To understand our current conditions and why the working class is currently so weak we must look at the changes that capitalism went through in the 20th century.
Our current historical period in the broadest sense can be described as the “neo-liberal era” of capitalism. “Neo-liberalism” is sadly an abused term, but really it is just a means of describing the period of capitalism from around 1973 to today. Rather than being a result of an ideological shift from public regulation to market extremism it is a response to structural tendencies in capitalism, particularly the re-emergence of its classic crisis tendencies. In many senses neo-liberalism is really a return to the capitalism of the pre-1945 era, back to capitalism as usual before managerial strata of the bourgeoisie aimed to stabilize rule through Keynesian policies. The dominance of finance capital and labor markets with a large reserve army of the unemployed are hardly novel developments in capitalism. Yet unlike pre-1945 capitalism, the neo-liberal cycle of bourgeois rule was consolidated after new advances in the states ability to integrate class antagonisms through public interest liberalism. In many ways it is continuation of the post-war era’s attempt to liquidate class conflict. Additionally, with the former colonial world now formally independent, imperialism primarily functions through proxy wars rather than direct conflicts between world empires.
The Neo-liberal era according to many has come to end with the financial crisis of 2008, yet what exactly defines the supposed new conjecture is unclear. Much of this was misplaced optimism over the potential of ‘new social movements’ that developed after the 2008 crisis. As far as we are concerned we still are living under a hegemonic ideology which proudly proclaims the end of class conflict and even history itself, where the collapse of the USSR and turn to market reforms by the remains of the “socialist bloc” supposedly signals that no alternative to the market exists.
To understand our current moment we must look at the overall trajectory of capitalism and the class struggle over the past century. At the beginning of the 20th century capitalism had undergone a breakthrough in the development of its modern institutional forms with the managerial, financial and corporate revolutions. Imperialism was raging with an unprecedented intensity with world empires competing to expand colonization of Africa and Asia. From this tendency came World War I, both a crisis of the remaining old regime and the new capitalist one which was coming into dominance. Social-democracy and syndicalism had developed institutions capable of contesting class power, but for the most part ended up rallying behind the nation when the war began.
Out of the crisis of WWI came the most revolutionary and internationalist tendencies of the workers’ movement, as more and more workers realized that the war was a travesty that served the interests of their exploiters. Bolshevism, which would produce both Stalinism and left-communism (the latter the historical tendency we most identity with), emerges as a energizing factor for an international workers movement. In the interwar period world revolution seems to be a real item on the agenda, and capitalist ideologues as well socialists believe the end days of the system are happening before their eyes. At this point even the bourgeois economist Schumpter was able to envision the collapse of capitalism. Due to the intensity of social crisis in this period states are faced with the challenge of integrating antagonistic classes, giving rise to new developments in the bourgeois state. Fascism emerges as a reactionary mass movement, integralist nationalism using the forms of the workers movements to mobilize violent gangs of mostly demobilized soldiers, criminals and petty-bourgeois to crush communism and establish a more authoritarian form of capitalism. In the USA the New Deal emerged as a state response to crisis, not relying on squadrons of blackshirts but on democratic-republican workerism and the development of public interest group liberalism and the administrative welfare state.
The barbarism of WWII brings the United States and the USSR to the hegemonic states in the new world empire. The war sees scattered initiatives of proletarian internationalism but nothing that amounts to a real threat to the dominance of capitalism. Anti-fascist alliances of bourgeois states and workers movements and the acceptance of the labor movement by the capitalist state began a conscious project to integrate the proletariat into the nation as loyal “labor-citizens” that continued after WWII. Yet even before this much of the workers movement was preoccupied with “winning the battle for democracy” and modernizing society by crushing the remains of pre-capitalist state-forms. For example in Germany it was ultimately the SPD who finished the bourgeois revolution and consolidated democracy, while Russian Social-Democracy kept no secrets about bourgeois revolution and winning political freedom being their initial tasks.
The post-war arrangement of capitalism saw a shift in power towards the managerial strata of the bourgeoisie, with an attempt to rationally plan capitalism on a global scale. Communist internationalism had essentially collapsed as national liberation movements cleared away most of the remains of direct colonial rule from the core to periphery. In the USA and Europe the managerial strata of the capitalist class engaged in a ‘social contract’ of sorts with labor where compliance with the state promised economic growth and wealth redistribution. While waves of wildcat strikes and militancy still existed (from those marginalized from the social contract like black and latino workers), the tendency of the working class towards being integrated into capitalism through this new public interest group liberalism was overwhelming. Both liberal technocrats and New Leftists declared that capitalism had overcome its internal crisis tendencies through the welfare states and mass consumption of the new mixed economies, with class-based revolutionary movements being a thing of the past. Some even believed the USSR and Western capitalist states were both converging towards the same type of planned bureaucratic society.
The return of economic crisis in the 1970’s proved these ideas wrong. Capitalism had failed to provide a means for infinite growth without economic chaos and the ruling class was restructured to the advantage of finance capital, its strategy of accumulation shifting towards an embrace of “creative destruction” and the anarchy of the market. By the late 1970’s a definite political project amongst the capitalist class emerged to maximize the competitiveness of markets and create a fluid global labor market. This meant a shift towards privatization rather than the ideal of the mixed economy, but not necessarily a weakening of the state.
If the post-war Keynesian era was a class compromise, the neo-liberal era would be a direct attack on the working class and their relative stability. Creating a more fluid global labor market would mean attacking the social wage and the power of collective bargaining in the core, increasing the reserve army of labor (more unemployment) and shifting investment in manufacturing towards newly proletarianized laborers in the periphery where development programs are imposed through international financial and state apparatuses. In the core manufacturing doesn’t disappear, but is largely restructured to become less labor intensive where it remains. As a result the masses of unskilled workers increasingly find themselves in service industry jobs such as a food and retail, which are far more decentralized and less concentrated than manufacturing industries. These factors, coupled with a large reserve army of labor, makes traditional union organization almost impossible.
