FAULT-LINES IN THE CONTEMPORARY PROLETARIAT: A MARXIAN ANALYSIS

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1 FAULT-LINES IN THE CONTEMPORARY PROLETARIAT: A MARXIAN ANALYSIS David Neilson Waikato University, Hamilton, New Zealand. ABSTRACT This paper begins by re-litigating themes regarding debates between different schools of class theory, with particular reference to American neo-marxist Erik Olin Wright. It makes the case, contra Wright, that the important points of tension between different schools should not be about the class concept per se, but about class theories. In the substantive part, a marxian perspective of the dynamic of the class structure in the contemporary capitalist world is briefly sketched. It qualifies Marx s Communist Manifesto prognosis of simple class polarization entailing proletarian homogeneity amongst the immense majority by arguing that the class dynamic of contemporary global capitalism is generating complex polarization combined with stratification amongst the broader fragments of the proletariat. This prognosis was underpinned by a change of analytical emphasis made possible by a rethinking of the class concept and the criteria that are used to identify dynamic class structures in practice. Different criteria than orthodox analyses are applied by introducing a general Marxian long-term theory of employment patterns, spliced together with an analysis of the contemporary stage and model of development, labelled here Toyotist Neoliberalism, of the capitalist mode of production. 1 INTRODUCTION Neo-marxist class theory had a golden period, from about the mid seventies to the mid eighties, when it offered important insights into developments of the class structures of the advanced capitalist countries. Since then, class, as a field of investigation, has gone into serious decline and many have written about its imminent death. Erik Olin Wright, keeping class analysis alive, has continued to write quite prolifically in the field. His focus has been to defend his neo-marxist perspective from other perspectives, especially the weberian perspective. Nonetheless, more recently there appears to have been a movement towards consolidation of different schools within a more flexible hybrid approach that tends to pragmatically accept co-existing class concepts, each of which is seen to have its different applications (Wright, 2006, p. 155; 2005). In contrast to this development, it is argued here that little essential difference exists between the different schools conception of class itself. Rather, differences at the conceptual level are more usefully understood in terms of the criteria of class identification which are being prioritised. In turn, which criteria are prioritized is more generally related to the broader social theory of each school. The field of class theory can be generally defined as the identification and explanation of patterns of social unity and difference. More precisely, a class refers to a collection of people who have unity in their life situation. A single social class, in an ideal or fully-

2 formed sense, refers to a collection of people that has homogeneity of economic circumstance (class-in-itself), shared and communal life experience and identity, a common discourse or habitus (Bourdieu, 1984), and a united political consciousness and propensity to organize and act (class-for-itself). Marx s concept of class, even if not explicitly stated, is consistent with this definition. For Marx, classes are defined according to a commonality of life situation and, at a fully formed stage, involve class reflexivity expressed as a societal project (class consciousness, class-for-itself). Furthermore, this broad definition of class is consistent with other approaches. For example, Bourdieu (1984: 101) defines classes as sets of agents who are placed in homogeneous conditions of existence. Grusky and Sorensen (1998), operating within the tradition stemming from Durkheim, distinguish between disaggregate classes (occupations) and aggregate classes (combined occupations) with occupations being treated as classes to the extent that they are gemeinshaftlich communities as well as positional sources of exploitation and inequality (p. 1191). My argument is that the class criteria of all the schools are linked to a shared conception of class. The old debate between Marxists, who say class is about exploitation, and weberians who argue it is about market chances, misses the point. Marx s argument is not that exchange relations are not part of the class situation. Rather his point is that, over the long term, capitalism will lessen the significance of exchange (i.e. income levels) because the capitalist labour process will reduce the immense majority to a common level of skill, and thus a common income and lifestyle. Wright s insistence in the main body of his writing that a Marxist approach is one in which, by definition from the outset, class = exploitation, is fundamentally flawed and circular (see Neilson 2007a). In Marx s work, exploitation is not equal to the class effect. Rather, exploitation is fundamental to Marx s social theory and to his perspective regarding the key criteria that generate class effects over the longer term. In this paper, I continue with my own Marxian bent, methodologically, in terms of criteria of significance but also in terms of the broader research interests of the marxian tradition. The dynamic of the class structure, from a Marxian perspective, is rooted in a particular conception of the structure and dynamic of the capitalist mode of production. Rather than focusing on the causal mechanisms driving the changing class structure, the Weberian perspective seems locked into a method of surface description of probable classes (Bourdieu, 1987). Furthermore, unlike Weberian social science, marxist analysis continues to be motivated by the political implications of class structure in terms of the struggle against capitalism and the project of socialism. Nonetheless, a marxian approach does not have to imply remaining fixed in the exact nature of the criteria of significance that have so far defined the marxist class research agenda. In the substantive part of the paper that follows, I attempt to add beyond my existing Marxian account of the class structure of the proletariat which focuses systematically on the themes of formal and real subordination (Neilson, 2007a) - and bring in market and more specifically labour market themes of competition, segmentation, and un/employment. This bent follows through on the subordination themes, but takes it in a direction not emphasised in Marx s own writing. Contemporary class analyses, perhaps partly as a result of this less-than-enlightening debate between different schools about the class concept as reduced to a particular criterion, are depressingly limited in terms of their accounts of recent developments in the class structures of the contemporary capitalist world. Class theory and analysis seems stuck in a time warp but all the while the world marches on. The embarrassment of the middle class (Wright, 1986) has dominated neo-marxist analysis since the seventies, and continues to remain an important theme. However, what is particularly striking about class developments since the seventies, and is occurring within the context of the current era of capitalism, is both deepening class

