Is the workers movement dead? Are the problems of the present too great to overcome?

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el psy congroo
Joined: 17-11-16
Dec 1 2016 04:16
Is the workers movement dead? Are the problems of the present too great to overcome?

How would you respond to the idea that the working class will not unify and gain collective consciousness until after capitalism collapses?

Is the workers movement dead? Are the problems of the present (democracy, patriarchy and rape culture, nationalism and racism, the economic crises, the environmental crises, the general degenerate tendency of many aspects of society, along with great centralisation of power and the state apparatus)great to overcome?

PS this is my first thread so go easy. I'd appreciate if we had an actual discussion where we share our viewpoints in the spirit of learning, as opposed to competing for the megaphone. Thanks.

Serge Forward's picture
Serge Forward
Joined: 14-01-04
Dec 1 2016 08:14

That's a good question but also one that makes me sad. When I left school just under 40 years ago, there was still a basic level of class consciousness and cohesion, workers generally knew what a picket line was for and strikes were at a massive high. The down side was the chronic racism, sexism, homophobia... and the Black and White Minstrel Show and Miss World was still on telly.

These days, it's a case of 'what workers' movement and what's the hell's a picket line?' Individualism and atomisation are at an all time high. We've still got the racism, sexism and homophobia as well, but it's a bit more nuanced. Telly's worse than ever, if people bother to unhook themselves from their smartphones to watch it.

We're fighting a rearguard action - possibly starting from scratch. It's not even as if I can point to anywhere else in the world where the revolutionary class struggle grass is greener either. So I'm not optimistic but will keep hanging on there. After all, who knows what's around the corner and what could start to unify elements of the class. But we are at the level of class consciousness oases in a capitalist desert rather than any mass movement. And that's if we're lucky.

I would love to be wrong.

el psy congroo
Joined: 17-11-16
Dec 2 2016 09:54

Thanks for the comments, Serge.

I wonder if the slow response so far is due to a total unwillingness to approach the question, perhaps from a perceived "lack of good faith" in the once-mighty proletariat?

Joined: 3-08-05
Dec 2 2016 10:55

I agree with Serge's post. Basically the working class is completely disorientated and has lost even the most basic understanding of its self and its traditions of struggle etc. However it is becoming clearer and clearer that working class unity and revolution is the only hope for humanity. It looks like it is going to go down to the wire in terms of whether or not there will be a revolution and the establishment of communism or the collapse/destruction of humanity/civilization. (this century is definitely going to be a hugely important and eventful one either way).

Perhaps it will be a blessing in disguise in that when the workers finally do get there act together they will have dropped the baggage of past struggles and failures and will be able to reassess and re-evaluate the tasks at hand in a fresher way.....maybe. My feeling is that the workers will only do this when it is absolutely shown that we can't carry on living under capitalism.

It's a fools hope really but still it's the only hope we've got.

Joined: 20-04-08
Dec 2 2016 11:28

If the workers' movement is dead...deceased and other such synonyms from the Python's dead parrot sketch... and not merely dormant then what do you suggest we all do since our raison d'etre for being on this forum is to assist in our small ways the revival of the workers' movement?

If it is dead and not just inactive, our attempts to breathe life back into it is simply self-delusion and we should all direct our energies to other matters. What are those other choices for people to take up.

I personally do not dismiss the workers' movement as dead but merely off on the wrong direction. Our political role is to put up sign-posts indicating the correct path.

Naturally, some of us argue that the others here on Libcom have the wrong map and the wrong destination and are using sign-posts that point the wrong way into side-tracks and dead-ends. But part of Libcom's purpose is to set an agreed course for us all to take.

I suggest for starters that we begin to share our compass in a comradely manner.

Serge Forward's picture
Serge Forward
Joined: 14-01-04
Dec 2 2016 13:00

Not sure about breathing life back into it as that's not really our job. A revolutionary movement can only develop out of a politicised working class. The class is currently not politicised but is massively de-politicised. So what I reckon should be our job is to keep on fighting, involve ourselves in resistance as and when it arises and to develop and put forward revolutionary ideas rooted in social and economic reality while maintaining the proverbial 'thin red line'.

el psy congroo
Joined: 17-11-16
Dec 2 2016 17:13

If we consider all of capitalisms problems, it almost seems as if the working class is the underdog in the running for its destruction.

As it stands it would seem the bourgeoisie are a top contender. Of course this has no bearing on communist revolution per say. But as far as capitalism goes, in the dour words of Captain Ben Willard from Coppola's Apocalypse Now, perhaps "even the jungle wants it dead".

Thinking now of 1905 in Russia---how much of a "workers identity" could possibly have been present back then? How did it develop so quickly towards communist revolution in the decades that followed? Also, who's to say the lack of "traditional" structures in the working class is a step backwards, given their history of the betrayal of the proletariat and communist project?

The Pigeon's picture
The Pigeon
Joined: 16-06-15
Dec 2 2016 17:44

'Worker' is an identity that doesn't fully encompass humanity, and identifying as one through class solidarity only represents a portion of our being. I mean, we don't want to be workers in the first place, everyone hates work. That is universally recognized. So it's no wonder that people don't want to organize around this identification, they want to escape from it. As long as there is always capital and labor people will stress under the weight of its system, whatever form it happens to take. Doesn't mean they'll revolt... but humans are very complex animals... we all dream of freedom.

