Capitalist production creates divisions.
It was the development and eventual domination of the capitalist mode of production, that created the modern working classes. Before this could happen, ordinary people had to be torn from their previous links to their means of production, as peasants, cottagers and craftsmen. Once removed from any ability to directly earn their own living, working people were forced to work for another new class of owners – the capitalist class. The previous age-long dominant class divisions and antagonisms between rural workers and land-owning aristocrats were transformed into the modern ones; between the capitalist class and the working class.
As the early capitalist countries developed, the modern working class quickly became the overwhelming majority of the population. In the so-called ‘advanced’ countries the overwhelming majority of communities are now working class communities. In addition, the overwhelming majority of citizens of mixed class communities are also working class. But they are now working class communities subject to the profit-based whims and vicissitudes of the new capitalist class. It is a class which has gained control of the dominant means of production and sustenance and has developed them for its own needs and purposes.
Previous forms of voluntary co-operation between working people was reduced to non-work time and their work-time became the forced co-operation to a elite-imposed production plan. Production was now determined not by what was needed by societies but what made the best profits for capitalist investors. Under the competitive struggle for market share and profit, capitalist forms of manufacture almost from their beginnings required absolute control and discipline within the production process. Part of that control was the creation of hierarchical divisions of labour amongst the working classes. As Marx summed it up;
“Manufacture proper not only subjects the previously independent workman to the discipline and command of capital, but, in addition, creates a hierarchic gradation of the workmen themselves.” (Capital Volume 1, Chapter 14 section 5.)
Since the early development of capitalism, the labouring masses have been progressively divided hierarchically within enterprises, between enterprises and within society at large. Work-based economic divisions are consequently considerable and extremely widespread. The existence of substantial pay and condition differentials among and between skilled (blue-collar and white), semi-skilled, unskilled and unemployed, has always created problematic divisions between these sections of the working class. As a consequence, this continuous development of division-of-labour gradations within the capitalist mode of production has created problems for the unity and solidarity of the working class.
Even within the narrow boundaries of nation-states, these industrial, commercial and public service work-place divisions have consequently led to the development of widely differing working class experiences, standards of living, interests and motivations. Additionally, layered within (or on top) of these capitalist inspired economic divisions among working people, are also pre-capitalist divisions of age, race/ethnicity, gender and religion – all of which are again in resurgence. All these actual socio-economic divisions are practical ones reinforced by daily, weekly and yearly experience and have been consolidated over long periods of time and often along generational employment traditions.
In particular, the late 20th century globalised development of the capitalist mode of production has seen a progressive decline of work-place proximity and shared identity of interests particularly among the European and North American working classes. During the post-2nd World War period, the proportional reduction of productive to unproductive labour (industry/commerce relative to public service employment) in these countries has further removed common work-place experiences and shared interests from the experience of large numbers of working people. In addition, unemployment – a unique creation of the capitalist mode of production – has created a considerable percentage of working people who may have little or no contact with each other or with supportive groups of employed workers.
The resulting ideas springing from all these real historic and contemporary divisions create well formed patterns of behavioural indifference, competition and lead to varying degrees of ideological antagonism. These patterns form one crucially important element of working class experience and consciousness. So to expect ideas which are derived from this solid material base to simply evaporate in response to alternative ideas hurled at them by the ‘left‘, or anyone else for that matter, is naive and unrealistic. The recognition and acknowledgement of this material fact, however, is not a reason to suggest that challenging these divisive ideas should be abandoned.
Instead, such recognition should guard against idealistic expectations based upon a superficial understanding, derived from a combination of ‘left’ impatience, rote-learned abstract slogans and wishful thinking. The days are long gone when thousands of employees staffed individual, mines, mills, factories, docks, railways, and numerous public services and shared similar oppressive experiences. Even then class solidarity was not easily sustained. It is the above noted modern ‘real-time’ divisions arising from the capitalist mode of production – along with numerous betrayals and previous working class defeats – which have led to a serious erosion of solidarity among the working class and among working communities.
The effects of economic divisions on class solidarity.
The past historical experience of class-struggles clearly confirms that if sectional or sectoral actions and the resulting consciousness are not overcome, then many the resulting struggles can be lost simply because of this failure. The most glaring examples of this problem of sectional de-composition have been witnessed in action when semi-skilled workers and management have kept production going and broken a strike by skilled workers who have decided to strike to protect their own privileged positions or differential pay status.
This problem and similar examples of failures occurred in Mining, Engineering, Printing and Dock-work etc., during the late 20th century in most advanced capitalist countries in Europe and North America. There are numerous such examples. Failures of militant actions due to the wider social decomposition of working class communities have also occurred. Strikes of workers in one sector of industry, commerce or public service has seriously damaged the lives of workers, their families in another sector of industry, commerce, or in working class society at large. This internal class alienation has resulted in consolidating the existing de-composition of solidarity.
In the 20th and 21st centuries, the separation and breakdown of working class shared experience and the consequent atrophy of ideas of solidarity has gone even further. Unemployed, homeless, handicapped, blue-collar, white-collar, private sector, public sector workers, are just a few of the presently established and currently entrenched material divisions between sections of working people to be overcome. To repeatedly call for sectional advantage or discrete sector defensive actions, as the Trade Union movement invariably did in the past, was always a de-facto acceptance and entrenchment of this capitalist created socio-economic de-composition.
These sectional and sectoral calls were also the result of a failure to recognise and challenge the tragic work-place and social-wide consequences of this de-composition. To continue to make such discrete sector defence calls in face of the present fundamental crisis of the whole capitalist system is doubly tragic and doubly misguided. So too are the equally misguided calls by some on the so-called revolutionary left for a General Strike. Such premature ‘vanguardist’ calls also fail to adequately recognise the reality of the current de-composed condition of the working class and the need to overcome it in practice and in theory.
