Beautiful Troublemakers - Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future - Paul Mason

Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future - Paul Mason (2015)

Part II

Chapter 7. Beautiful Troublemakers

In 1980, the French intellectual André Gorz announced that the working class was dead. It was permanently divided as a social group and culturally dispossessed, and its role as an agent of social progress was over.

The thought was spectacularly mistimed. Between then and now the global workforce has doubled in size. Offshoring, globalization and the entry of former communist countries into the world market have boosted the number of waged workers to above 3 billion.1 In the process, what it means to be a worker has changed. For about 150 years, the word ‘proletariat’ meant a predominantly white, male, manual labour force located in the developed world. Over the past thirty years it has become a multicoloured, majority-female workforce, centred in the global south.

Yet in one sense Gorz was right. In the same thirty years we’ve seen a slide in trade union membership, the decline of labour’s bargaining power in the developed world and a fall in wages as a share of GDP. This is the ultimate cause of the problem lamented by Thomas Piketty: the inability of workers to defend their share of the total product, and the rise in inequality.2

Alongside material weakness, the labour movement has suffered an ideological collapse - and one felt just as keenly in the factories of Nairobi and Shenzhen as in the rust-belt cities of Europe and America. The left’s political defeat after 1989 was so complete that, as the philosopher Fredric Jameson wrote, it became easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.3 Put more brutally, it had become impossible to imagine thisworking class - disorganized, in thrall to consumerism and individualism - overthrowing capitalism. The old sequence - mass strikes, barricades, soviets and working-class government - looks utopian in a world where the key ingredient, solidarity in the workplace, has gone AWOL.

The optimists among the left countered that the defeats were just cyclical. It was plausible: the history of the labour movement does show clear patterns of formation and decomposition that map closely to the Kondratieff long cycles.

But they were wrong. This is a strategic change. Those who cling to the idea that the proletariat is the only force that can push society beyond capitalism are ignoring two key features of the modern world: that the route to postcapitalism is different; and that the agent of change has become, potentially, everyone on earth.

The new workforce - in the factories of Bangladesh and China - is being formed by a process just as harsh as the one workers in England went through 200 years ago. Who can forget the contract issued at Apple’s Foxconn plants in China, in 2010, forcing workers to sign a pledge not to commit suicide due to workplace stress?4

However, this time around, the process of industrialization is failing to blow away the social and ideological cobwebs of pre-industrial life. Ethnic rivalries, the village network, religious fundamentalism and organized crime are the obstacles labour organizers in the global south encounter constantly - and fail to overcome. And alongside these old problems there is a new phenomenon: what I’ve called the ‘expanded footprint of the individual’ and indeed the ability of networked people to maintain multiple identities.5

And though this new workforce of the global south was originally designated as peripheral in relation to the core workforce of Western capitalism twenty-five years ago, today it too is divided into core and periphery. When the ILO surveyed the workforce of the global south by income strata, it found that every income layer (from $2 a day to five times as much) contained the same percentage of industrial workers, meaning the modern industrial sector includes both poor and precarious workers and also those with better status and higher incomes. The factory in Nigeria is as stratified by skill and income as its sister factories in Cologne or Nashville.

The old labour movement thrived on cohesion. It flourished in local economies that were primarily industrial, and in communities with political traditions that could absorb and survive technological change. Neoliberalism has blown those communities apart in the developed nations and made them difficult to build in the world beyond.

On the subsoil of precarious work, extreme poverty, migrant labour and slum conditions it has been impossible for anything that matches the collectivity and consciousness of the Western labour movement at its height to grow in the global south. Only where a national elite has an organized support base in the unions does it wield the same influence it enjoyed in the twentieth century: Argentina under the Kirchners, for example, or South Africa under the ANC. Meanwhile, in the developed world, though a core of trade union activists clings to the old methods and culture, a rising class of young, precarious workers finds - as in Athens in December 2008 - it is easier to squat buildings and riot than to join a union.

André Gorz, who was wrong on many things, was right about the reason why. Work - the defining activity of capitalism - is losing its centrality both to exploitation and resistance.

The rapid increase in productivity brought about by computers and automation, Gorz argued, has turned the sphere beyond work into the primary battleground. All utopias based on work are finished, he said, above all Marxism. In their place, there would have to be new utopias - fought for without the comfort blanket of historical certainty, and without the help of a class designated as the unconscious agent of salvation. It was a bleak, and slightly crazy message to hear as you linked arms on the picket lines of the 1980s. But Gorz’s insight can now be grounded in something more constructive than disillusion.

As we have seen, information technology expels labour from production, destroys pricing mechanisms and promotes non-market forms of exchange. Ultimately, it will erode the link between labour and value altogether.

If so, then there is something about the current decline of organized labour that is not just cyclical or the product of defeat, but as historic as its rise 200 years ago. If capitalism must have a beginning, middle and end, so must the story of organized labour.

As in nature - and as in dialectical logic - the end is usually a moment of ‘sublation’, a concept that combines the simultaneous destruction of something and its survival as something else. Though it is not dead, the working class is living through a moment of sublation. It will survive in a form so different that it will probably feel like something else. As a historical subject, it is being replaced by a diverse, global population whose battlefield is all aspects of society - not just work - and whose lifestyle is not about solidarity but impermanence.

Those who first spotted such networked individuals mistook them for nihilists who could never effect change. On the contrary, I have argued (in Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere, 2012) that the new wave of struggles beginning in 2011 is a signal that this group does fight, and does embody similar and technologically determined values, wherever it takes to the streets.

If so, it becomes necessary to say something that many on the left will find painful: Marxism got it wrong about the working class. The proletariat was the closest thing to an enlightened, collective historical subject that human society has ever produced. But 200 years of experience show it was preoccupied with ‘living despite capitalism’, not overthrowing it.

The workers were forced into revolutionary action by social and political crises, often provoked by war and intolerable repression. On the rare occasions when they achieved power, they couldn’t stop it from being usurped by elites operating under a false flag. The Paris Commune of 1871, Barcelona in 1937, the Russian, Chinese and Cuban revolutions all demonstrate this.

The literature of the left is littered with excuses for this 200-year story of defeat: the state was too strong, the leadership too weak, the ‘labour aristocracy’ too influential, Stalinism murdered the revolutionaries and suppressed the truth. In the end, the excuses boil down to just two: bad conditions or bad leaders.

The labour movement created a breathing space for human values inside an inhuman system. It produced, out of the depths of squalor, makers of what we today call ‘beautiful trouble’: martyrs, autodidacts and secular saints. But far from being the unconscious bearers of socialism, the working class were conscious about what they wanted, and expressed it through their actions. They wanted a more survivable form of capitalism.

This was not the product of mental backwardness. It was an overt strategy based on something the Marxist tradition could never get its head around: the persistence of skill, autonomy and status in working-class life.

Once we have understood what really happened to work over the four long cycles of industrial capitalism, the significance of its transformation in the fifth cycle becomes clear. Info-tech makes the abolition of work possible. All that prevents it is the social structure we know as capitalism.


The first real factory was built at Cromford, England in 1771. You can still see the stone pedestal where the first machine was set up. To any humanist, this dank stone hall should be hallowed ground. It is the place where social justice ceased to be a dream and could, for the first time in human history, be fought for as a possibility.

In the 1770s, the room would have been full of women and children, working amid thick dust from the cotton, forbidden to speak, tending complex spinning frames operated by adult men known as ‘spinners’. Everybody in the factory had been forced to learn the new culture of work: to follow the employer’s clock instead of the body clock; strict attention to the task; the non-negotiable nature of instructions and the need to risk serious injury for thirteen hours a day. Every other group in society had roots, cultures and traditions, but the factory workforce had none - it was new and unique. For the first thirty years, this allowed the system to be operated in a way that ruthlessly destroyed human life.