Contrary to the fantasies of its ideologues, the “neo-liberal” arrangement didn’t roll back the power of the bureaucratic and authoritarian state. While civil servants were laid off and nationalized firms were privatized the actual repressive arm of the state took on forms more pervasive and controlling than ever. A rising surplus population of individuals excluded from waged labor can mean for many (both non-employed and those employed in low wage jobs) a reliance on often harmless black market activities and illegalism for survival. State policing and surveillance, especially in low income neighborhoods, takes on a newfound paternalism and intensity in order to control these populations and enforce capitalist relations. Due to discrimination in labor markets and the white supremacist origins of the US state much of this state violence is heavily racialized, creating a stark contradiction to the multicultural ideology of the ruling class.
So why didn’t the working class fight back and protect itself from falling into this position? A big part of it had to do with the previous success of efforts by the capitalist class to integrate the labor movement into the state, a route that was admittedly taken begrudgingly after years of violent struggle. The “class compromise” of the post war era saw an overwhelming tendency towards workers choosing loyalty to the state over radical organizations as a means to secure reforms and a higher standard of living. A lack of even basic defensive organization independent from the state and the conservatism of the labor bureaucracy made resistance difficult. Labor bureaucrats already used to giving concessions to the state would have a difficult time mounting real defenses against privatization campaigns. State co-operation may have been the option with the most immediate benefits for workers in the post-war economy but in the long run it weakened the ability of the working class to fight for its basic interests.
This integration of the proletariat with the state didn’t come out of nowhere and didn’t occur smoothly without resistance either. Both social-democracy and Stalinism, two political phenomena that for us signify the ‘left-wing of capital” played a key role in this process. The political role of both these movements was rallying workers in the name of nation and democracy while systematically repressing genuine communist movements movements that developed within the class. Rather than acting as a force for communism the workers movement tended towards what G.M. Tamas termed “Rousseauian socialism”, socialism which aims to unite “the people” against caste society (the remains of the old regime in Europe continued after the turn of the century) as opposed to class society, which is ultimately only fully realized under capitalism. This was what the politics of social-democracy, the Popular Front, and the Chinese revolution ultimately were about – wiping away the remains of the old regime society that stood in the way of capitalist development while aiming to fully realize the ideals of democracy and civic equality.
The weakness of working class today is not simply due to repression from the state and fascists thugs. These certainly played a role, but much of the left also played a role by repressing the most radical wings of the movement and integrating the working class into their respective national states. The statist/nationalist left contributed much help in the development of the modern labor bureaucracy which once helped contain and manage waged labor. Yet as soon as these institutions become a barrier to the accumulation of capital they come under attack, a tendency that becomes fully fleshed out in the “neo-liberal” period. Largely integrated into the system and lacking independent political institutions, the working class is largely incapable of resisting the more direct phase of intensive disciplining to the domination of the market that marks the current era.
Whether the workers movement was doomed to act as a modernizing force for capitalism to overcome the residuals of the pre-capitalist world or simply made the wrong choices is a pointless question to ask. We can only look at how history played out and theorize on what objective factors may have influenced this. We should also not forget that despite the overwhelming hegemony of what we would call “the left wing of capital” various minorities within the old workers movement looked beyond the bourgeois politics of the hegemonic left and struggled against its role in integrating the proletariat into capitalism. This “communist left” consisting of figures like Amadeo Bordiga, Anton Pannekoek, Sylvia Pankhurst and Gavril Miasnikov was probably the most advanced political expression of the proletariat as a class struggling for Communist society to have existed and serves as vital inspiration for those looking to overcome capital today, though many aspects of their politics may be outdated.
The failure of the left in the 20th century to transcend capitalism has left a legacy where radical social change can only lead to the spectre of “totalitarianism”, where class society can never be overthrown but merely be replaced by another form of it where the new oppressors are only worse than the old. The collapse of the Soviet Union, market reforms in China and Vietnam or the embrace of neo-liberal policies by social-democratic parties have shown that the strategies and vision of the official left to be bankrupt. To most it is clearer than ever that the old ways didn’t work, that Stalinism and social-democracy didn’t offer liberation to the workers. Yet the common sense reaction to this is not to embrace a more radical and critical form of communist politics instead of the old guard left, but rather to reject the possibility of any real alternative to the ruling order. We can hardly blame people for this reaction either, as there is hardly any real alternative for people to choose.
The situation this has led to is very contradictory – on one end the irrationality and barbarism of capitalism is more exposed than ever, yet the formation of a working class collectivity capable of challenging the current order faces an array of obstacles. In the United States and other core economies decentralization of workplaces and de-industrialization leave the workforce largely incapable of the kind of union organization that marked the 20th century workers movement, where workplaces with high concentrations of workers were the norm. The traditional routes of electoral action, if they ever were a correct tactic, are also essentially blocked from having any efficacy as the state-apparatuses of modern capitalism are more subsumed to its laws of motion than ever before. Any party coming to power through electoral victories is bound to make compromises with the middle classes and other bourgeois parties and become managers of capitalism. Ideology also plays a role, as the naturalization of market relations due to their increased penetration of social life and the failure of 20th century socialism makes capitalism appear to be the only way for humanity to exist.
As hopeless as the situation may currently appear we must keep a clear head and avoid embracing despair. The collapse of Stalinism and social-democracy, though their remains may still haunt us, gives us a relatively clean slate to rebuild a genuine communist movement. Moving forward will require a strategy of patience and experimentation in new forms of organization. It will also mean a rejection of the legacy of the statist/nationalist left whose projects have only led back to capitalism.