counterposition of the "working class" to the "proletariat" under capitalism is a false dichotomy. As presented it is ahistorical and it elevates one moment of the process of capitalist accumulation at the expense of what is essential.

    The proponents of this argument emphasize the Latin meaning and origin of the term proletariat, but the actual significance of the proletariat and of its insertion in the then existing mode of production was quite different from what it is today.

    The proponents of this distorted view of the working class/proletariat are the same ones who promote the idea that a "prekariat" has replaced workers at the point of production as both the central subjects in capitalist society and the principle protagonists of social transformation. In so doing, they shift Marx's emphasis on the process of production as defining a given system, to an emphasis on the circulation and consumption of commodities. Thus, they beat a retreat to long-defunct economic models, such as those proposed by the Physiocrats in the late 18th-early 19th centuries.

    In fact, the dispossession of peasants and urban artisans at the origin of the capitalist mode of production in Europe was a necessary condition for the exploitation of labor power that lies at the heart of capitalism. The ongoing dispossession of workers, peasants and others to generate the "reserve army of the unemployed," is part and parcel of the process of capitalist accumulation, centered around the creation by workers of surplus value for the capitalists. It is the relations of production that lie at the heart of any given social formation. This has not changed and cannot change, even though the thirst for profits over the past 40 years has driven capital to transform the structure and geography of investment.

    The strategic place of workers at the point of production gives them disproportionate power to halt, "occupy," or transform that production and society as a whole. Of course such goals can only be fully achieved in alliance with other sectors. But, this central importance of the working class/proletariat has not changed in the current period, as weak as labor might be at present in the U.S. The latter is just the nature of the class struggle. The proletariat (understood as identical to the working class) has historically undergone advances and retreats. Rather than throwing up their hands in impatient despair at the current weakness of the labor movement in the U.S. -- following 40 years of neoliberal assault -- and looking for other "agents," these folks should open their eyes and realize that labor IS reawakening and has played an important role in the Occupy movement, from the ILWU in Oakland, to DC37 and the TWU, who mobilized to fend off Bloomberg's first eviction attempt, to the contract victories by nurses and the certification by Cablevision workers in NYC. And, in good part, it is the engagement by Occupiers with this process that may determine not only if it will continue, but if Occupy, itself will become yet another failed utopian experiment. It is only by engaging with labor -- and concretely, this means unions, as labor's principal organizational forms at present -- that Occupy will build the alliances that it needs over the long-haul to win, and will facilitate the ascent of labor struggles in more and more decisive forms against capital.

  • Guest - mamos206

    This piece gets at many of the issues raised by the Bay of Rage piece. We are for uniting struggles of the employed, precariously employed, and unemployed proletariat. We are for organizing with rank and file union members, but insist that the working class struggle, and the proletarian struggle in general, not be reduced to union struggles - other sectors of the class are also moving and our movement should be taken seriously as part of the class struggle and should not be dismissed simply because it doesn't take a traditional trade union form:

  • Guest - PN

    Hey, I want to clarify what is meant by precariat, because many will falsely conflate it with a general argument about a "new" revolutionary subject taking over on the world scale:

    Many folks consider precariat to just be a new way of saying proletariat--specifically referencing the phenomenon of "proletarianization" going on for former members of the "middle class" in 1st world countries. It can be argued that the proletariat as such is always precarious, and that the experience of precarity by 1st world workers is simply what most workers everywhere would experience anyways. Such precarity was also perfectly common in early capitalism within the US and Europe as well.

    All of that is more or less true -- there still exists a proletariat as such and within that proletariat exists what we call the precariat. Today's precariat increasingly experiences precarity very similar to the early proletariat in the US and Europe, as well as the really existing industrial working class in most parts of the world. However this does not exhaust the use of the term precariat. The precariat is the name for a specific SEGMENT of the broader working class -- and it is the name for something that IS novel, something that is new in today's form of capitalism, something which never rightly existed for the historical proletariat. The precariat is the name for entire national economies that are disproportionately reliant on service industries and fictitious capital -- either on industries simply reproductive of capital through transport, consumer sale, etc. or on the loaning of money, the charging of rents. These were always necessary, of course, but rarely have you had nation-scale economies more or less composed of them. So the precariat is increasingly the name for a very REAL split that has been manufactured within the working class through dividing productive labor and reproductive labor along national boundaries and keeping the two largely separate. The precariat is the name for a working class which very literally has little or no LOCAL means of production to seize, only means of reproduction. In that sense, the term is very useful. Some, like Theorie Communiste, argue that this establishes a "Glass Floor" for any revolt by the precariat -- again and again the riots and insurrections of local precariats confronts its inability to seize any actual productive grounds and therefore we see revolts take the form more of blockades than of factory-seizing strikes. The blockade is going to be the natural response for a precariat, since its business is literally the moving around of goods. Thus a "strike" in a precariat economy is effectively a massive blockade.

    Anyways, I clearly see it as useful. Precariat is a sub-term within the proletariat. It certainly isn't "the new working class." The existence of a precariat is enforced by a division of labor (productive and reproductive) along national boundaries, a form of uneven geographic distribution clearly beneficial to capital. It definitely asks us HOW we can expect revolts from the precariat that are somehow able to break through that "glass floor," which is most often simply another name for the border and which is sometimes a name for a generational split within the same borders between the white baby-boomer working class with full-time, stable employment and pretty much everyone else, immigrant, youth, indigenous, etc.


