The Occupy movement has completely shaken up the political establishment in the US and emboldened more working class people to become political actors through direct involvement in Occupy events, protests, and organizing. The Occupy movement has got the ball rolling in re-awakening class consciousness within the US masses as well as re-awakening the perspective that for us to win our demands, we have to protest.
One of the interesting things about the way this phenomenon is developing in the US is that there are no major organizations in the US that can trace their roots much further back in time than the 1960s or 1970s. Furthermore, many of the organizations that can go that far, or further back in US history, have survived as political supporters of the Democratic party.
This absence of a US organization with a long, battle tested history of radical politics and organizing forces the Left in the US to start from scratch with theories and analysis every time it is pushed to re-develop itself. This has created some interesting and innocent mistakes that are worth discussing here.
For one, many active members of the Occupy movement believe that occupying spaces, public or private, is a brand new tactic that has never been used before. Without an organization that can promote a history of working class struggle, it takes a lot of effort to explain to people that the working class has always had to occupy spaces to win it’s demands. Whether occupying parks for, and with, the homeless in England, to occupying factories in the US, the working class has always relied on occupations to further the struggle.
A different issue is also the theoretical analysis claiming that there is now a new class that has been created by the financialization of capitalism: the precariat. The theory of the precariat is more or less sophisticated depending on who you are reading or talking to. But in a nutshell, the idea is that at one time in history workers were guaranteed job security, and that now jobs are completely insecure. This new, and growing, layer of precarious workers are considered to be an entirely new class, different from the job secure proletariat of Marxs’ day.
Here again is a moment of disconnection between the history of the working class the re-development of the modern Left. Let us take a look at the capitalist system and see if this new class analysis really does fit the current state of things and the bigger historical picture.
Under capitalism, there are four classes: the bourgeoisie, the petit-bourgeoisie (small business owners and management), the proletariat, and the lumpen proletariat (the homeless, petty criminals, transitory workers, etc.). Without going into a major analysis of the whole system, we can focus here on the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The bourgeoisie is defined, within society, as the people who own the means of production. They are the business owners that own the stores, the machines, and pay out our wages. The proletariat work in the capitalists’ stores, work with the machines, and exchange labor power for wages. For these two classes, the class is determined by the social relation to the means of production: do you own the means of production or do you work with them? Do you own the hamburger grill or do you flip the hamburgers? Do you own the computers in the office or do you work on those computers? Do you own the defibrillator to restart someone’s heart, or do you do the defibrillating?
In all of these scenarios, from the hamburger flipper at McDonalds to the surgeon in a major hospital, the worker can be fired at any time. The whole point of the capitalist system is that those with the wealth to own also have the power to hire/fire individuals at will. So at all times in history, all workers are always precarious. At all times there is the concern that if an individual does not work hard enough, fast enough, behave appropriately, pretend to be happy with the bosses decisions then they might end up unemployed.
At no time in capitalist history has the capitalist class surrendered the power to hire and fire people at will. To take this power away from the bourgeoisie would involve a revolutionary movement. So at all times in capitalist history, the proletariat has been in a precarious position. It is precisely this precarious position, which is always exacerbated by cyclical capitalist crises, which pushes the proletariat to engage in struggle and revolution.
So is the precariat a new class? While I absolutely respect the Anarchists and Post-Modernists for acting vigorously to study the current dynamics of society, it is ultimately incorrect to think that the precariat is a new and unique class. The level of precariousness that workers face has definitely fluctuated throughout the history of capitalism. The lowest points for workers, the periods of the highest levels of precarious employment and wages, have been the points in which the bourgeoisie was experiencing the lowest levels of organized resistance by the working class. The highest points for workers, the periods with the lowest levels of precarious employment and wages, have been the points in which the bourgeoisie was experiencing the highest levels of organized resistance by the working class.
But the key feature here is that it is the level of worker’s resistance that determines how precarious our existence is, or isn’t, as a class.
The level of precariousness that many of us workers face today is not because we have developed into a historically unique class. We are experiencing this precariousness because we are entering into this world in a period after 40 years of the capitalists slowly, but surely, convincing us that “we are all middle class” and that we don’t need to engage in class struggle. We are coming into a world in which the last 40 years were full of union busting and attempts to whittle away all of the things that the workers won in the 1930s and 1960s-70s.
This material and ideological employers offensive was “subsidized” by the hyper-exploitation of the global south after World War II. With only two major imperialist players after WWII, the US and the Stalinist USSR, the US was free to run around the world setting up sweatshops, relocating heavy industry, and providing cheaper consumer goods through the starvation wages of peoples in Latin America and around the world.
The last spot left to redivide, again, is Africa. Which, as a side note, may again be one of the major matches to light the next world war.
The reason I have gone this long explaining the flaws in the precariat analysis is that for some on the Left, particularly the impatient and the anarchists, is that this analysis promotes the idea that not only is the proletariat no longer central to struggle, but that they can also be considered obstacles to struggle that need to be circumvented or even attacked.
This is a dangerous political perspective to take because it actually promotes the idea of direct action and police confrontation without considering what the ramifications are on the people that will be deliberately involved in activity. Let me sketch two examples. One is a Marxist example in which working class people involved in the day to day activities of Occupy link up with the workers at a dock to plan a dockworker strike and protest.
In this case, out of the recognition that it is the dock workers who will ultimately be affected by a protest at their work place, and also understanding that the dock workers are the people that need to be won to the need for struggle to make the action democratic and affective (since the dockworkers could easily continue to load/unload ships and just plow through protesters with their giant trucks), it makes practical and political sense to work with the dock workers for a successful action.
Lets take a precariat analysis of how to organize a protest. The working class is irrelevant as a class and the precariat class, by being allegedly bigger or more revolutionary, has the revolutionary duty to make a protest happen at the docks, whether or not the dock workers have been won to the idea of launching a struggle on their turf. So these precarians show up, without having previously built up the mutual respect and solidarity, and try to impose a “strike” on the workers by trying to create a human chain or human blockade to prevent the loading/unloading of ships.
Management can use the event to punish on-site workers, even though the workers themselves were not consulted on the matter.
Furthermore, the aggressive and authoritarian action could actually trigger the dock workers to resent the Occupy movement and see it as conspiratorial and elitist for not reaching out to them directly.
Finally, due to a lack of consent between the Occupy activists and the workers, many workers may rightly feel justified in crossing the human chain or blockade, which would naturally instigate a fight between Occupy and the dock workers, further damaging relations and preventing future cooperative and democratic actions.
As Marxists, it is important to understand that the vast majority of people belong to the working class. The Occupy movement is a movement that has been born of predominantly working class people, operating in a non-workplace environment (i.e. public parks, public streets, etc.). But for the movement to become a revolutionary challenge to the 1%, the lessons of Occupy actually have to be applied in the workplaces. It isn’t enough to just occupy a park. We also have to occupy our docks, our factories, or hospitals, our schools, or cafes, electric companies, etc, etc, etc.
The best way to begin down that road is to maintain the Marxist analysis that the proletariat is the central actor in revolution and that we need to work democratically within our proletarian class to win reforms, like greater job security and a living wage, and to ultimately overthrow the 1% so that no one ever has to worry again about whether or not they will be fired.