Paul Petard on the fetishisation of proletariat (2004).
Today, are any struggles that might exist for communistic social relations exclusively the struggle of just one class, the famous grandiose "Proletariat" as "class for itself"? Or in reality, do pro-communistic struggles by necessity involve diverse radical social movements and awkward material struggles, which are likely in practise to contain elements from more than one "class"? Or is it the movement itself which defines the class?
In which case what are we to make of the conflicts in social and economic interests to be found in practise within the various movements and struggles? Can all questions of social difference and conflict be reduced exclusively to a question of "class"? Is there a "real movement" one can really put ones finger on, or is it just a romantic myth? And does the marxist mythology of the universal revolutionary "Proletariat", and total "Communism" after the "Revolution", bear any relation to the real need for practical solidarity and practical struggle in the present, however imperfect these may be?
Is there any good reason why what remains of small farmers, peasants, self employed artisans, permanently unemployed and so on, shouldn't be included in the struggles for communistic social relations alongside wage labourers in revolt? Despite growing encroachment and enclosure and dispossession it is not yet the case that all these people are fully proletarianised and fully absorbed into wage labour. Nonetheless, is it not the case that many of them are still capable of seeing the need for, and having a desire for, communistic relations? And struggles don't just stand by and wait for the supposedly convenient moment when dispossession of virtually everyone is complete, they break out anyway while the process is still going on.
Sometimes small farmers, peasants and artisans are capable of being pro-communistic, and this isn't necessarily dependent on their proletarianisation. The peasant has an objective direct interest in resisting the exploitation of the landlord and the userer even while they are still a peasant, and they might see the overall need for communistic social relations from the point of view of petit-bourgeois rationality. At this point the vulgar Marxist would jibe that the peasants and their friends aren't strong enough on their own to form a class capable of leading a revolution against the bourgeoisie. However the depressing evidence of recent years unfortunately suggests that a similar jibe could now be made about any supposedly universal revolutionary "Proletariat".
Also would it not also be useful for social revolts to aim to bring in and include some of the small farmers, who could provide good food for the social revolt to eat? You certainly won't get good healthy food from the ecodisaster of big industrial agribusiness, whether controlled by the capitalists or even by collective workers' self-management?
Today is it not the case that when social revolt breaks out it is not so much any more about forming and building class but more about destroying class? What it forms is less likely to be a clunky tanky "class-party" but instead a radical insurgent diverse mass of humanity. The bog standard ultra-left Marxist formulation that the "Proletariat" as the "universal" class comes together as a "class for itself" to "overthrow" Capital, impose the "Dictatorship of the Proletariat", and in the process succeeds in abolishes itself as a class, is a bag of very awkward and not at all satisfactorily explained contradictions. In reality there is a problem of class formation, and in reality there is never a perfectly fully formed Proletariat for itself.
Is it not actually the case that what we are seeing now is the mass of atomised individual exploited "proletarians" already engaging half way in the process of abolishing themselves as a class by conspicuously refusing to come together on a mono-class basis and impose the "Dictatorship of the Proletariat" in the first place?!!! The workers have been unable to continue living up to the expectation the big employers once had of them; to act as a fine strong coherent corporatist body of fordist workers. Now, in addition, the workers are inclined to resist both capitalist work, and their apocalyptic supposed "historic mission", as laid down for them by marxism.
The workers strike against themselves, and as capital decays, the proletariat as human variable capital decays with it. As "Troploin" have put it; "no dynamic capital, then no dynamic proletariat"
And in reality wouldn't the "Dictatorship of the Proletariat" just turn out to be the ultimate collective capital?; capital revolutionising itself in the form of an intense bourgeoisie-less state capital? Increasingly many individual proletarians refuse or are unable to unite on the basis of a conservative workerist identification with, and fetishising of, their own fundamental impoverishment and misery under wage labour exploitation, a condition they despise so much that half the time many of them refuse to consciously even think about it any more.
Instead, if they openly revolt, in addition to direct industrial disputes, they are just as likely to
a) Express their suppressed needs and desires through proud individual rebellion, or radical hedonism, or individual semi-antagonistic lifestyle alternatives, or
b) Join together with other individual proletarians and a smaller number of disillusioned members of other classes in radical diverse social movements and social revolts.