    So we should not conflate the precariat with a world-scale event. But its truth for most of the 1st world seems obvious. We have no "point of production" in Seattle or Oakland. We have points of reproduction, and we block them.

  • Guest - Carl Davidson

    As one of the first promoters of the term 'the new working class' back in 1967, we also intended it to mean a sub-set of the working class, mainly its university-trained technical sector. Our critics would never hear that caveat, however, and insisted we were 'anti-working class'.

    They were caught in a time warp, thinking 'workers' mainly meant 'white guys moving heavy stuff around.'

    In any case, our analysis back then actually was rather far-sighted and holds up in many ways. You can even look at OWS as largely a rebellion of today's 'new working class.'

    If any want to read the original SDS 'Port Authority Statement' and the related 'Praxis Papers,' here's the link to my book rescuing them from the memory hole:

  • Guest - Ajagbe Adewole-Ogunade

    I don't see a difference between working class and proletariat. And I can't see the usefulness of a term like precariat. It feels like esoterica. We already have enough difficulty communicating with everyone else.

  • Guest - PN

    I think it is helpful to understand the really existing subsections, conflicts and divisions within the working class. It's totally necessary if we're talking about building actual solidarity across that class. Precariat is the name of one of those subsections, plain and simple.

  • Guest - Grumpy Cat

    The difference between the working class and the proletariat is the different between the the class in and for itself.

  • Guest - Otto

    Let's use the term Working Class as well as the poor, many once had jobs, and the handicapped through medical, physical or mental reasons have been delegated to roam the street homeless.
    Why not be as inclusive as possible and not try to impress workers with big words they won't understand?

  • Guest - Carl Davidson

    I wouldn't worry about 'big words'. 'Precariat' is easy enough to explain to anyone who know the meaning of precarious. For many folks, a brief explanation will evoke, 'yes, that's me. Story of my life.' Same with our 1960s 'new working class.'

    I think it crucial to understand all the sectors and strata of the working class and their varied political view and aspirations, especially those sectors that are insurgent at any giving time.

    Then we, as the revolutionaries, have the task of building unity among them in a way that moves us all forward. or at least most of us.

    The bigger problem is to get people to stop using 'middle class' for the ;working class'.

  • Guest - El_Burro

    "We have no “point of production” in Seattle or Oakland."

    Well if that's the case, then what on earth is going on in the Boeing factories up here?

  • Guest - Keith

    First, the entire premise of the piece is wrong. Capital did not cease to focus on labor saving technology in the 1970's. I am baffled. It strikes me as somewhat bizarre that the authors are unaware that we have just experienced thirty years of the most rapid technological change in all of human history. Are they joking? Neoliberalism begins the 1970's and the whole project is about unfettering every constraint on the rapid development of labor saving technology-- crushing trade unions, attacking the Soviet Union, attacking regulation, dumping the gold standard, all of it is about dismantling barriers to capital accumulation which is the form that the development of technology takes within capitalist social relations. They might as well say: "in the 1970's the sky ceased to be blue."

    This inability to see what is so obvious to everyone else is the kind of thinking that Marx railed against in the 11 thesis on Fuerbach where he keeps insisting on the primacy of human practical activity.

    This leads to the second problem with both the Bay of Rage Piece and the ISO response; the lack theoretical clarity around the concept of class and a misunderstanding of the revolutionary nature of the working class.

    So if we are going to think about this in a serious way we should start by defining class.

    To begin, in a very schematic way, social class has been defined in at least eight different ways: property ownership; status; power; consciousness; income; wealth; occupation; and relationship to surplus value production.

    The article (and the ISO response) defines class by job occupation, or in their words "work"—which is to say by activity. In other words, what kind of job determines class-- this is probably the most fetishized way to think about class. It is not useful.

    To understand Marx's class concept it is worth briefly mentioning the other common concepts of class. Status definitions rely on concepts like “blue collar” and “white collar;” power based definitions rely on concepts like “elites” and “oppression;” consciousness based definitions rely on what people think, I would put Lukacs’s stuff here as well as E.P. Thompson; income based definitions use concepts like “middle class;” wealth based definitions rely on concepts like “rich and poor.

    In Marx’s work we find two main ways of thinking about class. First, definitions of class according to property ownership are common in Marx’s early work and it is the view elaborated on in the Communist Manifesto. But, in Marx’s critique of political economy class is defined according to the relationship between surplus value production, appropriation and distribution. This later definition is Marx’s most theoretically sophisticated and it is also the most politically useful. Most of the problems supposedly tackled in the above essays disappear just by getting our understanding of class right. The right answer comes from posing the problem correctly.

    One of Marx’s most important and famous concepts is commodity fetishism, but perhaps even more important is his lesser known concept of the capital fetish—the idea that money makes money is an example of it. Marx explains that workers confront their conditions of work as they would an alien power. Capital --the machines and tools (like computers) -- seem all powerful and we seem weak. But this is the illusion. Capital has no power except what is provided by living labor-- by us going to and doing the work. Marx sometimes refers to capital as accumulated dead labor, and capitalism is then a system in which dead labor dominates living labor.

    By theorizing the capital fetish Marx responds to various bourgeois economists who think that capital creates value. Marx explains that capital is not a thing but a social relationship, and if it is a social relationship then it is a class relationship, and if it is a class relationship then it is a relationship of antagonism and struggle.

