19. Proletariat and precariat

Submitted by Spassmaschine on December 17, 2009

Do you think the superfluous masses of the unemployed, the people of the banlieues, the ghettos, the Third World, etc., play an important role in the development of capitalist society, and what could therefore be their role in its destruction?

Semi- or under-proletarians have always played an important part in the birth and evolution of capitalism. I. Wallerstein even interprets the overseas exploitation of semi-proletarians as the main motive of colonialism, and as a major source of profit today: these proletarians supplement their wage by other sources of income, so capital does not have to pay in full the reproduction of the labour power it's bought. Though he overstates his case, Wallerstein has a point.

However, those who now theorise the worldwide advent of masses of informal proletarians as a new revolutionary subject are looking for a surrogate proletariat, a substitute supposed to be more numerous, and above all less "integrated" than yesterday's "privileged" blue collar workers.

True, wage earners assured and satisfied of a job and an income will never set about changing themselves and the world. But no revolution will be launched by people that are definitively kept outside wage labour. A revolution that questions capitalist wealth as well as poverty, consuming as well as deprivation, alienation as much as exploitation, work and unemployment, money and lack of money, can only be initiated by proletarians with an experience of both, now and in their past, personally or via their family and friends. People without any prospect of ever entering the wage system will rebel: they won't start to communise what is around them.

In history, the essential is never merely sociological, even less in a revolution, still less in a communist one: any movement that can be divided in and interpreted through sociological strata proves its weakness or downward course. There will only be a revolution when the separations between work and non-work, workplaces and the rest of society, worker and outcast, break up, but only those who've (directly or not) known wage labour will be able to take the initiative.

This is not to say that factory workers in so-called industrialised countries would have any revolutionary privilege or "birthright". About thirty years ago, we wrote that Japan or the US were not nearer to communism than Cameroon or Laos, because of the extent of deconstruction and disaccumulation that revolution would have to undertake in over-industrialised countries. But Laos and Cameroon will not trigger off a world communist process. Yet, once this process is on its way, they will take part in it, and their contribution will be qualitatively as vital as that of old industrial areas.

We now hear a lot about the emergence of a precariat.

Either it underlines an obvious fact: the proletarian condition is by nature precarious. Then there's no need to invent a new notion, which only takes into account one of the elements that constitute the proletariat, and leaves out the other equally important element : the proletariat valorises capital. (However stimulating the situationist phrase "The proletarian is the one who has no control over his life, and who's aware of it" can be, it is misleading.)

Or the whole purpose of a precariat is to bring together vast crowds, more numerous of course than factory workers, but also than wage earners, so vast that thanks to globalisation they're about to include nearly all human beings. In that case too, the concept masks the specificity of capitalism. It goes for a broad definition that in fact reduces capitalism to an oppression more oppressive than its predecessors, a domination so total that it can only result in a mass rising just as total in quantity (because nearly everyone is concerned), and most of all in quality (because capitalist dehumanisation reaches the core of human nature). Obviously such a tidal wave cannot fail to sweep away oppression once and for all... The novelty of capitalism would be to create impoverished masses infinitely larger than ever before, and better unified than in former mainly peasant society. This more up-to-date and more open version of the "final crisis" theory has the same appeal and defect as the other versions.