But the workers fought back. They organized; they built a culture of self-education and, as soon as the upswing of the first long cycle faltered - in 1818-19 - they launched mass strikes that linked wage issues with issues of democracy, throwing Britain into a twenty-year political crisis, which would see repeated outbreaks of revolutionary violence.

Marx and Engels, writing more than twenty years after the start of this movement, in the early 1840s, found in the working class a ready-made solution to a philosophical problem. The middle-class German left had become enthusiastic communists: they wanted a classless society, based on the absence of property, religion and total freedom from work. Suddenly, in the working class, Marx discovered a force that could make it happen.

Marx argued that it was the extreme negativity of the workers’ lives that gave them their historic destiny. The absence of property; the absence of craft, skill, religion and family life - and their complete alienation from respectable society - made the proletariat, in the Marxist schema, the bearer of a new social system. It would first achieve class consciousness, and then take power - to abolish property, end alienation from work and inaugurate communism.

A better summary of the proletariat’s relationship to destiny would be: it’s complicated.

Workers certainly became conscious of their collective interests. But then, even amid the grossly negative situation of the 1810s, they created something positive: not a ‘socialist consciousness’ but a revolutionary republican movement, imbued with the principles of learning, humanity and self-help.

In 1818, the cotton spinners of Manchester struck en masse. Then, during 1819, all over northern England, workers set up night schools and clubs, debated politics, elected delegates to town-wide committees and formed women’s groups. Out of these meetings, in the summer of 1819, they launched a mass movement for democracy: unofficial public gatherings to elect unofficial members of parliament. When 100,000 workers congregated at St Peter’s Field in Manchester on 16 August 1819, in defiance of the law, they were mown down by a cavalry charge.

The Peterloo Massacre marked the true beginning of the industrial labour movement. It also prompted the first attempt to deal with social unrest through automation.

In theory, the majority of spinners had to be men because the spinning machine, known as a ‘mule’, needed a strong hand to pull and push an array of spindles back and forth, four times a minute. In practice, however, there were women strong enough to do this. The real purpose was social: it was easier to impose discipline in the factory through a layer of tough, better-paid working-class men rather than deal direct with women and children.6

Once the skilled men had turned militant, by the early 1820s, however, the only solution was to automate them out of existence. In 1824, a ‘self-acting mule’ was patented, and soon thousands had been deployed. The employers announced that in future the machines would be run entirely by women and children, since ‘attendants have nothing to do but to watch its movements’.7

The exact opposite happened.

Male spinners staged repeated strikes after 1819 against the employment of women. They refused to train girls to do the jobs that gave access to higher skill, and insisted that their own sons be chosen. During the 1820s and 30s the minority of women who had kept hold of spinning jobs were driven from them; by the 1840s male domination was complete. And, as the historian Mary Friefeld has shown, the new machines did not abolish the need for high skill; they simply created a new technical skill to replace the old one: ‘One highly complex task had been substituted for another, while the quality control and mental oversight functions remained unchanged.’8

I’ve described this episode at length because it would be repeated many times over the next two centuries. The real history of work cannot be written as ‘economics plus technology’; it involves the interaction of technology with organizations created by workers, and it involves the creation of power relationships based on age, gender and ethnicity.

More specifically, this case study blows apart a cherished passage in Marx’s Capital - for Marx, writing in the 1850s, would use the self-acting mule as the main example of capitalism’s tendency to de-skill work to suppress the workforce. ‘Machinery,’ he wrote, ‘is the most powerful weapon for suppressing strikes … We would mention above all the self-acting mule …’9

We can trace the source of confusion to his collaborator, Frederick Engels. When Engels arrived in Manchester in 1842, the entire workforce of the city had been on general strike, and had been defeated. Aided by his working-class lover Mary Burns, the 22-year-old Engels toured factories, slums, and cotton exchanges to gather evidence for the first serious work of materialist sociology: The Condition of the Working Class in England.

As an anthropologist, Engels gets a lot right: the slum conditions, the near-total absence of religious belief and deference among the workers, their addiction to drink, opium and casual sex. What he gets wrong is the impact of the self-acting mule. He wrote:

Every improvement of machinery … transforms the work of full grown men into mere supervision which a feeble woman or a child can do quite as well and does for half or even one third the wages … grown men are constantly more and more supplanted, and not re-employed by the increase in manufacture.10

In his defence, Engels was drawing on evidence from radical spinners who, under conditions of downturn and defeat after the 1842 strike, were being thrown out of work. However, the long-term impact of automation was ultimately to reinforce the role of skilled male spinners and to increase their numbers.11 Numerous studies, above all by University of Massachussetts professor William Lazonick, show how skill, male dominance and an intricate power structure among male workers survived the onset of mechanization.12

So Marxism’s first contact with the organized working class led to a big misunderstanding, not just about skill but the kind of political consciousness it produces.

Marx argued that the workers would abolish property because they lacked property; abolish class stratification because they could not benefit from it - and they would do it without the need to build up an alternative economy within the old system.

Yet the history of the English labour movement before 1848 simply does not bear this out. It is a story of positivity, the survival and evolution of skill; of hillside mass meetings, study circles, cooperative stores. Above all, it produced a vibrant working-class culture - of song, poetry, folklore, newspapers and bookshops. In short, there was a ‘one’ where Marxist philosophy said there should be a ‘zero’.

What this means has to be confronted squarely by anyone who wants to defend materialist thinking about history: Marx was wrong about the working class. He was wrong to think automation would destroy skill; wrong to say the proletariat could not produce an enduring culture within capitalism. They had produced one in Lancashire before he had even graduated from university.

Marx, as a follower of Hegel, always insisted that the subject matter of social science should be ‘the whole thing’: the thing in a process of becoming and dying; the thing in its contradictions; the official thing but also the subtextual, hidden thing. He followed this method rigorously with regard to capitalism, but not when it came to analysing the working class.

Engels’ anthropology of the English working class in 1842 is detailed, complex and specific. The Marxist theory of the proletariat is not: it reduces an entire class to a philosophical category. And it was about to be totally disproved.


By the end of the nineteenth century, trade unions had become woven into the industrial fabric. For the most part, they were led by skilled workers with a bias towards moderation but fiercely defensive of their autonomy in the workplace.

Engels’s book on the English working class was not published in Britain until 1892, by which time it was a museum piece. His preface to the first UK edition recognized this, and stands both as a brilliant insight into capitalism’s adaptive nature and as an act of self-delusion about the sources of moderation among workers.

In Britain, after radical republicanism had fizzled out in 1848, the stable form of working-class organization was trade unions organized by skilled workers. Wherever the factory system was rolled out - particularly in metalwork and engineering - the autonomous skilled worker became the norm. Radicalism and utopian socialism were sidelined.

Engels rationalized this first through economics. After 1848, with new markets, new technologies and an expanded money supply, Engels recognized the takeoff of ‘a new industrial era’ - what Kondratieff would dub the second long cycle - which would run until the 1890s. And he identified something crucial to its technological paradigm: cooperation between labour and capital.

The system was now so profitable that the British bosses no longer needed to use the methods of Oliver Twist. The workday was limited to ten hours, child labour was reduced, diseases of poverty were suppressed by urban planning. Now, wrote Engels, employers were apt ‘to avoid unnecessary squabbles, to acquiesce in the existence and power of trade unions’.13

The British workforce had expanded to include millions of unskilled, poor and precarious workers. But Engels recognized a ‘permanent improvement’ for two specific groups: the factory workers and those in ‘the great trade unions’ - by which he meant skilled jobs dominated by adult men.

Engels said workers had become moderate because they ‘shared in the benefits’ of Britain’s imperial power. Not just the skilled workers - whom he described as ‘an aristocracy of labour’ - but also the broad mass of people, who Engels believed also benefited from falling real prices as a result of Britain’s Empire. However, he thought Britain’s competitive advantage was temporary and that skilled privilege would also be temporary.