    For example: a lawn mower may or may not be capital. It depends entirely on the social relationships in which it is used. If Jill mows her lawn with the lawn mower it is not capital. If Jill mows her neighbor’s lawn and gets paid $20 to do it, it is still not capital. The lawnmower is capital if Jill hires a worker to mow her neighbor’s lawn with her lawnmower and her neighbor pays her $20 and she gives the worker $10 and keep the other $10 as profit. The lawnmower is capital because it is used to exploit labor, to extract surplus value from living labor. As a budding capitalist her job is to accumulate more capital. If she is frugal and has the entrepreneurial spirit she will plow that capital back into her business buying more lawnmowers, hiring more workers and mowing the lawns of entire neighborhoods and corporate parks. If Jill has one hundred lawnmowers she can exploit the labor of one hundred workers, instead of “earning” $10 profit from one worker she can pump surplus value in the form of profit from each one, and so on.

    As the business gets larger the source of profits becomes more mystified. The lawnmower appears to be everything when it is actually nothing. The lawnmowers appear to be the source of profit – that is the capital fetish. Without the worker it isn’t capital, without the workers the capitalist could not get the $10 as profit nor could the capitalist get the profit from 100 lawnmowers without workers. If the workers stop working there is no profit, if the workers get rid of the capitalist they can keep the lawn mowers. Clearly, the capitalist needs the workers but workers don’t need the capitalist. And here is the revolutionary potential of the working class. If the worker refuses to work for Jill then her mowers are no longer capital, if she can’t get anyone to work the capital is destroyed because the social relationship is ended. Only workers can end the social relation of capital. The capital relation is terminated at the point of production -- that’s why workers are important and that’s why they are revolutionary.

    Historically when revolutionaries sought to organize workers they sought out workers at the point of production in “the commanding heights” -- strategic industries where job actions like strikes could shut down the whole system. They usually organized workers in sectors like steel, auto, rubber, transportation and so forth. But today the commanding heights are quite different. This causes a lot of confusion because the workers in the commanding heights do not appear as expected. Today, the commanding heights are in IT and other sectors of the so-called “new economy.” These workers are often more well to do, if we use other definitions of class besides the surplus vale definition we won’t see their real potential.
    In short, we need to stop looking for new revolutionary agents and start looking to how surplus value is being produced today, and what sectors of the economy actually occupy the commanding heights. Undoubtedly the factories that produce commodities remain important. But there is a whole new sector that is untouched by revolutionary organizing with the important exception of Anonymous.

    In the 1990’s when I first became a working class organizer I “proletarianized” myself by getting various old economy jobs in factories and warehouses. While I learned some things this was a gargantuan waste of time. If I were to do it again, I would have gotten a job in information technology where the proletariat of the 21st century works.

  • Guest - Carl Davidson

    In the mid-1980s, I worked in a truck parts factory that just began to bring computers into the office and warehouse. I was fascinated by them, and hung out with the guys installing them. Later the boss made me a salesman rather than a stockroom worker, and I found that by, using the computers, I could triple my sales and income. I also learned, at the same time, that the boss could now hire one salesman instead of three--and thus that these machines were going to change society in a big way. I studied them more, and eventually became a computer hardware geek and network installer, and then a teacher of these skills. With a few fellow Marxist geeks, we started figuring out what it all meant for Marxism, and the conclusions were indeed revolutionary. Keith is on target here.

  • Guest - Nat W.

    Who says the revolutionary agent necessarily comes from the same sector of the economy that "occupy the commanding heights." Historically has that been the case? Does the imprrtance of a sector for building a socialist economy necessarily mean that sector will be the most important force during a revolutionary phase of struggle? That doesn't seem to be so clear to me.

  • Guest - Carl Davidson

    It was pretty much the case in Russia in 1917, even with the workers in a minority. But it's an open question. Every revolution breaks the previous mold. I'd watch for which sectors are insurgent in various ways. 'be their payment high or low' (Marx), but strategic sectors that can grind things to a halt are nothing to ignore.

  • Guest - Keith

    Capital is clearly aware of where the commanding heights are and in a modern economy. They just don't have a class analysis:

    the link is to an article titled "The biggest threat from cyber warfare lies in the future" published in the Financial Times a few years back.

    The author, Stephen Fidler, responding to reports that the People’s Liberation Army of China hacked into the Pentagon’s computer begins his commentary with this seemingly doomsday scenario: “The lights go out; the internet goes down. Banks close; cash machines fail. Radio and television stations stop broadcasting. Airports and railway stations bar their doors. City streets are jammed with traffic. After a night of uncertainty, power and communications are still blacked out - in fact, they might not come back for months. People start to panic and, as looters emerge, police are unable to restore order.” According to Fidler’s the United States would go from “super-power to third world nation” overnight. The paper goes on to call for greater security measures from the department of homeland security. And maybe (though probably not) these securities measures could prevent an attack like the one recently put on the Pentagon’s system. Secretly embedded in the “nightmare” story told above is the secret of working class power.

    Stephen Fidler’s editorial unwittingly explains why the working class is the “revolutionary agent” and it is a lesson that despite all of the lip-service paid to the working class has been long forgotten. Workers are revolutionary not because of what they think, not because they are oppressed, not because they are poor, but because they make the system work and if they stop the system stops.

  • Guest - Trace Hunter

    Here's a question: who here has had the same job for more than four years? And if so, is it a "working class job" or as a public employee?