Joined: 29-07-05
Dec 2 2016 18:08

If capitalism collapses, and it is slowly but surely collapsing into its decomposition, then the working class along with the rest of humanity is probably doomed. I don't think that we are anywhere near that situation. I think that the idea of a previous proletarian "culture" and socialised proletarian communities existing 30 or 40 years ago is overblown. I was involved in a few strikes at that time and they were going precisely nowhere, certainly nowhere in a revolutionary direction or a direction of revolt. And the tight-knit mining communities (just like the steel communities before it) turned out to be a major disadvantage in the strike of 84, where the corporatism and federalism of the NUM and the miners' "identity" was allowed to do its dirty work.

I agree with Jaycee on the present significant disorientation of the working class and I agree with Serge's second post about the maintenance of the "red thread". The 1905 reference from el psy is interesting because one moment workers in Russia were marching behind Father Gapon and appealing to their benevolent Tsar and the next moment the greatest independent workers' organisations were created by the same people but this time class conscious. Similar with the nationalist fervour that gripped youth everywhere just before WW1. A few years later and the greatest proletarian movement in history.

The bourgeoisie are very strong. There's no doubt about that. But the working class are still there, still running everything, still producing everything. It's that position that gives it a chance of producing a mass movement that can generate consciousness. Serge's red thread is vital to maintain.

jesuithitsquad's picture
Joined: 11-10-08
Dec 2 2016 22:52

I like that some are attempting to find the silver lining to our current situation. If, as Serge says, we can maintain the thin red line and as jaycee mentioned, be in a position where the divisive elements such as racism and homophobia are eliminated, it certainly would put us in a stonger position. That said, I'm always reminded of the quote that we aren't weak because we are divided; we are divided because we are weak.

I'm also interested in the concept that people have rejected organizing as workers due to their hatred of their role as workers. I don't think the idea can be simply dismissed, but I also do wonder if this isn't a hindsight perspective, kind of justifying our losses?

I posted this in the Presidential thread earlier today before I saw this thread, but it is equally pertinent here.

I don't think it's very controversial to say that the Democratic/Labor Party version of neoliberalism is the most brutally effective class weapon in the history of the Labor vs. Capital battle. Now we are faced with the prospect of a divided,
weak, and nearly defeated worldwide workers' movement attempting a last stand against a global far right xenophobic authoritarian nationalist movement. If we're incapable of turning back the tide, we will be looking down the barrel of the "New Gig Economy," and an impending ecological disaster. This in turn will almost certainly create so-called Climate Migrants and--when placed in conjunction with the tide of xenophobia-- the very real prospect of genocide on a previously unimaginable scale.

I think, given it's level of importance to a future class movement, we haven't really discussed the gig economy nearly enough. I wrote something very similar in the discussion under Chili's blog on the gig economy, but I think a lot of it bears repeating here.

I can't help wonder --

1) if social democracy represented concessions to a militant working class movement in an effort to stave off revolution and
2) neo-liberalism simultaneously represented the ruling class' fight-back against those concessions as well as their effort to destroy the workers' movement itself, then
3) does the gig economy--once fully implemented--represent Capital's victory lap, the ultimate crushing of the vestiges of the working class movement? And is it possible that this ultimate victory would eventually eliminate the proletariat as an agent of revolution?

In the US, classifying workers as independent contractors is an ingenious, if despicable, way of eliminating pretty much every 20th century labor law (except perhaps the abolition against child labor). The Gig Economy turns the clock backwards by dialing it forward with automation and other technological advances, and the resultant prospective future is defintionally dystopian. (Even if, as many have suggested, the very worst excesses of this future were somewhat mitigated by introducing some form of UBI.)

The already precarious position of organizing on the job under normal employment circumstances becomes nearly impossible in a contract employment situation, as one no longer needs to fear termination; instead the employer simply stops scheduling troublesome staff. Things like the NLRB and local labor administrations are traditionally not particularly reliable for protecting on the job organizing, but they do tend to somewhat tame the worst union busting tactics. If one is labeled an Independent Contractor, those paper-thin protections cease to exist.

With no paid time off, no health insurance (or sometimes even no on-the-job accidental insurance) or any other benefits traditionally associated with employment, amongst many other things, the gig economy completely shifts all of the costs of reproduction of labor onto the individual worker.

Additionally, in the US many of our social programs are funded by a combination of worker and employer payroll deductions, but independent contractors are responsible for both portions. As there is no automatic tax withholding for contracted workers, the burden of saving back and paying these taxes is soley the individuals' responsibility. This is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, for those making subsistence 'wages'. As a result, social programs, like in this example, Social Security will be starved of resources and whither away much more quickly than many of the current, already dire, projections.

Now that Trump's victory gives us a definitive answer on the global rise of the far right, fighting this battle will almost certainly be a more difficult prospect. The Deliveroo organizing campaign is a small ray of hope that organizing as workers in the gig economy isn't an entirely impossible prospect yet, but it is a very small glimmer of hope in comparison to our weak status as a whole.

I'm really interested to hear what others think. Does Trumpism represent Capital's attempt to break the proletariat's neck, once and for all, in an effort to preemptively beat back the possibility for opposition to the new economy? Are social programs funded in a similar fashion in the UK and Europe? At this point, I haven't seen much written about how the gig economy has the potential to completely destroy the social safety net, but I think we'll begin hearing about this aspect before too much longer.

