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Reinventing the working class to suit the needs of European capital

2022-01-17 | Critique of ideology

The European bourgeoisie has been testing a new discourse on the working class for some years now. The simple denial of its existence, overwhelming since the 1990s, was already becoming insufficient before the pandemic. A new message was needed. The broadcasting of "Le temps des ouvriers", a documentary originally commissioned by the Franco-German channel Arte, throughout last year in practically the whole EU, provides us with a clue as to the shape of the new discourse we will be bombarded with in the coming years.

What is the origin of all this?

Macron expounds in the Douai Renault factory the benefits of the repatriation of production and promises the end of the industrial shortage, anticipating a new strategy against living and working conditions.

Macron expounds in the Douai Renault factory the benefits of the repatriation of production and promises the end of the industrial shortage, anticipating a new strategy against living and working conditions.

Not coincidentally, the new official discourse on the working class is being tested in a French documentary. At the end of 2018 the first signs of class mobilization, even within the extraneous mold of the "Yellow Vests", were enough for the French bourgeoisie to sound all its alarms.

In 2019, strikes such as that of railroad workers were starting to break union control and mass mobilizations against pension reform signaled that the discourse hammered on since the 1990s about the "disappearance of the working class" was increasingly difficult to maintain when even a part of the university student body was beginning to define mobilizations in class terms.

At that time the European ruling classes were trying out the incorporation of feminism and environmentalism into state ideology... but in addition to the fact that the identitarianist mold imported from the US generates quite a few internal contradictions, neither feminism nor environmentalism could directly confront the impact of what the bourgeoisie feared most: a wave of struggles and strikes spreading across the continent and overtaking the trade unions.

Suddenly, invocations of a supposed "working middle class" filled the speeches of all European politicians. Macron appeared in Douai surrounded by trade unionists, in order to peddle a new "sacred union" by the "repatriation" of productive chains. The EU was resurrecting its forgotten "social commitment" to decorate its precarious agenda. Even in countries where unions are weaker, such as Spain, "social dialogue" with unions and employers was revived and moved to the forefront to legitimize the new packages against pensions and working conditions.

The outline of a new discourse on the working class

The economy was more or less always the same, the important thing is the factory

Recuperating the images of past exploitation in order to hide the present, is part of the new discourse on the working class.

Recuperating the images of past exploitation in order to hide the present, is part of the new discourse on the working class.

Any ideological operation which tries to blur or deny the existence of the proletariat as a class needs to deny the existence of capitalism and even deny the existence of differentiated modes of production throughout history.

Even the most basic way of defining capitalism is uncomfortable for this purpose. To characterize the system as a mode of production based on the exploitation of wage labor necessarily implies the existence of a massive class of wage workers. If, as is evident, wage labor is still the fundamental institution of society and is universally widespread, there is still capitalism and there is still a universally exploited working class.

How does the new discourse on the working class resolve this? In two moves:

By shamelessly blurring the differences between modes of production and presenting an eternal capitalism throughout history. This is the line opened for example by Piketty in his book and documentary "Capital in the 21st Century". For him to start by stating that capital before the French Revolution was "land" is, evidently, a conceptual barbarity: land was not even a commodity, it could not be bought and sold. How could it be capital?

We have seen something similar in all the recent media "concern" about slavery in Rome. Not only do they misleadingly reduce the percentage of slaves in the population of the Roman Empire - limiting it to the percentage of the city of Rome and making the countryside invisible despite it being an agrarian mode of production - but they also deny the central character of the institution of slavery and present the economy of slavery and feudalism as something they were not: mercantile economies.

The reality is that neither ancient slavery nor feudalism were centered on the production of commodities, even if there was a certain marginal commercial circuit and had some islands of wage labor. The dominant form of exploitation was not fundamentally economic in either system, it was not based on "free" exchanges. It was the direct exaction of labor and its fruits.

That is why slavery in the slave-owning mode of production has nothing to do with feudal slavery nor, much less with the slavery under capitalism which flourished in the South of the USA and the Caribbean and which, well inserted in the set of capitalist relations that was being globally established, served the bourgeoisie to accelerate accumulation.

To equate them, of course, is hardly innocent. Despite the ahistorical image conveyed by Anglo-Saxon audiovisual productions, ancient slavery did not have a "racial" character. Nor did feudal slavery until very late. Even in the 16th century, there were more Europeans and North Africans in the famous "bagnes" of Algiers - mass prisons to negotiate kidnappings and slaves - than black victims of the then nascent overseas slave trade.

