Tuesday, June 27, 2006



Just as the capturing by capitalists of the benefits of technological advance leads to "structural" unemployment (failing corrective measures by the state) thus producing within the richest capitalist countries an economic underclass for whom the domestic economic system has no use, so too do entire nations appear more and more marginal to the international economic system. In these black holes of the Third World, urbanisation marches in tandem not, as in the classic 19th century cases, with industrialisation, but with deindustrialisation. The result: "informal", "sub-subsistence" labour. The setting: slums.

After the ecological question, this is arguably the most important development facing humanity today. This stark and sober article by Mike Davis (via Lenin's Tomb), based largely on a dramatic UN report, details the basic facts, chief among them

The global growth of a vast informal proletariat...a wholly original structural development unforeseen by either classical Marxism or modernization pundits [which] challenges social theory to grasp the novelty of a true global residuum lacking the strategic economic power of socialized labor, but massively concentrated in a shanty-town world encircling the fortified enclaves of the urban rich.

It also raises, without really seeking to answer, the question of the political consequences of the decline, relative to this group, of the traditional organised working class - can Hardt and Negri's "multitude" step in for Marx's proletariat as the historic agent of revolution? In thinking about this question one first has to wonder why Marxists gave the proles this "privileged" status in the first place.

One reason might be the idea that because the proletarian has "nothing to lose but his chains", his self-interest is in fact universal, in the sense that the pursuit of his self-interest objectively approximates to the pursuit of, let's say, some kind of Rawlsian just society - it can (sloppily, to be sure, but I like the idea) be said that the proletarian, being the lowest of the low, is (as though) behind the veil of ignorance.

But, the proletarian is not the lowest of the low becuase it has more to lose than its chains. (One might say that the unemployed and the "informal" sector don't even have chains!). Terry Eagleton gives another explanation:

The proletariat is not a potential agent of revolutionary change because it suffers a good deal. As far as suffering goes, there are many better candidates for revolutionary agency than the working class: vagrants, perhaps, or impoverished students or prisoners or senior citizens. Many of these individuals suffer more than your average worker who drives a Renault and holidays annually in Greece. I do not wish to be misunderstood here: some of my best friends are vagrants, impoverished students, prisoners and senior citizens, and I have no personal grudge whatsoever against any of these groupings. But none of them is even potentially an agent of socialist transformation, as the working class is. Unlike the latter, these groups are not so objectively located within the capitalist mode of production, trained, organised and unified by that very system, as to be able to take it over. It is not Marxism which selects the proletariat as a potential revolutionary instrument, but capitalism, which as Marx wryly commented gives birth to its own gravedigger. Radical politics is not just a matter of looking around the place, determining who is most needy or desperate, and backing them against the system. Historical materialists can leave such a strategy to guilt-stricken middle-class liberals.

This is very nicely expressed indeed, but I'm not sure how encouraging it is in the context of Mike Davis's article. An alternative view is suggested in this interesting account, from 2002, of The Unemployed Workers Movement in Argentina whose "sophisticated and successful organization of what were thought of as unorganizable groups has challenged the Marxist orthodoxy", according to the author.

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