Edited to fix an incorrect attribution.

Ed's picture
Joined: 1-10-03
Dec 3 2016 00:03

Hey, so I think that this a really important discussion and its def something I've been mulling over in my head recently (and I'm sure I'm not the only one). In response to the question as to the slow response: I think it's a sign of how serious the question is that answers feel difficult to give..

To start with your second question: there definitely are a lot of problems! I mean, the international swing towards chauvinistic nationalism, the general tendency for increasingly authoritarian forms of govt mixed with different shades of neo-liberalism, the biggest displacement of human beings since WW2 (or ever?), climate change, automation, the gig economy etc etc.. at this point it is really difficult to see how things could get better and even if they do, imo things are still prob going to get worse first..

That apocalyptic sentiment does still need putting in historical context though: when people say 'all tyrants/tyrannies fall' (whether from internal problems, some fuck up or another, or the leader holding it together dying), it's true.

Same is true for the gig economy: I'm not sure it represents anything except for a new way of using technology to maximise profits and undermine pay and conditions (and also workers' organisation, though I think this is more a side-effect rather than explicit aim as there wasn't a whole lot of organisation to start with). I don't have the Beverly Silver's Forces of Labor to hand, but I think in that she talks about 'technological fixes' have happened historically: like, the mechanised loom was supposed to undermine the strength of textile artisans but then textile factory workers became the bedrock of labour movements across the world (and still are in some places). Same with Fordism: it was billed as being able to kill off workers' organisation and in the end provided the basis for it. Postwar consumer society was supposed to have killed off the Western working class.. and then 1968 happened. I think it could potentially be similar with the gig economy; it could give rise to a form of worker organisation that we just can't see yet.

Basically, I think jesuit's concern that the gig economy "eliminates the proletariat as an agent of revolution" is justified but not necessarily the case. More serious on that front is automation as a world which doesn't depend on our work doesn't seem like it can be affected by our struggles. But even here, it's not clear how an economy could function if most people are unemployed and excluded from consumption. So again, maybe after a horrific experiment of mass unemployment, riots, militarised gated communities etc, there might be a move towards Universal Basic Income, which itself could become a focus for social struggle.. which kind of answers the first question: is the workers' movement dead? So I'd say, in part, yes, but only as we've known it..

If I'm being honest tho, I'm not actually sure where I stand on all this: viewed historically, I'm kind of buoyed by the fact that similar things were thought to be fatal blows in the past. But equally, the current situation does look really bleak and like it's gonna get worse (much worse, on all fronts) before it gets better.. that said (you see how changeable I am!), just five years ago it was 2011 and it looked like a new wave of working-class militancy was taking hold of the world. Feels like 50 years now but it just goes to show how fast things can change.

So really all we can do is keep plugging away: if we can't improve conditions, at least defend them. If we can't defend them, at least slow down their worsening. If it wasn't for workers fighting back, it would just be like Clausewitz's 'Absolute War'.. and there have been a few examples of it recently: migrant workers, Durham TAs, Crossrail electricians.. it's no 1968 (or 1936) but they are small rays of hope in this bleak political landscape..

Auto's picture
Joined: 12-04-09
Dec 3 2016 02:29

Something I think is currently a big question mark is what happens when all the 'non-political' actors get drawn into the fray.

For a long time 'Politics' has been something that only the directly engaged have been involved in. It has been perfectly acceptable to say 'I don't do politics', and the majority have done. To live their lives as if politics and the political world was somehow separate from their daily existence.

Anecdotally, among my friends and acquaintances, I've seen something of a collapse in this cosy division. There is a growing realisation that not only is all this politics intruding on their lives, but a growing feeling that they may actually need to do something. They don't know what, due to lack of experience and knowledge, but that impetus to act seems to be growing. If conditions keep worsening, it will only grow more.

All our current projections are based on what will happen if the current politics continues, but really that is a politics that has been built, on both the left and right, by only a tiny portion of the most engaged people. I still think it's a wildcard as to what will happen when the bulk of the population are suddenly forced to make political choices. I think that the 'rightwing surge' is partly due to the fact that they have been the first to see one of these demographic awakenings. I hold out hope that there may be a similar rising on the left - but as with all these things, I don't think it's something we can know or predict.

In the end, it comes down to the same thing others have said. You just keep your head down, keep pushing and keep the faith.

jesuithitsquad's picture
Joined: 11-10-08
Dec 3 2016 06:14

Thanks for those posts Ed & Auto. I've done a fairly decent job of avoiding despair over the past month, but obviously it's tough to keep it at bay sometimes. And I agree with both posts--historically each new development brings it's own counter wave, and I've also seen an increase in engagement from regular non political people over the past month.

jef costello's picture
jef costello
Joined: 9-02-06
Dec 3 2016 16:48

I think that in the past there was no concept either.

The gig economy is a return to the past as well, it's not necessarily something that has gone away, look at the casual workers stood outside of places selling building supplies, for example. In the past that's how you worked if you weren't an artisan or tied to a particular job, often on the land.

We are in a difficult position, when I hear about strikes in the past where workplaces would send delegations and strikes would radiate out I feel seriously disheartened, because I can't even imagine doing that. Except that the other day we had a delegation from a nearby striking workplace. We didn't strike, it wasn't even on the table, but still, it is possible. And when we think about the strength in the thirties or afterwards we also have to think of the people who built that in the years before it.