In this respect, "Le temps des ouvriers" represents a certain innovation, not an innocent one either, and certainly no less falsifying in historical terms. It presents the cotton boom as the origin of industrialization and explains it in terms of the rise of slavery in the American South.

It is true that industrialization found its first great industry in textiles, but not in cotton, rather in wool. It was the massive arrival in the cities of peasants expropriated when the communal lands were broken up, which since the sixteenth century began to create the quasi-free labor that served as the basis for the industrialization of the eighteenth century, not the existence of slaves on the other side of the Atlantic.

In fact, cotton remained a luxury product until the 19th century, much more expensive than wool. It was precisely the rising cost of American slaves that led to the invention and extension of Whitney's cotton gin, which drastically lowered cotton prices by transforming the main raw material of a textile industry that had already been massive, manufacturing-based and capitalist for almost a century.

Why such a crude counterfeit? First of all to bring Anglo-Saxon racialism into the new discourse on the working class, linking American slavery to the birth of the working class and industrialization. Without slavery in the U.S. South, we are told, there would have been no mass industrialization and no proletariat.

But the aim of twisting the historical narrative so much goes further: by blurring capitalism and its origins, the new discourse on the working class can posit the redefinition of the proletariat that gives meaning to the whole endeavor.

The factory, instead of capitalism, supposedly creates and defines the working class

Volkswagen factory in Wolfsburg (opposite the Ritz-Carlton). The factory employs 60,500 workers who produce more than 850,000 cars per year on an area of 6.5 million m2.

Volkswagen factory in Wolfsburg (opposite the Ritz-Carlton). The factory employs 60,500 workers who produce more than 850,000 cars per year on an area of 6.5 million m2.

Strikingly, in "Le temps des ouvriers" there is not a single reference to the agrarian proletariat or to the workers in workshops and small businesses, the largest groups of workers in Europe as a whole during the 20th century, and even less to those in service companies. Its four installments insist time and again on presenting the working class of capitalism, the proletariat, as an exclusively manufacturing class.

In this way the documentary can unambiguously present the proletariat as a product of the factory, not of capitalist relations. This is the core of the message. If the working class is a factory class, the end of the centrality of the factory in the European productive structure would mean the end of the proletariat.

Although the message is explicit in the documentary, in fact its last installment is called "the destruction", the director and ideologue behind the work wants to leave, conveniently, the question open... while at the same time he reaffirms the main idea: the working class is now, in Europe, a "minority".

Has the working class disappeared? Everyone asks the question, no one has the answer. This is part of the reason why I wanted to find out what this story could teach us and how it could surprise us.

I wanted to renew the conventional look we have on it and find what is alive in it, but I did not expect to find such strong echoes of contemporary reality. Exploitation, in any case, has not disappeared; what has certainly receded is the collective awareness we have of it, and therefore the means to fight it.

Statistically, in France, workers still constitute one-fifth of the working population.

Stan Neumann, director of "Le temps des ouvriers" in Arte..

What does he mean when he says that the working class is one-fifth of the French population? The math only works out if we reduce the working class to factory workers. After removing in one stroke of a pen day laborers, riders, clerks, waiters, sales clerks, programmers, cleaners, nurses, technical workers, etc. etc., the working class becomes a social minority in France. But in these terms, when and where would it have been a majority?

In fact, the whole operation depends on something that, if we think about it, is absurd. Capitalism is a system of exploitation of one class by another. The ruling class as a whole, through a complex system linking the state, the commodity markets and the capital markets, organizes social labor and exploits all labor. The class of exploited workers is, for this very reason, a single class.

Is a worker who "is assigned" to work in the maintenance of the conditions of exploitation -public health care, education, etc.- or in tasks which are not oriented to the production of commodities for the market -such as house cleaning- less part of the exploited class than a factory worker? The gaze of the entomologist who classifies pinned insects according to small morphological differences, has never been useful to understand social realities and class divisions. No matter how much academics love it.

A certain subjectivity, an identity, rather than a social situation, is what would define the working class

Workers on the quays of the Seine in 1936.

Workers on the quays of the Seine in 1936.

If the "first blade" arbitrarily restricts the working class to Europe and the second tries to separate the factory workers from the rest of the class, the third, on this arbitrarily fragmented and atomized basis, converts the alienation and ideological subjugation which all exploited classes are burdened with by definition into an argument to question their very existence, or at the very least, to deny them the possibility of political agency.

But the nature of work has changed. Atomization and individualization have destroyed the old solidarities, the old working class culture; at least in its most visible aspects, because it continues to irrigate our conception of "living together".