Meanwhile, among the workers in the rest of the developed world, he could see only pre-1848 levels of rebellion and alienation. So Engels, in the late 1880s, begins a second attempt to rationalize the non-emergence of working-class communism: Britain had bought off its workers by exploiting its imperial power, but when the rest of the world caught up with Britain, moderation would disappear.

It was a near-total misreading of the situation. Skill, passivity and political moderation were pervasive all across the workforce of the developed world during the second half of the nineteenth century. We could draw on any number of case studies; some of the most detailed were written in Canada.

Gregory Kealey’s account of Toronto’s barrel makers shows how, in each workshop, the union set the price of labour. There was no wage bargaining. Coopers would meet, present a price list, and the bosses had to either accept it or start a lockout. Like skilled workers everywhere, though the working week was six days, they regularly took a ‘Blue Monday’ - that is an unofficial day off after getting drunk on Sunday night.

They had total autonomy over their own work. They owned their own tools - indeed the term for a strike was ‘taking their tools out of the shop’. They controlled access to apprenticeships tightly. They would restrict output during downturns to keep wages up. They achieved all this through secret meetings, Masonic handshakes, oaths, rituals and total solidarity.

And the union was only the base-layer of a complex tapestry of institutions. ‘The culture of the nineteenth-century working man,’ writes Bryan Palmer in a study of workers in Hamilton, Ontario,

embraced a rich associational life, institutionalised in the friendly society, the mechanics’ institute, sporting fraternities, fire companies [i.e. volunteer fire brigades] and working men’s clubs. Complementing these formal relationships were less structured but equally tangible ties of neighbourhood, workplace, or kin, manifesting themselves in the intimacy of the shared pail of beer, or the belligerence of the charivari [Punch & Judy] party.14

In the workplace, informal control - not just over wages but over the work itself - extended into even the newest industries.15

These extraordinary levels of informal workers’ control were not residual, they were actually created by the new technological processes of the mid-century. The signature technologies of the second long wave - telegraphy, steam locomotives, printing, iron and heavy engineering - were heavily manual, which means that the strong hand and the experienced brain were vital. ‘The manager’s brain is under the workman’s cap,’ was a working-class slogan that reflected reality. To prevent skill constantly outpacing automation, the bosses would need ‘a thinking machine’, warned the leader of the Toronto coopers’ union.16 But that would take another 100 years.

Even during the downswing of the second long cycle, after 1873, as managers tried to impose low-skilled work and automation, they largely failed. As Kealey concludes of the skilled Toronto workforce in the 1890s: ‘They had met the machine and triumphed.’17 By the 1890s, the existence of a skilled, privileged and organized layer of workers was a general feature of capitalism - not the result of one nation’s competitive advantage.

The combined impact of skilled autonomy, ‘the rich associational life’ and rising social-democratic parties would force capitalism into a new adaptation. Having ‘met the machine and won’, the organized worker would, in the first half of the twentieth century, meet the scientific manager, the bureaucrat and - eventually - the guard at the concentration camp.


In 1898, in the freight yard of Bethlehem Steel in Pennsylvania, a manager called Frederick Winslow Taylor came up with a new solution to the century-old problem of skilled worker autonomy.

‘Pick up a pig and walk,’ Taylor told his labourers - a ‘pig’ being a lump of iron weighing 92lbs. By studying not just the time it took them to move the iron, but the detailed motion of their bodies, Taylor showed how industrial tasks could be made modular. Jobs could be broken down into learnable steps, and then allocated to workers less skilled than those currently doing them.

Taylor’s results were startling: productivity almost quadrupled. The incentive was a pay rise, from $1.15 to $1.85 a day.18 The ‘science’, from Taylor’s own scant description, seems to have involved putting a manager in strict control over the worker’s rest periods, and even over his speed of walking. Taylor wrote that the type of man suited to such work was ‘so stupid and so phlegmatic that he more nearly resembles in his mental make-up the ox than any other type’. On the basis of such insights, scientific management was born. Now Taylor applied his methods to other workplaces. At a ball-bearing factory, he introduced process changes that allowed the workforce to be cut from 120 to thirty-five, with the same output and increased quality. He observed: ‘This involved laying off many of the most intelligent, hardest working, and most trustworthy girls merely because they did not possess the quality of quick perception followed by quick action.’19

Outwardly, Taylorism was about time and motion. But its real purpose was the selection and stratification of the workforce, creating a layer of better-educated workers to check, organize and train the lower layers, and then imposing rigid management control. This, Taylor boasted, ‘rendered labor troubles of any kind or a strike impossible’.20 The whole project was designed as an assault on skilled autonomy. The aim was to move the brain work as far away as possible from the manual work.

Though he had never heard of Taylor, in 1913 Henry Ford launched the second big innovation needed to enable semi-skilled work: the production line. At Ford, as at Bethlehem Steel, wages were hiked in return for absolute compliance. A ruthless anti-union hiring policy ensured management control. Three-quarters of Ford’s early workforce were first-generation immigrants, and overwhelmingly young.

Taylor, Ford and those who followed them effectively redesigned the working class. The skilled manual layer would survive - with machine-tool makers at its core. But there would now be a white-collar elite within the working class too. The white-collar workers owed their higher wages to the new system, where management were in control. Entering the white-collar layer could be done on merit, not just through family ties and seven-year apprenticeships, as had been the case with the engineers and the spinners - and in certain industries, white-collar work was more open to women.

Semi-skilled workers brought a critical difference to the innovation process: they would generally adapt their skills to new machines free of the restrictions imposed by craft unions. There would still be unskilled general labourers, but the centre of gravity of the working class had moved upwards, towards manual semi-skilled workers.

If all this was designed to induce passivity, it failed. What nobody foresaw was that this reshaped working class would become educated, radicalized and political. Taylor’s ‘dumb oxen’ would teach themselves to read - not just dime novels but philosophy. The white-collar secretaries and telephonists would become agitators and educators in mass socialist parties.

The raw facts of the labour upsurge of the 1900s are startling. An electoral breakthrough by the German SPD gave it 31 per cent of the vote in 1903. A clandestine labour movement in the tsarist empire formed itself into workers’ councils (soviets) and armed militias in 1905. French industry was paralysed by strikes in 1905-6, while union membership doubled in a decade. The USA saw the tripling of trade union density in ten years, even as the workforce itself grew by 50 per cent.21

Working-class towns became centres of a sophisticated culture - of clubs, libraries, choirs and nurseries, the separate working-class lifestyle and, above all, of resistance inside the factory.

From 1910 to 1913, unskilled workers staged a strike wave that rolled across the globe and became known as the Great Unrest. At the centre of it was the struggle for control. The Welsh miners’ union outlined a strategy that was being pursued everywhere: ‘Every industry thoroughly organized, in the first place, to fight, to gain control of, and then to administer, that industry … leaving to the men themselves to determine under what conditions and how, the work shall be done.’22

It was as if, through their offensive against the old craft control of workplaces, Taylor and Ford had created a new and more sophisticated demand for democratic control among the workforce.

What halted the Great Unrest was a combination of economic downturn, beginning in 1913, and high levels of repression. When war broke out in August 1914, it seemed as if the whole thing had been a blip. Before we consider what happened next, we should ask how the Marxists of that era understood this new configuration of the working class. In summary, they did not.


In 1902, the exiled Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin wrote a pamphlet that, although only mildly influential at the time, was to have huge significance for the far-left thinking of the twentieth century. In What Is to Be Done?, Lenin stated baldly that workers were incapable of understanding the role allocated to them in the Marxist project. Socialist consciousness ‘would have to be brought to them from without’. ‘The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness,’ he wrote.23 The labour movement, he said, would have to be ‘diverted’ from its spontaneous moderate pathways and towards the seizure of power. This stands in total contradiction to Marx’s understanding of the working class. For Marx, the working class was the self-contained agent of history; for Lenin it was more like a reagent - needing the catalyst of the intellectual-led vanguard party to set off the historical process.