    Just curious.

    To most everyone I know, the idea that you get to work 40 hours and receive a social wage is like a dream.

    Those who have this gig are generally city or state employees, or in skilled trades. Not a new phenom. But the rise of Industrial Unions was about 70 years ago, and the economy has shifted fundamentally. Who knows young steel workers? Who is traveling from Arkansas up to Detroit to work in the auto plants?

    The only work places still allowed to have unions are those grandfathering out the privileged elders, having ensured two-tier wage scales and giveaways that more or less are the last vestiges of the upward swing of the US empire. With the empire on decline, does it make sense to work (as the union professionals have) at securing special privileges for the old instead of social change for all?

    The idea that the proletarian struggle is synonymous with a group called "workers" who wear dungarees and have union cards is just another way of demanding identity politics. Economics for workers, representation for oppressed nations, a room of one's own for upper class women, etc.

    The proletarian struggle is exactly in overcoming the constituency brokerage that has passed for organizing and activism. Which is why the issue of precarity is about far more than part-time workers or the lumpenized. It's about how work looks now. How we are already organized by production (and reproduction). It's why we can't wage a workers struggle without communism (proletarian internationalism). Otherwise it's "what's good for the imperial workforce" — and that has been an utter fiasco for exactly those workers. After all, it was Bill Clinton and company who signed NAFTA (after the unions bankrolled his campaign).

  • Guest - Nat W.

    @ Keith

    Your comments leave the working class together as one cohesive block. In fact the working class as such has always been divided into more and less well off sections. This division changes in its compostion as capital evolves however there has always been and remains such a division. In that sense it is necessary to think about which sectors or sections of the proletariat as such (and also other sections of non-proletarians) seem to have the greatest potential for constituting a revolutionary subject during a particular epoch of capitalism.

    I think cyber warfare will be an extremely important part of any future revolutionary struggle and war. Winning over and mobilizing a section of workers in the IT field will is very relevant and important. Paying attention to Anonymous and linking a broader revolutionary strategy for power with the imprtant and righteous ways in which it resists is a great challenge for our revolutionary movement.

    However, I would question ( and I could be mistaken) the notion that this particular section of the proletariat as such can make up the backbone of a revolutionary movement before the question of power is really on the table. For this type of backbone it seems necessary to go into the lower and deeper sections of the proletariat and in that case I think it is correct to look at the emergence of a new type of precarious sub-class in relation to the epoch of capitalism we find ourselves in.

  • Guest - Keith

    Nat W,

    I am really interested in discussing this question. I agree that the working class is stratified in many ways (race, gender, skill, status, income etc).

    A couple of questions: how do people who are not in the capital relation play a leading role in transforming the capital relation?

    The social upheavals of the 1960s were very powerful but they were not revolts against capital (I would argue that they were revolts against pre-capitalist social relations) and they transformed social relations in revolutionary ways, but also in ways that capital easily adapted to.

    If we are talking about overthrowing the rule of capital then things are a little different, I think. I don't see how people outside of the capital relation can play the leading role. That has to be explained.

    here is an unstated assumption based on a certain (non-Marxist) class concept that links oppression to revolutionary potential. I see no theoretical or empirical reason to believe this. This needs thinking about and explaining, in my opinion.

    Then there is the issue that Nat raises directly going "lower and deeper" into the working class. This raises some question too. Of course, lower and deeper is crying out for more definition. Do we mean poorer? and are we maybe even prepared to ditch the idea of working class leadership for a formulation like the RCP used: "those with nothing to lose but their chains." What makes those with nothing to lose revolutionary. Generally speaking people with nothing to lose don't make good leaders, they are desperate. Besides that, what gives someone with nothing to lose a special position vis a vie capital?

    Why do the lower and deeper sections of the working class have more potential? I really dont get it. It seems self-evident to some comrades but I am baffled by it. I lived and worked with really poor people and they were the least revolutionary people I ever met. Again, I find them to be desperate. Their condition was obviously an injustice but that fact did not turn them into revolutionaries.

    I agree, Nat, that capital and capitalism evolves.

    The epoch of capitalism that required a vanguard party because the workers needed the tutelage of bourgeois intellectuals as Lenin and Kautsky argued is thankfully over. The worker who Lenin described in "What is to be done" was "low and deep," I think, but they incapable without the leadership of intellectuals drawn from other classes.

    Today the working class needs no such assistance. There are many workers who are very well educated and very capable, but like the intellectuals valued so highly by communists in the early 20th century they are not the poorest and most oppressed sector of the working class, but unlike the intellectuals of old, these women and men are a part of the working class-- they are producers of surplus value.

  • Guest - Ghan

    The notion that the IT sector constitutes a unique "commanding height" is absurd. Who manufactures the computers? Who distributes them? Who cleans the offices where IT folks work? Who maintains and repairs the telecommunications infrastructure? Would the average IT worker know how to safely repair or dismantle a power generator?

    Also the notion that the "poorest and most oppressed sector of the working class" is by definition less educated is also idiotic and insulting. Writing code is not the only skill required to make a revolution. Are you honestly going to tell me that we don't need nurses, or soldiers, or farmers, or lawyers?

  • Guest - Keith

    I would like to engage with your argument but you created a straw man. I didn't say the IT sector was "unique." That idea is absurd but it isn't mine.

