What is the working class? A relatively simple question, but not one with a simple answer. These days most Marxists would emphasize “relationship to the means of production,” defining class in terms of extraction of surplus value and the wage relation. This isn’t wrong — surplus value and the wage relation are central to class and class struggle — but this approach tends to telescope the entirety of the meaning and making of class and class struggle into the workplace. A closer reading of Marx suggests that a wider, and more relevant, vision can be recovered.
For Marx, capitalism and class began as dispossession. In his debate with orthodox political economy, Marx insisted that the secret of the origins of capitalism, as a class system, lay in an initial accumulation of capital that rested upon “the complete separation of the labourers from all property in the means by which they can realise their labour.” The robbery of masses of humanity — be they serfs or sailors, artisans or Aboriginal peoples — of their productive capacities and guarantees of existence was central to class formation. Expropriation was written “in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire.”
The proletariat is not, therefore, defined by the wage relation itself. It is defined by dispossession — the brutal process by which producers are forced to depend on the wage for survival.
Emphasizing this point is important, considering all the current talk about the specificity of modern precarious labor, its unique class position, and the programmatic requirements of rebuilding the Left. The blunt reality is that, give or take historical specificities, for producers and workers, precariousness has always been their lot. Correspondingly, class struggle only proceeds, and succeeds, when it transcends differentiation, and unites all of the dispossessed, regardless of how they are oppressed or how intensely they are exploited.
Seeing the wage relation as only one chapter in the long narrative of dispossession expands our understandings of both class and class struggle. Marx, after all, did not invent the term “proletarian,” but adapted it from its common usage in antiquity, the class struggles of which have been ably outlined in G. E. M. de Ste. Croix’s monumental study of the ancient Greek world.
Within the Roman Empire, the word “proletarian” designated the uncertain social stratum, divorced from property and without regular access to wages. J. C. L. Simonde de Sismondi drew on this background in an 1819 work of political economy chronicling “the threat to public order” posed by a “miserable and suffering population” dependant as it was on public charity. “Those who had no property,” Sismondi wrote, “were called to have children: ad prolem generandum.” Max Weber commented similarly: “As early as the sixteenth century the proletarianising of the rural population created such an army of unemployed that England had to deal with the problem of poor relief.”
This was also the context in which Christopher Hill described the masterless masses of the seventeenth century, driven from the land by a variety of socio-economic pressures:
Beneath the surface stability of rural England, then, the vast placid open fields which catch the eye, was the seething mobility of forest squatters, itinerant craftsmen and building labourers, unemployed men and women seeking work, strolling players and jugglers, pedlars and quack doctors, vagabonds, tramps: congregated especially in the big cities, but also with footholds wherever newly-squatted areas escaped from the machinery of the parish or in old-squatted areas where labour was in demand. It was from this underworld that armies and ships’ crews were recruited, that a proportion at least of the settlers of Ireland and the New World were found, men prepared to run desperate risks in the hope of obtaining the secure freehold land (and with it status) to which they could never aspire in overcrowded England.
None of this was lost on Marx, whose understandings of expropriation framed his conceptualization of class formation, colonization, and conflict.
This is evident in writings of the 1840s, where dispossession as the foundation of class formation and grievance figured forcefully, and where Marx displayed his broadest class struggle sensibilities. With a clarity that entirely eluded contemporary bourgeois thought, Marx grasped how capitalism — as a socio-economic war for supremacy among class antagonists — was “won less by recruiting than discharging the army of workers.”
In the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts Marx insisted, “Political economy . . . does not recognize the unemployed worker, the workingman, insofar as he happens to be outside this labour relationship.” “The rascal, swindler, beggar, the unemployed, the starving, wretched and criminal workingmen — these are figures who do not exist for political economy but only for other eyes, those of the doctor, the judge, the grave-digger, and bum-bailiff, etc; such figures are spectres outside its domain.”
Marx also had considerable empathy for what was done to the dispossessed, evident in his condemnation of the “barbarity in the treatment of paupers” and his recognition of the “growing horror in which the working people hold the slavery of the workhouse,” which he dubbed “a place of punishment for misery.” It was the marginalization of significant sectors of the population designated as “surplus” that animated much of historical materialism’s analytic orientation and fueled the righteous indignation that demanded nothing less than a transformation of the entire capitalistic social order.
Today, Marx has experienced a revival of sorts, as the mainstream acceptance of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty First Century makes discussion of inequality respectable. But this domestication of Marxism can occur only if its revolutionary refusal of the right of capital to produce “redundant populations” is sidestepped.
Piketty bypasses this foundational dispossession, proposes a tax on capital, and promises a redistribution of wealth at the margins of society, taking from the exorbitantly rich in order to sustain credit for the welfare of the have-nots. But this will not end capitalism’s relentless production of the wageless, especially in the Global South. Nor will it ease, for capitalism’s developed core countries, the necessity of the ongoing erosion of the hard-won securities and entitlements (battled for over centuries of class struggle), however limited, of both the waged and the wageless.
