On Marx’s 200th Birthday: Farewell to the Proletariat
Paul Mason, my favorite radical left writer, has another great piece out in his series on Open Democracy. He asks:
“We can only move forward if we can answer the…question: who wants to change the world, and who has the agency to do it?”
“After reporting on the 2011 revolts, and observing the similarities between the people in the streets and squares of Cairo, Athens and New York City, I became convinced that a new kind of person had emerged, which sociologists labelled the “networked individual”.
Networked technology, combined with high levels of education and personal freedom have created a new historical subject across most countries and cultures which will supplant the industrial working class in the progressive project, just as they replaced the cottage weavers and artisans of the 18th century.
Orthodox Marxists are appalled by this proposal, and for good reason. If the classic proletariat, owning no substantial property and destined to spontaneously solidaristic ways of life, is not in fact destined to overthrow class society, then a key tenet of Marxism is disproved.
This, as I argued in ‘Postcapitalism’, is the inevitable conclusion we have to draw from 200+ years of working class history. The working class always wanted to go beyond the piecemeal reforms offered by parliamentary socialists like Beatrice Webb, but never – outside extreme circumstances – wanted to impose the proletarian dictatorship proposed by Marx. Nor during the rare times that workers’ council-type bodies gained power were the working class able to secure these institutions against the influence of outside parties and bureaucracies.
The actual 200 year record of the proletariat is heroic: it wanted control and cultural space within capitalism and would fight to the death for this, even against parties claiming to be communist. But it persistently refused to play the role of capitalism’s gravedigger.”
I think this is exactly right. In this light the political configurations of today make sense. Conversely seeing the industrial working class as the leader of the progressive parade is at best confusing, at worst utterly depressing.
I would add to Mason’s analysis something he touches on only briefly: the inescapable demographic/structural facts of our situation.
Broadly speaking, the progressive coalition for perhaps 150 years—but most robustly for the hundred years between 1870 and 1970—was primarily based in the industrial working class (though of course additional support, especially for the non-socialist left, came from reformist elements of the white collar middle class and the agrarian sector). This coalition led by the industrial working class ebbed and flowed in this period but reached its peak of power and influence in the 30 years after World War II, resulting in the progressive welfare state that dominated the Western world. But this dominance did not last and one of the key reasons is very simple: the industrial working class had typically peaked in size by 1970 (in some countries somewhat earlier) and after 1970 experienced a precipitous decline. The general pattern has been a decline from 40-50 percent of the workforce to only around a quarter in a very short historical time span.
For example, in Germany the proportion of blue collar workers in the workforce has been cut in half since the late 1950’s to just over one-quarter of the workforce today, while the proportion of white collar workers has nearly tripled to 57 percent . Similarly, in Sweden the proportion of blue collar workers has been cut in half to one quarter of the workforce just since the mid-1970’s .
Closely related to this trend, employment in the industrial sector has dropped rapidly across countries, replaced by employment in the service sector. In Germany, the industrial sector has declined from 55 percent of employment in 1950 to just 26 percent today . Similarly, in the Netherlands industrial employment dropped from 40 to 20 percent of the workforce between 1950 and 2003 and in the UK from 47 to 24 percent over the same period .
In the United States, these changes have, if anything, been even stronger. The blue collar workforce is now down to just 21 percent of workers and industrial employment is down to just 16 percent .
To put these changes in perspective, consider that industrial employment in the United States, after rising for around 150 years, is now back roughly back to the level it was in 1820, when 70 percent of employment was agricultural . And now services are well over three-quarters of employment, so agriculture and services have essentially swapped places since 1820, while industry over this nearly 200 year time span has wound up back in the same place as a share of employment.
The profound significance of this remarkable change has yet to be fully absorbed by the left. Surely it is of earth-shaking significance that the class upon which progressive coalitions were built for so long has subsided back to its level of the early 1800’s.
And there are related changes that deepen the significance of this shift in the class structure. For example, union membership, a traditional driver of left voting, has been steadily dropping across countries, as well as shifting its composition toward public sector employees. In the United States, union membership peaked at 35 percent of the non-agricultural workforce in the mid-1950’s and is now down to about 11 percent and even lower (7 percent) in the private sector .
Similarly, in the Netherlands, union membership has dropped from 37 to 21 percent of the workforce between 1979 and 2007. In Germany over the same period, unionization dropped from 35 to 20 percent. In the UK, the decline was from 52 to 29 percent; in Spain, from 43 to 15 percent . Only the Nordic countries have been able to maintain their high union membership rates at close to their historic levels.
But even more significant is the glaring fact that, as the industrial working class has declined in numbers, it has become less supportive of traditional left parties. In Sweden, the social democrats’ share of the LO (blue collar workers union) vote has declined by 20 points from 1982 to 2010. In Denmark, social democrats’ share of the traditional working class vote declined by 17 points from the 1960’s to the 1990’s, in the UK by 18 points from the 1960’s to the 2000’s and in France (second round Presidential) by 19 points from 1974 to 2007. And in the United States, the white sector of the working class is now more likely to vote Republican than Democratic in most elections.
Outside of the US, there is also considerable variation in where the lost support from blue collar workers is going. Some of it is going to the traditional right but in countries with strong multi-party systems much of that lost support has been finding its way to parties of the populist right (e.g., the Freedom Party in Netherlands, the National Front in France, the Sweden Democrats in Sweden, the Danish People’s Party in Denmark, JOBBIK in Hungary) A much smaller portion has typically migrated to parties of the populist left (e.g., the Socialist Party in Netherlands, the Left Party in Germany, the Socialist People’s Party in Denmark). However, the recent emergence of new left populist parties like Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece indicates that the situation may be more fluid in Southern Europe.
In short, the old progressive coalition is dead; by dint of declining numbers and attenuating support, the industrial working class can no longer play a leading role in the broad left. The ongoing (indeed, never-ending) struggle to reform capitalism will have to be waged on a new basis.
The left in the US is probably the farthest along in absorbing the implications of this change and building a new progressive coalition. Partially this reflects the fact that modernizing structural change is somewhat farther along in the US, creating new left constituencies at a particularly rapid rate. But if also reflects the advantage the US left gains from the simple two party nature of the US political system—the Democratic Party is the natural, indeed only viable, vehicle for progressive constituencies, new and old. By contrast, in Europe, to a greater or less degree, the multiparty nature of political systems has brought to the fore a variety of left socialist, ecological (green) and social liberal parties to compete with social democrats, the traditional parties of the industrial working class. To make things even more complicated, these alternative left parties typically do disproportionately well among new constituencies, a development social democrats have had a hard time accepting. This has made it even harder in these countries to fully harness the political power of emerging constituencies.
These emerging constituencies reflect the broad structural shift away from manufacturing and toward a postindustrial, knowledge-based society embedded in a global economy. Accompanying this shift have been changes in family and values norms—lowered fertility, diversity in family forms, rise of postmaterial values, decline of traditional religion—sometimes referred to as the Second Demographic Transition . Together these changes have given rise to an explosion of left-leaning groups that is making up for the decline of the traditional working class and powering the emergence of new left coalitions across the advanced Western world. Conservatives, in contrast, are relying ever more heavily on declining social sectors—very much including the traditional working class–to buoy their electoral fortunes.
So there we are. On Marx’s 200th birthday, let us finally discard the proletariat as the historical subject in the progressive project and accept that we are playing in a different ballgame. The goal of social justice remains but the players have fundamentally changed.