Short comments on Mike Davis’ “Old Gods and New Enigmas - Notes on Revolutionary Agency”

We decided to read and discuss Mike’s text because the question he is asking is a pertinent one: ‘who can become a social force of revolution?’ By looking at what constituted revolutionary agency during the peak-time of working class radicalism between 1870 and 1920, we can perhaps better assess our chances in the present.

Submitted by AngryWorkersWorld on March 10, 2019

We briefly summarise his text and add our comments in [italics]. Here we also add the brief comments of our comrades from Wildcat (Germany) who published an article on Davis’ text in issue 102 (autumn 2018) of their magazine.

The next text of our class struggle reading group will be Marx’ German Ideology.


Mike Davis opens his text by painting a pretty dismal picture of the global working class today: de-industrialisation in the global north, surplus population in the global south, threat of automation, atomisation of workers within lean production and informal work relations, crisis of the old organisations of the labour movement.

[“We felt his historical analysis was missing a longer-term contextualisation – after all, industrial workers always formed a minority within the working class. Empirically, during the last 50 years the growth in numbers of global industrial workers has been faster than the so-called de-industrialisation process in the global north. The share of industrial workers in relation to total working class population is higher today than during the time of ‘classical socialism’ from 1970 to 1920. Industrial production now dominates the material reproduction of society. Perhaps more importantly, the so-called property-owning middle-classes (peasants, artisans, shop-owners etc.), who still formed a very significant mass, if not a majority during the final decades of the 19th century and who always formed unreliable allies of the working class, now have shrunk to a minority. We discussed that even in London, an archetype of de-industrialisation and financialisation, ‘industrial labour’ (public transport, communication and postal services, small manufacturing, food processing, logistics) not only are vital for the city’s survival, but also still employ a significant amount of workers. On a UK-wide level we had a closer look at the ratio between ‘essential workers’ and other segments of society in the article ‘Insurrection and Production’:]

He concludes this section by summarising the challenge for any global class movement today:

"At a high level of abstraction, the current period of globalization is defined by a trilogy of ideal-typical economies: superindustrial (coastal East Asia), financial/tertiary (North Atlantic), and hyperurbanizing/extractive (West Africa). “Jobless growth” is incipient in the first, chronic in the second, and absolute in the third. We might add a fourth ideal-type of disintegrating society whose chief trend is the export of refugees and migrant labor. Contemporary Marxism must be able to scan the future from the simultaneous perspectives of Shenzhen, Los Angeles, and Lagos if it wants to solve the puzzle of how heterodox social categories might fit together in a single resistance to capitalism."

[This is perhaps a useful abstraction of global class conditions - the challenge would be to decipher which organic connections in terms of production, migration etc. exist between the different regions of the world. Secondly, we would have to look at how actual struggles act and express themselves differently within these regions. Based on this analysis of objective and subjective conditions we can ask what ‘material program’ and forms a global class movement would have to develop in order to overcome the regional limits set by uneven development. Unfortunately Mike Davis only looks at the historical regional limits when he deals with the Russian Revolution. We could instead see that the previous forms to address uneven development, e.g. through anti-colonial and national liberation struggles, have not only often ended in dead-ends of national capitalist industrialisation, but have also exhausted their appeal for the global working class. The framework that Davis develops here could perhaps help to re-read two other recent and significant texts about the constitution of global class relations: and]

He then turns towards history in order to ask the question what constituted the revolutionary potential of the working class. He complains that Marx himself hasn’t written cohesively about ‘what is class’, how classes make themselves and become self-conscious. Davis makes out three main levels within the process of class formation:

* Point of production
He points out the dynamic process within production of the struggle against long working-hours, to which the capitalist class responded with an intensification of work, partly through introduction of new machinery. In this process workers and capital confront each other and re-shape the material basis of social production and exploitation.

* Uneven development and crisis
Apart from the structural conditions within production there are conjunctural conditions of boom and crisis, which impact on workers’ struggles and their social perspective, e.g. the economic depression in the 1870s re-awakened class struggle.

* Conscious and consequent activity
According to Davis there is no straight route from structure to consciousness. While capitalist production and social development form the material basis of class formation, it is workers’ ability to learn and create knowledge, culture etc. independently from the bourgeoisie which transforms them into a revolutionary agent.