I've been inactive for a fair while now, in part because I don't feel like we can win. But actually there is a possibility and to be honest the future is pretty bleak if we don't. Looks like I've just talked myself into doing something.

el psy congroo
Joined: 17-11-16
Dec 3 2016 17:14

It seems we can all agree working class revolution isn't on the short-to-medium-term horizon. Seems we also agree it hasn't been on the horizon in a unique historical way since at least the mid `70s-late `80s (that's when global strikes began to bottom out to the level we saw in 2013, the lowest in recorded history).

So the question I pose is this; once again, in a "collapse" scenario, can we seriously expect the proletariat to have any kind of a better chance at communism? If so, what are the possible mechanisms?

As I think jaycee and others have said, this century will be faced with a number of insurmountable problems, mainly ecological in nature. It seems doubtful "the markets" in their current states can withstand this century, either. I don't think any of this is controversial.

The Pigeon and Auto raised the issue of seemingly increased involvement in an "autodidactic" anti-politics. Strikes are on the rise over the past couple of years. Flashes of the final scenes of the Wachowski's The Matrix, where Neo is revived, are right now busily permeating the brains of the leftists. Yes, the example of 1905 was given in a similar vein---it was intended to highlight how fast things can change as the Bolsheviks point out in their histories of the revolution.

However skepticism is the way of science and as we already established, there will be no dictatorship of the proletariat tomorrow. And if you've been paying attention to the left even the slightest bit, it's obvious they are still plagued with the fatal problems of the 19th and 20th centuries, neoliberialism, democratic socialism, democratism in general, Stalinism, electoralism and perhaps WORST of all the rampant patriarchy and misogyny.

Lots of us here have already fought our hardest battles, but many will also be alive for much of this century. It seems the next generation of anarchists and communists will have a unique historical relationship to capitalism and value relations. Perhaps new paths of struggle as of yet fetishised by the activists will begin to take shape, and be found. For those inheriting this world have every imperative to do so.

Joined: 16-09-15
Dec 4 2016 10:49

This looks like a very interesting thread - I'll have a closer read later. In the meantime, I have a question: Are we closer than ever to Anarcho-Capitalism? I think the lack of class consciousness and elevated political apathy are representative of this. In the Gig Economy we are all independent, private entities whose only way of identifying ourselves is through level of income.

I think what Zizek was saying about Bernie Sanders was correct: that we have gone so far into Capitalism that now even Social Democracy seems "radical".

jesuithitsquad's picture
Joined: 11-10-08
Dec 4 2016 11:33
elraval2 wrote:
This looks like a very interesting thread - I'll have a closer read later. In the meantime, I have a question: Are we closer than ever to Anarcho-Capitalism? I think the lack of class consciousness and elevated political apathy are representative of this. In the Gig Economy we are all independent, private entities whose only way of identifying ourselves is through level of income.

I think what Zizek was saying about Bernie Sanders was correct: that we have gone so far into Capitalism that now even Social Democracy seems "radical".

That's an interesting question. More than a few of the wealthy, powerful silicon valley supporters of the 'new economy' are simultaneously ancaps, supporters of Trump, and self-described supporters of the so-called Dark Enlightenment/Neo-Reactionary movement. We haven't really spent much time discussing this element of the resurgent far-right. I don't think it represents, numerically, the same amount of support as say, what most think of as the alt-right (though the neo reactionaries are usually placed within this movement). That said, given it's access to vast wealth and influence, they will likely punch above their weight over the next few years.

Auld-bod's picture
Joined: 9-07-11
Dec 4 2016 11:41

I’m an optimistic pessimist. As long as capitalism delivered the prospect of material advantages now or in the future, expecting the working class to take a chance on a successful revolution, was a dialogue with the wilfully deaf. Today it is apparent that the existing economic model is destroying the environment, and as the gap widens between the super-rich and the working class the dream of continuing material self-improvement fades. Through advancing technology the professional ‘middle class’ workers face the same fate as blue collar skilled workers met twenty years ago. The rise of the right is symptomatic of workers twisting and turning to find ‘recognisable’ alternatives.

I do not think it is all doom and gloom. People are better educated and it is possible to be better informed than ever before. Conservative instincts like protecting our loved ones, and the things we care about, now challenge us to attempt a social and political metamorphoses. Things will get worse, as capitalism cannot cure itself – and this fact will become clearer with each grotesque manoeuvre of the ruling class. As others have written the task is to continue the struggle until at last the penny drops.

Joined: 1-08-06
Dec 4 2016 12:31

While I agree that all we can do is continue the struggle until at last the penny drops, I don't have any great faith that it's going to drop soon. We've seen the grotesqueries of capitalism develop of the last century and more, from the industrialisation of warfare still fought mostly between armies to the mass destruction of civilian targets as a matter of policy, ecological catastrophes exacerbated by capitalism's failure to protect people or their environment, the creation of the potential for a world of plenty in the midst of economic degradation for the majority of the planet - and the penny hasn't yet dropped. What more will it take?

