Rumors of the Death of the Working Class Are Highly Exaggerated

Marcel van der Linden

There is no “end of the working class.”

Workers walking on Sulphide Leach in Escondida, Chile. (Oliver Llaneza Hesse / Construction Photography / Avalon / Getty Images)

Interview by
Nicolas Allen

According to the latest International Labour Organization (ILO) report on “World Employment and Social Outlook,” global unemployment is expected to remain above pre-COVID levels until at least 2023. Already a downgrade from their originally rosier 2022 forecast, the agency hastened to add in a recent “Monitor on the World of Work” that the war in Ukraine and inflation has further decreased labor’s share of income and swelled the ranks of the unemployed.

The report also confirms that recovery has invariably relied on job sectors where low productivity and poor labor standards are rampant — without taking into account that improved employment statistics in some parts of the Global North have nothing to say about unprecedented numbers of workers dropping out of the job market or being pushed into the informal sector.

Of course, the latest ILO figures confirm what we already know: there is a long-standing downward trend in global working-class power. As David Broder wrote recently in Jacobin, this decline in labor — on the shop floor through automation and precarity, and in politics through the slow demise of labor and social democratic parties — has long been the source of forecasts proclaiming the “end of the working class.”

However, as labor historian Marcel van der Linden explains it, the current decline in working-class power is neither inevitable nor irreversible. And it would be foolhardy to equate waning structural influence with the end of the working class as such.

Van der Linden has in fact been making one version of this argument for the better part of his career. By expanding the scope of labor history in all directions — in time, to encompass working populations in the sixteenth century, and in space, to the colonial plantations where forced labor predominated — van der Linden’s work argues that we need to expand the definition of the working class itself, even if it means rethinking the history of capitalism.

The political payoff of an expanded definition of the working class, which would include care work, forced labor, informal self-employment, and more, is that it shows the many “farewells to the working class” for what they really are: overly reliant on a narrow image of the working class as male, white, Fordist factory labor.

The fact is, van der Linden explains to Jacobin commissioning editor Nicolas Allen, the working class is not going anywhere. Better still, the working class is undergoing transformations that make it possible to discover new forms of structural leverage and international solidarity.

Nicolas Allen

George Orwell wrote that the most important part of the working class is also its most invisible. You seem to follow a similar intuition in your work: to try and grasp what is specific about the working class without bracketing those forms of labor considered outliers in some Marxist accounts of history — be it because those forms of labor are unfree, only partially commodified, and so on.

Marcel van der Linden

In capitalism, there has always existed, and probably will continue to exist, several forms of commodified labor power side by side. In its long development, capitalism used many kinds of work relationships, some based on economic compulsion, others with a noneconomic component. Millions of slaves were brought by force from Africa to the Caribbean, Brazil, and the southern states of the US. Contract workers from India and China were shipped off to toil in South Africa, Malaysia, or South America. “Free” migrant workers left Europe for the Americas, Australia, or other colonies.

These and other work relationships are synchronous, even if there seems to be a secular trend toward “free wage labor.” Slavery still exists; sharecropping is enjoying a comeback in some regions. Capitalism could and can choose whatever form of commodified labor power it thinks fit in a given historical context: one variant seems most profitable today, another tomorrow.

If this argument is correct, then we should conceptualize the wage-earning working class as one important kind of commodified labor power among others. Consequently, “free” labor cannot be seen as the only form of exploitation suitable for modern capitalism but as one alternative among several. We therefore need to form concepts which take account of more dimensions.

The history of capitalist labor must encompass all forms of physically or economically coerced commodification of labor power: wage laborers, the enslaved, sharecroppers, convict laborers, and so on — plus all labor which creates such commoditized labor or regenerates it; that is, parental labor, household labor, care labor, and subsistence labor. And if we try and take all these different forms of labor into account, then we should use households as the basic unit of analysis rather than individuals, because this permits keeping in focus at all times the lives of both men and women, young and old, and the variety of paid and unpaid work.