But by 1914 Lenin had a new problem to address: why were the workers - so ferocious in their defence of wages and democracy during the Great Unrest - either enthused or paralysed by the patriotism that followed the outbreak of war?

To explain this, Lenin reached back to Engels’s ‘labour aristocracy’ theory, which he turned inside out. Instead of abolishing the skilled elite in Britain, said Lenin, the dash for colonies by all industrial countries had made the labour aristocracy the permanent feature of modern capitalism. They were the source of patriotism and moderation polluting the labour movement. Fortunately, a larger pool of unskilled workers still remained to provide the raw material for revolution. The political split between reform and revolution, Lenin claimed, was the material result of this stratification of the working class.

By now, Lenin was a long way from both Marx and Engels. For Marx, the working class is capable of becoming communist spontaneously; for Lenin it is not. For Marx, skill is destined to disappear through automation; for Lenin, skilled privilege at home is the permanent result of colonialism abroad.

In Lenin, there is no discussion of the economic or technical basis of the skilled layer’s privileges: it is as if they are simply awarded higher wages by the capitalists as a matter of policy. In fact, as we’ve seen, at this point the actual policy of the capitalists was focused on destroying skilled privilege and autonomy.

In 1920, Lenin restated the labour aristocracy theory, calling them ‘the real agents of the bourgeoisie in the labour movement … the real carriers of reformism and chauvinism’.24 But this was an utterly bizarre thing to write in 1920. By then, the working class was four years into a wave of revolutionary struggles led by skilled workers. Between 1916 and 1921, the working class launched a frontal assault on management control. It would reach revolutionary proportions in Germany, Italy and Russia, and prerevolutionary levels in Britain, France and parts of the USA. In each case, the struggles were led by the so-called ‘labour aristocracy’.

I am loath to bolster the anti-Lenin industry. The man himself proved an adept revolutionary, ignoring in practice many of the strictures of his own theory. However, the labour aristocracy theory of reformism is rubbish. The source of patriotism is, unfortunately, patriotism, owing to the fact that just as classes are material, so are nations. In his prison notebooks, the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci recognized that developed capitalist societies have layer upon layer of defence mechanisms. The state, he wrote, was ‘just a forward trench; behind it stood a succession of sturdy fortresses and emplacements’. And one of the strongest emplacements is capitalism’s ability to grant reforms.25

The 1902 theory, however, does contain a grain of truth, though not one palatable to most Marxists. To understand it, we must watch an unprecedented global drama unfold.


By 1916 the wheels had begun to come off the war machine. Dublin’s Easter Rising - led by an alliance of socialists and nationalists - failed completely. But it fired the starting pistol for five years of worldwide unrest. The poet Yeats sensed its global significance when he wrote of the ordinary men who’d led it: ‘All changed, changed utterly. A terrible beauty is born.’26

May Day 1916 saw Berlin’s factory workforce on strike against the war, battling the police and led by a new kind of union activist: the shop steward - elected by the rank and file, independent of the pro-war trade union leaders and usually a left-wing socialist. In Glasgow, another rank and file shop stewards’ group, the Clyde Workers Committee, were arrested en masse after leading strikes for workers’ control in the arms industry.27

In February 1917 a strike wave in the arms factories of Petrograd, Russia, escalated to a nationwide revolution that forced the tsar to abdicate, bringing to power a provisional government of liberals and moderate socialists (Kondratieff was minister of agriculture). Russian workers created two new forms of organization: the factory committee and the soviet, the latter a geographically elected council of workers’ and soldiers’ delegates. And through the telegraph, the telephone and even military radio signals, the global unrest began to feed off itself. In May 1917 the French army mutinied. Of 113 divisions, forty-nine suffered disruption and nine were rendered incapable of fighting.

These events were shaped by a new sociology of the workplace and a new kind of war. From Seattle to Petrograd, as male workers joined the army, employers recruited women and unskilled teenagers into shipyards and engineering factories to work alongside the remaining skilled men whose jobs exempted them from military service.

With the unions supporting the war effort, and therefore opposed to strikes, shop stewards were a phenomenon that sprang up almost everywhere; they were drawn from the skilled layer but prepared to organize women and young men, across the old hierarchical boundaries, into ‘industrial unions’. When the revolutions broke out, the shop stewards formed the grassroots leadership.

Parallel to this, another radicalization was taking place in the trenches, led by young men who had learned the cruelty of industrial-scale warfare. They had seen notions of courage, nation and ‘manliness’ - notions absolutely central to the culture of work before 1914 - destroyed.

Now a widespread collapse of workplace order happened. By June 1917, Petrograd had 367 factory committees representing 340,000 workers. At the Brenner engineering factory, for example, the committee resolved: ‘In view of the management’s refusal to go on with production, the workers’ committee has decided, in general assembly, to fulfill the orders and to carry on working.’28 No Bolshevik programme had ever called for workers’ control. Lenin was wary of it, initially trying to explain it as ‘a workers’ veto on management’ and later, as we will see, outlawing it.

The next great power to collapse was Germany; the German working class, having tried but failed to prevent the war starting, triggered its end. In November 1918, left-wing activists in the Imperial German Navy organized a mutiny which, within twenty-four hours, forced the ships back into port and sent thousands of rebel sailors speeding across Germany on armed trucks. Among their primary objectives was a radio tower in Berlin, from which they wanted to communicate with the revolutionary sailors of Kronstadt, Russia.

Across Germany, factory committees and soviet-style councils were formed. Within forty-eight hours of the mutiny, they had forced an armistice, the abdication of the Kaiser and the inauguration of a republic. Only by joining the revolution at the last moment did the moderate leaders of the mainstream socialist party head off a Russian-style revolution.

Then, in 1919, a mass strike in Italy led to a coordinated lockout of car workers in Turin, Milan and Bologna. They occupied the factories and - most significantly at Fiat in Turin - attempted to keep production going under their own control, with the help of allies among the technicians.

These events reveal a much more interesting sociology than the one Lenin imagined. In the first place, skilled workers were central. They fought for control in a new, explicit way. Workplace sociologist Carter Goodrich, observing the phenomenon in Britain, dubbed it ‘contagious control’:

The old, craft control almost necessarily implies small groups of skilled workers; the advocates of contagious control are for the most part either members of industrial unions or strong advocates of industrial unionism; the temper of the old crafts is monopolistic and conservative; that of the latter, propagandist and revolutionary.29

The skilled layer had, in other words, consistently moved beyond ‘pure trade unionism’. But at the same time they remained wary of those advocating all-or-nothing political revolution. Their objective was workplace control and the creation of a parallel society within capitalism.

For the next twenty years, these shop stewards would become the perennial floating voters of the far left - constantly searching for a third course between insurrection and reform. They understood (because they lived among them) that the majority of workers were not about to immediately embrace communism, that many Western societies had a political resilience unguessed at by Lenin, and that they, the militants, would need strategies to survive: to strengthen the autonomy of the working class, improve its culture and defend the gains already won.

The factional history of most communist parties in the inter-war years is of a recurrent clash between the Leninists, trying to force Moscow-inspired schemes, tactics and language on to these traditions, and the militant shop stewards trying to create an alternative society from within.

And here’s the kernel of truth contained in What Is to Be Done?. Lenin was wrong to say workers can’t spontaneously move beyond pure, reform-oriented trade unionism. He was right to say revolutionary communism was not their spontaneous ideology. Their spontaneous ideology was about control, social solidarity, self-education and the creation of a parallel world.

But capitalism could not grant that: the third long cycle was about to swing downwards, and spectacularly. After the Wall Street Crash of 1929, governments all over the world inflicted mass unemployment, welfare reductions and wage cuts on the working class. Where the stakes were highest, and the working class too strong, the ruling elites concluded it had to be smashed.