The majority of workers are not individually paid up members of the official trade unions, nor are they members of any formal unofficial unions. For a variety of material and historical reasons the majority of workers are unlikely ever to become members of formal unions. The majority of individual trade union members are not actively involved in the organisation. It is increasingly visible to many workers that the trade unions are unable to win any significantly large gains for the majority of their own members, never mind the workers as a whole, only win and defend some temporary gains for certain "key" entrenched sectors. Some traditional industrial militancy does continue, like the recent wave of wildcat walkouts in the Post Office in the U.K. for example. But it is heavily sectoralised and contained and doesn't have as much leverage as it used to. Some of the industries in which it occurs, like the Post Office, just aren't as important today as they were ten or twenty years ago.
The decentralisation of much of production, together with new systems of "dispersed fordism" and "globalisation", have undermined the sectoral collective bargaining power of many workers. In the seventies if the miners in the U.K. went on strike they could bring down the government. Today if all the miners remaining in the U.K. went on strike how many people would even notice? Industrial militancy and fist waving alone don't necessarily make you strong, you also need some essential leverage. Some groups, like posties, transport workers, firefighters might still possess a degree of this. But the need to break out of exclusive industrialism and workerism has become obvious.
There are millions more workers who don't struggle openly. They remain silent, collapse in on themselves, become depressed or neurotic, or they turn to religion or drugs or alcohol, they burn out and become nervous
wrecks, go mad or become ill to the point they are no longer able to work efficiently or work at all. In the U.K., one of the industrialised developed centres and certainly not a "third world" country, on any given work day there is an average of 6 million workers and people of working age who are officially too sick to work, that's if you total up the long-term sick and unable to work with the short term sick and those phoning in sick. In 1980 in the U.K. there was 0.5 million of working age on long-term sickness benefit or incapacity benefit. Today the figure is well over 2 million. Against capitalist work and production, for many workers who do not have the strength to struggle openly, the weapon of default is growing ILLNESS. I am myself an unemployed temp worker getting older and tired and ill.
In the sixties and seventies and early eighties, the production line would often be stopped by a strong coherent body of workers forming a strike committee, or shopfloor assembly, or flying picket, or workers council. Today all over the world the production line is just as likely to be stopped by half the workers burning out and falling to pieces on the job, slowing down or even collapsing from exhaustion, while the other half desperately find ways of skiving off, dodging, running away and individually escaping. A dignified organised conscious worker activism or worker militancy, whether in the union or not, is no longer a realistic option for the majority because they are too tired or too burnt out or too drugged up or too ILL. Only a minority are still capable of maintaining it to any extent.
Workers' sickness becomes a major problem, both for them and for capitalist production. Even in social insurrectionary situations such as have recently occurred in Bolivia or Argentine, the formation of "workers councils", or autonomous "union committees" and "strike committees", or "peoples assemblies" is only half the story of the real crisis in the bulk of production. Yesterday production would be periodically interrupted by moments of class formation. Today millions of workers worldwide have been so burnt out and worked to the limits of exhaustion that production is increasingly being stopped indefinitely by physical class-collapse.
The "Proletariat" as a class are irrepairably fragmented, atomised, shattered. But the twist in the tale is that the "capitalists" are losing too. Despite all the humbug talk of "recovery", the social landscape is becoming less successfully dynamically "capitalist". It is becoming more lumpen-bourgeois BARBARIST instead. The social clashes, which in the first place were never strictly totally centred on one big supposed opposition of "Proletariat versus Capital", increasingly break down into a drawn out series of fractured conflicts between a dispersed diverse déclassé mass of billions of humans on the one hand, and a fractious collection of lumpen-bourgeois barbarist elites on the other. Neither a unitary action nor a unified consciousness is instantly possible.
Maybe the silver lining to this gloomy cloud is that we are not going to get one big "Dictatorship of the class-party" with its inherent neo-stalinist dangers, magically leading us to one big total centralist-integralist "Communism". Is it not instead the case that the potential in the real historic movements in the real world right now is for diverse dispersed free and open social revolts leading to many diverse dispersed free and open "communisms"?
Paul Feb 2004