Nicolas Allen

What would that mean for the leading accounts of how capitalism arose? The generally accepted version is that the transformation of artisans and peasants into free wage laborers (i.e., depriving them of their means of production) is what laid the foundations for capitalism.

Marcel van der Linden

If these observations I’m making are correct, then our picture of history must change drastically, beginning with our concept of capitalism. If capitalism does not have any structural preference for free wage labor, then capitalism can also have occurred in situations where hardly any wage labor was done, [for example] where chattel slavery prevailed. If we no longer define capitalism in terms of a contradiction between wage labor and capital, but in terms of the commodity form of labor power and other elements of the production process, then it makes sense to define capitalism as a circuit of transactions and work processes in which “production of commodities by means of commodities” occurs (borrowing Piero Sraffa’s expression).

This ever-widening circuit of commodity production and distribution, where not just labor products but also means of production and labor power itself acquire the status of commodities, is what I would call capitalism. This definition deviates somewhat from [Karl] Marx’s, but it is also consistent with Marx, in that he regarded the capitalist mode of production as “generalized” or “universalized” commodity production. It differs however from definitions which regard capitalism simply as “production for the market” and disregard the specific labor relations involved in production — it differs from the description we encounter in the writings of Immanuel Wallerstein and his school.

On the basis of a revised definition of capitalism, we might conclude that the first fully capitalist society was not eighteenth-century England, but Barbados, the small Caribbean island (430 km2) that was probably the most prosperous slaveholding society in the seventeenth century. Colonization was started there in the 1620s, and by 1680, the sugar industry covered 80 percent of the island’s arable land, employed 90 percent of its labor force, and accounted for about 90 percent of its export earnings. This was the beginning of the “Sugar Revolution” which dominated agricultural development in the English West Indies for several centuries.

The production and consumption process in Barbados was almost totally commodified: the workers (chattel slaves) were commodities, their food was mainly purchased from other islands, their means of production (like sugar mills) were manufactured commercially, and their labor product (cane sugar) was sold on the world market. Few countries have ever existed since that time where every aspect of economic life was so strongly commodified. It was in that sense a true capitalist country, albeit a very small one. And it could, of course, only exist thanks to its integration in a wider colonial empire.

Thus, it is no longer so certain that England was the birthplace of modern capitalism. If we adopt a non-Eurocentric perspective, we gain three insights: important developments in the history of capitalist employment began much earlier than previously thought; they began with unfree workers and not with free workers; and they began not in the US or in Europe, but in the Global South.

Nicolas Allen

It seems like those insights apply not only to the past but to our present: an expanded notion of the working class not only gives us a new perspective on the origins of capitalism but is also a rebuke to those who would claim that the we are witnessing the “end of the working class.” That hypothesis is only sustainable if you keep to an exceedingly narrow view of who counts as the working class.

Marcel van der Linden

That’s right, there is no “end of the working class.” According to the International Labour Organization, the percentage of pure wage dependents (“employees”) rose between 1991 and 2019 from 44 to 53 per cent. In that sense, we see an ongoing proletarianization that has progressed the most in advanced capitalist countries. It is estimated that in developed economies, wage earners represent around 90 percent of total employment. In developing and emerging economies, employees may, however, represent as little as 30 percent or less of total employment.

The actual world working class is, of course, considerably more numerous than the number of employees; in any case, contributing family members and most of the unemployed should be added to this figure, as well as an unknown share of the workers who are formally self-employed but in fact have only one or two main clients and are therefore directly dependent on them. Those performing domestic subsistence labor (largely women) and thereby enabling employees and others to offer their labor capacity on the labor market are also part of the working class.

Within the wage-earning class, we see shifts in composition. During the last three decades, the number of workers in services has more than doubled, the number of industrial workers increased with about 50 percent, while the number of workers in agriculture decreased with a bit more than 10 percent. We observe also geographical shifts. There is a partial de-industrialization in Europe and North America and growing industrial employment elsewhere, especially in Asia. Most of the people who speak about the “end of the working class” hail from the advanced capitalist countries where we can observe the gradual disintegration of what used to be called (wrongly, of course) the standard employment relationship.