The stage was set for the decisive event of the 200-year history of organized labour: the destruction of the German workers’ movement by fascism. Nazism was German capitalism’s final solution to the power of organized labour: in 1933, unions were outlawed and socialist parties destroyed. Catastrophe followed in other countries. In 1934, the labour movement in Austria was crushed in a four-day civil war. Then in Spain, between 1936 and 1939, General Franco waged total war on organized labour and the radical peasantry, leaving 350,000 dead. In Greece, the Metaxas dictatorship of 1936 outlawed not just socialist parties and trade unions but even the folk music associated with working-class culture. The labour movement in Poland, Hungary and the Baltic states - including the massive Jewish labour movement - was first suppressed by right-wing governments and then wiped out during the Holocaust.

Only in three advanced economies did the labour organizations survive and grow in the 1930s: Britain and its Empire, France and the USA. In the latter two, the years 1936-7 saw a rash of factory occupations where the main issue was control.

The workers who fought fascism were the most class-conscious, self-sacrificing and highly educated generation in the entire 200-year history of the proletariat. But the first half of the twentieth century was the ultimate test bed for the Marxist theory of the working class - and it was disproven. Workers wanted something bigger than power; they wanted control. And the fourth long cycle would, for a time, provide it.


In 2012, I went to a cemetery in Valencia to visit the mass graves of Franco’s victims. In the years after Franco’s fall, their families had erected small individual headstones containing sepia photographs of those murdered. When I tried to take a photo on my iPhone, the camera app recognized their faces as human, bracketing them with a small green square.

They were largely middle-aged men and women: councillors, lawyers, shopkeepers. Most of the younger men and women had been killed or executed on the battlefield. The mass graves were for those left over, shot by the truckload between 1939 - when the civil war ended - and 1953 when they ran out of people to murder.

George Orwell, who fought alongside them, was haunted by the idealism in these faces. They were, he wrote, ‘the flower of the European working class, harried by the police of all countries … now, to the tune of several millions, rotting in forced-labour camps’.30 And that figure was not hyperbole. The Soviet gulag contained 1.4 million prisoners, about 200,000 of whom were killed each year. At least 6 million Jews were murdered in the Nazi concentration camps, and an estimated 3.3 million Russian prisoners of war died in German camps between 1941 and 1945. The Spanish war itself accounted for maybe 350,000 dead.31

The scale of death during the Second World War makes it difficult to comprehend. So its impact on the politics and the sociology of the working class has been the subject of a horrified silence. But let us puncture it. The majority of the Jews killed in East Europe were from politicized working-class communities. Many were adherents either of pro-Soviet, left Zionist parties or the anti-Zionist Bund. The Holocaust wiped out an entire political tradition in the global labour movement in the space of three years.

In Spain, the unions, co-ops and militias of the left were destroyed by mass murder - and their traditions suppressed until the 1970s. Meanwhile, in Russia the working-class political underground was exterminated by the gulag and mass executions.

What Orwell called ‘the flower of the European working class’ was crushed. Even if it had only been a question of numbers, this deliberate slaughter of politicized workers - added to the tens of millions of people killed by military action - would have been a turning point in the story of organized labour. But there was a massacre of illusions going on as well. As the Second World War approached, the extreme left - the Trotskyists and anarchists - tried to maintain the old, internationalist line: no support for wars between imperialist powers, keep the class struggle going at home. But by May 1940 the war was a bigger fact than the class struggle.

As the Allied powers collapsed, with significant pro-Nazi wings emerging among the ruling class in the Netherlands, France and Britain, it was clear to any working-class family with a radio that the very survival of their culture would rely on the military defeat of Germany. Working-class politics would become dependent on an Allied military victory. After the war, those who survived the slaughter, conscious of how close organized labour had come to total obliteration, now sought a strategic accommodation.


The Second World War was punctuated by workers’ uprisings - but of a different type from those of 1917-21. Beginning with the Dutch general strike in 1941, and reaching a climax with the strikes that brought down Mussolini in 1943 and 44, these were anti-fascist actions, not primarily anti-capitalist. Where workers’ uprisings threatened the Allied plans - as they did in both Warsaw and Turin in 1944 - generals simply halted the military advance until the Wehrmacht had done its job. After that, the communist parties stepped in to limit all action to the restoration of democracy only.

There was no repeat of 1917-21. But fears of such a repeat would force a hike in workers’ living standards and a tilt in the balance of wealth distribution towards the working class.

In the first phase, the rapid post-war expulsion of women from the industrial workforce - as depicted in the documentary film The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter (1980) - allowed male wages to rise, causing a narrowing of wage differentials between workers and the middle class. The sociologist C. Wright Mills noted that, by 1948, while the income of American white-collar workers had doubled in ten years, that of manual workers had increased threefold.32

Additionally, the Allies actually imposed welfare states, trade union rights and democratic constitutions on Italy, Germany and Japan, as a punishment for their elites and as an obstacle to their re-emergence as fascist powers.

Demobilization saw the creation of a university-educated layer of working-class kids utilizing subsidized education. Policies pursued to promote full employment, together with the state-run labour exchanges, training boards and job demarcation rules further increased labour’s bargaining power. As a result, once growth took off in the 1950s, the wage share of GDP in most countries rose significantly above pre-war levels, while the tax take from the upper and middle classes also rose, to fund health and welfare programmes.

The trade-off? Workers abandoned the ideologies of resistance that had sustained them in the third long wave. Communism, social-democracy and trade unionism became - whatever the rhetoric said - ideologies of coexistence with capitalism. In many industries trade union leaders effectively became an arm of management.

This is where the living memory of today’s developed-world workers begins: with welfare, health, free education, public housing projects and with collective rights at work enshrined in law. During its upswing, the fourth long cycle would deliver material improvements previous generations could only dream of.

But for survivors of the pre-war period it was like waking up in a nightmare. In 1955, the US sociologist Daniel Bell argued that ‘the proletariat is being replaced by a salariat, with a consequent change in the psychology of the workers’. Noting the massive rise in white-collar workers compared to blue-collar workers, Bell - at this point a leftist - warned: ‘these salaried groups do not speak the language of labour. Nor can they be appealed to in the old class conscious terms.’33 The social theorist Herbert Marcuse concluded in 1961 that new technology, consumer goods and sexual liberation had decisively weakened the proletariat’s alienation from capitalism: ‘The new technological work-world thus enforces a weakening of the negative position of the working class: the latter no longer appears to be the living contradiction to the established society.’34

In Italy, pioneering research by the shop-floor activist Romano Alquati discovered that new levels of workplace automation had left workers alienated from the factory as any kind of arena for political self-expression. For the generation that had overthrown Mussolini, the factories had been an iconic battlefield. But among the young, the word ‘absurd’ was the most common term used to describe the production process. They complained about a ‘sense of ridiculousness surrounding their lives’.35

The most tangible effect of this new sociology of work was the global decline in class-based voting patterns, famously illustrated in the Alford Index.36 Historian Eric Hobsbawm, surveying the process later, declared that ‘the forward march of labour’ was halted in the early 1950s. He cited the decline of a ‘common style of proletarian life’, the unprecedented rise in the number of women working and the replacement of large workplaces by an extended supply chain of smaller ones. Crucially, Hobsbawm noted that the new technologies of the 1950s and 60s had not only expanded the white-collar layer but had also decoupled high wages from manual skill. By taking on two jobs, working heavy overtime or outperforming in the piece-work system, a semi-skilled worker could earn nearly as much as an experienced electrician or engineer.37

The combined impact of these changes was that, from the war until the late 1960s, workers’ struggles were, as Alquati complained, ‘always functional to the system. Always atomised, always blind.’38 Gorz wrote doomily that the post-war workplace ‘will never produce that working class culture, which together with a humanism of labour constituted the great utopia of the socialist and trade union movements up until the 1920s’.39

It is startling how many of the ‘working class decline’ theorists had personal experience of the movement at its pre-war peak. Marcuse had been elected to a soldiers’ soviet in Berlin in 1919; Hobsbawm joined the German communist party via its schoolchildren’s branch in 1932; Bell joined the Young Socialists in the New York slums in the same year; Gorz had witnessed the workers’ uprising in Vienna. Their disillusion was the product of long-term empirical knowledge.