[Unfortunately Mike Davis’ text does not really try to enquire what the dynamic relation between these three levels of class formation - or composition! - is. For him the ‘creation of political organisations and independent working class culture’ seems to be a process that is only partially connected to the form of production and struggle. His main reference-point to understand the relation between mass activity and political organisation is Luxemburg, who has the advantage over Lenin in that she understands this dynamic between seemingly ‘spontaneous’ economic struggle and political consciousness much better, but has the disadvantage that she remains pretty vague when it comes to finding practical revolutionary strategies.]

Davis then makes sixteen points about what constituted the revolutionary agency of the class during the social upheaval 1870 to 1920.

[We tried to discover the inner cohesion or development of argument of these points, e.g. whether he moves from the more immediate sphere of production to more general forms of political expression, but it seemed to us that he sometimes repeats points or jumps between levels of generalisation. We have to say that we only read the short essay and not the whole book. We think that each point opens some space for further explorations, but the main job would be to ask what has changed and how these different aspects of historical class movement would play out under today’s conditions.]

1. The proletariat has radical chains and the industrial working class can grasp the future

Unlike peasants and artisans who struggle to keep their land or individual business, the proletariat cannot go back. It is forced to abolish the social mode of production, which is based on and results in the fact that they have nothing but their labour power to sell. While the poverty of proletarians in rural areas or urban fringes is more severe, the poverty of industrial proletarians is more radical, as they at the same time produce massive wealth. Only they have ‘historical initiative’ as they shape not just their individual world, but the social world. The revolutionary significance of industrial workers is qualitative rather than quantitative, as even during the Victorian times they formed a relatively small minority.

[We asked ourselves whether the proletarian hope under ‘neoliberalism’ and austerity to go back to a state-run welfare system would indeed be similar to the peasants and artisans wishing to return to their centuries-old individual petty production. One difference is that even such a ‘return’ to the welfare state would only be thinkable as a larger social project and would still depend on a social form of production.]

2. Struggle for more leisure time and freedom: the struggle itself creates new social needs

Only on the basis of a higher level of social productivity can the struggle against long working hours create new social needs and desires: how can we reduce necessary labour time and focus on our relationships and creative potentials instead? Revolutions of the poor in backward countries can reach for the stars, but only the proletariat in advanced regions can actually grasp the future. Marx didn’t think or write much about ‘utopias’, instead he saw the actual creation of workers own organisations (sport clubs, psycho-analitical clinics, workers’ science or literature clubs etc.) as the material manifestation of the ‘utopian potential’ to transform capitalist productive forces into emancipative forces.

3. Uneven development and ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’: the problem of transition and unsychronous revolutions

The proletariat has a fundamental interest in the development of the forces of production and their potential to reduce social labour time. Marx in the 1870s considered only England as having “the material conditions for the destruction of landlordism and capitalism”, he nevertheless saw that revolution will necessarily have to be an international process. Davis maintains that a situation of ‘transitional scarcity’ during a revolutionary transformation requires what Marx called ‘a dictatorship of the proletariat’. He then summarises the dilemma or tragedy of the Russian Revolution (undeveloped agrarian country, international isolation with failed revolutions in western Europe etc.). After the failed revolution the (Comintern) left looked for ‘allies’ beyond the working class (‘voters’, peasants’ national liberation etc.).

[We didn’t really grasp how the following two points are connected: a) the need for a transition period in the form of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ because capitalist productive forces don’t immediately translate into emancipatory forces of production and b) the question of regional differences in level of productivity and potential regional isolation of the revolution. Obviously these points merged in the Russian Revolution, but do they always merge? We also asked ourselves what his conclusions are from the Russian Revolution: was its demise just the result of a historical tragedy (revolution starts in a backward country and gets stuck there).]

4. The main productive force is association and cooperation

While capitalism wastes cooperative thinking it will be workers capacity of creative collaboration and ‘general intellect’ which will form the main source of productivity in a liberated society. The bourgeoisie cannot fulfil the promise of progress - only the working class can enforce this. According to Davis the internet will certainly facilitate this free association. In 1917 the technical means to coordinate economic social activity ‘from below’ and de-centralised were not very developed yet.