This is a form of wage labor defined by continuity and stability of employment, a full-time position with one employer, only at the employer’s place of business, a good wage, legally stipulated rights, and social security benefits. It is very often ignored that standard employment has been a relatively recent phenomenon, even in the advanced capitalist countries, and that at most, 15 or 20 percent of the world’s wage earners ever enjoyed it.

Nicolas Allen

In part, the phrase “end of the working class” caught on as it did because it was superficially reflected in the declining power of organized labor and the labor movement.

Marcel van der Linden

Yes, although the world’s wage-earning class is larger than ever, most of the world’s traditional labor movements are in crisis. They have been severely enfeebled by the political and economic changes of the last forty years. Their core consists of three forms of social movement organizations: cooperatives, trade unions, and workers’ parties. All three organizational types are currently in decline, though this is an uneven development with vast differences between countries and regions.

The political wing (social democracy, labor parties, communist parties) is in trouble in almost all countries. Many trade unions are in decline as well. Independent trade unions organize only a small percentage of their target group worldwide, and the majority of them live in the relatively wealthy North Atlantic region. The global umbrella organization, the Confederación Sindical Internacional, estimated in 2014 that no more than 7 percent of the total global workforce belongs to trade unions. This has become 6 percent in the meantime.

This weakness of the international labor movement is a huge paradox, because ever greater numbers of workers worldwide maintain direct economic contacts with one another, even though many are probably unaware of this. Goods manufactured in one country are increasingly assembled from components produced in other countries, which in turn contain subcomponents made in still other countries. As a result, at least one-quarter of all wage earners have jobs related to a global supply chain.

And migration is intensifying economic connections between workers from different parts of the world as well. The proportion of international migrants in the world population increased from 2.8 percent to 3.5 percent between 2000 and 2020. The proportion of world migration attributable to South–North migration has more than doubled since 1960 and is now close to 40 percent. But all this has not yet resulted in a revival of organized labor.

There is however ground for some optimism. During the last ten to fifteen years, we have witnessed an intensification of social struggles. In India, for example, on January 8 and 9, 2019, a hundred fifty million workers across the country struck for a list of demands including a national minimum wage, universal food security, and equal pay for equal work. Social protests have grown in all regions of the world, including of course Latin America. And at last, but not at least, there are also explicit signs of organizational renewal. Organizing drives for previously unorganized workers in hospitals and the care sector in general have been increasing over the past few years.

The rise of the International Domestic Workers Federation since 2009, and their campaign resulting in the ILO’s “Convenio 189 sobre las trabajadoras y los trabajadores domésticos” has been an inspiration for many. Strikes of incarcerated workers in the United States reveal that new segments of the working class have begun to be mobilized. In many countries, trade unions are trying to open up to “informal” and “illegal” workers. Quite spectacular is India’s New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI), founded in 2006, which recognizes the importance of both paid and unpaid women’s work, attempting to organize not only the “formal” sector, but also contract workers, casual workers, household workers, the self-employed, and the urban and rural poor.

Nicolas Allen

In another sense, couldn’t the “end of the working class” refer to a feeling that the traditional labor movement failed to envision the full scope of society’s contemporary problems? What does the labor movement need to do to regain that sense — so strong in the nineteenth and twentieth century — that the interests of labor are also those of society at large?

Marcel van der Linden

As I said, it’s a paradox: the economic and political power of the working class has decreased since the 1980s — as the global crisis of the labor movements indicates — but I still do not see another social force that could replace the working class as a central actor. The only solution I can think of is the strengthening of that very same working class, but in new ways. A reborn labor movement requires a new orientation. Here I have to suffice with a few brief hints, and much more discussion is needed on this.

