'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Sub-Proletarianization of America (Part 9) 

UPDATE 1: t responds to this post at Pink Scare.

INITIAL POST: General Electric made 14.2 billion dollars in profit last year, paid no taxes and now insists upon substantial concessions from its unionized workers:

This year, 14 unions representing more than 15,000 workers will negotiate a new master contract with General Electric. Among the major concessions GE has signaled that it will ask of union workers is the elimination of a defined contribution benefit pension for new employees, a move the company has already implemented for its non-union salaried employees. Likewise, GE is signaling to the union that it will ask for the elimination of current health insurance plans in favor of lower quality health saving accounts, a move the company has already implemented for non-union salaried employees as well.

In addition, General Electric may ask some workers for a wage freeze.

As David Dayen of firedoglake says, we have truly entered a New Gilded Age. Perhaps, we may have to painfully acknowledge that the Gilded Age was more representative of life under capitalism than the social welfare of the post-World War II era. Even worse, it is entirely possible that the current form of the collective organization of workers in large, bureaucratically administered labor unions, developed along corporate lines, is coming to an end. As ineffectual as they have been over the last 40 years, as mendacious as some specific unions have been, like SEIU in recent years, it is hard to imagine that workers will do better in an alienated, atomized environment.

I'm not aware of many Marxists or anarchists who have critically engaged the prospect of organizing for a socialist future in the absence of labor unions, although there must be some anti-authoritarians who have engaged the subject. Classical Marxists and anarchists, if one may use such a term, remain philosophically wedded to the notion that the union represents an essential, intermediate means of collectively organizing workers for the purpose of progressing towards the implementation a socialist society. In both instances, workers assume more and more responsibility within the union so as to be able to take control of their workplace. But how is this possible in the absence of a vibrant, viable union movement?

Globally, such an approach may already be antiquated, as many workers around the world are considered wageless, as addressed in this provocative New Left Review article by Michael Denning:

The first great theoretical engagement with this new form of wageless life also came out of a reflection on the Algerian revolution: Frantz Fanon’s revival of the nineteenth-century Marxist word ‘lumpenproletariat’ in The Wretched of the Earth. Coined by Marx in the 1840s as one of a family of terms—the lumpenproletariat, the mob, i lazzaroni, la bohème, the poor whites—it characterized the class formations of Second Empire Paris, Risorgimento Naples, Victorian London and the slave states of North America. In most cases, Marx even used the original language to suggest the historical specificity of these formations rather than the theoretical standing of the concept. For him, such expressions had two key connotations: on the one hand, of an unproductive and parasitic layer of society, a social scum or refuse made up of those who preyed upon others; on the other hand, of a fraction of the poor that was usually allied with the forces of order—as in the account of Louis Napoleon’s recruitment of the lumpenproletariat in The Eighteenth Brumaire, or Marx’s analysis of the slaveholders’ alliance with poor whites in the US South.

In these formulations, Marx had two antagonists. First, he was combating the established view that the entire working class was a dangerous and immoral element. He drew a line between the proletariat and the lumpenproletariat to defend the moral character of the former. Second, he was challenging those—particularly his great anarchist ally and adversary Bakunin—who argued that criminals and thieves were a revolutionary political force. By the mid-twentieth century, the concept of the lumpenproletariat had pretty much disappeared from socialist and Marxist discourse. However, its reinvention in The Wretched of the Earth to describe the entirely new urban populations of the Third World made it one of the key stakes in the theoretical debates of the 1960s and 1970s. The discussion of the lumpenproletariat comes primarily in the book’s second essay, Spontaneity: Its Strength and Weakness, in which Fanon delineates the contradictions of the anti-colonial coalition, as urban nationalist militants turn to the peasant masses. He makes three powerful and controversial claims. The first is a sociological one about the emergence of a new dispossessed population, the people of les bidonvilles: Abandoning the countryside . . . the landless peasants, now a lumpenproletariat, are driven into the towns, crammed into shanty towns and endeavour to infiltrate the ports and cities, the creations of colonial domination; These men, forced off the family land by the growing population in the countryside and by colonial expropriation, circle the towns tirelessly, hoping that one day or another they will be let in. Fanon resorts to biological metaphors: The shanty town is the consecration of the colonized’s biological decision to invade the enemy citadels at all costs, and, if need be, by the most underground channels. It is an irreversible rot, a gangrene eating into the heart of colonial domination. However hard [this lumpenproletariat] is kicked or stoned it continues to gnaw at the roots of the tree like a pack of rats.

Secondly, Fanon, like Marx, argues that this lumpenproletariat is readily manipulated by the repressive forces of colonial order—if it is not organized by the insurrection, it will join the colonialist troops as mercenaries—and gives examples from Madagascar, Algeria, Angola and the Congo. Thirdly, and most famously, against the accepted wisdom of both nationalist and communist movements, he insists that

it is among these masses, in the people of the shanty towns and in the lumpenproletariat that the insurrection will find its urban spearhead. The lumpenproletariat, this cohort of starving men, divorced from tribe and clan, constitutes one of the most spontaneously and radically revolutionary forces of a colonized people . . . These jobless, these species of subhumans, redeem themselves in their own eyes and before history.