Sometimes I think, 'the working class has failed'. Well, obviously that's true; it failed to successfully prosecute world revolution in 1917-27. It failed to reach the same level of failure in 1968-89. It failed to even reach that level of failure in 2006-12 or thereabouts. The responses of the working class to the toxic development (one might even say obsolescence or decadence) of capitalism over the last century (and a half?) have been insufficient to change the course of human development. So, yes, the working class has failed. So far.

But have we failed too? It's all very well for communists to say 'there is no working class movement, nothing to be done, we need to wait for the working class to fight, we're not substitutionists', but if the 'objective conditions' as Trotsky liked to call them are developed (or even, 'over-developed') then what is missing is the 'subjective' - class consciousness. And where does that come from?

I'd argue that the development of class consciousness is primarily a consequence of workers trying to learn lessons from struggles. If there are large-scale struggles then many people will be trying to learn the lessons. If there are only a few/small-scale struggles, few people will be trying to learn the lessons. I take it as axiomatic that that's who we are - the left-over politicised minorities from previous waves (or even ripples) of struggle

Which brings us back to the low level of class struggle, and the idea that communists can only show the working class what it's fighting for, if it is actually fighting. And at the moment it isn't.

We have two options I think. One is continuing to talk to ourselves/each other, until the working class catches up, and the other is to carry on trying to show the working class what it would be fighting for, were it fighting, in the hope (and not more realistically) that somehow, somewhere, a spark might take hold.

I'm really heartened that jef costello works somewhere that just received a delegation of striking workers - that is a little ray of sunshine in the gloom. Maybe the next time workers at jef's workplace are thinking about their grievances over pay, conditions, management harassment or whatever, people will remember that, and take more militant action than they might have done otherwise.

But what role can we play, as (pro-)revolutionaries, politicised elements, militants, whatever term you want to use, to try and spread the lessons? What effect can we have as tiny, unco-ordinated groups, on the general consciousness of the working class?

Any suggestions gratefully received.

Noah Fence's picture
Noah Fence
Joined: 18-12-12
Dec 4 2016 12:38
the task is to continue the struggle until at last the penny drops.

Exactly, I don't see the penny dropping anytime soon, I think it highly unlikely that it will in my lifetime but that's no reason to not bother trying. I mean, even forgetting the fact there there are material benefits in the present to be had by continuing the struggle there is a responsibility on those that have the information and the understanding to donig what they can to further the chances of the revolution that has to come.

Anarchism is freedom. It's a door to the infinity of freedom and the well being of humanity

Just to work toward such a beautiful idea as that has enormous personal benefits regardless of whether you live to see its manifestation.

Red Marriott's picture
Red Marriott
Joined: 7-05-06
Dec 4 2016 13:24
el psy wrote:
this is my first thread so go easy. ...

I wonder if the slow response so far is due to a total unwillingness to approach the question, perhaps from a perceived "lack of good faith" in the once-mighty proletariat?

If you want people to "go easy" it’s probably better not to start quickly making blanket negative assumptions about posters.

How would you respond to the idea that the working class will not unify and gain collective consciousness until after capitalism collapses?

I’d say – based on what assumptions? I.e. why would it be more likely after a collapse if it had remained passive throughout one? And why would it choose that outcome rather than less desirable ones? Isn’t it at least as likely that an (undefined) unchallenged collapse would fragment people further? And if capitalism can always make the working class pay for its crises why would it ever collapse? Does your question display a “lack of good faith” in the proletariat to act until after it’s been stomped into the dust?

After 30 years of retreat and defeat in class struggle in the west it’s an immense question and, yes, one that questions the basic desires and goals of those who need an end to class society. Serge describes accurately the high-point years of post-war struggles and some of its contradictions. Those contradictions expressed the strengths and limits; eg, ‘the power of unions’ was often actually the unruliness of its members and their wildcat tendencies with leaderships playing catch-up/tailending struggles – but also that workers never fully broke with the union form. And, within a high level of struggle, gender & racial etc divisions could remain and limit advances; and struggles to challenge them could be recuperated into leftist bureaucratic reformism and careerism.

Now the very concepts of collective struggle, of social change achieved through it, never mind revolution (which, even if more often conceived negatively - Citizen Smith on the telly! - was then a much more common concept) are alien or bewildering to most, seem more alien and unlikely than winning the lottery or gaining control of the weather.

But this discussion has been totally from a Western point of view so far; while in the west proles have been under retreat for decades meanwhile there have been some very militant struggles in recent years among the factory proletariat of the east, eg. ;
And, eg, in recent weeks;

Is the workers movement dead?

Do you mean its official representation or the working class self-activity that often clashed with that representation? Some of the communisationists confusingly write as if there were never any difference between them or complexity in their relationship. The old working class and its forms of struggle may be dead, but its representation/mediation remains – unions, labour parties etc – as a reserve army-in-waiting to usher down the reformist path any upsurge in struggles (in the meantime they sell insurance & holidays to union members and Corbynista t-shirts & mugs).

Are the problems of the present (democracy, patriarchy and rape culture, nationalism and racism, the economic crises, the environmental crises, the general degenerate tendency of many aspects of society, along with great centralisation of power and the state apparatus)great to overcome?

Those problems are always with us, since the birth of class society (at least), I doubt they’d be resolved in any sustainable way outside a revolutionary movement. Will they act as obstacles to such a movement or as an inspiration for one? Who knows, maybe both?

Auldbod wrote:
I do not think it is all doom and gloom. People are better educated and it is possible to be better informed than ever before.

