Class is the key to socialist politics

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From Clarion issue 16: this is a heavily abridged version of RMT activist and Clarion contributor Daniel Randall’s article in response to Paul Mason’s recent piece on openDemocracy, ‘Labour must become the party of people who want to change the world, not just Britain’.

Mason argues that there can no longer be any privileged position for organised labour as an agent of socialist change. Randall’s article on openDemocracy, of which we print only about a quarter here, responds to that question specifically, leaving aside other aspects of Mason’s argument. He argues that the working class remains the only force that can challenge capitalism.

Paul Mason’s 2007 book Live Working Or Die Fighting: How The Working Class Went Global described how advanced capitalism had globalised capitalist class relations.

The process has been recent, and spectacular. An internationalised proletariat has only recently become the world’s biggest single class; there are more wage workers in South Korea now than there were in the entire world when Marx and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto.

But the Paul Mason of 2018 faces in a quite different direction to the Paul Mason of 2007. He is now one of the figureheads of what might be termed a new “post-class left”, writers, commentators, and activists who no longer believe in any privileged role for the working class as an agent of socialist change.

Mason argues that: “Networked technology, combined with high levels of education and personal freedom have created a new historical subject across most countries and cultures which will supplant the industrial working class in the progressive project.”

What has caused Mason to give up on the idea of the centrality of class? The proletariat, it seems, has let him down. “It persistently refused to play the role of capitalism’s gravedigger”, he complains.

Some facts appear to lend weight to Mason’s argument. While new and powerful labour movements have emerged around the world, on the whole labour is weak and on the defensive.

It is certainly the case that the past generation has been characterised by defeat and decline for organised labour in Britain. The trade union movement is now half the size it was at its 1979 peak, with vastly fewer elected workplace reps and shop stewards. In 2016, strike levels were at their lowest since records began. In 2017, after a period of stagnation, trade union membership fell.

The post-class left is not a new phenomenon. It is a political tradition with a long history, that reasserts itself in periods of retreat for organised labour. In 2017, Paul Mason won the inaugural Ellen Meiksins Wood Prize. Three decades previously, the Marxist theorist after whom the prize was named wrote The Retreat From Class, a superb polemic against those careering away from the idea of working-class agency in the direction of, amongst other things, liberal “social movement” politics.

What appears to underlie much of Mason’s wider perspective is a morass of theorisation that contends that capitalism itself has entered a new condition. Sometimes referred to as “information capitalism” and “cognitive capitalism”, the claim is that individualised cognitive labour, based on interface with digital systems, has replaced the collective production processes of “industrial” capitalism.

Certainly, information technology has changed the nature of a great deal of waged labour. But a dockworker who operates a semiautomated crane from a digital workstation is still engaged in an industrial process and in a wage relation.

For all his insistence that it must be supplanted as the agent of socialist change, Mason makes little attempt to account for what has actually happened to the working class, or where he alleges it has gone.

“The bargaining power of the individual worker is weakened by globalisation” he says, without making any attempt to substantiate this.

Globalised production process and supply chains in fact provide the potential for a greatly increased bargaining power: what is lacking is a subjective element, an organisation of workers across the supply chain that can take collective and coordinated action.

And secondly, it is not the “industrial working class”, or any other section or subset,that Marxists posit as the key agent of change, but simply the working class as a whole: all those live by selling their labour power, and the social collective around them. Yes, certain industries,such as transport, logistics, and telecommunications, may have more strategic significance within capitalist economic functioning than others.

But it is neither the case that workers outside these strategic industries are powerless, nor that the strategic industries themselves have disappeared.

Imagine a union organised across the retail sector, organising shop workers, warehouse and distribution workers, and drivers. A strike by such a union would have an immense economic and social impact. Many of those workers might, according to some of Mason’s categories, also be “networked individuals”, in the sense of being connected by their common usage of various social media platforms, for example. Many are young. Many are migrants. All of these conditions and identities are important, but it is their position as workers, and their involvement in the production process and a wage relation, that fundamentally coheres them and gives them socially-transformative power.

Mason also cites “precarious work” and “a culture of individualism that would have been obnoxious even to the dockers of Limehouse fighting over halfpennies on the streets in 1889” as factors that have destroyed the working class’s power to affect socialist change. Neoliberalism has indeed had ideological and cultural impacts (the “culture of individualism” Mason refers to), but there is something of imaginary-golden-age reminiscence about his Limehouse dockers “fighting over halfpennies on the streets”.

In any case, those dockers were no strangers to precarious work. Indeed, the organisation of employment on the docks were heavily based in precarious hiring practises and zero-hour contracts. Far from being a uniquely new development, “precarity” has been a feature of capitalism, since its inception.

The immediate backdrop for Mason’s essay is the Corbyn phenomenon in the Labour Party. Still immensely febrile and in flux, this movement has seen hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young, flood into the Labour Party.

In this sense, Mason is right to aspire to a party that is both itself a social movement and part of a wider social movement. But to overthrow or even meaningfully confront capitalism, that social movement needs deep roots in capitalism’s engine room: the workplace.

A return to class on this basis can move past the psephological triangulations between the perceived wants and desires of “metropolitan”, socially-liberal workers and youth on the one hand, and those of ex-“industrial”, socially-conservative workers in the north and Midlands on the other.

A democratically and politically transformed Labour Party could seek to organise, represent, and empower both groups on the basis of a shared class interest.

The working class has never really resembled the picture painted by both Stalinists and Blairite “authentocrats” like Stephen Kinnock, centred on an archetypal male, white, essentialised worker, in a manual industrial job, part of a “stable community”.

That was not the working class of New Unionism; it is not the working class of today. Our class comprises migrant workers, women workers, LGBT workers, benefit claimants and the unemployed, and women engaged in unpaid domestic labour.

A revitalised and transformed labour movement must become the organised expression of our class as a whole.

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1 Comment

  1. Whilst I can see the argument that the British working class has the potential (nothing more than) to be a cohesive central force for transforming the UK, alongside more diverse economic social groups. The notion of an international working class is strange. There is simply no prospect of a group consciousness of an agricultural farm labourer in Portugal acting in industrial unity with an Icelandic fisherman or a German Car Worker. It is a difficult enough prospect to get train drivers in Stoke to act in unity with those in London – although that should remain a challenge worth fighting for.

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