Unemployment and the class struggle
The unprecedented growth in unemployment over the last ten years is increasingly posing the organization of the class struggle with the problem that a considerable part of the working class is no longer to be found at the point of production. But although this deprives them of that fundamental weapon of struggle, the strike, it doesn’t mean that the unemployed have no possibility of struggling. On the contrary. While in the beginning unemployment tended to hit small and marginal enterprises, the weak sectors of the capitalist economy, it is now hitting whole sectors of the working class in the most concentrated sectors: textiles, metallurgy, shipbuilding etc. Unemployment began hitting the class in a ‘selective’ manner and this allowed the bourgeoisie to mount an attack on workers’ living standards while presenting unemployment as an individual or at most regional and sectional problem. But now, as it becomes longer and more frequent among growing numbers of workers’ families (thus cutting the living standards of many more people who depend on workers’ wages), as it makes the labor force more and more mobile, the extension of unemployment makes it possible for the working class to understand the means and goals of its struggle and to go beyond the divisions imposed by capital. In today’s period of rising class struggle, for the first time in history -- with the exception of 1848 -- we can see the perspective of a revolutionary wave coming as Marx envisaged: the proletariat’s assault on the bourgeois state is being prepared in a period of economic crisis, of a relatively slow disintegration of the capitalist system. The bourgeoisie has not mobilized and crushed the working class so that it can impose its ‘solution’ to the crisis: generalized war. One of the consequences of this situation is that the struggle against unemployment takes on a considerable importance. The struggle against this direct loss of the means of subsistence is going to be a vital factor in the preparation of the decisive confrontations that lie ahead. To some extent, the unemployed can act in these battles in an analagous manner to the soldiers in the revolutionary wave which followed the 1914 war -- helping to unify and generalize the confrontation with the capitalist state. This is why it is so vital that the working class doesn’t fall into the many traps set by the bourgeoisie to maintain the unemployed as a distinct ‘category’, separated from the class as a whole. The following text attempts to reply to those arguments which seek to deprive the working class of a part of itself, of one of its own methods of struggle.
The general and worldwide overproduction which accompanies the crises of capitalism, particularly in its decadent epoch, throws a growing part of the working class outside of the productive process. Unemployment, in moments of acute crisis such as we are now going through, is going to get bigger and bigger and become one of the central preoccupations of the working class. It is thus essential for a revolutionary organization which intends to intervene in the working class to clarify and understand the whole question of unemployment in the class struggle.
1. The situation of unemployment is a necessary part of the condition of the working class. This is a class of ‘free’ workers, ie free from any ties to the means of production, from which they are separated and which confronts them as capital. This ‘freedom’ is in fact the worst kind of servitude, because the workers can only survive by selling their labor power. In capitalism the specific norm of the association of labor with the means of production -- wage labor -- makes labor power a simple commodity like everything else, and the only commodity which the workers have to sell. Like all commodities, the commodity labor power can only be sold when the market is big enough; and since overproduction in relation to the needs of the market is written into capitalist relations of production, the temporary or definitive non-utilization of a part of the labor force -- unemployment -- is an integral part of the condition which capital imposes on the working class. Because of the particular character of the commodity labor power -- as a creator of value -- unemployment has always been an indispensable precondition for the well-functioning of the capitalist economy, since it makes a part of the labor force available for the enlargement of production while acting as a constant pressure on wage levels. In the period of capitalist decadence unemployment in all its forms takes on a considerable weight and becomes an expression of the historical bankruptcy of capital, its inability to carry on with the development of the productive forces.
2. Since unemployment is an aspect of the working class condition, unemployed workers are as much a part of the working class as the employed workers. If a worker is unemployed, he is potentially at work, if he is working he is potentially unemployed. The definition of the working class as a producer of surplus value is not an individual question; it can only be understood as a social, collective definition. The working class is not just a sum of individuals, even though, in the beginning, capital created it as competing individuals. The proletariat expresses itself in the transcendence of the divisions and competition between individuals, forming a single collectivity with interests that are distinct from those of the rest of society. The division between unemployed workers and employed workers does not, any more than the other divisions between the various categories of workers, make them different classes. On the contrary, unemployed and employed workers have the same interests against capital. The class consciousness of the proletariat is not a sum of individual consciousnesses, and while it has its origins in the way the workers are integrated into capitalist production, it is not connected in an immediate manner to this or that worker and his presence in or absence from a place of production. Class consciousness develops in the whole class, and thus both among the unemployed and employed workers. In many cases the unemployed are the most resolute sectors of the proletariat in a frontal struggle against capital, because the situation of the unemployed concentrates in itself all the misery of the working class condition.