First, there is a whole range of substantive issues that have not been taken seriously enough by the old labor movements. Most unions, parties, and other organizations are still dominated by a masculine culture, racial prejudices, localism, and little awareness of environmental and climate issues. Changes are visible, but there is still very much to be done. Second, social equality and rights should be part of this new labor approach. We should distance ourselves from the narrow economism of the past, while at the same time we should keep in mind that bread-and-butter issues remain of huge importance. Labor movements have to become class movements, in the broad sense.

Third, the largest part of the world labor movement is internally undemocratic and does not consistently give a voice to the rank and file. This predominant, somewhat autocratic, approach will need to be replaced by a radical-democratic approach. Fourth, it is imperative that labor organizations orientate themselves much more toward global connections and cross-border activities. Many important challenges, such as unemployment, climate, pandemics, or the economic conjuncture, cannot be solved nationally.

Finally, all these elements have to be incorporated in a consistent radical strategy. Much harm has been done in the past by movements that did not primarily rely on their own strength and were too eager to be part of the ruling institutions. This is true for trade unions who have been integrated into all kinds of corporatist decision-making, and it has been true for workers’ parties who wanted to join governments in the absence of supportive mass movements and electoral majorities. Under the present conditions, we should probably not think of an alternative government — we should try to build an alternative opposition, an opposition that commits itself to the self-emancipation of the broad working class through grassroots democracy.

Nicolas Allen

Maybe we could talk more specifically about labor in different parts of the world. It seems odd that people use concepts like the “precariat” in speaking of the Global South when, arguably, what that word describes is a situation that for much of the world is not only not novel — more like structural — but also tends to universalize things like the welfare state that, from a global perspective, are fairly provincial experiences. What do you make of this term, the precariat?

Marcel van der Linden

The idea that the “precariat” is the new “dangerous class” is fundamentally wrong. On the one hand, this thought seems to imply that the rest of the working class can be written off as an agent of social change. And on the other hand it implies that precarious workers are on their own capable of fundamentally destabilizing capitalism.

We have seen this kind of thinking before, the kind that privileges one segment of the working class over all others: for example, in the Italian “workerism” (operaismo) of Sergio Bologna, Antonio Negri, and others of the 1970s. They believed that the skilled workers belonged to the establishment and that the unskilled “mass workers” were the vanguard. We should oppose this kind of sectionalism. There are good reasons to emphasize as much as possible the unity of the working class. We can leave the attempts to split the ranks to our opponents.

But we should acknowledge as well that focusing our attention on precaritization is right. Precaritization is a global trend and on the rise almost everywhere. The fierce, increasingly global competition between capitals now has a clear downward “equalizing” effect on the quality of life and work in the more developed parts of global capitalism. The labor relations of rich countries are beginning to look much more like those of poor countries.

Directly connected with this problem is another hot issue: unemployment and underemployment. In the course of the twentieth century, and especially since the 1940s, the number of unemployed and underemployed in the Global South has grown by leaps and bounds. In the late 1990s, Paul Bairoch estimated that in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, “total inactivity” was on the order of 30-40 percent of potential working hours — a situation without historical precedent, “except perhaps in the case of ancient Rome.”

In Europe, North America, and Japan, the average level of unemployment has always been significantly lower. Moreover, it was determined mainly by the economic conjuncture, and it was therefore cyclical, while “overunemployment” in the Global South has a structural character. Scholars who early on drew attention to this huge problem, such as José Nun from Argentina and Aníbal Quijano from Peru, argued that the tens of millions of permanently “marginalized” workers in the Global South could no longer be regarded as a “reserve army of labor” in the Marxian sense, because their social condition was not temporary, and because they formed no mass of human material always ready for exploitation, since their abilities were simply not compatible at all with the requirements of capitalist industry.

