Workplace and community

A letter exchange between Trotwatch and Subversion in 1995 about class struggle at work and in the community and the changing nature of the working class.

Dear Subversion,

Thanks for issues 14 and 15 of the paper - nearly all of which have now been distributed. A lot of good stuff in both. I'd like to talk to you more about your particular class theory. Despite what maybe something of a conflict of emphasis between the Revolutionaries in the Workplace article, and your editorial reply to Mark in the current issue, I understand that, generally speaking, you perceive workplace struggles as the primary site of class struggle: because this is the place where surplus value is extracted. I'm not convinced by the apparently inherent distinctions which you see as separating and distinguishing work from community struggles, however. And while a vast amount of capitalist bollox (both academic and populist) has been churned out about the much maligned and feared underclass, I think you dismiss the idea a little out of hand.

The nature of employment, the organisation of work, and the management of the workforce are, without doubt, currently being re-shaped. Some of the changes the capitalist class is seeking are being contested - sometimes more consciously so than others - other changes are being forced through in the face of minimal opposition, despite the potentially devastating impact that they threaten.

Its not necessary to accept the post-Fordist class-is-dead bollox to understand that if the nature of capitalist work is being overhauled (evidenced by the growth of part-time work; team working; short term contracting; sub contracting; the growth of personal contracts; the loss of long-term security for many workers; the emergence in some sectors of a core-periphery split amongst workers employed by an operation) then the structure of the working class - and relations between sections of it - may also be redefined as these materials conditions change. In light of this, I think it would be useful for you to discuss the controversy of the underclass more fully in a future issue. You may of course argue that the real spread of such changes is minimal, and that growth of long term unemployment and precarious temporary work is more the result of cyclical rather than structural changes in western capitalism. Whatever, I'd like to see you elaborate your critique.

Trotwatch

SUBVERSION REPLY:

The issues you raise were the subject of much discussion at recent SUBVERSION meetings. We are still a long way from drawing definite conclusions but there are some points we'd like to make.

You rightly detect some differences, at least in emphasis, in various articles that have appeared in SUBVERSION recently.

Our starting point is a recognition that it is the division between the working class - those excluded from control of the means of production and exploited by the minority capitalist class, which does control the means of production, which is at the heart of the contradictions of modern society .

It is the struggle between these two classes (alongside and connected to the struggle between different groups of capitalists) which is the motor of change in capitalism and which provides the potential for its revolutionary overthrow and the creation of a communist society.

However the nature and composition of the working class has changed over time in the process of this struggle, and is set to change still further. To be effective as a conscious revolutionary minority we need to better understand these changes. Ignoring for the moment the misplaced use of the term community, it is our view that the polarised community versus workplace debate is false and misleading.

There is a strong case to be made for understanding the whole of the capitalist physical terrain, as the workplace, in so far as production has become more physically dispersed while at the same time more socially integrated.

To illustrate this simply, take a situation where one workplace might contain integrated production, from design, through processing, transport to sale and incorporating in-house training and medical attention etc, to a situation where each of these elements is carried out by different organisations in widely different locations, the workers none-the-less remain part of the same process contributing to the same end product.

In a broad sense capitalist production is much more social in practice than ever before. Thus the whole of the working class is exploited by the whole of the capitalist class in a very real way - it isn't just a marxist theoretical abstraction. Process workers, transport workers, teachers, hospital workers, communications workers, houseworkers etc etc all play a part in the production and reproduction of capital.

But of course struggle in practice has to start somewhere, either in a particular workplace or a particular geographical area. Whatever the starting point, it is important both for limited gains in the short run and ultimately for the revolutionary overthrow of the system, for struggles to extend both geographically and socially. It is the socially integrated nature of capitalism as described above which provides the material basis for struggles to extend and change character in the process - to become revolutionary.

Has the socially integrated nature of capitalism and the common interests of the working class as a whole been broken by the emergence of a so-called underclass? In parts of Africa, South America and elsewhere, huge numbers of people have been driven off the land through war, famine and commercialisation onto the fringes of major urban conurbations. None of this is new, but capitalism has found it more and more difficult to integrate these people into the production process and in some cases has created generations who have no experience of wage labour.

For those in the worst conditions such as some of the semi-permanent refugee camps, it is difficult to see any collective struggle emerging that might form the spark of anything wider. On the other hand, there is experience of collective struggle among some of the shanty town dwellers of South Africa which are more hopeful. In Europe, North America and elsewhere there has also been a growth of long term unemployment, often concentrated in certain inner-city areas and extending to second generations. Whilst there are some similarities between the situation of these two groups of people, there are important differences. Firstly in numbers, the long term unemployed here are a much smaller proportion of the working class. They are also still at this stage more socially integrated into the wider working class. Ironically it is precisely the extension of more general insecurity among the working class through the extension of short-time working, part-time working, temporary contracts, home-working etc combined with the states social programmes which may well limit the growth of any permanent hard-core group of long term unemployed.

These same trends may well also see a shift in emphasis from mass struggles focussed on the individual workplace to a more generalised geographical focus, although at this moment in time there are still, across the world, plenty of large workplaces that will continue to provide important starting points of struggle.

Clearly some groups of workers are more likely to enter into struggle than others at particular points in time. Equally some struggles have more potential to extend than others, depending on their objective relationship to the process of capitalist production and reproduction.

It seems to us that broadly speaking struggles focussed on work, wages and working conditions and on the social wage, whether in the form of benefits or services in kind will continue to be the backbone of class struggle.

In the past and up to the present day these struggles have taken the form of strikes, riots, occupations, rent strikes, mass boycotts and non-payments etc. New forms of struggle may arise reflecting the charging nature of work and its physical location.

Struggles focussed on other issues such as opposition to road building (the arteries of the production process) have less obvious potential for extension - though argument among revolutionaries on this still rages (see Aufheben no. 3 for a discussion of this).

At the other extreme for instance the opposition to live cattle exports, whatever you think of it, is clearly quite peripheral to the development of mass opposition to capitalism.

It also seems true that the more peripheral a struggle, not only is there less potential for extension on a class basis, but the opposite is true, they are more open to co-optation for capitalist interests.

The issue, in summary, is not where a struggle starts but what is its potential for extension geographically and socially - what is its potential to influence the wider class movement.