Farewell to the Working Class?
In 1980 Austrian born philosopher André Gorz wrote his book ‘Farewell to the Working Class’. It it he argued that the working class was no longer the central element in any sort of struggle for a new, and more just society, and that it had been replaced by a whole host of other movements, and interest groups, ranging from the women’s movement to the ecological movement. It’s a claim that has been repeated many times, by many people over the last four decades, and today seems more powerful than ever. In today’s world, where traditional industries have been decimated, and the labour process has been reorganised to a massive extent these ideas have gained more, and more currency.
It’s quite ironic in a way that Gorz wrote his book during a period of massive working class struggle. A year earlier in 1979, the British government had been toppled in what was then the largest mass strike in history, and the Shah of Iran had been overthrown by massive strikes of Iranian workers. In 1980 itself workers in Poland began the third massive strike wave in ten years. No matter, according to Gorz, the working class was dead.
Today, these arguments can seem a lot more compelling than they did at the time. Traditional industries have been destroyed all across Europe, and moved to the ‘third world’. Places that once had factories, and workplaces employing tens of thousands of workers, now have people working in places like call centres, and other precarious jobs. Where people were once promised ‘a job for life’, now they don’t know if they’ll have a job in the morning.
In the face of all this evidence, it seems reasonable to assume that the working class is finished. After all, we don’t see muscular men in overalls around doing physical work anymore. The idea though that because this is no longer true, the working class is finished relies on a fundamental misunderstanding of what class actually is.
Class isn’t about whether you have a job in a factory, whether you drink craft beer, or whether you like opera, or not. It’s about the relationship of humans to the means of production, basically people’s position at work. Society is divided into two basic classes. There are those who own businesses and companies, and those who work in them for a wage, or salary.
Both of these groups have different material interests. The worker, regardless of what she believes, has a material interest in earning more money, and working less. The owner has an interest in paying the workers less money, and in them working harder. Obviously these two interests are clearly opposed to each other, and this opposition is what creates class struggle.
Of course, on her own, one worker is just an isolated individual with no power to exert against her boss. Workers’ power lies, not in the individual, but in collective strength. While one worker alone is incapable of defending her living standards against the boss, who is obviously much more powerful, collectively workers, through coming together to take action in defence of their wages, and living conditions, are capable of successfully fighting, and winning.
It’s the weakness of the working class today, after the defeats that it suffered in the 1980s, and the restructuring of industry since then, that leads people to question whether it is still a force within society. Certainly, not all of these people who would have us believe that the working class is dead ignore it completely. For the more sophisticated proponents of this ideology, class is included within their grand rainbow coalition of oppressed groups, which they think can change society. In their opinion, the working class is merely another identity group, mixed in with women, ethnic minorities, the disabled, gays, and transsexuals. Alongside sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia, and transphobia, we now have ‘classism’ added to the mix.
Class is in a completely different strata to these other groups though. For a start, except women, all of them are minorities, whereas the working class is the overwhelming majority of people in society. More importantly though, socialists want to stop discrimination against women, ethnic minorities, gays, and transsexuals. We don’t want to put women in power over men, or gays in power over straights. What we do advocate though is workers’ power.
This suggests that there is something different about class, and it’s not just another form of oppression. In fact workers aren’t oppressed as workers. They are exploited, which is something rather different. Exploitation is making profits out of labour. It’s something that unites the working class, and gives it a common interest against employers. Whether you are male or female, black or white, or gay or straight, your boss still makes money from your labour. It’s something that unites people regardless of ‘identity’ into a majority within society. Whereas identity can serve as something that divides people into smaller and smaller groups, a collective struggle of all those who are exploited has the potential to overcome these divisions and build a collectivity, which is able to act against oppression in its common interest. It is that majority, acting in its own interests, which has the potential to change the world, and create a new world, free from not only exploitation, but also oppression.