3 stratification and polarisation. In particular, the rise of the neo-proletariat (Gorz, 1982) in the advanced capitalist societies, and the informal proletariat accounting for about a billion of the world s population in the developing world (Davis, 2006), are important issues not just to do with the structure of work but also with the dynamics of (un)employment. Such class structural developments are integrally connected to shifts in the deeper structures and model of development of the capitalist mode of production (see Neilson and O Neil, 2007b). The present phase of capitalist development is characterised by nationally uneven sector-level shifts towards industrial capitalism in the undeveloped and developing worlds, and continuing and consistent shifts in the advanced capitalist countries towards post-industrial capitalism. These shifts in the structures and patterns of employment are combined with, and hastened by, the shift from the Fordist model of development towards a new dominant global model of development labelled here Toyotist Neoliberalism. Splicing these two themes together long-run employment theory and the rise of Toyotist Neoliberalism - leads towards a novel interpretation of contemporary patterns and future tendencies of the class structure of global capitalism. First, I begin with an outline of deep long-term employment patterns in the context of a continuing and dynamic capitalist mode of production. Second, these patterns are then examined within the specific contemporary context of Toyotist Neoliberalism. 2 DISCUSSION 2.1 FRAGMENTS OF MARX ON EMPLOYMENT: TOWARDS A GENERAL THEORY Noticeable in the existing field of Marxist labour market analysis is the lack of a general theory (Fleetwood, 2006). In Marx s work itself, there only are evocative fragments of a theory of employment. These provide important clues for the construction of a general theory that aligns with the broader thrust of Marx s analysis of the long-term dynamics of the capitalist mode of production. In Capital vol. 1, Marx provides an account of the dynamic of industrial capitalist production relations. Little attention is paid to employment per se. However, his analysis of the tendency of capital to increase the productivity of labour has dramatic implications for employment. Once past the initial stage of absolute surplus value based accumulation, the long term tendency of the capitalist mode of production, according to Capital vol.1, is to increase relative surplus value by increasing the productivity of labour. Increases in the productivity of labour are on-going as profits are re-invested in new technology. Simply put, increasing productivity of labour implies that more commodities can be produced with fewer workers. Over the long-term, this dynamic implies growing redundancy of living labour, and increasing dead labour (technology). In Grundrisse, though not reproduced within the more limited inquiry parameters of Capital vol. 1, Marx spells out the long-term employment logic of this development as automation reduces the industrial proletariat to a numerically declining group of regulators and watchmen, and a growing surplus population of redundant workers as the fallible element of the production process diminishes. Marx s argument in Capital vol. 1 only operates within the parameters of a single sector of production: industrial production proper. Here, the logic of an increasing population surplus to the requirements of capitalism is striking. However, in Grundrisse, Marx not only notes tendencies towards the redundancy of labour but also, as a result of the increasing significance of science and knowledge for the development of productive forces, indicates a growing requirement for (knowledge) workers. Marx also makes, and