    You put "poorest and most oppressed sector of the working class" in quotation marks but I never used that formulation nor did I say or imply that the poorest and most oppressed are by definition less educated.

    Why not respond to what I actually wrote?

  • Guest - Ghan

    Keith -

    You said:

    "There are many workers who are very well educated and very capable, but like the intellectuals valued so highly by communists in the early 20th century they are not the poorest and most oppressed sector of the working class"

    But the statements of yours that offended me the most were these two:

    "Why do the lower and deeper sections of the working class have more potential? I really dont get it. It seems self-evident to some comrades but I am baffled by it. I lived and worked with really poor people and they were the least revolutionary people I ever met. Again, I find them to be desperate. Their condition was obviously an injustice but that fact did not turn them into revolutionaries."

    "Generally speaking people with nothing to lose don’t make good leaders, they are desperate."

    How exactly was I misrepresenting your opinion? You state very clearly that the "well educated" segment of the work force who "are not the poorest and most oppressed sector of the working class" are the revolutionary subject and that those who are "lower and deeper" are not suitable political leaders (and in fact "are the least revolutionary people [you] have ever met") because they are too "desperate". (As if the desperate struggle for proletarian emancipation was not at the core of the political content of Marxism)

    Your position echoes that of bourgeois humanitarians who decry the "injustice" of the "condition" of oppressed people, yet put zero faith in the collective political power of oppressed people themselves. (In fact, in your own words, the possibility of the most oppressed strata of the working class producing capable political leadership is "baffling")

    You accuse me of making a "strawman", a logical fallacy, but your argument is fallaciously hinged on personal anecdotal evidence. ("I lived and worked with these people and they're the least revolutionary people I've ever met!") However, I don't discount the rhetorical power of anecdotal evidence. Here are some anecdotes from my life:

    -My mother, whose last job was a clerk at a hardware store, is such a master of applied agricultural science, she can grow a sweet potato the size of a human torso. She gained this experience not through formal education, but through recreational urban gardening in her spare time in between the demands of wage labor and unwaged domestic labor.
    -My stepfather, who is a professional landscaper, has no formal education in the field of agriculture, yet through independent Internet research has cultivated an encyclopedic knowledge of soil-science and mycology, easily equivalent to (if not surpassing) that of a PhD.
    -My step-sister, who spent her early childhood in a working-class bario, and who can only afford to go to school on a scholarship, is right now on the path to getting a master's degree in history.
    -My cousin, who goes to a public middle school in rural Appalachia, spends at least a part of her spare time researching African politics.
    -A good friend of mine who is a L.P.N., (typically a one to two year degree) once stitched up a head injury of a homeless immigrant with no health insurance, using no equipment other than a sewing needle and a pair of restaurant gloves, in the parking lot of a supermarket.
    -A good friend of mine who is a server at a "Chili's" restaurant, can play music in complex time signatures such as 12/8 and 7/8. He has no formal musical training.
    -Another good friend of mine, who is a waiter at a local restaurant chain, is a particle physics buff and can often be seen enthusiastically and accurately summarizing CERN research at various house parties in the slums. He has no formal training in the field of physics.
    -Another good friend of mine is a janitor who writes verbose and intricately crafted lyrics in his spare-time about the history of colonial Africa, a subject he happens to have an encyclopedic knowlege of. He has no formal training in the fields of music or history.
    -Another good friend of mine has been precariously employed as a waitress her whole life, spends hours of her spare time painting. Although her art is abstract, (and very emotionally evocative) she can draw photo-realistic anatomical forms. She's originally self-trained, she got her start drawing anime fan-art.
    -Another good friend of mine was employed as a cashier at "Target" most of his adult life. He is not formally trained in mathematics, and claims he's "not good at math", he can perform mathematical functions in various exponential bases. He's also very good at repairing air conditioners.
    -Another good friend of mine works a minimum wage job at a call center and lives in a tent. He is a master at chess, horticulture, carpentry, welding and wilderness survival. (Most of these skills he's picked up along a lifetime of working various blue-collar jobs) I would guess that he could probably survive at least several weeks in the wilderness without supplies despite being of old age.
    -Another friend of mine is a schizophrenic homeless alcoholic who lives in a storage shed. In his spare time he writes theological critiques of Pauline Christianity.
    -Many of my friends go to community college. At the community college I go to, students enjoy sitting around and smoking while discussing a variety of issues. I remember one time several students were comparing the literary merits of Poe and Melville. This conversation was not prompted by academic assignments, in fact the consensus among the students was that the materials assigned in the literature classes were worthless.
    -Recently I was hanging out with two good friends. One is a dishwasher at an upscale local restaurant, the other is a waiter at another local restaurant. They were frustrated that an external hard-drive was not working, so they dismantled and repaired it using nothing but a pocket-knife and a clothespin. One of these two fellows, despite living in a slum, repairs cars in his spare time. He has no formal auto-mechanical training.
    -Finally, I once met a girl who was an erotic dancer who lived in a trailer-park. She was pretty smart. Her ex-boyfriend was a professional computer programmer, who was part of Anonymous, before Anonymous was a focused, disciplined, ethically principled group. She was lamenting the stupidity of her ex-boyfriend and his friends, who had hacked into an epilepsy foundation website and reprogrammed it to play bright flashing colors whenever a visitor went to the main page of the website. (In the early days of Anon, these sort of "chaotic evil" actions were the name of the game) She said these boys didn't care about the epileptic people they hurt because their brains were "patched". (Video game terminology referring to software code that's been manually altered or reprogrammed) She commented on the folly and inhumanity of people who spend so much time with computers that they begin to reduce the complexity of the human brain to the functions of computer software. So who in that specific case is the more progressive and revolutionary person? Who would you be more willing to trust as a political leader?