Precaritization expresses an important change in contemporary capitalism. Although productive capital (manufacturing, mining) is still expanding, the power of other sections of the bourgeoisie is becoming more and more dominant. Increasingly, productive capital is subordinated to merchant capital and financial capital — what Marx called money-trading and interest-bearing capital. We are witnessing not only the explosive growth of trading companies (Amazon, Ikea, Walmart, etc.) and the surge of banks and insurance companies, but also the burgeoning of subcontracting and outsourcing. The power of the trade unions is weakened by this development, as they are often much stronger in the productive sector than in the trade and financial sectors.

Nicolas Allen

You say that labor relations in the Global North are beginning to resemble those in the Global South, but also that chronic under- and unemployment are exploding in the Global South in ways unimaginable in the Global North. I wonder if this is what you mean when you speak of “relational inequality” — that the working class of the Global North is still a kind of weak “labor aristocracy” that derives some kind of compensatory benefits from the exploitation of the Global South.

Marcel van der Linden

I believe that the concept of the “Imperial Mode of Living” as developed by Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen is extremely useful in this respect. Their central idea is that wage earners in the advanced capitalist countries benefit from the ecological and economical exploitation in the poorer parts of the world. This is what I call relational inequality: wage earners in the [Global] North are partly better off because others in the [Global] South are socioeconomically and ecologically worse off.

This is not only true for the consumptive sphere (cheap T-shirts from Bangladesh increase the real income of wage-earners in the [Global] North), but also from an ecological point of view — advanced capitalist countries possess the economic and political power to import resources and export waste generated by the [Global] North to less developed countries. In that sense, the wage earners in the [Global] North benefit from the unequal economic and ecological exchange between advanced and less developed capitalist countries.

The collapse of “socialism” in the Soviet Union, China, and elsewhere, and the adaptation of India to liberal market thinking — all in the 1980s and early 1990s — have resulted in the emergence of relatively well-earning segments of the wage-earning classes in those countries that are usually included in the vague category of the “middle classes.” Due to this new development, the Imperial Mode of Living is now also present in the former USSR, East and South Asia, and elsewhere.

The implication of all this is that the world working class has internalized contradictions that make global solidarity more difficult. This poses an issue of enormous urgency and importance: we not only need global social and economic, but also ecological equality.

The total amount of raw materials available worldwide is limited. As Arghiri Emmanuel argued in the 1960s, the people of the rich countries can consume all those articles to which they are so attached only because other people consume very few or even none of them. How is equalization possible? If it cannot be achieved downward — by lowering the living standards of the developed countries — nor upward, for technical and ecological reasons, does the solution lie in a global change in the very pattern of living and consumption, and the very concept of well-being?

Nicolas Allen

But tackling those very contradictions also requires some source of working-class power. If we start from the idea that those challenges take place at the site of production, aren’t we back at square one where, say, industrial action at an auto plant in Germany is better able to affect accumulation patterns than a waste picker in Brazil? How do we bring together and unite such different labor struggles?

Marcel van der Linden

We should think less in terms of national classes, and more in terms of positional power. In the 1970s, Luca Perrone, a brilliant sociologist who died at a young age, argued that different sections of the working class have varying positions within the system of economic interdependencies. Therefore, their disruptive potential can diverge enormously.

Take the Chicago stockyards in the nineteenth century. They were organized in a kind of assembly line. The first department was the “killing floor” where the animals were slaughtered, so that they then could be processed in the other departments. If the killing floor downed tools, all the rest of the meat industry was paralyzed.

Such positional power can become very political. The Iranian Shah could not have been overthrown without the strikes of the oil workers in 1978–79.

I don’t think that the nation-state to which workers belong has much to do with their positional power. Much more decisive are the workflows. Let me give an example: commodities result from the combined labor input of workers and farmers across the world. Take the jeans that I am wearing. The cotton for the denim is grown by small farmers in Benin, West Africa. The soft cotton for the pockets is grown in Pakistan. The synthetic indigo is made in a chemical factory in Frankfurt, Germany. The rivets and buttons contain zinc dug up by Australian miners. The thread is polyester, manufactured from petroleum products by chemical workers in Japan. All parts are assembled in Tunisia. The final product is sold in Amsterdam.