3. It is wrong to consider the unemployed as a distinct social category: the only fundamental divisions in society are class divisions, and these are determined by the place occupied in production. The situation of unemployment is linked to wage labor. Now, in the development of capitalist society, and in particular in its tendency towards state capitalism, capital has made more and more of the population wage earners, sometimes even to the point of paying salaries to the whole bourgeois class itself. One of the purest expressions of the decadence of capitalism is the fact that the managers of capital, the state functionaries and officers, are themselves hit by unemployment. The situation of unemployment must therefore not be peculiar to the worker, and this is why the category of the unemployed does not represent anything in itself. It encompasses workers as well as members of the bourgeoisie and intermediate strata. This is why, as well as unemployment being a factor of demoralization on the unemployed worker because of isolation, the mass of unemployed can be used by the bourgeoisie for counter-revolutionary ends in periods when the class struggle does not put forward a proletarian answer to the crisis of capital.
4. As an integral part of the working class, the unemployed workers must integrate themselves into the struggles of their class. However, the possibilities of struggle open to them are very limited. On the one hand they are extremely isolated from each other, and on the other hand they don’t have the same means of practical action as the workers in production (strikes etc). This is why unemployed workers only enter massively into struggle when the class struggle has become general. The integration of the unemployed into the struggle then becomes an important factor in the radicalization of the struggle, to the extent that, more than any other sector, the unemployed won’t have any immediate demands or reforms to win and will tend to wage their struggle against the whole society. The practical modalities of this integration into the general struggle and into the workers’ councils cannot be envisaged precisely: experience will provide an answer and it’s not the task of revolutionaries to plan forms of organization for the class. When these forms arise, revolutionaries must understand their connection to the content of the struggle, but they can’t invent them in advance.
5. The fact that greater and greater masses of workers are thrown into unemployment with no real perspective of being reintegrated into production has various contradictory effects on the evolution of the class struggle. For an initial period, it weakens the cohesion of the class, dividing it into workers inside and outside the factory. As well as using the threat of unemployment and the unemployed workers as a way of keeping wages down, thus creating an artificial hostility between employed and unemployed workers, capital uses all its forces to disperse this latter fraction of the class, to atomize them into mere individuals and drown them in a mass of ‘needy people’. In the subsequent period, given the impossibility of fully carrying out this operation and faced with the growing discontent of the unemployed workers, it becomes necessary to control them better; capital with all its party and union organs, ably assisted by the leftists, looks for means to encapsulate them, and so sets up special organs which dragoon them into a particular ‘class’ of declasses. Against this dual operation of dispersion and encapsulation, the working class can only affirm its unity, through the defense of its unitary historic and immediate interests, and through its constant, untiring effort towards self-organization.
6. The period of decadence, of the general historic crisis of the capitalist social system, has ended the possibility of a movement for the real, lasting amelioration of the workers’ condition and poses the need for the class to engage in a revolutionary struggle for its historic objectives. This has made it impossible for there to exist specific organs for the defense of the economic conditions of the workers within capitalism, like the unions used to be; today such organs can only be barriers to the class struggle, to the benefit of capitalism. This in no way means that the working class can no longer defend its immediate interests and organize itself for this struggle: it only means a radical change in the form of the struggle and of the organizations the class gives rise to: wildcat strikes, committees elected by all the workers in struggle, the general assemblies in the factories -- all prefigurations of tomorrow’s general unitary organs of the class, the workers’ councils, towards which the proletarian struggle is leading.
What is true for the whole of the class is also true for the fraction of the class which finds itself out of work, ie outside the factories. Like the class as a whole, these millions of unemployed have to struggle against the miserable conditions capital imposes on them. Just as these miserable conditions don’t simply apply to the individual unemployed workers (even if this misery is felt most directly by individuals), but are an integral part of the conditions imposed on the entire working class, so the struggle of the unemployed is an integral part of the general struggle of the class.
The struggle of the class for wages isn’t a sum of struggles by each worker against his individual exploitation, but a general struggle against capital’s exploitation of the labor power of the whole working class. The struggle of the unemployed against miserable unemployment pay or rents or social services (gas, electricity, transport etc) has the same basic nature as the struggle for wages. Although it’s true that this doesn’t immediately show itself in a clear way, it is still based on the global struggle against the extraction of immediate or past, direct or indirect, surplus value which the working class has suffered and continues to suffer.
7. It is not true that the unemployed workers can only participate in the class struggle by taking part in or supporting the workers at work (solidarity with and support for strikes). It is by directly defending themselves tooth and nail against the conditions capital imposes on them, in the place it makes them occupy, that the unemployed workers make their struggle an integral part of the general struggle of the working class against capital, and as such this struggle has to be supported by the entire class.