  • Guest - Ghan

    My point being is that Lenin correctly assessed that dialectical materialism emerged from the material conditions of the bourgeois intelligentsia. Marx and Engels were bourgeois intellectuals who, because of their historical material circumstances, were able to synthesize German dialectics with French and English economic materialism. But it was not because they were uniquely brilliant individuals, like all men they were products of their historical time. Dialectics is understanding the dual nature of all historical circumstances. Class-forces that appear reactionary can become very revolutionary under correct circumstances. If Marx had ignored his scientific observation about the revolutionary nature of the proletariat, he would be another long-forgotten Victorian intellectual. Today we know Marx's name because his work was siezed upon with enthusiasm by the revolutionary proletarian masses themselves. It was the masses that read and understood and reprinted Capital. Marxism was not championed by the intelligentsia. And the Chinese revolution, one of the mightiest revolutions of the 20th century, was carried out by the peasantry, a class cast as reactionary by the dogmatic Marxologists of the day. And it was the intellectuals who ultimately betrayed the Chinese revolution and restored capitalism.

    Do I think that formally educated computer workers are an important revolutionary class? Of course. But there's more to a revolution than hacking into the central database of capitalism and reprogramming it. As for Anon, I remember last year when dozens of Anons were busted across the US and brought to trial. I remember the media obsessing over one Anon in particular because he was a janitor. Why is that such a surprise? Do you think when he came home in the evening he sat down and thought about the most efficient way to clean urinals?

    I've met plenty of formally educated white collar computer workers who were less concerned about the revolution and more concerned about the most efficient way to download Internet pornography. Does this mean they have no revolutionary leadership potential, as a class. And when we say things like "I've lived and worked with this segment of the working-class and they're the most counter-revolutionary blah blah"...well I've lived and worked with petit-bourgeois intellectuals my whole life and I've met some of the most counter-revolutionary individuals in that context, many of whom claim to defend revolutionary socialism. But do I think that petit-bourgeois intellectuals are doomed as a class? No, that's crude economism, the same sort of crude economism that generates mediocre socialist theoreticians who assume "white guys who lift heavy objects" are the revolutionary subjectivity, or in this case, white guys who write computer code.

  • Guest - Ghan

    I stumbled upon this by accident on Google, pretty much sums up my thoughts on this discussion:

  • Guest - Carl Davidson


    I was the editor of cyRev that published the above critique of our views. Obviously, we didn't agree with it, but it stated the views of our critics well. To be brief, we neither 'glorified' IT workers nor 'denigrated' non-IT industrial workers. We did point out that in the advanced countries, the former was growing while the latter, relatively speaking, was shrinking--but the growth in IT, in the long run, wouldn't make up for job loss in the non-IT manufacturing sector.

    I think we do better to develop, via revolutionary education and the mass line, Gramsci's notion of the 'organic intellectual' as a component of the working class, and as expressing the potential of all workers, IT and otherwise, whether they've had higher ed or not, rather than rehash the differences between the advanced workers and the intelligentsia circa 1905. The 'Modern Prince,' Gramsci's term for the revolutionary political instrument of our time, is at its core, the organized organic and revolutionary intellectuals from within the working class. Other strata will also join, but in his vision, they are the core of it.

  • Guest - bobh


    with all due respect to your impressive list of friends' skills, I suspect they all have the limitations that come with being an autodidact. I say this because I am a self-taught programmer who did this professionally before I started a formal education in the subject. I can say that with the exception of my database theory class, almost nothing I learned in a Master's program had any immediate practical use -- but taken as a whole, a systematic, formal approach to the science and then best practices overall that the program embodied gave me a much deeper understanding of the abstractions and trade-offs involved, of the hidden abstractions and designs of the tools I use, etc. that made me a better programmer.

    What does this have to do with anything? I think Keith is pointing out that Marx was a master of abstraction who got close to the "heart" of capitalism, and that a knowledge of those inner workings gives us a strategic advantage in understanding social forces that we can't get from personal experience and the experiences of those we know. A truly scientific understanding of exploitation and surplus value, when coupled to the actual experiences of oppression, is a pretty powerful thing.

    About IT workers, in the years I've been working in this field I mostly see a lot of narrow individualism and delusions about social realities, and certainly there is a lot that can be said about elitism and white privilege, etc. but consider this: everyone's talking about the importance of the still unfolding Occupy Wall Street movement (and rightfully so), but the reality is that the Wall St. firms can guard their doors and call the cops and it's business as usual. However, they depend on custom software and trading systems that have to be physically nearby (due to the limitations of the speed of light on network signals). The demands of profit means they can't just put their primary systems far away or outsource the development of highly proprietary software. Can you imagine the impact of OWS if network technicians or programmers had actually shut down trading for a couple days in support of the protests? We're a long way from that but I'm starting to hear uneasy grumbling from middle-class professionals who look around and are starting to lose confidence in the American dream.

    Historically skilled labor in America has been the most racist and the most lagging behind in consciousness; but vis-a-vis the production cycle they are the ones most able to shut it down. I suspect that given the post-60s focus on the many forms of oppression in American society many people on the left have lost sight of the strategic potential of highly-skilled workers. I think Keith is trying to remind of something important that's easy to overlook.