By itself, redistribution of this kind does nothing to displace dispossession. Dispossession, the basis of all proletarianization, sustains accumulation, which further intensifies the process of expropriation and all of this, in turn, produces relentless class struggle.
This class struggle, embedded in the process of dispossession, thus animates history in ways that piecemeal solutions cannot sideline. Marx argued in Capital that “the reproduction of a mass of labour-power, which must incessantly re-incorporate itself with capital for that capital’s self-expansion; which cannot get free from capital, and whose enslavement to capital is only concealed by the variety of individual capitalists to whom it sells itself, this reproduction of labour-power forms, in fact, an essential of the reproduction of capital itself. Accumulation of capital is, therefore, increase of the proletariat.”
Marx was not the only mid-nineteenth century commentator to chronicle the lot of the dispossessed. Henry Mayhew, whose writings on London labor and the poor emerged at roughly the same time as the commentaries of Marx and Engels, emphasized how the capitalist labor market was characterized by dispossession.
For Mayhew the employment marketplace depended on seasonal work and jobs that relied on fashion or accident, and was ordered by over-work and scamp-work in the cheap trades, constantly reconfigured by the dilution of skills that saw women and children introduced into specific handicrafts in order to depress wages, and restructured by machinery and managerial innovations.
Recruited to the metropolis by the dissolution of landed relations and the destruction of village handicrafts, waged workers struggled with the impersonal disciplines of a labor market always cramped by acute limitations. Mayhew concluded that regular employment was available to roughly 1.5 million laborers, while half-time work might accrue to a further 1.5 million, with 1.5 million more either wholly unemployed or working occasionally only by displacing those who considered specific jobs to be their terrain.
This might seem to be anything but a coherent grouping, the “working classes” that it designated a “bundle of discrete phenomena.” E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class nevertheless argued that it was indeed a working class, formed in the cauldron of the Industrial Revolution and the 1790–1832 counter-revolution of property.
Both historical processes were either ridden forcefully or were actually instigated by the bourgeoisie, and both depended upon, or were directed against, those who were increasingly dispossessed of property and power over their lives. Class constituted an “identity of interests . . . of the most diverse occupations and levels of attainment,” and it was forged in antagonism to the attempts to make of all of these components “a sort of machine.”
Class, then, has always embodied differentiation, insecurity, and precariousness. Dispossession differs, but defines a common plight. No individual can be dispossessed in precisely the same way as another, or live that process of material alienation exactly as another would. Yet dispossession, in general, nonetheless initiates, defines, deepens, and widens proletarianization. It is the metaphorical mark of Cain stamped on all workers, regardless of their level of employment, rate of pay, status, waged placement, or degree of wagelessness.
In this way slave rebellions, plebeian uprisings, peasant revolts, bread riots, and the public disorder associated with the moral economy of the crowd can all be placed alongside the revolutions of the nineteenth-century, such as the upheavals of 1848 and 1871, as well as those of the twentieth century, starting with the Russian Revolution in 1917. While these class struggle developments are distinct, and vary in terms of significance and historical impact, they are nonetheless joined in their points of origin, the beginnings of which all relate to dispossession and its ultimately destabilizing social antagonisms and conflicts.
In the words of the Communist Manifesto: “Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guildmaster and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed . . . in constant opposition to one another, [carrying] on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary re-constitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.”
Dispossession thus structures the ongoing realities of class formation over the longue durée. It did so in the 1300s and the 1700s just as it does so now. As capitalism gained momentum in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the reorganization of work intensified the discontents of dispossession.
In the 1960s, an American collaborator of C. L. R. James, Marty Glaberman, noted that, in industry after industry, class relations were dominated by automation that displaced workers, moving them into and out of workplaces subject to constant reconfiguration, the outcome of which was often a discharging of waged employees. This degradation of work formed the subject of Harry Braverman’s influential labor-process oriented 1974 commentary, Labor and Monopoly Capital.
Marx’s later work emphasized the relationship between dispossession and capitalist crises. In Capital, Volume I, he argued that capitalist enrichment was premised on “the condemnation of one part of the working class to enforced idleness by the over-work of the other part,” accelerating “the production of the reserve army on a scale corresponding with the advance of social accumulation.” Every proletarian can thus be categorized, not so much according to their waged work, but to the possible forms of surplus population, which Marx labelled “the floating, the latent, and the stagnant.”
This is why the accumulation of capital is also the accumulation of labor, but the Malthusian multiplication of the proletariat does not necessarily mean the working class will, in its entirety, be waged. As Marx wrote in Capital:
The lowest sediment of the relative surplus-population finally dwells in the sphere of pauperism . . . the quantity of paupers increases with every crisis . . . Pauperism is the hospital of the active labour-army and the dead weight of the industrial reserve army. Its production is included in that of the relative surplus population, its necessity in theirs; along the surplus population, pauperism forms a condition of capitalist production, and of the capitalist development of wealth.”