[This point would have to be developed much further: if cooperation is the essence not just of workers power vis-a-vis capital, but also the material basis which allows us to think about different ways to cooperate - and therefore the only material explanation why workers’ struggle can become revolutionary struggle! - then we have to ask ourselves how the form of cooperation has changed from 1920 to today. Mike Davis deals with this a bit when he later on looks at the role of skilled workers in the council movement, but we have to go further than that: how is ‘cooperation’ sensuously and practically experienced when it doesn’t happen in spacial proximity (mass factory, factory towns), but spread out across the globe? How is cooperation between manual and intellectual labour conceived if unskilled workers, skilled workers and engineers are not closely cooperating like in the 1920s, but when information and communication technologies allow to interrupt this process in time and space?]

5. Factories organise people, but it still needs a lot of actual (union) organising

“The factory system organizes the workforce as a synchronized collectivity that through struggle and conscious organization can become a community of solidarity.” Davis emphasises the role of unions and active organising work to turn the enforced community in industries into conscious communities of struggle.

[Here we merely questioned why he seems to set ‘organising’ and ‘unions’ as one, while historically workers organised themselves in various forms]

6. Urbanism is as important for class formation as industrialisation; workers create their own culture, but historically they ran danger to just copy bourgeois culture

Socialism is a child of cities, which are the graveyard of paternalism and religious belief. “The ideas of socialism (…) became embodied in (…) popular countercultures that projected the solidarities of the workplace and neighbourhood into all spheres of recreation, education, and culture.” Davis takes the example of the social-democratic clubs in Germany during the time of the anti-socialist laws (1878 to 1890) and their importance to hold the movement together ‘underground’. At the same time it revealed itself that the SPD often just tried to ‘democratise’ bourgeois culture and wanted to prove that workers can be cultured citizens, too. Davis points at the different quality of CNT proletarian counter-culture in Catalonia, which retained its independence.

[As mentioned, it would be interesting to develop a more materialistic analysis of this question: what kind of class relations and workers’ figures produced the tendency of the SPD to merely ‘democratise’ bourgeois culture and what brought to the fore ‘independent working class culture’ in Catalonia - it certainly wasn’t anarchist ideology in and by itself.]

7. Economic and political struggle: the bourgeoisie can detach these aspects, the working class cannot

Davis maintains that during the peak of revolutionary struggle economic demands and political demands of workers enter into a synergetic dynamic, e.g. the struggle for higher wages and suffrage and rights to association. “While the mind of the liberal petit-bourgeoisie easily amputated political rights from economic grievances, workers’ lives refuted any categorical distinction between oppression and exploitation.” Davis points that this process of economic and political struggle is not always synchronous, which makes it sometimes difficult to see the cohesion. He turns to Marx analysis of 1848 and Chartism and Luxemburg’s thesis of the mass strike 1905 to describe the relation. “The inverse but symmetrical illusions of economism/syndicalism (progress by economic organization alone) and parliamentary cretinism (reform without workplace power) have always required regular weeding of the red garden.”

[We saw two main problems here: a) certain segments of the class were certainly able to detach the question of exploitation and oppression, mainly those segments who were less impacted by racial or patriarchal oppression, something that Davis himself mentions in a different context in the following point; b) he doesn’t specify whether historically it actually benefitted the working class movement to get engaged in struggle for ‘political rights’, such as suffrage or national self-determination. Instead as presenting them just as two sides (economic and political struggle), we would have to analyse the class content of the political struggle, e.g. where does it lead to generalisation of global unity amongst workers, where does it foster political organisations amongst workers, independently from the bourgeois parliamentary party system etc.]

8. The original sin of the old labour movement was to ignore the significance of proletarian women’s struggle

Davis criticisesthe fact that trade unions often opposed female wage labour or that parties of the Second International ignored or even opposed women’s demands for suffrage and economic equality. This was not only wrong in egalitarian terms, but also weakened class struggle given the vanguard positions that women often held during (rent) strikes, food riots etc.. Davis then opens the question further: it is not only a question of the relation between men and women, but also between workers in formal and informal sectors: will the large segments of workers in the informal sector find sources and levers of power for participating in class struggle or does class struggle remain isolated in the (industrial) centres?