Stan Neumann, director of "Le temps des ouvriers" in Arte

Back to an old trope of the academic petty bourgeoisie: what is "admirable" about the working class is the "culture of solidarity" that it was able to develop in the factory.

What makes the proletariat a revolutionary class is what it must do to carry forward the struggle for universal human needs, the only needs that its position allows it to claim. In other words, the proletariat is revolutionary not because of what it does or thinks at any given moment, but because it carries within itself, as a negation of everything with which capitalism defines it, the need for communism, the leap to a society of liberated work and abundance governed by universal human needs.

It is its demand in practice for a world organized for the direct satisfaction of human needs what makes the working class a historical class, a political subject. Not its present and its past of exploitation expressed through a culture of resistance.

The exaltation of a "working class culture", its identification with "really existing" class consciousness, is much more than a myopic error and an excuse to "nationalize" the working class. If all "culture" always fulfills a conservative role because it limits those who participate in it, reproducing the conditions that gave rise to it, identifying the revolutionary class with the culture in which it participated as an exploited class is simply reactionary.

"Workers' culture" ties workers to their past - exploitation - distancing them from their future - communism.

"Worker identity" is not class consciousness (in Spanish), 5/7/2018.

The whole vindication of the "lost factory culture" on which "Le temps des ouvriers" elaborates could not sound more hypocritical. The documentary insists at one point that the working class is an "identity" and that without identity there is no "consciousness."

But what consciousness is it referring to? Watching the documentary, it appears to refer to a certain aesthetic, to a certain pride of collective belonging. But nothing more. Certainly not class consciousness. Because class consciousness means above all to become aware of the "the maximum needs and possibilities historically available", and this is what in the end the new discourse on the working class -as it could not be otherwise- is denying.

The workers' revolution was a historical failure... and it will not come back

Demonstration last Tuesday of teachers in Marseilles during the teaching strike.

Demonstration last Tuesday of teachers in Marseilles during the teaching strike.

Because in the end it could not avoid taking the bull by its horns - well shaved by all the previous operations - and facing the taboo subject: revolution...

At least, in its historical revision there is a novelty. The Spanish Revolution is recognized as such, in spite of being attributed to anarchism; Berlin 53, Budapest 56 and the mass strikes in the East are recognized as workers' insurrections, making clear the antagonism between Stalinism and proletariat, although Stalinism's nature as an expression and battering ram of the counterrevolution in Russia, in Spain and in the world is concealed...

This history is inseparable from the idea of revolution. From end to end, from generation to generation, the working memory transmits the history of the insurrection, from 1789 to 1985, the year of the last great strike of the British miners, defeated by Margaret Thatcher four years after the crushing of Solidarnosc in Poland.

Stan Neumann, director of "Le temps des ouvriers" in Arte

But this attempt at honesty, so different from the ideology of Anglo-Saxon historical documentary channels, is short-lived. It is, after all, a matter of "recognizing the legacy" in order to try to redirect it towards the quiet and safe haven of "social justice" and democracy.

All these revolutions have failed. However, in this long succession of defeats, the energy never disappears. There is something indestructible in what tells this story, all these stories. These values that the world of work has promoted and made heard - solidarity, social justice, the demand to treat every human being as a human being... - seem to me more essential than ever.

Stan Neumann, director of "Le temps des ouvriers" in Arte

The usual program: fracturing and subordinating the working class

Poster of "Le temps des ouvriers", an outline of a new approach to the working class by the European bourgeoisie.

Poster of "Le temps des ouvriers", an outline of a new approach to the working class by the European bourgeoisie.

All this effort to twist history and all the complicated ideological operations end up producing an inevitably confusing result. What does the European bourgeoisie really want to tell us? It has all the appearance of a first attempt, of a "work in progress" in which some elements are still to be sorted out.

But a move similar to that of the main trunk of Stalinism during its attempts at reconversion in the nineties is already outlined: the working class has not disappeared but it no longer occupies a social centrality allowing it to have a political expression of its own and even less, a revolutionary project.

The consequence is well known and is part of the melody sung today by everyone from Biden to Sánchez, from Peronism to the EU: resuscitate the unions and integrate "values" and "culture" into the new state ideologies: feminism, environmentalism and even indigenism and racialism if necessary.

In short: fracture, deny and restrain; redefine the class over the factory, reconvert the class situation into ideological identity and resend what is left to the unions. Objective: to dynamite from within and redirect what they are already beginning to doubt that they can contain indefinitely from the outside simply by denying their existence.