The making and remaking of class

Issue: 148

Jacqui Freeman

Leo Panitch and Greg Albo (eds), Socialist Register 2015: Transforming Classes (Merlin Press, 2014), £16.95

The 2015 edition of Socialist Register discusses class formation, class politics and class strategies today in relation to questions of gender and oppression. It is a welcome continuation of themes developed in the 2014 volume with contributions from academics alongside labour and social movement activists. The editors define class on a Marxist basis as a social relation to the means of production and a “social process, made and remade in class struggle”. An impressive geographical scope is offered with essays ranging from the EU to India, China, South Africa, Turkey, the US, Mexico and Brazil. Given the increase in the size of the global working class from 1.5 to 2 billion in 1980 to over 3 billion today, the importance of this discussion is clear.

In a convincingly argued essay Ricardo Antunes shows how a shared experience of exploitation between workers of different ages, ethnic background and gender across the manufacturing and service sectors in Brazil offers the potential for future unified struggles and the development of working class consciousness.

The opening essay by Susan Ferguson and David McNally adopts a Marxist-feminist approach to analysing class and gender within what they call “hierarchically and racially differentiated global labour markets”. They equate the conditions for migrants in the United States guest-worker programme with those of the largely female workforce in Mexico’s maquiladoras (low wage factories manufacturing for export) as “zones of precarity”. Workplaces and households in the two countries are connected by wage remittances sent home by migrant workers in the US. This represented 3 percent of Mexican GDP by 2008. Ferguson and McNally argue that these flows of Mexican workers to the US and wages sent home to Mexico are changing relations of gender, childhood, kinship and social reproduction as increasing numbers of women, particularly young women, migrate and work in the US predominantly in low-paid and non-unionised jobs. They state that women tend to send more money home than men but do not provide any figures to substantiate this.

The benefits to US capital of this process are two-fold: a relatively cheap source of labour is provided and the reproduction of the next generation of workers in Mexico (at a lower cost) takes place, without US capital having to contribute to any public services used by this next generation. This is where the authors emphasise the importance of adopting social reproduction theory to explain working class formation today. Social reproduction theory agrees with Marxism that it is labour power that produces value but focuses on how this labour power is produced and reproduced outside of capitalist production within the “kin based” site called the family. For Ferguson and McNally this privileging of social reproduction means that community campaigns are as strategically important as workplace struggles.

In contrast, Antunes’s essay emphasises the tendency towards a strong homogenisation between different sectors of the working class in Brazil on the basis of a shared experience of insecurity and over-exploitation to extract more surplus value. He describes situations of pressure to produce more in less time and for less money common to industrial workers in Brazil’s car plants, rural workers in agribusiness and the large service sector including the telemarketing industry and call centres created by privatisation since the 1990s. For Antunes it is among these different wage earners that new social struggles will develop.

In their article on the US left Mark Dudzic and Adolph Reed Jr are highly critical of a subjective identity-based approach, as it “dissolves working people’s interests as working people into populations defined by ascription or affinity rather than by location in the system of capitalist reproduction”. They liken this to NGOs who view the people they work with as “helpless victims” or “abstract groups without any real agency’’.

Hugo Radice views social reproduction as “the institutions, ideas and practices that constitute together the distinct ways in which humanity structures its relationship to nature”. He confusingly views the work of social reproduction in households, leisure activities and voluntary associations as both examples of creative, collective and universal forms of work and alienated forms of subordination. Radice wants to construct a politics “against” class and says we need clearly to set out an aim of a post-capitalist society. However, Radice also looks to work within the existing organisations of trade unions, parties and social movements as “bridges to socialism within capitalism”.

One of the most interesting articles is by Sam Ashman and Nicolas Pons-Vignon on the project by the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) and Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) to create a new working class party. With the backdrop of the 2012 Marikana massacre and subsequent mass strikes by miners and workers’ disillusionment with the ­tripartite alliance (the ANC, the South African Communist Party and Cosatu), this represents an exciting but challenging form of political regroupment. The authors argue that the project of setting up a new party requires challenging the idea of the working class as solely industrial or unionised or sub-divided between a proletariat and a precariat and rebuilding an inclusive approach to the working class.

An article on Egypt details the central role of workers in the revolutionary movement that overthrew Hosni Mubarak, the establishment of independent trade unions and how workers have continued to resist under Muhamed Mursi and now Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi. Building anti-neoliberal and socialist movements in difficult conditions is also addressed in an essay on the victory of the BJP in India.

Andreas Bieler and Roland Erne outline the extent to which transnational solidarity in Europe was established after the 2008 crisis. Focusing on Germany, they contrast the highly criticised nationalist approach of the German Industrial Union of Metalworkers, who blamed Spanish trade unions for the economic crisis, and concrete efforts by another large German union, Ver.di, to build solidarity with Amazon workers and Deutsche Post DHL strikes in Istanbul. There is a brief description of the general strikes in Spain and Greece plus the development of the 15 May movement and Syriza but it would have been good to have a separate essay on these two countries.

The last part of the book is devoted to the prospects for a new left in the US. Kim Moody and Charles Post show how the US working class has continued to grow despite a fall in the number of manufacturing workers and an increase in temporary work: 90 percent of people work in a traditional employee-employer arrangement. Importantly they note the vulnerability of capital to industrial action by logistics workers in geographically concentrated “hub” centres. There has been a reshaping rather than decline of the American working class with an expansion of the service sector which has one of the fastest rates of workers joining a union, many of them Latino, African American, young and female. Their low pay gives them a good reason to join a union and they can win, as demonstrated by the recent strikes of fast food workers.

An interesting essay by Jane McAlevey details significant gains in pay and conditions and union organisation won by hospital workers in Las Vegas organised on a cross-sector basis in the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Dudzic and Reed Jr dismiss this “new unionism” approach and argue for “social unionism” based on campaigns for public good, as exemplified by the Chicago teachers. While they are right to state that a key element of building public sector unions and winning struggles is having a wider vision of a non-profit based education system (or health, housing, transport system, etc) as the Chicago teachers put forward, their dismissal of the SEIU seems too hasty.

Reading the journal during the summer of 2015 I found it informative and apt. The racist scapegoating of migrants in Calais and Kos, strikes by tube workers, the all-out strike by National Gallery workers and the excitement of Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign for Labour Party leader all illustrate both the need for a clear strategy and the potential to build a progressive ­movement that shifts the balance of forces firmly in favour of labour and the oppressed.