Possible, yes; and if you’d told the politicos of 20-30 yrs ago that, instead of leaving a few copies of pamphlets/papers in obscure bookshops and handing out scrappy leaflets at demos/picket lines, they could have whole slick websites online accessible to billions – then many would’ve assumed a massive impact would follow, rather than the increased isolation and obscurity that actually has. But if the rapid ascent of politicians with crude snake oil propaganda is any measure information is a two-edged sword. Some call this the “post-truth age” and certainly when arguing with anti-immigrant/Islamophobe types, militant brexiteers etc I quickly realised you can’t change their minds with facts that refute the myths they spout; the rational truth is not important to them, what’s important is to have a convenient comforting scapegoat and external excuse for the problems of their lives – once adopted, there is no more necessity to deal with inconvenient ‘facts’. They’d rather keep linking to Daily Mail articles on FB. The internet, the biggest free info library ever; and people mostly keep to their little online corner of it where existing views are mutually reinforced and applauded.

Joined: 6-02-09
Dec 4 2016 14:04

I think it helps to consider that the characteristics of the workers' movement are/were, to an extent, shaped by working conditions themselves. As in the following quote about the rise of the Chartist movement:

the wool combers... received O'Connor's gospel with enthusiasm. Unlike the more taciturn hand-loom weavers they worked in batches, and the discussion of the affairs of the nation, so far from hindering their work, deprived it of its monotony... the combing shops rang with wild denunciations of wrongdoers, or of fervid admiration of the champion of democracy. In the depression years of 1837-40, the wool-combers could earn no more than six to eight shillings a week.

W. Cudworth, Rambles Around Horton, quoted in 1839: The Chartist Insurrection, D Black & C Ford

The wool combers worked together in a quiet environment while the hand-loom weavers worked alone in a noisy environment -- that affected their level of radicalisation. When industrial production was organised on a hierarchical, mass scale, we had hierchical, mass unions with mass meetings and mass stikes to affect mass collective bargaining agreements. Now most workplaces have individualised wage agreements and workers don't work collectively hence the need to encourage 'teamworking' etc. It that situation a far higher degree of radicalisation is required to understand the raison d'etre of supporting a union. Without collective agreements, a union has less relevance to furthering a worker's everyday material needs. I know the worker's movement isn't all about unions but they are pretty fundamental at the mass scale.

So the mass workers' movement is dead mainly because the productive practices that it was part of are dead. The big change being the end of the demand for a mass commitment of labour to production. Now we have the gig economy and the reliance, and thus vulnerability, of capital to the commitment of a large proportion of workers has diminished. There probably needs to be a shift of emphasis away from the dispossessed majority being, for the most part, regarded as productive workers essential to the reproduction of capitalism to just being the dispossessed with a marginal role in capitalism. That's obviously not a welcome development as the 'easy option' of escalating industrial disputes into more general attacks on capitalism has gone away (in post-industrial countries). However, in human terms, the dispossessed were never mainly productive workers. Women, for instance, often either maintained households and/or worked precariously in domestic service. The mass workers' movement had it's own downsides in terms of venerating productive work and the role of the worker.

If we're moving (in the post-industrial world) to a precarious economy based around the Basic Income (BI) -- look the Green Party support it and they lead the way in survival strategies for the bourgeosie -- then we come back the issues of interpersonal communication and organisation. Back in the 1970s, we had Claimant's Union where non-workers started to organise along union lines. If the majority move onto BI then there will be again a mass-aspect to most people's material needs. Although BI hugely unfair - doesn't address differing levels of need, will become poverty level, excludes those from other countries etc. Isn't that an opportunity to take the lessons, and history, of the worker's movement and apply them to building a movement that functions within the changed ecomomic conditions?

Chilli Sauce's picture
Chilli Sauce
Joined: 5-10-07
Dec 4 2016 15:28

Good thread.

Re: organizing around the identity of workers.

Yes, everyone hates work or at least certain aspects of their job, but in my experience, I find people still very much base a large percentage of their identity around the work they do. In my experience, this is actually a big barrier, as the over-identification with the job inhibits people from taking risks and certainly colors participant's perceptions of struggles when they do break out.

jesuithitsquad's picture
Joined: 11-10-08
Dec 4 2016 22:31

Tying in B Reasonable's point about a Basic Income being a potential mass-aspect to struggles and Ed's about how each change in production created it's own unique counter movement, I'm reminded of the studies I've read on UBI trials.

On the whole, those with a Basic Income were more active, rather than less. When they no longer had to worry about thier basic needs, people tended to pursue meaningful activities--educational, artistic, etc. While this is in no way a suggestion that we should be pushing for a UBI, I wonder if, in a fully automated, mass unemployment future with a UBI, people wouldn't have more time and be willing and able to pursue political projects? Especially given that time/childcare and things of that nature are often some of the biggest barriers and largest cause of burnout, and when combined with people being less afraid of getting fired for on-the job organizing, knowing their basic needs are covered, this could be a glimmer of hope for a future movement.

Joined: 24-03-14
Dec 5 2016 00:39

I think most of those problems are things we can do something about. Ok so things like racism, rape culture, patriarchy and nationalism are terrible and unfortunately still pervasive and I don't want to downplay that fact, but still they are things we can challenge in the present and ultimately have the potential as human beings to overcome.