Of course, the problem in the US, Europe and much of East Asia is that the lumpenproletariat, for lack of a better word, isn't large enough or desperate enough yet to present the prospect of violent, revolutionary action described by Fanon, although, interestingly enough, it has been a prominent feature of the revolutionary movements throughout North Africa and the Middle East, which is why it has the potential to spread to other parts of the world with similar social conditions. Furthermore, this vaguely defined lumpen group is not of peasant origin, but the refuse of deindustrialization and the decline of the collective solidarity among semi-skilled workers. Fanon describes a lumpen class of dispossessed peasants in the lesser developed world created by capitalist industrial development, whereas some G-20 countries like the US, the UK and much of Europe, with the exception of Germany, are arguably creating a lumpen group as a consequence of the radical financialization and marketization of their societies. Hence, the question of how to politically reach these people by means of a social doctrine that doesn't rely upon the dystopian disintegration of society.

For Fanon's warning may still be apt: if it is not organized by the insurrection, it will join the colonialist troops as mercernaries. In the context of the developed world, his remark can be posthumously construed as pointing towards the failure of the left to organize increasing numbers of temporary and informal workers, leaving them susceptible to appeals from the right, particularly racist and xenophobic ones. So far, in the US at least, the union movement has been incapable of meeting this challenge, as the percentage of unionized workers remains shockingly low. Meanwhile, in Europe, the overt bigotry of public racism and xenophobia, as has been on display in Germany, France and Italy in recent years, may, paradoxically, indicate that unions remain a source of effective resistance. Even so, if the world of temporary and informal employment, as well as the increasing recourse to barter, is still relatively small in comparison to the lesser developed world, it is growing, making it all the more urgent that they be encouraged to socially organize themselves and assert a political role in society.

Denning provides this example in his article, an example that may have contemporary relevance for developed countries as well:

In 1972, an activist in the Gandhian Textile Labour Association, Ela Bhatt, began to bring together the women head loaders and street vendors of the Gujarat mill town of Ahmedabad into a union, the Self-Employed Women’s Association. She had been assigned to survey families affected by the closure of two major textile mills.

While the men were busy agitating to reopen the mills . . . it was the women who were earning money and feeding the family. They sold fruits and vegetables in the streets; stitched in their homes at piece-rate for middlemen; worked as labourers in wholesale commodity markets, loading and unloading merchandise; or collected recyclable refuse from city streets . . . jobs without definitions. I learned for the first time what it meant to be self-employed. None of the labour laws applied to them; my legal training was of no use in their case.

Ironically, she recalls three decades later, I first glimpsed the vastness of the informal sector while working for the formal sector.

Over the next thirty years, SEWA became a cluster of three types of membership-based organizations of the poor: first, a union—by 2004, the largest primary union in India—of a variety of informal trades—rag pickers, home-based chindi and garment stitchers, bidi rollers, vegetable vendors—bargaining with buyers, contractors and municipal authorities over piece-rates and pavement space; second, a coalition of dozens of producer co-operatives, producing shirt fabrics, recycling waste paper and cleaning offices; and third, several institutions of mutual assistance and protection, including a SEWA bank and health cooperatives, organized around midwives who were themselves part of the informal sector.

A key part of its history has been a struggle over representation. When someone asks me what the most difficult part of SEWA's journey has been, Bhatt writes,

I can answer without hesitation: removing conceptual blocks. Some of our biggest battles have been over contesting preset ideas and attitudes of officials, bureaucrats, experts and academics. Definitions are part of that battle. The Registrar of Trade Unions would not consider us ‘workers’; hence we could not register as a ‘trade union’. The hard-working chindi workers, embroiderers, cart pullers, rag pickers, midwives and forest-produce gatherers can contribute to the nation’s gross domestic product, but heaven forbid that they be acknowledged as workers! Without an employer, you cannot be classified as a worker, and since you are not a worker, you cannot form a trade union. Our struggle to be recognized as a national trade union continues.

SEWA rejected the rhetoric of the informal sector that dominated official discourse: dividing the economy into formal and informal sectors is artificial, Bhatt argues, it may make analysis easier, or facilitate administration, but it ultimately perpetuates poverty: to lump such a vast workforce into categories viewed as “marginal”, “informal”, “unorganized”, “peripheral”, “atypical”, or “the black economy” seemed absurd to me. Marginal and peripheral to what, I asked . . . In my eyes, they were simply “self-employed”. Indeed the women street vendors who were among the first to build SEWA called themselves traders.

Constructing such a collective social identity within the US, and possibly, even within Europe and East Asia as well, is a daunting prospect. But it may have better chances for success than seeking to induce people to associate themselves with sclorotic labor unions lead by people who travel to Davos, legitimize neoliberal policy and fight amongst each other for members. Unions effectively organized workers during industrialization, but seem incapable of doing so as developed countries become more and more service oriented.

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