My jeans are, therefore, the result of a global combination of labor processes. Which group of the workers involved has more and which group has less power? This is an empirical question that can only be answered if we know more about the competitive positions of the separate groups, among other factors.

Now that a growing segment of the world working class is becoming part of transcontinental commodity chains, the potential disruptive power of workers in the Global South has probably increased a lot. Their situation is somewhat similar to that of the butchers on the Chicago killing floors. If they don’t deliver the cobalt, coltan, and copper, then Samsung and Apple cannot produce their mobile phones. But this is potential power. Before this can become actual power, workers have to become aware of their strategic location and have to organize.

There is another difficulty here, though: the closer workers are to the finished product on a commodity chain, the greater their interest in a low remuneration for workers in earlier stages of production — at least from the point of view of their short-term interests. As in your example, workers in a car factory profit in the short run if steelworkers receive low wages, because this will increase the profit margin on the cars and results in job security and, perhaps, higher wages. This obstacle can only be overcome through politicization so that all workers become conscious of the larger picture. And this awareness will usually only grow through self-activity and autonomous learning.

Nicolas Allen

You don’t seem particularly optimistic about that happening, though.

Marcel van der Linden

I feel less optimistic than twenty or thirty years ago. The obstacles to renewal have grown, while the urgency of the global challenges (especially the environmental problem) have increased. The crisis we are currently observing could well signal the end of an almost two-centuries-long “great cycle” in the development of labor movements.

Organized labor (and its ally, socialism) is now about two centuries old, and during its history has taken many forms. Building on egalitarian traditions, it began in the 1820s–40s with “utopian” experiments. Influenced by the rapid emergence of capitalism and the changing nature of states, the movement gradually bifurcated after the revolutions of 1848, with one wing striving to build an alternative society without separate states in the here and now, the other striving rather to transform the state so that it could be used to build that alternative society.

The first movement — anarchism and the revolutionary syndicalism associated with it — peaked in the final decades before World War II; by about 1940, it largely was a spent force. The second movement — initially embodied in social democracy but later taking other forms, too (including communist parties) — saw its heyday in the first few decades after World War II. Neither movement succeeded in achieving the original goal of replacing capitalism with a socially just and democratic society.

A second “great cycle” is by no means inconceivable — in fact, it already seems to cautiously announce itself. Class conflicts will not diminish, and workers all over the world will continue to feel the ever-present need for effective organizations and forms of struggle. A new labor movement can partly find its foundations in the old labor movements, but these will have to change considerably. Real internationalism which goes beyond symbolic solidarity will be essential. Not only on humanistic grounds, but also because there are no national solutions to the world’s problems.

Should there be a revival, the new movements will probably look different from the more traditional ones. It seems safe to say that success will be possible only if the major challenges (global economy, ecology, gender equality, social security, climate change, etc.) are substantively combined and tackled transnationally.

And if there is a reconsideration of the bifurcation of anarchism and party socialism. Anarchism has tended to emphasize “socialism from below,” through the self-emancipation of activated masses in motion. Party socialists, on the other hand, have usually emphasized “socialism from above,” the view that socialism must be “handed down” to the masses — a tendency that has been reinforced in recent decades owing to political parties having few roots in society. Although they might try to listen to citizens, especially at election time, they have become mainly a means whereby the state communicates with society, instead of the reverse.

I hope that during the second “great cycle,” we may see a combination of “from-below” and “from-above” approaches by strategically uniting government policy, self-organization, and large-scale mobilization. Such change will take a great deal of time. According to Max Weber, the spirit of capitalism has been “the product of a long and arduous process of education,” a development continuing over centuries. Likewise, a socialist society is probably conceivable only as the outcome of a comprehensive process of education, a process in which social change is accompanied by self-change. Autonomous organizations and concrete steps toward self-emancipation in all spheres of life (not only in the economic sphere) are essential for such a learning process.