The environmental crisis is terrifying and I am not sure if we've lost the window of opportunity to prevent the worst of climate change yet. The UN's climate scenarios assume that in the future humans will invent technology to suck carbon out of the atmosphere, and I hope we do, but in the meantime we should at least dramatically reduce carbon emissions. That's not going to happen through the capitalist state though and I hope with a climate sceptic as president of the United States environmentalists will finally wake up to that fact and become a lot more radical and a lot more anti-statist as well as anti-capitalist.

The state has always been highly centralised and weaponized, sure today its on a much greater scale, but its not exactly a new problem. Riots and protests and radical uprisings have happened in the past and will continue to do so, no matter how centralised and weaponized the state becomes because its human nature to challenge unjust authority and oppression.

My point is that although incredibly difficult these problems at least aren't impossible to overcome, so there is no point in giving up in that respect neither can we giving the catastrophic consequences of those problems.

Where the problem really is is inaction, all we really have is a philosophy and sure its a beautiful one, but I don't think most people are interested in that sort of thing when they've got work, or no work, paying bills and raising kids to deal with, and sure we do do things to try and improve our conditions through direct action and protest but that's not enough. We need to build the forms of organisation that an anarchist society would take here and now so that people can see in practical terms what anarchism is and how to achieve it. So we can challenge existing statist institutions and so people develop mass disloyalty to them. So people have an alternative to those institutions, ones in which they feel empowered, liberated and confident enough to overthrow capitalism and the state. Otherwise people are going to continue to be atomised, scared shitless and look to authoritarian leaders and the state for action since they don't know what to do themselves, and too scared to govern and take action for themselves.

Steven.'s picture
Joined: 27-06-06
Dec 5 2016 10:29

Yeah this is a good discussion.

A lot of what I would want to say has already been said by other people, but I could add a couple of things.

Ed made reference to Forces of Labour by Beverly Silver. I think this is essential reading on this subject. It's in the library here:

Like Ed says, in the past technological and economic changes led some radicals to think that the working class would be destroyed as an organised force. However each time the class managed to recompose and reassert itself.

And potentially given that we now have the possibility for mass, self-organised and instant communication from a grassroots level, there is the possibility that we could organise ourselves more effectively than ever before - the London Deliveroo drivers being an example of this (of course there is also the equally likely possibility that the far right could do the same).

I wrote a slightly tongue in cheek article on this topic a little while ago, basically arguing that while things seem bleak I think in the long term there is cause for optimism:

On the gig economy, I don't think this marks anything particularly significant. Every few years politicos seem to like to pick something which sounds new and say that it has changed everything.

For example everything people are saying about the gig economy now, people said about zero hours contracts five years ago, "precarity" 10 years ago, about "casualisation" 20 years ago or about contract or lump working 40 years ago. And even that was nothing new then. If you read about working conditions in England in the late 19th century (like on the docks) for example you realise that casualisation has been a normal state of affairs for large chunks of the working class since the beginning of capitalism.

And somewhere like the US almost the whole population is effectively casualised, with no-fault dismissal.

The gig economy is just zero hours contracts or temp work with apps. In some ways it is better for workers than older types of casual work as it gives more flexibility to employees to choose their own hours etc. And on a technological level algorithms in the apps like Uber/Deliveroo are interesting because they could serve as a model for voluntary, real-time allocation of necessary workers and resources in a communist society (although that's another discussion…).

So is it the final victory of the employers? In short, no, no more than any of those other equivalent schemes were. Apart from anything else in many jobs you need to give employees at least some sense of stability in order to get decent quality work out of them, particularly for any kind of skilled or creative job.

Joined: 6-01-07
Dec 5 2016 12:08

Let's not cause this thread to be diverted onto a discussion of the proposals for a 'Universal Basic Income' favoured by some from both left-wing and right-wing campaigners. There is a long thread here: That thread also includes three more links to similar mostly useful discussions helping to debunk the bollocks talked by it's left-wing proponents.

jura's picture
Joined: 25-07-08
Dec 5 2016 14:57

Steven, great points on the "gig economy". In some respects it's basically the putting-out system, which dates back to the 17th century.

el psy congroo
Joined: 17-11-16
Dec 5 2016 16:09

It's pretty clear to me any amount of cleverness or optimism will not pull us from the situation we're in. And as controversial as it sounds, "traditional Marxism" has largely led us to a dead end. For example; calling for a mass strike right now is widely seen as delusional.

Very few individuals even from Marx's own time have successfully grappled with all the contradictions put forward and lived to tell about it. And I hate to feed into the cliche of "early vs late Marx", but it's clear the Marx of before the Paris commune was a Corbynista/Sanders democrat HIMSELF.

Unfortunately for us it was only in the later years of his analysis that he really seemed to highlight many of the contradictions we've brought to the fore in this thread; mainly that we've been attempting to build a revolutionary movement based on a now-extinct identity that no one wanted in the first place anyway.

It's seriously time to get more creative. If you were born recently it could be a matter of life and death to you. Now come the accusations of immediatism and opportunism, no?

jesuithitsquad's picture
Joined: 11-10-08
Dec 5 2016 16:51

I wish I could feel as hopeful as Steven. et al, and much like automation yes, the algorithms hold promise for re-use in a communist society. But I really don't think the notion that the new economy is more-or-less the same as casualization really appreciates the sinister undermining of the social contract that will occur if we are unable to fight back.