[Again, the question would be why trade unions and parties ignored the role of women workers or were opposed to their economic and political equality - what does it say about the character and role of these institutions? Secondly, how has the practical relation of women to child bearing and rearing and to social production changed over the years - we would have to understand this in order to see the struggle against women’s oppression not merely as a struggle for ‘political and economic rights’, but as a struggle to change the material form of production and life.]

9. Importance of working class education

Newspapers and other propaganda became very significant, which was possible because of the technological developments of the print media and increase in working class literacy.

10. The production of culture and the engagement of the working class in the scientific questions and debates of the day

People would flock to public lecture halls to listen to lectures and participate in the resulting production of knowledge. This implies a confidence in intellectual engagement that is a necessary forerunner to agency in terms of becoming revolutionary subjects.

[We asked ourselves whether he romanticises the ‘old working class’ and whether participation in science and reading groups etc. were actually so widespread - what about-12 hour days etc.? What is more likely that under conditions of a class movement workers’ interest in knowledge, literature etc. had a more collective and politically focussed character. Even today we find many nerds and geeks amongst our colleagues, who are into learning stuff and who have the craziest hobbies - but it happens as individual leisure, not as part of a collective political project.]

11. The power and utilisation of the General Strike

General strikes became increasingly common towards the end of the 19th century when the factory system and world market gave rise to geostrategic nodes e.g. railway networks, manufacturing supply chains, power grids, war industry complexes that could then by shut down with maximum effect. The impacts of a General Strike were interpreted as either proof that a non-violent form of revolutionary takeover was possible (by the revisionists such as Bernstein in the Second International); or of workers' spontaneity and militancy that threatened to burst the channels of containment by trade unions and political parties (by the anarcho-syndicalists); or that they marked a whole period of the class struggle where political and economic struggles came together in explosive and unpredictable ways that showed the ingenuity of the rank and file (Luxemburg).

[We discussed that we should perhaps get away from the romantic or official versions of ‘general strikes’ - which tend to be called for centrally by one organisation or another. Instead we could understand recent situations like in Mexico (teachers rebellion, mass strikes in Maquilladoras car factories) as forms of ‘generalised strikes’.]

12. How can workers run the factories and machines with a deskilled workforce?

As machines take over jobs previously done by workers, and workers take on smaller tasks within the production process, it is increasingly difficult to get a sense of how the whole thing works. Metal workers and other similar craftsmen and engineers became the vanguard of this knowledge as they were the ones who had to build and implement and run the machinery. So these workers became more important, with the potential to challenge the industrial order if they withdrew that labour, at the same time, they tend to be the most entrepreneurial and career obsessed so were more conservative and did not join in the struggles of the semi-skilled before WW1. Afterwards though they became leading figures in setting up workers councils and participating in the earliest communist parties - ironically at a time when their ‘skills power’ was already significantly undermined by new production models, e.g. the early assembly line.

[Again, here is the crux of the matter: a working class which doesn’t trust their ability to run production themselves will not be revolutionary. But what does it mean in a situation where a) a lot of workers work in jobs which are socially pretty useless and b) socially necessary production is pretty dispersed. Negri and folks declare that the programmers are the ‘machine makers’ of today, the difference is that although they might contribute to the way how bread, clothing, houses etc. are produced today, they actually in most cases will have little direct relations to the material execution and result of their work.]

13. The working class has the superior position of being able to see the economy as a whole - because they see society from the centre and live the reality of that same society.

Recognising this knowledge is another way of explaining what class consciousness is. When there's not much going on a petit bourgeois attitude is normally prevalent amongst the working class but there are obviously times when people vocalise and act upon a reality that is based on class conflict. The main barriers to people becoming 'conscious' is the day to day reality of life under capitalism, alienation and internalisation of commodity relations. Normally big events are needed to change this e.g. a depression or a war.

14. Agency is fostered through direct democracy during times of mass activity through things like strike committees and workers councils (newspaper production, assemblies etc.)

Mass participation in these things is necessary because it increases class consciousness which is based on the experiences of these periods of class war and rank and file activity. This cannot be replicated by decisions made from the top by trade union bureaucrats or party officials - and if it does end up there, it's the death knell for revolutionary impetus.

15. Working class agency is compelled by the fact that the future looks bleak and things get worse over time.

In times of economic crisis, things that were previously won are taken away and if people feel that things are regressing they may be more likely to act.