8. It is true that the situation of the unemployed workers outside the factories deprives them of one of the most important, classical weapons of the class struggle -- the strike -- but this does not mean that they are deprived of all means of struggle. By losing the factory, the unemployed gain the streets. Unemployed workers can and have struggled through street assemblies, demonstrations, occupations of town halls, unemployment exchanges and other public institutions. These struggles have sometimes taken on the character of riots which can be a signal for a generalized struggle. It would be a grave error to neglect such possibilities. To a certain extent, the radical struggles of the unemployed can take on the character of a social struggle more easily and rapidly than a strike of workers in a factory.
9. In order to wage the struggle imposed by their conditions, the unemployed workers, like the rest of their class, tend to regroup themselves. Because of their dispersed situation, this need to regroup is relatively more difficult for them than for workers concentrated at the workplace, the factories. But beginning from the unemployment exchanges or the neighborhood where they meet each other, they do find ways to assemble and group together. Having a lot of ‘free time’ at their disposal, chased from their homes by boredom, misery or the cold, looking for contact with others, they end up claiming and getting public locals where they can meet. There thus arise permanent meeting places where conversations, reflections and discussions are transformed into permanent meetings. This is an enormous advantage for the politicization of these important masses of workers. It is of the greatest importance to counteract the maneuvers of parties and especially of the unions, who try to infiltrate these gatherings and make them appendages of the unions. These gatherings, whatever they are called: group; committee; nucleus; etc, are not unions, if only for the reason that they are not structured on the same model -- they don’t have statutes, membership cards and dues. Even when they form committees these are not permanent and are constantly under the control of the participants who are always present, who assemble daily. In many ways, these are the equivalent of the general assemblies of struggling factory workers and, like the latter, are threatened by the maneuvers of the unions who try to control them, take them over and infiltrate them, the better to sterilize them.
10. The fact that the mode of existence of these groupings of unemployed workers is not the workplace, but where they live, their neighborhood, their commune, in no way changes their class nature, nor their social links with all other members of the class. These indestructible links are provided by the fact that these unemployed workers were at work yesterday and may return individually to work tomorrow, that there is a constant movement of workers joining the unemployed. Although unemployment is a fixed and irreversible phenomenon of the crisis, this does not apply to every unemployed worker taken individually, but to the class as a whole. These links are also provided by the common life of workers at work and unemployed workers, who may share the same incomes, be parents, friends etc. Finally, there are the links between the workers living in a neighborhood and those working in the factories in that neighborhood. The diversity of particular and circumstantial conditions within the general unitary condition of the class can give rise to momentary and diverse forms of workers’ regroupment without calling into question their class character.
11. In the unitary organs of the class, which in the revolutionary period will be the centralized workers’ councils, there can be no question of excluding millions of workers because they are out of work. In one way or another they will necessarily be present in these unitary organs as they will in its struggles. Nothing allows us, not even the experience of the past, to stipulate in advance the form this participation will take, and a priori proclaim that it will not be through local groupings of unemployed. It’s exactly the same for the unemployed workers as for the workers and employees in small enterprises who will most probably be called upon to regroup on the basis of the localities of their workplaces in order to send their delegates to the central council of the councils in a town. In any case, it would be artificial and presumptuous to arbitrarily dictate in advance the particular forms in which the workers will regroup. It’s up to revolutionaries to remain constantly attentive and vigilant so that all the formations which may appear can integrate themselves in the best way possible into the unitary organs and struggles of the class.
12. The fact that other elements coming from the petty bourgeoisie and other strata share the condition of unemployment doesn’t substantially alter the problem of unemployment and the unemployed. These elements tend to be a minority in the mass of the unemployed. In a sense, the entry of these elements or some of them into the mass of unemployed workers is a paradoxical method of their proletarianization. Where they come from sociologically and what they are about to become differs greatly. The petty bourgeois mentality which they bring with them into the mass of unemployed workers can certainly have a pernicious influence, but their influence is largely limited and minimized by more important factors like the class struggle and the balance of forces. They should not be given undue importance. After all, we find a similar problem when these elements end up among the workers at work. Everything depends on the state of the class, its consciousness and combativity, which make it able to lead and assimilate these elements. It’s the same in a war when masses of workers, instead of being unemployed, are metamorphosed into soldiers and mixed up with elements from other classes. It would be a waste of time, and impossible, to look at each one in terms of his social origins. Unemployment is and will remain fundamentally a state imposed on the working class and as such is a problem of the working class.
ICC, March 1978