Looking back we can see the changes they were responding to more clearly.

First, the working class expanded. Large numbers of the salariat were in fairly menial office jobs, getting lower pay than manual workers and subject to pointless discipline and routine. White-collar workers were definitely still workers. The level of their alienation was captured well by the popular novels of the 1950s: Billy Liar is an undertaker’s clerk; Joe Lampton in Room at the Top is an accountant at the local council.

Next, stratification altered the consciousness of this expanded working class. White-collar workers, even unionized or alienated ones, do not think or act like manual workers. And the young manual workers, themselves increasingly alienated from work and the culture surrounding it, also formulated a different kind of rebellious consciousness - as captured perfectly in another popular novel of the 1950s, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.

Access to consumer goods did not subdue militancy. It was a material change, but wholly containable within working-class culture. But automation triggered a long-term psychological change. If work seemed ‘absurd, ridiculous and boring’ to the Fiat workers Alquati interviewed in the early 1960s, there was a deeper reason. The automation levels of the time were crude, but advanced enough to illustrate what the future of work would be like. Though the actuality of a factory run by computer was decades away, and robotization even further, workers understood that these things were no longer science fiction but distinct possibilities. There would come a time when manual work was no longer necessary.

Subtly, the sense of what it meant to be ‘a worker’ changed. What united the young workers in the 1950s, Gorz believed, was their alienation from work: ‘In short, for the mass of workers it is no longer the power of the workers that constitutes the guiding utopia, but the possibility of ceasing to function as workers; the emphasis is less on liberation within work and more on liberation from work.’40

Strikes would happen among the expanded service proletariat once the crisis began in the late 1960s, but they almost never reached the levels of total shutdown possible in factories, ports and mines. When they did, these strikes escalated into confrontations with the state, which the majority of service workers were not prepared to see through to resolution.

The decline theorists were ill-fated. Daniel Bell became a neo-con. Marcuse, Mills and Gorz argued for a ‘New Left’ based on the struggles of oppressed groups, not the workers. That’s what we’ve ended up with - but only after two decades in which this new working class defied the decline theorists, staging an uprising that brought parts of the developed world close to chaos.

We, the militants of the mid-1970s and 80s, derided those who had declared the old forms of working-class struggle dead, but it was they who had glimpsed the future.


The years 1967-76 saw Western capitalism in crisis and wildcat strike action on an unprecedented scale. In spite of their cars, televisions, mortgages and expensive clothes, the workers took to the streets. Social-democratic parties veered to the left and revolutionary groups gained footholds in the factories, where they recruited thousands of members.

Among those in power, there were serious fears of a workers’ revolution; certainly in France and Italy - and, in their deepest nightmares, also Britain and the black cities of the USA. We know how it ended - with defeat and atomization - but to answer the question ‘why?’ I want to start with my own experience.

In 1980, the British TUC published a book of archive photographs.41 When I took it home and showed it to my grandmother, one photograph had her mesmerized and physically shaken. It showed a naked girl in a tin bathtub, sometime before 1914. ‘You don’t have to tell me about that,’ she said. ‘I lived three months through the ’26 strike and I got married in the ’21 strike.’ She had never before volunteered knowledge of these two big miners’ strikes, nor had she ever spoken about them to my father. The tin bath triggered the memory of poverty; the poverty triggered the memory of 1926, when a nine-day general strike turned into a three-month miners’ strike during which, as she now revealed, she had starved.

The entire pre-1939 period was a sealed box for her: extreme hardship, humiliation, violence, stillbirths, debt and two giant strikes that she had tried to forget. There was more to this than suppressed trauma. I became certain, as we leafed together through the photographs of hunger marches, barricades and occupied coal mines, that these images were more startling to her than they were to me.

Born in 1899, she had lived through two world wars, a Depression and the heyday of Hobsbawm’s ‘common proletarian life’. But beyond her own memories, she had no general knowledge of the events, nor understanding of their significance. Yet she was possessed with a compulsive ideology of rebellion. Class consciousness, for my grandmother, was formed out of experience alone: through talking, listening and seeing. Discussions at the pub, slogans chalked on the walls, actions taken. So separate were working-class towns from the world in which newspapers were written, or radio bulletins made, that bourgeois ideology barely touched them.

Logic and detail were important for practical things: how to prune roses, house-train a puppy, assemble a mortar shell (which she taught me at the age of five using one stolen from her wartime factory work). But class consciousness was sub-logical and implicit. It was conveyed through sayings, songs, sighs, body language and constant acts of micro-solidarity. It was a solidarity preserved over generations through industrial and geographic stability.

She knew her family history from the names in the back of her Bible, going back to 1770. They were all silk weavers or cotton weavers including her own unmarried mother. None of them had lived further than five miles from the place she was born. In her own life she moved house just three times, always within the same square mile.

So when sociologists ask how important the ‘common proletarian way of life’ and its physical geography were to class consciousness before 1945, my answer would be: decisive.

Though it felt to the young workers of the 1960s that they lived within a stable, 200-year-old culture, its foundations were shifting so rapidly that when they tried to pull the traditional levers of solidarity and struggle, in the 1970s and 80s they didn’t work.

The central change - as Richard Hoggart documented brilliantly in his 1957 study The Uses of Literacy - was the injection of formal knowledge into working class life: information, logic and the ability to question everything. Mental complexity was no longer the preserve of the Fabian schoolteacher or the communist agitator with his newspaper full of Moscow-speak. It was available to all.42

For my father’s generation, knowledge arrived into the post-war working-class community not just through the expanded education system and the public library but through the television, the tabloid newspaper, the movie, the paperback book and the lyrics of popular songs, which sometime during the late 1950s began to take on the quality of working-class poetry.

And it was knowledge about a world that was suddenly complex. Social mobility increased. Geographical mobility increased. Sex - a taboo in the public discourse of the pre-war working class - was everywhere. And now, on the eve of the crisis, the biggest technological innovation of all was rolled out: the contraceptive pill, first prescribed in 1960 but mainly legalized for use by single women during the late 1960s and early 70s, producing what economists Akerlof, Yellen and Katz called a ‘reproductive technology shock’.43 Women surged into higher education: for example, 10 per cent of US law students in 1970 were female - this rose to 30 per cent ten years later. And with control over the timing of childbirth, the stage was set for a decisive increase in female participation in the workforce.44

In sum, what emerged was a new kind of worker. The generation that would wage class war in the 1970s began with higher incomes, higher levels of personal freedom, fragmenting social ties and much better access to information. Contrary to the decline theorists’ beliefs, none of this would stand in the way of them fighting. But here is why, ultimately, they lost.

The post-industrial, free-market model which destroyed their economic power and the traditional narrative based around work had collapsed. A new capitalist strategy had emerged. There was also the emergence of a new kind of rebel consciousness, which was no longer negative, spontaneous or uninformed, but based on formal knowledge and more reliant on elite-controlled channels of mass communication. On top of this, we have to factor in the dead weight of both Stalinism and social-democracy, which worked virtually full-time during the 1970s upsurge to channel the class struggle into compromise and parliamentary politics. Finally, workers were held back by the knowledge that the revolutions of the 1920s and 30s had failed, and that fascism was beaten only with the help of democratic capitalism.

Each of the advanced economies went through extreme class warfare from the late 1960s to the mid-70s. We will take Italy as a case study as it is one of the best documented and most heavily discussed, and because it gave birth to some of the earliest conclusions about how we move on from defeat.


