Scepticism about the capacity of workers to challenge capitalism is the common sense across much of the radical Left. Such views often start from the position that capitalism has been so fundamentally transformed that focussing on workers is hopelessly nostalgic. An influential version of this thesis was provided by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in Empire and subsequent works. A different version is provided by Guy Standing in Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, which sees the historic proletariat as separated into groups including a ‘precariat’, lacking access to the job security granted to workers in the past, and a relatively privileged ‘salariat’. Slavoj Žižek, in a recent piece, ‘Revolt of the Salaried Bourgeoisie’, synthesises the two positions.
Such views mistake transformations within the limits imposed by the social relations of capitalism for the transformation of those social relations. The class is identified with specific forms of labour process, labour contract, organisation or consciousness. But Marx’s approach was to identify general capacities, powers and interests of workers flowing from their social position. On this basis we can understand real changes to work and workers without succumbing to the apocalyptic visions so popular today.
Joseph Choonara is a British-based Marxist and member of the Socialist Workers Party. He is on the editorial board of and regularly contributes to International Socialism. His first book, Unravelling Capitalism: A Guide to Marxist Political Economy (Bookmarks, 2009), has subsequently been translated into Korean, German and Dutch. He is currently writing a work on the Marxist conception of class.