Of course it holds many things in common because it falls within the continuum of a line of attack on the working class. With casualization, in the US anyway, temp staff still maintain the minimal, basic protections labor law provides. Sure, you can be fired without cause in temp work. As Steven says, that's the case for most jobs in many states in the US anyway. However, if you were fired for an unlawful reason, you still have the ability to use the NLRB or local labor jurisdiction in order to punish the employer for breaking labor law. But in a gig contract, you have none of those protections because you literally are not an employee.

As myself and others have said, it is a jump back in time, before labor laws were in place. So perhaps we can make the argument that we've been here before, but in doing so, we also have to ackowledge that we essentially will have to refight many of the battles of the late 19th and early 20 th centuries just to maintain a status quo.

Furthermore, as I mentioned above I don't think we appreciate just how much the social contract will be gutted due to the disappearing tax-base for social programs. There is no analog to this in casualization.

Finally, the principles behind the gig economy mirrors the silicon valley mantra of 'disruption'. Much has already been written on the 'disruption' of businesses like airbnb on entire neighborhoods if not whole cities, accelerating gentrification, driving up property values, and making rent unaffordable over night. The basic model most of these tech styled companies use, across industries--is to come in to an industry, completely run rough-shod over legal obligations and industry traditions, fully understanding that the ensuing settlement will both a) break opposition/competition and b) save them massive amounts of money.

I've personally seen my potential earnings literally decimated as a result of the largest tech giant deciding that 100+ years of industry standards no longer apply because . . .new media. And no one--not even the massive organizations whose sole purpose for 100 years has been enforcing these standards against really big foes--can possibly afford to do a proper legal battle because even in a class action, you'd be buried in legal fees for a minimum of a decade.

Now add to all of the above that the primary proponents of the new economy hold an extremely regressive worldview. People like Peter Thiel have practically unlimited resources, and have clearly shown a willingness to use those resources to implement their philosophy, and were early passengers on the Trump train. With all of this in mind a picture emerges of a unique and highly motivated class enemy with designs on not just undoing labor laws, but more broadly undermining the larger pretext upon which the western world was built by turning back the clock to a pre-enlightenment age.

I think there are lessons to be learned from casualization and zero hours contracts, but I think comparing them side by side as if comparing apples to apples really down-plays the challenges we will be facing in the very near future.

(PS spikymike--I clearly stated I am not a supporter of UBI so I trust your "left wing proponents" comment wasn't directed at me.)

Joined: 29-07-05
Dec 5 2016 17:24

El psy's "a revolutionary movement based on a now extinct indentity that no-one wanted in the first place anyway" is a clear rejection as one could get of marx, marxism and the workers' movement. I think that optimism and pessimism are two sides of the same useless coin as far as the class struggle is concerned. Contrary to el psy dismissal, the working class and its struggle has not been aware of its "extinct identity" and has for many decades struggled against the odds, made enormous sacrifices and deserves the confidence, not blind faith, that revolutionaries should have in their class. Whatever the difficulties it is presently going through - and can anyone name a period when the class and its struggle hasn't gone through the greatest difficulties - the main factions of the bourgeoisie are acutely aware of the threat that the working class still poses for them and their rule and that has been one of the main developments of the whole of the twentieth century.

There are posts above and general positions that say because the working class is being hammered it is too weak to respond (the "gig" economy for example). I don't understand this position. When was it that, one way or another, the working class wasn't being hammered by economic crisis, division and war? Is there an idea that possible incremental steps to greater well being end up in a rose-petalled path to revolution? That is that "things" gradually get better. This is just another excuse for reformism. Time is not on the side of the proletariat but more than ever before there is the possibility of the illusions being swept away. As the moth-eaten velvet gloves on the iron fist of capitalist dictatorship are being removed its reforms and its reformism are shown to be an empty sham. Based on its self-organisation, the development of the economic crisis, the refusal of its youth to fight for nationalism, the way remains open for the possibility of revolution or at least some very significant class confrontations. There are differences of course, but it's the same old working class with the same old capitalism and the same old contradictions between them.

Just to re-emphasise the point about the intelligence and strength of the bourgeoisie in relation to the working class, because it has learnt the lessons of the twentieth century. Coming to the end of World War II, the ruling class was clearly conscious of avoiding the danger of the previous world war which the proletariat had brought an end to with its revolutionary wave (I'd agree with Slothjabber, 1917-26). To this end they pulverised working class areas beyond all excess and democracy de facto worked with the Gestapo in Italy in order to crush any working class resistance. And amid reports of post-war uprisings of women, children and old men against the remnants of the Nazis in Germany, the west held onto around five million German and Italian prisoners-of-war for years sensing that to return them could spark something that would get out of control. After the massacres and genocides of democracy it then turned to its expansion of the social wage (including the NHS) in order to quell any hint of rebellion. This "social peace" lasted until the economic crisis came back with force in what's known as "1968", a short-hand for the return of the proletariat to its history and becoming. Whatever the weaknesses of this movement, and there are plenty particularly of the petty-bourgeois nature, then this was undeniably a return to a global movement of the working class. The highest point of this movement came in Poland and particularly with the wave of strikes in 1980, where the self-organisation of the class constructed the potentially revolutionary inter-factory strike committees, subsequently emasculated by Solidarnosc and its western backers.