By 1967 Italy’s economic miracle had pulled 17 million workers from the poor agrarian south to the industrial cities of the north. A shortage of public housing left many of the new migrant workers sleeping six or eight to a room, in shoddy tenements, with public facilities overburdened. But the factories had modern design, world-class technology and there was an élan attached to working there.

Real wages had risen 15 per cent in the decade to 1960.45 The major industrial brands invested heavily in canteens, sports and social clubs, welfare funds and designer overalls. At an industry level, the unions and management jointly agreed wage rates, output and conditions. But at plant level, ‘management absolutism is the rule’, one study reported.46

This combination of rising incomes at work and shabby conditions outside was the first impact of the boom. A second was the surge in student numbers. By 1968 there were 450,000 students - double the number of a decade before. Most came from working-class backgrounds and had no money. They found the universities full of useless textbooks and archaic rules. The historian Paul Ginsborg wrote: ‘The decision to allow open access to such a grossly inadequate university system amounted simply to planting a time bomb in it.’47 A better analogy might have been ‘a detonator’. Student occupations broke out in late 1967, flaring into street violence over the next year. Alongside them began a wave of workers’ strike actions which was to culminate in the ‘Hot Autumn’ of 1969.

At Pirelli Bicocca in Milan, workers on strike formed a ‘unitary base committee’ - completely independent of the union. As the idea of the base committee spread, so did new kinds of industrial action: sequential one-hour strikes across different departments, sit-down strikes, go-slows specifically designed to reduce productivity and strikes spread by marching from one department to another in a so-called ‘snake’. A worker at Fiat described one: ‘We set off; just the seven of us. And by the time we got to the head offices where all the staff hung out, there were about seven thousand of us! … Next time we’ll start with seven thousand and end up with seventy thousand, and that’ll be the end of Fiat.’48

The Italian Communist Party rushed to create local bargaining committees but in many plants workers rejected them, drowning out the communists with the chant ‘We are all delegates.’

At a bar outside the Fiat Mirafiori plant in Turin, students initiated a ‘worker-student assembly’. On 3 July 1969 they marched from the factory into a running battle with the police, over the issue of rent increases, chanting a slogan that could have summed up the new mood: ‘What do we want? Everything!’

The leftist group Lotta Continua summarized what the strikers themselves thought they were going through: ‘They are slowly beginning to free themselves. They are destroying constituted authority in the factory.’49

If these developments had been limited to a few hot-headed suburbs in a perennially chaotic country, they would be of curiosity value and no more. But the Italian upsurge was symptomatic of a change taking place all across the developed world; 1969 was to be just the start of a period of contagious economic struggle, which continually spilled over into political conflict and which would trigger a total rethink of the West’s economic model.

It’s important to understand the sequence of events, because in popular literature the breakdown of Keynesianism often gets rolled into a single moment. In 1971, the long post-war upsurge ran out of steam. But the breakdown of fixed exchange rates, paradoxically, gave each country the ability to ‘solve’ wage and productivity pressures by allowing inflation to take off. Then, with the oil price hike of 1973, which triggered double-digit inflation, the old relationship between wages, prices and productivity simply fell apart.

Across the OECD, redistribution payments - family income supplements, welfare benefits and the like - which had averaged 7.5 per cent of GDP during the boom years, reached 13.5 per cent by the mid-1970s. Public spending - which had averaged 28 per cent of GDP in the 1950s - now hit 41 per cent.50 The share of total wealth going to industrial profits collapsed by 24 per cent.51

To contain worker militancy, governments hiked the social wage to record levels and brought workers’ representatives into government. In Italy this was in the context of the 1976 ‘historic compromise’ that ended the period of unrest, tying the Communist Party and its trade unions to a conservative-led government. The same basic process can be seen in the Spanish Moncloa Pact of 1978, the ‘social contract’ of the Wilson-Callaghan governments (1974-9), and numerous attempts by the American unions to secure a strategic deal with the Carter administration.

By the late 1970s, all the actors in the old Keynesian system - the organized worker, the paternalist manager, the welfare politician and the state-owned corporation boss - were locked together in a bid to save the failing economic system.

The standardized production process of the post-war era - and the strict scientific management controls it had relied on - ended up creating a workforce it could not control. The mere fact that work-to-rule actions became the most effective form of sabotage tells the real story. It was the workers who really ran the production process. Any proposal to solve macro-economic problems without their consent was pointless.

In response, a new breed of conservative politicians decided the entire system would have to be dismantled. The second oil shock, after the Iranian revolution in 1979, gave them the opportunity. It triggered a new, deep recession and this time the workers faced corporations and politicians determined to try something new: mass unemployment, industrial closures, wage cuts and cuts in public spending.

They also faced the emergence of something they’d insufficiently prepared for in the years of radicalism: a part of the workforce prepared to side with conservative politicians. White southern workers put Reagan into power; many skilled British workers, tired of the chaos, swung to the Conservatives in 1979 to give Thatcher ten years in office. Outright working-class conservatism had never gone away: what it always wants is order and prosperity, and by 1979 it could no longer see these things being delivered by the Keynesian model.

By the mid-1980s, the working class of the developed world had moved in the space of fifteen years from passivity to strikes and semi-revolutionary struggles to strategic defeat.

Western capitalism, which had coexisted with organized labour and been shaped by it for nearly two centuries, could no longer live with a working-class culture of solidarity and resistance. Through offshoring, de-industrialization, anti-union laws and a relentless ideological warfare, it would be destroyed.


After more than thirty years of retreat and atomization, the working class survives, but massively transformed.

In the developed world, the core-periphery model first envisaged in Japan has become the norm, replacing ‘unskilled vs skilled’ as the most important division within the working class. The core workforce has been able to cling on to stable, permanent employment, with non-wage benefits attached to the job. The periphery must relate either as temporary agency workers, or via a network of contracting firms. But the core is shrunken: seven years into the post-2008 crisis, a permanent contract on a decent wage is an unattainable privilege for many people. Being part of the ‘precariat’ is all too real for up to a quarter of the population.

For both groups flexibility has become the key attribute. Among skilled workers, much value is placed on the ability to reinvent yourself, to align yourself with short-term corporate objectives, to be good at forgetting old skills and learning new ones, to be a networker and above all to live the dream of the firm you work for. These qualities, which would have attracted the word ‘scab’ in a Toronto print shop in 1890, are since the 1990s obligatory - if you want to stay in the core.

For the peripheral workforce, flexibility relies first on the general and abstract character of your work. Since much of the work is automated, you need to be able to learn an automated process quickly and follow a formula. While this may often involve boring and dirty manual work - say, personal home care delivered to a strict check-list in fifteen-minute slots for the minimum wage - at its extreme it involves submitting your personal and emotional behaviour to work discipline. At Pret A Manger, staff are required to smile and be cheerful, and are encouraged ‘to touch each other’. The official list of forbidden activities include working ‘just for the money’ or to ‘overcomplicate things’. One reported: ‘After a day’s trial, your fellow workers vote on how well you fit the profile; if your performance lacks sparkle, you’re sent home with a few quid.’52

The workforce of all developed countries is now heavily service-oriented. Only in the export giants - Germany, South Korea and Japan - does the industrial workforce come close to 20 per cent of the whole; for the rest of the economically advanced countries it is between 10 per cent and 20 per cent.53

In the developing world too, only around 20 per cent of the workforce is industrial.54 While the global workforce numbers around 3 billion, and across Asia and Latin America it is common for people to work in big production units, any idea that globalization has simply transported the Fordist/Taylorist model to the global south is illusory.