Seeing class struggle in this way sheds new light on the class struggles of the Global South. As John Bellamy Foster, Robert W. McChesney, and R. Jamil Jonna have pointed out in the pages of Monthly Review, Marx’s way of seeing class formation was much ahead of his time, anticipating how modern imperialism and the relentless march of capital accumulation on a world scale would result in the quantitative expansion and qualitative transformation of the global reserve army of labor.
This massive reserve, from which capital draws such sustenance for its accumulative appetite, now numbers in the billions, and as it has grown so too have the dimensions of misery of the dispossessed expanded:
The fact that the means of production, and the productiveness of labour, increases more rapidly than the productive population, expresses itself, therefore, capitalistically in the inverse form that the labouring population always increases more rapidly than the conditions under which capital can employ this increase for its own self-expansion. It follows therefore than in proportion as capital accumulates, the lot of the labourer, be his payment high or low, must grow worse. Accumulation of wealth at one pole, is therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, rituality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole, i.e., on the side of the class that produces its own product in the form of capital.
The International Labour Organization has recently estimated that what might be called the global reserve army of labor is now larger than the approximately 1.4 billion workers who are totally dependent on wage labor. This reserve includes both the roughly 218 million unemployed and an astronomical 1.7 billion workers designated as “vulnerably employed.”
A significant portion of this reserve is wageless, composed of members of marginal domestic economies who eke out an existence in the favelas, barrios, and shantytowns of the developing world. Characterized by the fundamental precariousness of its everyday life, this sector knows little of the securities of the wage, which is usually unavailable or is attained only intermittently, in sporadic, but always finite, clusterings of paid employment and coupled with unpaid labor, scavenging, and other endeavors in the struggle for subsistence.
Consider, for instance, the three million rickshaw-pullers working the streets of Asia. In Dhaka, capital of Bangladesh, and the tenth-largest city in the world, there are two hundred thousand rickshawallahs. They constitute the second largest employment category in the ironically-dubbed “God’s Own City,” trailing only the one million strong sweated garment sector.
Peddling over thirty miles a day, battling police (whose coercive corruption constantly threatens them with further dispossession in the form of destruction of their cabs), suffocating pollution, and death-defying traffic, these seemingly self-employed penny capitalists are representative of the growing armies of the destitute wageless that struggle to survive on earnings of barely a dollar a day.
Mike Davis insists that what he calls the “global informal working class,” a socioeconomic stratum that he sees “overlapping with but non-identical to the slum population,” now surpasses one billion in number, “making it the fastest growing, and most unprecedented, social class on earth.” Davis concludes his discussion of the world’s urban poor with a poignant summary of what he calls “a sinister and unceasing duet,” what we might also declare a disturbing, defiant dance of dispossession:
Night after night, hornetlike helicopter gunships stalk enigmatic enemies in the narrow streets of slum districts, pouring hellfire into shanties or fleeting cars. Every morning the slums reply with suicide bombers and eloquent explosions. If the empire can deploy Orwellian technologies of repression, its outcasts have the gods of chaos on their side.
Capitalism is currently attacking the world’s working class with more and more vigorous assaults. Its periodic crises constitute a weaponry determined to destroy labor rather than produce it. Whatever their place in the hierarchy of expropriation, the global masses who have been divorced from ownership of the productive forces, and often even of their lives, are forced to extend class struggle beyond battles over wages and workplace exploitation into realms of necessity that center more directly on dispossession and the reproductive sphere.
To be sure, labor can and must fight capital by refusing to be where it is supposed to be, at workplaces where employed working people produce surplus value for capital. Withdrawal from this geography of exploitation is the traditional weapon of the strike. Dispossessed labor can also fight capital and its collaborationist state, however, by being where it is not supposed to be. This is the weapon of occupation, of taking up space, place, and time in ways antithetical to the interests of capital and the apparatus of governance.
Bringing together the waged and the wageless, resisting on the fronts of both production and reproduction — this is the widening class struggle agenda of the future. It will not stop at the wage and the workplace, but up the ante to include mobilizations around public transit, housing, child care and health care, education, and much more. As the dispossessed demand more, understandings of a differentiated but collective experience of dispossession will break down long-entrenched commitments to the crumbs of capitalism’s table, used to such good effect to divide and conquer.
The persistence of capitalist crises mean that those crumbs are now fewer and less ideologically effective. A new, accelerating recognition that capitalism is systematic disorder, premised as much on destruction as on production, is forcing the hand of the dispossessed. Their numbers, visibility, and suffering on a global scale increase exponentially with each passing week of austerity’s insatiable demands. Material reality is pressing the exploited and oppressed to resist.
The crisis, however, is never restricted solely to the objective conditions of decay. Rather, the crisis is also subjective, a failure of consciousness and working-class leadership.
This raises the stakes of solidarity and collectivity, as indeed they must be raised. The class struggle of the dispossessed in our times demands not the inclusion of this or that fragment of the working classes, fighting on specific and isolated fronts. Instead, the working class as a whole must confront capitalism and the specter of increasingly destructive dispossession that haunts the world’s people, be their wages high or low, their work relatively secure or precarious and unstable.