    On the flipside, I think the two most oppressed layers in American society are prisoners and undocumented immigrants. While there are important forms of struggle in both camps, their very defining conditions make organized resistance quite difficult, and makes leading revolutionary struggle even more difficult. That's a major topic in its own right, but my point is that while oppression does breed resistance, it does not necessarily put the oppressed in the most strategic situation to resist.

  • Guest - equalize

    There are many fields of IT and many of them have very different relationships to production that influence their class outlook. Consider two broad (and generalized) groupings of IT workers:

    Creative IT - Software engineers, programmers, web masters, system engineers, webmasters, and designers, ...
    Production IT - Support personnel, data entry, phone support, administrators, ...

    Creative IT is most associated with open source, 'hackers', and Anonymous. They are the people referenced above as relations to strategic technologies that gives them power and leverage.

    But, Creative IT people have a strong pull toward petty-bourgeois viewpoints. They tend to see their knowledge and skills as a kind of capital that sets them apart from broader sections of the working class. They are, in many ways, analogous to skilled workers in traditional production who receive higher wages and better conditions that mass-production line workers. There is a tradition among this group of comparing themselves to rock stars. The powerful influence of one's relationship to the means of production on one's world view and ideology is well demonstrated by this sector. Creative IT people tend to view their success or failure as primarily associated with their brilliance or skill in their fields. That is a petty-bourgeois viewpoint.

    Production IT people, on the other hand, have fewer of these kind of illusions. They do not have 'rock star' illusions. They still have, as a group, potentially powerful relationships to strategic technologies. But, their exercise of that power can only be exercised by collective action (even in traditional forms by organizing work stoppages or strikes). Unlike the Creative IT, they have no illusions of their power being exercised by individualistic superman-like activity.

    The influence of a class or sector's relationship to production on their ideology and world view is a more fundamental, scientific and critical (though not the only) way to assess their revolutionary potential than either a crude judgement of their level of oppression, their level of formal education, or the strategic power their position has in the productive process.

  • Guest - Nat W.

    Keith, etc.

    It is hard to say that any particular social force in this period of capitalism is not tied to the capitalist relation somehow.

    That being said, my reading of history has me thinking that it is often the declassed and decomosing elements from the oppressed sections of society that have been the core of revolutionary movements.

    In the 19th century much of the revolutionary cadre in 1848 and the first international were made up of old artisans who were losing their skill advantages due to machination and the emergence of industrial capitalism.

    In revolutionary Russia, the core of Bolshevik support came from those proletarians who still had deep roots in the countryside and were not yet settled in to the routine of factory life.

    In the United States during the late 1920s and 30s the forces attracted to the Communist Party were the unemployed and homeless, even as the party coveted the support of industrial labor who were slow to join communist ranks.

    The Spanish Bracero and the migrant farmers from the south of Spain arriving in Barcelona and living in the worst of conditions for that city were the hardcore supporters of the CNT and FAI. What about the southern rural migrant workers emigrating the South to the North of Italy serving as a core of autonomism in the 1970s. The Chinese peasant, etc.

    Precariousness has always seemed to be linked with the backbone of revolutionary forces. Thus looking for those whose lives are being uprooted currently seems like a wise start in looking for today's revolutionary subject. The international migrant, the slum dweller, the poor oft-unemployed urban dweller, those from among the petty bourgoisie who are highly educated but can't be gainfully employed during the current economic crisis.

    That is not to say that other sections of the oppressed from the proletariat and other intermediate classes won't play critical roles. I just think that history (from my readings) have shown that precarity and a revolutionary people often seem to go hand in hand.

  • Guest - Nat W.

    Stabilization and routine, accompanied by relative privilege have been conservatizing elements for the proletariat not just under capitalism but under socialism as well. There can be pull even under socialism for sections of the proletariat to become satisfied and complacent and this can serve as a fetter on pushing the revolution foward. So it maybe that even under socialism the forces at the point of production (or circulation) will not necessarily be uniformly the ideal force for going on a road toward communism. Even under socialism, it will be necessary to identify the contradictions in society, the precarity, that can serve as the impetus for advancing on the cpaitalist road. I think this is a lesson of the 21st century understood best by Mao and underpinning the initiation of the GPCR.

  • Guest - Carl Davidson

    <blockquote>I think this is a lesson of the 21st century understood best by Mao and underpinning the initiation of the GPCR.</blockquote>

    If this was a successful endeavor, you might have a stronger case. Same with the BPP and its notions here. But such was not the result. What lessons to draw then?

    It's hard to say a priori. The 'revolutionary 'organic intellectuals' of the working class will have to be developed and treasured as we find them and they find us.

  • Guest - Nat W


    My point wasn't that Mao and the GPCR solved the problem. The problem remains. The revolutionaries in China did begin to understand and attempt to work on contradictions that up until that point hadn't been recognized or acknowledged in regard to socialism as transition period.

  • Guest - Keith

    I do think you misunderstand my point. I was challenging an assumption that the poorest and most oppressed sectors of the working class, the "lowest and deepest" are the most revolutionary or backbone of the revolutionary movement and working class organization.

    I asked what is the basis for this assumption as it doesn't jive with my experience and it seems that the assumption is only dogmatically asserted with some appeal to unmediated experience.