The global wage share of GDP is on a downward trend. In the USA it peaked at 53 per cent in 1970 and has now fallen to 44 per cent. Though the effect is lessened in countries with an export-oriented model, the social impact has been to push the workforce into financialized behaviour. And as we saw in Part I, the proportion of profits generated by the consumption and borrowing of the working class has risen in proportion to that generated through work.55

Costas Lapavitsas, a professor of economics at London University’s SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies), calls this ‘financial expropriation’, and its impact on the self-image of the working class has been profound.56For many workers, their primary physical and ideological relationship to capital is through consumption and borrowing rather than work.

This shines a new light on the long-observed tendency of post-1989 capitalism to blur the boundaries between work and leisure. In some sectors, and not all of them high-value, there is increasingly a trade-off between meeting a project target and leeway for personal activity at work (e-commerce, social media, dating); the deal is that the employee has to be answering emails at home, working while travelling, prepared to work long, unofficial hours to meet targets.

In highly information-centred work, especially with smart mobile devices, work and leisure time are substantially blurred. This has over a relatively short period loosened the bond between wages and working time. For the high-value worker you are paid, effectively, to exist, to contribute your ideas to your firm and to meet targets.

In parallel, the geography of working-class life has been transformed. Long commutes from suburbs whose culture bears no specific relationship to work are the new normal. Commuting originally required people to actively re-create a physical community through non-labour organizations: the gym, the nursery, the bowling alley, etc. With the rise of info-tech, a portion of this community-building activity has moved online, fostering even more physical isolation. As a result, the old solidarity - where workplace ties were reinforced by a socially cohesive community - exists far more sporadically than at any other time in capitalism’s history.

To the younger, precarious workforce it is instead urban proximity that matters; they tend to cluster into city centres, accepting massively reduced living space as a trade-off for physical closeness to the network of contacts needed to find partners, sporadic work and entertainment. Their struggles - in places like Exharchea in Athens, or the London student uprising in 2010 - tend to focus on physical space.

As they tried to understand these qualitative transformations in working life, sociologists focused first on space. Barry Wellman chronicled the move from group-based communities to physical networks and then digital networks, terming the outcome ‘networked individualism’57 and linking it explicitly to greater job flexibility. LSE professor Richard Sennett meanwhile began to study the new characteristics of a hi-tech workforce.58 If work rewards detachment and superficial compliance, values adaptability over skill and networking over loyalty, Sennett found, this creates a new kind of worker: s/he is focused on the short term, in life as in work, and lacks commitment to hierarchies and structures, both at work and in activism.

Sennett and Wellman both noticed the tendency of people adapted to this networked lifestyle to adopt multiple personalities, both in reality and online. Sennett writes: ‘The conditions of time in the new capitalism have created a conflict between character and experience, the experience of disjointed time threatening the ability of people to form their characters into sustained narratives.’59

The worker of the Keynesian era had a single character: at work, in the local bar, in the social club, on the football terraces, they were the same essential person. The networked individual creates a more complex reality: s/he lives parallel lives at work, in numerous fragmentary subcultures and online.

It is one thing to document these changes; the challenge is to understand their impact on humanity’s capacity to fight exploitation and oppression. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri summed it up well in their 2012 book Declaration:

The center of gravity of capitalist production no longer resides in the factory but has drifted outside its walls. Society has become a factory … With this shift the primary engagement between capitalist and worker also changes … Exploitation today is based primarily not on (equal or unequal) exchange but on debt.60

If, in the 1970s, Negri and the Italian left were premature in declaring the workplace ‘over’ as a forum for class struggle and ‘the whole of society’ the new venue, they are today correct.

What is the future for the working class, if info-capitalism continues along these lines?

In the first place, the current global division of labour can only be seen as transitional. The workforce of the global south will achieve higher living standards and at some point capital will react by introducing greater automation and pursuing higher productivity in the emerging markets. This will place the workers of China and Brazil on the same overall trajectory as the rich-world workforce, which is to become service-dominated, split into a skilled core and a precariat, with both layers seeing work partially de-linked from wages. In addition, as the Oxford Martin School suggests, it is the low-skilled service jobs that stand the highest risk of total automation over the next two decades. The global working class is not destined to remain for ever divided into factory drones in China and games designers in the USA.

However, the struggle in the workplace is no longer the only, or most important, drama.

In many industrial and commercial cities around the world, the networked individual is no longer a sociological curiosity, s/he is the archetype. All the qualities the sociologists of the 1990s observed in the tech workforce - mercuriality, spontaneous networking, multiple selves, weak ties, detachment, apparent subservience concealing violent resentment - have become the defining qualities of being a young, economically active human being.

And - despite the oppressive conditions at work - you can find them even in China, whose factory workforce was supposed to be the alter ego of the feckless Western consumer. From the mid-2000s, internet cafés with hundreds of screens opened up in the workers’ districts of the export-oriented cities. Sociologists who interviewed the young migrant workers back then found them using the web for two things: to build connections with other workers from their home towns and to let off steam by playing games. To young people who had only ever slept on a farm or in a factory dorm, the internet café was transformative. ‘Our foreman is a tough guy. But when I meet him in the internet café I am not afraid of him,’ one female worker told researchers in 2012. ‘He has no right to control me here. He is an internet user. So am I.’61

That now feels like prehistory. Smartphones have put the internet café in every Chinese worker’s overall pocket. Mobile internet connections outran desktop connections in China in 2012, and are now available to 600 million people. And the mobile internet means social networks. In 2014, 30,000 shoe workers at Yue Yuen factory in Shenzhen staged the first big strike to use group messaging and micro-blogging as organizational tools. The village networks, which in analogue form were used to recruit and divide jobs informally across a single factory, were now being used to check wage rates and conditions and spread information across whole industries.

Terrifyingly for the Chinese authorities, the factory workers in Shenzhen were using the very same technology as the liberal, networked students who in 2014 staged the democracy protest known as Occupy Central in Hong Kong.

If you accept that the main faultline in the modern world is between networks and hierarchies, then China is sitting right on top of it. And China’s workers - who for now look like digital rebels but analogue slaves - are at the heart of the phenomenon of networked rebellion. These networked movements are evidence that a new historical subject exists. It is not just the working class in a different guise; it is networked humanity.

And this is the antidote to the pessimism of Gorz’s generation. With the death of the ‘real’ working class, Gorz concluded, the prime mover in anti-capitalism had disappeared. If you wanted postcapitalism, you must pursue it as a utopia: a good idea, which might or might not come off, and with no major force in society to embody its values.

In the past twenty years, capitalism has mustered a new social force that will be its gravedigger, just as it assembled the factory proletariat in the nineteenth century. It is the networked individuals who have camped in the city squares, blockaded the fracking sites, performed punk rock on the roofs of Russian cathedrals, raised defiant cans of beer in the face of Islamism on the grass of Gezi Park, pulled a million people on to the streets of Rio and São Paulo and now organized mass strikes across southern China.

They are the working class ‘sublated’ - improved upon and replaced. They may be as clueless as to strategy as the workers of the early nineteenth century were, but they are no longer in thrall to the system. They are enormously dissatisfied with it. They are a group whose diverse interests converge on the need to make postcapitalism happen, to force the info-tech revolution to create a new kind of economy, where as much as possible is produced free, for collaborative common use, reversing the tide of inequality. Neoliberalism can offer them only a world of stagnant growth and state-level bankruptcy: austerity until death, but with an upgraded version of the iPhone every few years. And the freedom they cherish is perennially hemmed in by the neoliberal state - from the NSA’s mass surveillance techniques to those of the Chinese internet police. Above their heads, politics in many countries has become infested by a kleptocratic mafia, whose strategy is to deliver growth at the price of suppressing freedom and expanding inequality.

This new generation of networked people understand they are living through a third industrial revolution, but they are coming to realize why it has stalled: with the credit system broken, capitalism cannot sustain the scale of automation that is possible, and the destruction of jobs implied by the new technologies.

The economy is already producing and reproducing a networked lifestyle and consciousness, at odds with the hierarchies of capitalism. The appetite for radical economic change is clear.

The next question is: what do we have to do to achieve it?