[1968 would be a counter-thesis: rather than just a ‘bleak future’ the revolutionary impetus might be more dependent on the question of whether people feel that there is power and collectivity on a wider scale vis-a-vis state and bosses]

16. Importance of internationalism in raising class consciousness

The world has never been so integrated, we've got global supply-chains, mass emigration and a mobile international proletariat with many experiences in different countries, we have the technology to communicate in real time and spread information - all of which points towards the real possibility of an international working class movement and revolution - although on the flip side we can see how these same conditions can easily lead to nationalism, xenophobia and protectionism, even amongst the so-called Left.

[We conclude by summarising our comrades from Wildcat: Davis’ historical account has much in common with the concept of class composition, but by referring to Marazzi Davis states that nowadays we are not able to use the concept and its description of the dynamic between technical composition (form of production) and political re-composition (formation of a new class movement). Davis doesn’t even hint at the possibility that a similar dynamic [between how we produce this world and how we can change it] could exist today. There is a similar issue with his treatment of technology and science: Davis describes how these develop out of the confrontation between workers and capital, but at the end he treats them as fairly neutral. This also contributes to the fact that finally he ends up with fairly traditional notions: ‘class conscious workers’ (who know about internationalism and science etc.) make the revolution by allying with all kind of other segments of the class (informal workers, the surplus population) etc.. The challenge would be to see what the material connections between these segments are, instead of having to fill them with consciousness and ‘solidarity’.]



5 years ago

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Submitted by AngryWorkersWorld on March 22, 2019

So there has been some debate about Mike Davis' text in the US recently.

The text provides some interesting background on Davis himself, but is written in the lofty arrogant style a lot of 'young professional radicals' tend to write in. His position that Davis is just nostalgic when he writes about 1870s - 1920s working class is only backed up by a similarly lofty Endnotes quote that 'history is over'. He has more to say about the other two parts of the Davis book on nationalism and 'climate theory'. It would be more interesting to contrast his 'Endnotes position' on working class agency (alleged de-industrialisation has finished the basis of the workers' movement) with his studies on climate change and changes of energy regimes. The possibility that with increase of transport costs (peak oil) some industries will re-locate back into closer proximity and the possibility that an increase in labour intensity, e.g. in agriculture and food production (peak soil exhaustion) might also re-shape the working class in the global north is not even hinted at. That would have been more interesting, instead it is nihilism towards the working class and catastrophism towards the species - a position that led many former 'hyper radicals' of the communisation-type to engage with Syriza, Podemos or Labour - don't we all need some hope after all?

The author defends Davis against accusations that his text is 'incoherent' and 'nostalgic'. It's a decent defence, but it doesn't really say much new - doesn't try to go deeper into the question of 'what has changed since then - where are we now?'. This is not surprising as the author is likely to be close to the Trot left, who are pretty convinced that all questions in terms of working class politics have been answered…


5 years ago

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Submitted by spacious on March 22, 2019


The text provides some interesting background on Davis himself, but is written in the lofty arrogant style a lot of 'young professional radicals' tend to write in. His position that Davis is just nostalgic when he writes about 1870s - 1920s working class is only backed up by a similarly lofty Endnotes quote that 'history is over'.

Thanks for the link.

I didn't really find the style lofty or arrogant, it seems sympathetic to Davis but not uncritical, and pointing out oddities and conceptual absences in the latest book.

For instance, this seems like an apt criticism:

The greater problem with “Who Will Build the Ark?” is that Davis fails to go beyond New Yorker-esque milquetoast radicalism by not asking the fundamental question: What are cities for? Pre-capitalist societies rarely urbanized more than a tenth of their population; modern cities are creatures of capitalism par excellence, whose purpose is to concentrate fossil fuels and workers. If society is to rely on renewables, surely it makes sense to disperse production where the sun shines and the wind blows. Davis overlooks that cities can’t feed themselves; massive cities presuppose industrial farms and fossil fuels. As a good reader of Marx’s Capital, he knows that capitalism creates a rift between the city and the country, but one would assume communism would make them whole again. As Late Victorian Holocausts, Monster at our Door, and Planet of Slums were all essentially about agriculture, its absence in this last chapter is especially perplexing.