4 consistent with the above insight, more direct remarks about the (un)employment effects of the contradictory imperatives driving capital: Capital can only create surplus labour by setting necessary labour in motion. It is therefore equally a tendency of capital to increase the labouring population, as well as constantly posit a part of it as surplus population population which is useless until such time as capital can utilize it (Marx, p. 399). In Theories of Surplus Value, vol. 2, Marx, drawing on Ricardo, makes a similar argument wherein he argues that: one tendency [to employ as little labour as possible] throws the labourers on to the streets and makes a part of the population redundant, the other [to employ the largest number of workers] absorbs them again and extends wage labour absolutely (p. 573). The basic narrative is clear. For Marx, under conditions of a dynamic capitalist mode of production a contradictory pattern of employment will develop. From this grounding, an account of sector patterns and shifts in employment can be presented. That is, as one sector of employment declines numerically, e.g. agriculture or industry proper, due to increasing productivity, other sectors become more significant as capital seeks new avenues of production to employ labour. Formal subordination reinforces this logic in respect to labour. In addition, the surplus population tends towards the service sector especially as low paid servant workers (and lumpen proletarians), as an integral part of both the shift from agriculture to industry and the post-industrial shift. No universal law determines how a surplus population will be utilized. However, under the capitalist mode of production the process is more law-like than in earlier modes of production. Different sectors of employment grow and recede, but the wage relation continues to spread to every aspect of social existence. Furthermore, under capitalism the long term contradictory tendency can be theorized as a polarization of the proletariat. On the one hand, the utilization of surplus population as knowledge workers hastens the increase in surplus population in agricultural, industrial, and service sectors. On the other hand, this very same process hastens a cheapening of simple labour as the population surplus to the needs of capital increases. Rather than marginalizing the strategy of absolute surplus value, as Marx argues in Capital vol. 1, forms of absolute and relative surplus value co-exist but in a way that increasingly polarizes the class structure. Further, when combined with an environment in which global competitiveness is the criterion of all employment, a diverse and more desperate informal proletariat will grow far quicker than formal jobs in the industrialized sectors TOYOTIST NEOLIBERALISM: UNEVEN DEVELOPMENT OF FAULT LINES IN THE CONTEMPORARY PROLETARIAT The neoliberal project has driven the emergence of the contemporary international model of development that facilitates the relative international mobility of capital, and puts the principle of competition back at the centre of the economic dynamic of the capitalist mode of production. This new environment makes winning business confidence, once again, the priority for competition states trying to secure national employment and prosperity. Competition is not only between capitalist firms, but also between countries, and between workers. Further, this mode of regulation puts power back in the hands of capital relative to countries and workers. Toyotism, broadly, is the dominant labour process paradigm of the era. Not only dominant as a labour process model that flexibilises American Taylorism, Toyotism is also reflected in the segmented structure of work and the labour market in the current era both in term of the second international division of labour and in terms of a national inconsistent hybrid (Lipietz, 1995). Neoliberalism facilitates Toyotism in several major ways. First, it provides the regulatory shell that forces leading (Toyotist) standards of