    When this assumption goes unchallenged, as it usually does, it is not long before the working class is replaced by "those with nothing to lose but their chains" or some other new formulation that is not based in a theoretical understanding of capital's development.

    Nat W,
    I appreciate your response. What I mean by the capital relation is not that it somehow effects everyone's life but that the working class is directly in the relation. Like the commodity the capital relation has two aspects. 1, Marx calls "constant capital" which are the means of production, and 2. Marx calls variable capital which is living labor. Labor in the capital relation produces surplus value.

    Marx makes a very specific and detailed theoretical argument that explains how workers in the production process along with capital's own tendency to dispel living labor from the production develops towards the dissolution of this relation and eventually "blows it sky-high" as Marx put it. Marx also discusses the increasing importance of scientific labor and the decreasing importance of manual labor (repairing a power generator would only be considered manual labor by someone who has never considered it carefully).

    Marx makes arguments about how capitalism will develop.

    Nat W. is making a argument based on historical example.

    I don't find the historical argument compelling. Mostly because it rests on assumptions that don't take into account historical change and capitalist development.

    The original post is the worse possible example of this error based on a bizarre and self-evidently wrong claim:

    "Instead of reinvesting profits on labor-saving technology and the expansion of production, capital found that if it could rationalize the circulation of products and services for sale, it could increase profits by increasing the speed with which it brought goods to market. In other words, the more and faster you can sell, the more you can profit. The result, according to the article, was a shift in focus from the workplace to the circuits of capital–global trade and international finance."

    We have gone through a period of radical an rapid technological change. Even mind boggling technological change. I have to doubt the sense of the person who penned the lines in the original post.

  • Guest - Carl Davidson

    Moreover, it was the new technologies of communication that made rapid 365/24/7 financial trading feasible on a large scale.

  • Guest - Nat W.

    I'm not unfamiliar with Marx's argument, though I would include the fact that Marx's thinking on the revolutionary subject evolved over the course of his life (note his correspondence with Vera Zasulich on the transformative potential of the Russian Mir). My historical examples span the course of over 150 years, and seem to remain pretty consistent in the face huge changes to in the history of capital. I also try to provide examples of potential subjects in the current historical moment based on the preacarity of their situation and the transitional and uncertain nature of their daily existence.

    The idea that scientific labor begins to trump productive labor in it's importance to capital accumulation only gives credence to the notion of a dramatic and perhaps qualitative rise of a larger section of the population living uder precarious circumstances. Even of we forget about past history and look solely at the past two or so years we can look at the heigthened level of resistance and can make a strong argument that the heart and sole of this resitance has been the precarious elements. This doesn't mean that the role of scientific or productive labor for that matter is void or that their entry into struggle has no significance. Nor I am implying the latter's role is not significant in either capital accumulation or building socialism.

    A precarious class as such is as much a necessity for the capital accumlation process as scientific labor. The points that Equalize makes here are important regarding the different forces with in the IT sector and why the relation to production of some may be more conducive to developing a revolutionary worldview. I'm making an argument for the importance of the precarious classes based on history yes, but also on a particluar reading of the social relation of such forces in the production process and essentially becuase they have much less if not "nothing to lose." That seems to me to be the correct position.

  • Guest - Ghan

    @Bobh -

    "On the flipside, I think the two most oppressed layers in American society are prisoners and undocumented immigrants. While there are important forms of struggle in both camps, their very defining conditions make organized resistance quite difficult, and makes leading revolutionary struggle even more difficult. That’s a major topic in its own right, but my point is that while oppression does breed resistance, it does not necessarily put the oppressed in the most strategic situation to resist."

    This is a misunderstanding of the concept of strategy. Strategy is not sitting around pondering the most ideal situation, strategy is dealing with reality.

    If oppression breeds resistance, it is safe to assume that the most oppressed classes have the most potential in terms of mass-resistance. History attests to this over and over again.

    It is not strategic for the most oppressed to sit and wait for the more privileged strata of the proletariat to rescue them. (Remember when Trotsky thought the socialist United States of Europe would save the world?)

    @Keith -

    "I asked what is the basis for this assumption as it doesn’t jive with my experience"

    Is personal experience the sole limitation of revolutionary investigation? No, we must analyze history. You fail to analyze history. You simply contrast random statements made by Marx with your personal negative experiences with certain strata. This is very demagogic.

    "...some other new formulation that is not based in a theoretical understanding of capital’s development."

    There are mountains of theory written on the relationship between capital and patriarchy, (starting with Engels' "Origin of the Family") or capital and national oppression, (Marx himself wrote "I long believed that it would be possible to overthrow the Irish regime through English working-class ascendancy . . . more thorough study has now convinced me of the exact opposite. The English working class will never accomplish anything before it has got rid of Ireland. The lever must be applied in Ireland.") on the historical role of prisons, immigration, etc. You're choosing to ignore theory which doesn't suit your premise.

  • Guest - Carl Davidson

    I think another factor to throw into the hopper here is what we might call the 'most disappointed' strata. A number of studies have shown that the most active agents of change come from those, while not necessarily among the most oppressed in various ways, do come from those who have had their hopes for change or better conditions raised, even if they were already relatively high, and then saw those hopes blocked. I would guess that a good number of today's OWSers, as well as insurgent trade unionists, fit here. It also explains why a country like Norway in the 1970s could have the largest of all the European or North American ML parties, relative to population.

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