Saturday, July 16, 2016

Marcel van der Linden - Lines of Debate: the Subaltern and the Proletariat of the World

Marcel van der Linden is Senior Researcher at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam, widely recognized for his work on global labor history. (NB: See Beyond Marx, 2014). In this interview, Ideas de Izquierda speaks with Van der Linden about Marx’s conceptualization of the working class and Van der Linden’s efforts to build on this theory with the idea of “subaltern workers.” He discusses the challenges of posed by rethinking the current conditions and future of the “global proletariat” as a key element in strategies for contending power.

Author: Paula Varela


Could you briefly describe your earlier years as an intellectual your commitment to the study of the working class and labor movement? Was this interest related to any political involvement? How are both spheres articulated?

As is not unusual for people of my generation, my interest in workers and labor movements began during the global protest waves of the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1973 I joined a Dutch political group called “Proletarian Left” which was partly inspired by the ideas of Marxists like Ernest Mandel who emphasized the interconnectedness of rebellions in the West (Paris ’68), the East (Prague ’68) and the South (the Tet Offensive in Vietnam). I became an academic labor historian later, in the early eighties. But the original radical inspiration has always remained important for me. I would still argue that workers’ struggles and workers’ organizations are of central importance for all efforts to build a new society based on equality and justice.

In recent years, there has been a renewed interest by social scientists in various countries on the topic of workers and labor. Some examples include your book, Workers of the World, the increasing interest in “union revitalization,” and the emergence of associations like Strikes and Social Conflicts. What do you make of this change?

This renewed interest is not a general phenomenon, I believe. In Northern Europe (Germany, Britain, the Netherlands, Scandinavia) there is, for example, less interest in this than in some other parts of the world such as South America, Southern Africa, or India. The reason for the new interest is obvious: the global economic crisis and the growth of workers’ struggles in parts of the world. At the same time it is clear that the growth of working-class resistance is not matched by a growth of traditional labor movements (trade unions, etc.). According to the International Trade Union Confederation, the umbrella organization for the majority of trade unions worldwide, only seven percent of the world working class is organized and this percentage is not increasing.

The renewed importance of these issues seems to run parallel to a return to Marx and a growth of the political left. What is your view on this? How do you see the relationship between labor scholars, the left (social and political), and Marxism?

Maybe you are more optimistic than I am. To be honest, I only see a growth of the political left in relatively small parts of the world. The ‘moderate’ left (e.g. Social Democracy) is in crisis almost everywhere. Communist Parties are certainly not doing well either, except perhaps in South Africa or the Philippines. Witness the historic defeat of the CPI-M in Bengal. The Brazilian PT has quickly adapted to neoliberalism. The revolutionary left is weak in most countries. The left has a serious problem, which also became visible in the Occupy movement: we have no address for many of our demands. The declining power of national governments makes it very difficult for states to develop their own economic policies, as was still possible in the 1950s and ‘60s. But there is also no ‘supra-state’ taking over traditional tasks of national governments, to which demands could be addressed. This vacuum on the ‘top’ is the reason why so many social-movement demands can only be negative: “we do not want X or Y”, but it is extremely difficult to develop a convincing positive alternative. 

Left-wing scholars in general should lay the conceptual and theoretical foundations for a global planned economy based on grassroots (direct) democracy – more as less as a radical alternative to Friedrich von Hayek’s Mont Pèlerin Society for neoliberalism earlier on. This means, on the one hand, the thorough and critical analysis of current problems (agriculture, environment, women’s rights, unemployment, and so on), and on the other hand the definition of policy procedures and instruments that could lead to the solution of these problems. Marx will undoubtedly be a major inspiration in this effort, but at the same ‘Marxism’ has many shortcomings, as my friend Karl Heinz Roth and I have argued in our recent book Beyond Marx (Leiden: Brill, 2013).

In my opinion, one of the features of the renewal of labor studies is the crisis of the “social movements paradigm.” It seems to me that for decades, social scientists hoped that these movements could challenge neoliberalism in a “post-industrial society.” Now, with evidence that these movements could not defeat neoliberalism—and with the growth of the salaried working class—the debate has shifted. Scholars today are focusing again on workers, but the working class is being portrayed as powerless, lacking the capacity for social revolution that Marx envisioned. What are your thoughts on this?