5 international competitiveness on to production. Second, neoliberalism facilitates the adoption of regulation at the national level that facilitates Toyotist flexibility as functional and numerical flexibility. Third, neoliberalism facilitates the contractual and networked form of an internationalized, and nationally disaggregated, production system. Neoliberalism plus Toyotism, combined with deeper sector shifts in the employment patterns of the capitalist mode of production, have significant impacts on contemporary class structural patterns and tendencies. First, Toyotism further brings home the point that relations at the point of production do not simply tend towards a uniform deskilling. Rather, in accordance with some of Marx s writing about developments at a late stage of capitalism, the distinction between knowledge work and production work becomes a more significant numerical divide in the class structure under Toyotism as knowledge and innovation drive production. Moreover, the Toyotist segmentation of the production process that differentiates final assembly process and the sub-contracted production of components entail an obvious hierarchy of skills. At the same time, these strata of the contemporary proletariat are segmented in labour market terms (e.g., income, protections) as well. In the developing capitalist world, meanwhile, further labour process cum labour market distinctions can be made that differentiate between the informal sector, bloody Taylorism, and peripheral Fordism (Lipietz, 1995). Second, the imposition of standards of global competitiveness tends to make redundant all activities that do not meet these standards. This tendency towards labour redundancy is intensified when it is combined with the increasing application of science to the production process. Thus, the tendency towards knowledge workers at one pole of the proletariat, and a surplus population at the other pole, is intensifying in the current era. The surplus population in the undeveloped and developing capital world, in particular, is growing rapidly as international standards of competitiveness transform subsistence based agricultural sectors into capitalist industries, making subsistence-based peasants redundant and pushing them into the streets of the growing city slums of the developing capitalist world (Davis, 2006). Here, one witnesses the massive growth of the informal proletariat, who with nothing to sell but their labour power struggle literally for the scraps of food and work that will sustain life from day to day (Ibid). Third, the extent to which the situation and size of the informal proletariat will vary from country to country, and how it will transform over time, is a matter for debate. Certainly, in a world governed by the principle of competition there will be uneven development because there are losers and winners, and not just for firms, but more to the point here, also for countries and their workforces. Developing competition states that are able to industrialize successfully, particularly those that can begin to develop the high road as well as the low road of Toyotism will be able to facilitate, at least for a time, some positive change for the informal proletariat. That is, some upward mobility can occur in successful countries as the formal industrial proletariat increases in size; and some further upward mobility can occur if the knowledge sector can be facilitated. Furthermore, higher incomes amongst numerically growing skilled production and knowledge workers also provides the demand basis for an increase in the numbers of low paid service sector jobs. However, countries that lose in the battle of competition will witness the exact reverse, as an increasingly desperate surplus population continues to grow (Davis, 2006). 3 CONCLUSIONS While offering an analysis of the dynamic of the class structure of labour in the contemporary capitalist world that is rooted in a Marxian perspective, this paper nonetheless challenges Marx s Communist Manifesto class structure prognosis. Instead of simple class polarization, this paper indicates complex polarization combined with stratification amongst the broader fragments of the contemporary proletariat. This

6 prognosis is underpinned by a change of emphasis in Marxian class analysis that, in turn, is made possible by a rethinking of the class concept and the criteria that are used to identify dynamic class structures in practice. I argue that exploitation does not equate to class, and that the class concept itself has a common sense across the different schools. By thinking about classes in terms of a range of criteria that bear on unity of circumstances beyond fixation on one or other criterion, has led me to a different account of class development that brings in a general Marxian long-term theory of employment patterns combined with an analysis of the contemporary stage and model of development of the capitalist mode of production. 4 REFERENCES Bourdieu, P. (1987). "What Makes a Social Class? On the theoretical and practical existence of groups." Berkeley Journal of Sociology: A Critical Review 32: Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction. London, Routledge. Davis, M. (2006). Planet of Slums. London, Verso. Gorz, A. (1982). Farewell to the Working Class: An Essay on Post-Industrial Socialism. London, Pluto Press. Grusky, D. B. and J. B. Sorensen (1998). "Can Class Analysis be Salvaged?" American Journal of Sociology 103(5): Fleetwood, S. (2006). "Rethinking labour markets: A critical-realist-socioeconomic perspective." Capital & Class 89: Marx, K. (1973). Grundrisse, Penguin in association with New Left Books. Marx, K. (1969). Theories of Surplus Value, vol. 2, London, Lawrence & Wishart. Neilson, D. (2007a). Formal and real subordination and the contemporary proletariat: Re-coupling Marxist class theory and labour process analysis. Capital & Class, 91, pp Neilson, D. and P. O Neil (2007b) The Capitalist Mode of Production and the Neoliberal Model of Development: Rethinking the Marxist Foundations of the French Regulation School. Submitted for review to Capital & Class. Wright, E. O. (1986). What is middle about the middle class? Analytical Marxism. J. Roemer. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. Wright, E. O. (2006). Class Analysis. Social Class and Stratification. R. F. Levine, Rowman & Littlefield. Wright, E. O., Ed. (2005). Approaches to Class Analysis. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

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