A systemic crisis of capitalism changes circumstances.
And of course, this reversal is possible. The past experience of strikes and other large-scale oppositions (uprisings and revolutions) to the capitalist mode of production, suggests that with some effort – and under the right conditions – this material de-composition of working class identity, experience and solidarity can be overcome. For if we are to accept the following proposition; ‘that the ideas people hold reflect to a greater or lesser extent, the material circumstances of their lives’; then certain things follow.
It follows that for the vast majority of people only a radically changed set of material circumstances will consistently effect and challenge the basis of the present ideas they hold. Interestingly and importantly, those changed circumstances have started and are increasing week by week as the global economic and fiscal crisis continues to unfold.
Unemployment, zero-hours and low-pay; austerity, banking frauds and financial crises – along with health and other cut-backs – effect all sections of the working class. So too do increased prices for energy and other essential services. White-collar as well as blue-collar workers are also increasingly threatened by the unfolding circumstances of global warfare, pollution, ecological destruction and climate change. The material circumstances of working peoples lives are very definitely changing. However, a word of caution is due.
These changing material circumstances – ‘the maturing material conditions’ frequently outlined by Marx – will not immediately or automatically create the conditions for a re-composition of working class solidarity and class-consciousness. That re-composition needs to be experienced and be worked for by activists and those among the working-class communities who are ahead of the curve – so to speak. And this re-engagement with class-wide solidarity will not necessarily take place in the arenas of previous institutionalised forms or take on the appearance of previous types of organised struggle. The 21st century Occupy and UK Uncut responses, are examples of the emergence of new forms of opposition, struggle and solidarity.
The re-composition of working class solidarity.
For some time to come trade union and existing ‘left’ consciousness may deflect, hamper or even stand in the way of such a reorganization and re-alignment of working class forms of organisation and community solidarity. For these reasons, overcoming divisions and a resurgence of working-class practical solidarity are far more likely to begin in non-traditional arenas, where people have already no relative privileges to defend, because they have already lost everything – job, income, homes, individual freedom, citizenship, etc. To some extent this has already begun, particularly in countries which are ahead of the UK and the USA in the downward spiral of austerity attacks upon the working classes.
In response to the current pattern of capitalist cost-cutting and state-imposed austerity, working-class community action and consciousness has arisen in many places in Europe and elsewhere. These are actions which have begun to overcome the previous divisions among the working class. Community campaigns to keep schools, hospitals and other resources open and functioning are ways in which skilled workers, unskilled workers, unemployed, senior citizens, youth and other community activists come together and in a common project or projects overcome their previous separations structured by capitalist inspired status and pay. Anti-eviction and squatting campaigns are other such collective experiences having a similar potential. For example, a comment from Italy notes that a demonstration became an occupation when diverse groups came together. And;
“A careful insight on the demonstration can read through these diversities. There were house squatters in big numbers. It was not only concerning the recurring cycles of the housing squats in Rome, but something bigger and different. A visible trace of it is given by the huge attendance of migrants, as concerned protagonists of the march, and the diffusion that the housing issue acquired on territories it had never been present in. Thus, the occupation became a concrete and even necessary answer to a more and more questioned – or even denied by the crisis- material need. Then there was a robust presence of the youth proletariat and of those social strata deprived of income and opportunities that have dearly paid the costs of the crisis.” (‘It all began with a siege’ at ,http://www.infoaut.org )
All these types of community-based campaigns can and will become practical arenas, for the working out and challenging of sexist, racist, ageist, and elitist ideas and practices. But they will also be the arenas for challenging another form of negative de-composition – the past de-composition and present sectarian divisions of the anti-capitalist revolutionary left.
The challenge for the anti-capitalist left.
We should ask ourselves whether another attempt at unity among a broad left is a positive step forward or just creating another arena for further sterile sectarian wrangles. I suggest it is not a fragile ‘left-unity’ which is the most important factor in the coming struggles but campaigning for and assisting a class-based unity. A re-composed solidarity and self-activity among working people will be indispensable to the success of any defensive campaigns and if successful this will point to a positive way forward. The past and present left-sectarian practices, based upon male-biased, elitist vanguard ideas, will have to be resisted and challenged in such class and community-based campaigns. If workers unite and transcend their differences, the only thing they will lose – are their chains!
At the same time, if anti-capitalists can give up their sectarian characteristics the only thing they will lose will be their sectarian isolation and ability to bog-down any coming struggles. If they will reject sectarianism completely they will cease to be a problem and can become a facilitative part of the process of re-creating class solidarity and self-activity. So far (ie 100 years of left sectarianism) they have proved themselves incapable of leading themselves out of the ruts of their sectarian traditions and hopefully will – sooner or later – be faced with the task of learning from a reality of resurgent class-wide solidarity and struggle rather than hoping to train workers to follow them in pursuing self-defeating sectarian traditions.
The contradictions and antagonisms built into the capitalist mode of production have once again reached a crisis level and are creating the conditions and the potential way forward for a radical re-composition of working-class communal solidarity and self-activity. The anti-capitalist left can help or hinder this process. The realisation of a practical re-composition of working class solidarity will render our working communities fit to play a leading part among the revolutionary-humanist forces needed to create a new non-oppressive post-capitalist mode of production. Or as Marx succinctly phrased it;
“By the maturing the material conditions and the combination on a social scale of the processes of production, it matures the contradictions and antagonisms of the capitalist form of production, and thereby provides, along with the elements for the formation of a new society, the forces for exploding the old one.” (Marx Capital Vol 1 page 503.)
Roy Ratcliffe (October 2013)