I agree with you that the social movements paradigm is in crisis. Theoretically it has exhausted itself, after an early productive phase during which some interesting and important insights were articulated (the concept of ‘resource mobilization’ for example is also very useful for labour historians). The majority of the social scientists studying movements (especially what they called ‘new social movements’) worked on the assumption that ‘old’ movements were finished, and that the new social movements expressed a ‘post-materialist’ logic. Since these scientists lacked (and lack) a serious historical approach, they didn’t see that labour movements have in the past known similar ‘expressive’ politics as new social movements in the 1970s and ‘80s.

As I said before, the working class is central to any project of major social change. But there is a problem here, that we have to face honestly. Workers’ rebellions have played a major role in societies where capitalism was not yet fully developed. The Russian October Revolution is of course the best known example, but we can also think of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and similar dramatic power-shifts. But there have been no succesful revolutions, led by the working class, in advanced capitalist countries (unless we would consider ‘communist’ Eastern Europe as such, which I do not). The German Revoluton of 1918-19 came close, and according to many (but not according to myself), France 1968 too. 

The reason probably is, as Wayne Thorpe and I argued in our book Revolutionary Syndicalism: An International Perspective (1990), the evolution of the benefits of the interventionist state, that is the enormous increase in the importance of the collectively useful functions of public administration in the daily life of the people. In addition to the welfare state there have been the integrating effects of advanced capitalist relations of production and consumption (sometimes misleadingly called ’Fordist’) whereby working-class families not only produce and reproduce labour power for sale, but operate simultaneously as units of individualized mass consumption, purchasing many of the consumer goods they produce within a system that permits capital to expand and workers’ material standards of living to improve. Only under conditions of strong immiseration, with public administrations collapsing and mass consumption being undermined, would it be possible for the working class in highly-developed capitalist societies to develop a revolutionary potential.

In your book, you propose to rebuild the enterprise of labor history by abandoning Marx’s notion of the working class and replacing it with the notion of subaltern workers. I would like to raise a theoretical question and an empirical question in response to your proposal. In terms of theory, I believe that there are many “intermediate conditions” described in Marx’s Capital, similar to the ones that you mention in your book (including domestic work and slavery, among others). In my view, Marx analyzes the development of these categories as part of the contradictory process of emergence of wage work. He describes these hybrid forms as part of the unequal development of global capitalism. Do you think the treatment of these issues in Marx’s Capital do not address the criticism that his analysis excludes “grey activities,” or that the presence of these activities today refute the concept of the proletariat?

I believe that there is a more fundamental problem. Let me use the example of chattel slavery to explain. As is well known, Marx engaged with issues related to slave labor in many passages of his work. Marx was more aware of the contrast between ‘free’ wage labor and slavery than most 21st century Marxists. As an expert on European antiquity and as a contemporary to the American Civil War, Marx was very much aware of the slavery problem. The first volume of Capital was published two years after the abolition of slavery in the United States in 1865 and 21 years before it was officially proclaimed in Brazil. Marx considered slavery a historically backward mode of exploitation that would soon be a thing of the past, as ‘free’ wage labor embodied the capitalist future. He compared the two labor forms in several writings. He certainly saw similarities between them – both produced a surplus product and ‘the wage-laborer, just like the slave, must have a master to make him work and govern him.’ At the same time, he distinguished some differences that overshadowed all the common experiences they shared. Let me offer some brief critical comments on them and indicate my doubts.

First: wage workers dispose of labor capacity, viz. ‘the aggregate of those mental and physical capabilities existing in the physical form, the living personality, of a human being, capabilities which he sets in motion whenever he produces a use-value of any kind’ – and this labor capacity is the source of value; the capitalist purchases this labor capacity as a commodity, because he expects it to provide him with a ‘specific service’, namely the creation of ‘more value than it has itself’. The same is not true of the slave’s labor capacity. The slaveholder ‘has paid cash for his slaves’, and so ‘the product of their labor represents the interest on the capital invested in their purchase.’ But since interest is nothing but a form of surplus value, according to Marx, it would seem that slaves would have to produce surplus value. And it is a fact that the sugar plantations on which slave labor was employed yielded considerable profits, because the commodity sugar embodied more value than the capital invested by the plantation owner (ground rent, amortization of the slaves, amortization of the sugar cane press etc.). So is it really the case that only the wage worker produces the equivalent of his/her own value plus ‘an excess, a surplus-value’? Or is the slave a ‘source of value’ as well?

Second: Marx states that labor power can ‘appear on the market as a commodity only if, and in so far as, its possessor, the individual whose labor-power it is, offers it for sale or sells it as a commodity. In order that its possessor may sell it as a commodity, he must have it at his disposal, he must be the free proprietor of his own labor-capacity, hence of his person.’ .. read more: