By Gabriel Kuhn
This article was written together with Sebastian Friedrich and originally appeared on CounterPunch.
Class is back on the agenda of the European left. That is good news. The reasons, however, are unfortunate. It is primarily the growing working-class support for right-wing parties and movements that troubles left-wing authors, activists, and organizers. Two poles have emerged in the debate.
The first can be summarized as follows: The left has become too academic, intellectual, and middle-class, focusing almost exclusively on cultural issues rather than economic ones. Therefore, it has nothing to offer to the working class. Worse, it is at times classist, meaning that it looks down upon proletarians, their ways, and their perceived ignorance, accusing them of being the hotbed of reactionary sentiments. Class struggle has been pushed aside by so-called “identity politics,” and material analysis has been replaced by postmodern gibberish. In short, the left is pushing a (neo)liberal agenda that the working class can no longer identify with.
The second pole responds thus: The position outlined above is the resentful payback of grumpy old (or young) men who missed the boat when women and minorities began to challenge simplistic interpretations of class politics in the 1960s and 70s. They try to use the left’s crisis to turn back the clock and revive a vulgar workerist Marxism that renders questions of race, gender, and sexuality secondary (at best). While there might be problems with the left’s recent negligence of economic matters, its true problems lie elsewhere: in the haunting legacy of patriarchy and whiteness, the lack of intersectional analysis, and the failure to adapt to the era of neoliberal globalization.
We share the opinion that the left has lost touch with the working class and that liberal positions have made huge inroads into leftist organizations and movements where they are regularly mistaken for being anti-capitalist or even revolutionary. At the same time, we are convinced that a European left whose class analysis does not take into account the changes in labor and class society that have occurred in the past century as well as the diversity of working-class people and their special interests and needs will fail to provide the answers we require.
In this article, we want to argue for a new class politics, based on a series of articles currently published under the title “Neue Klassenpolitik” by the German monthly ak (analyse & kritik).
Class Politics and the Left
Why has class politics largely disappeared from the radar of the European left? For a long time, terms such as “class struggle,” “exploitation,” and indeed “class” itself seemed forgotten or even ridiculed. Mentioning them elicited sneers and rolled eyes.
One reason is the class composition of today’s European left itself. Since the 1970s, it has mainly been recruiting in the middle class. This was a consequence of the student movement of the 1960s, changing class formations in the European welfare states, and the ruling class’s interest in a left whose issues could be pacified by symbolic concessions, commodification, and the modernization of labor relations (think of everything from billion-dollar start-ups based on “DIY ethics” to magazines called Business Punk). In recent decades, working-class folks have repeatedly chronicled how out of place they feel in left-wing circles. (1) We are facing a situation where many older leftists have said goodbye to politics and many younger ones have never been involved in class projects.
Then, there are structural reasons. The transformation from an industrial to a service economy has contributed to the individualization of working-class lives. Workers have become less organized and rarely articulate their collective grievances in ways that aren’t mediated by institutionalized trade unions. The changes in labor relations are only one cause of this. In many European countries, conservative as well as social democratic governments have systematically weakened independent unionism and the related working-class organizations that had constituted the backbone of the historical workers’ movement. Yet another problem is that there still exists a popular image of the worker as a white male who does heavy lifting and runs around with a boiler suit and flat cap all day, before wasting his wages on booze, while his desperate wife struggles to feed the kids in a ramshackle apartment. Since fewer and fewer muscular and grimy proletarians are roaming the streets, many people, including left-leaning ones, have come to the conclusion that the working class no longer exists. Of course they meet cleaners, bus drivers, and deliverymen every day, but, apparently, these proletarians don’t fit the picture.
Add to this a theology of individualism that denounces anything remotely collective as coercive, defines happiness in exclusively private terms, and has made social anxiety and loneliness common features of everyday life – against this background, we might appreciate why there reigns confusion within the left about who the subjects of traditional class politics actually are.
Saving the Working Class from the Right
Whether it is the Front National in France, the FPÖ in Austria, or the AfD in Germany: Europe’s rightists portray themselves as the voice of the “common man” and as the ones who dare raise the social question. Their proposed solutions, of course, are chauvinistic and racist. They turn class conflict into a conflict of nations and cultures. They mix capital-friendly social and economic policies with empty appeals to (domestic) workers who pay a dear price for it.
Of course we can find chauvinistic attitudes among the lower classes. We can find them in any class. There are probably people in the working class so embedded in ideologies of hatred and superiority that they will always remain hostile to left-wing projects. Yet, this does not relieve us from asking the question why chauvinism is an appealing framework for working-class people to make sense of their own predicaments.
Among other factors (from the cultural hegemony of white supremacy to calculated misinformation), working-class people seem to lack viable alternatives. The political machinery controlled by what Tariq Ali has termed the “extreme center” (2) knows little friction. It offers no competing visions of society. Hardly anyone can imagine that production and distribution could be organized differently. Reactionary forces exploit this by raising questions about social and economic inequality – and by providing all the wrong answers.
Today’s left, on the other hand, feels uneasy to even address the communities that are suffering the most under the neoliberal order. This becomes obvious whenever the “working poor,” the “lower classes,” or the “ordinary people” enter the conversation. In the worst case, we meet hardly veiled contempt. Certain circles within the German left have identified the true barrier to political emancipation as the “localist,” a person formerly known as a “hillbilly” or “hick”: backward, uncultured, and equipped with an intellectual horizon that ends at the next church tower (or minaret). The hero paving the way to a better future is the opposite, the “globalist”: well-educated, multi-lingual, and worldly.
But: be it as it may, capitalism will always produce its lower classes and if those who find themselves among them – either because they never had a chance or because their elbows weren’t sharp enough to survive the capitalist rodeo – don’t feel there is anything to gain in progressive projects, they will turn to regressive ones. The left must not fuel social divisions by condemning these parts of the population as reactionary by nature. Rather, it must develop progressive visions that promise an end to social divisions of all kinds.
The communities that some leftists find so suspicious will not disappear, they will not feel more at home in a society that marginalizes them, and if the left declares them guilty of reactionary consciousness by default, they will certainly not join their ranks. Instead, they will become more radical and militant in their ill-fated tracks, with possibly disastrous outcomes.
There are, essentially, only two possibilities to relate to social groups that are susceptible to right-wing demagogy. The first is an unabashed social chauvinism, declaring them mentally and morally deprived. The other is a left-wing politics that does not exclude any particular group but cares about the well-being (and the support) of all of them, no matter the challenges and contradictions. Who ever said that radical politics was easy? The historical task of the left is to offer visions that make it attractive for as many people as possible to pursue left-wing politics. Anything less is defeatist.
The False Promise of Progressive Neoliberalism
In recent times, factions of the left have, willingly or unwillingly, entered an alliance with progressive neoliberalism. Liberal economists, modern conservatives, social democrats, and left-liberal cosmopolitans position themselves against ultra-conservatives, religious fundamentalists, and die-hard bigots. This is laudable, and in the cultural struggle that this juxtaposition outlines it is easy to choose sides. But a polarization of this sort does not address the material causes of the contradictions. It rather fits the personalization of politics, in other words: individual consciousness (and therefore class privilege, status, and education) over social structures. It is not surprising that more than one leftist seduced by this model has made a career out of it, be it in academia, the arts, the progressive media, or an NGO.
But what does progressive neoliberalism look like on the ground? It makes competition at the top more diverse, provides access to the upper echelons of society for selected and formerly therefrom excluded individuals, and widens the horizons and opportunities of those lucky enough to stay in the game. But in its social selection, it is as brutal, reckless, and rigid as all forms of capitalist realization have ever been. A left that starts pretending that a lesser evil is no longer an evil at all is embarrassing itself.
A New Class Politics: Feminist, Anti-Racist, Internationalist
To revive class politics does not mean to rehash outdated versions of it. The class politics of the orthodox left focused on the industrial proletariat whose upper tiers enjoyed certain privileges due to the specific economic and political conditions in the industrialized nations during the Fordist era. White men provided, women took care of the household and the family, migrant laborers did the dirty work, and the masses of the colonized nations ensured profits for capitalists that allowed them to pass on enough crumbs to First World workers to keep them compliant. There is no need for retro working-class romanticism.
A new class politics does not relegate gender, race, and imperial legacy to issues that are supplementary to class relations. These issues, and the struggles they imply, are an integral part of class relations. In fact, feminist, anti-racist, and anti-colonial struggles are the base on which effective unified class struggles must be launched.
The Fordist era might be gone, but women still account for the vast majority of unwaged reproductive labor that provides capital with an able labor force. Meanwhile, millions of women have entered the labor force as well. In the Global South, this means either double the workload (for women engaged in both waged/productive and unwaged/reproductive labor) or the delegation of the reproductive duties to another woman, often a relative or a care worker from a lower level of the labor hierarchy. In the Global North, it means the commodification of housework and child-rearing, which has created an expanding low-income care work sector, mainly occupied by migrant women forced to be away from their own families. Instead of an actual transformation of the relationship between productive and reproductive labor, what we see is a modification ensuring even more profits for the rich, the superexploitation of women, and a hierarchization of unwaged reproductive labor. “Women’s jobs” have the lowest reputation and the lowest salaries – and whenever women get to do “men’s jobs,” they are paid less.
Migrant workers are highly overrepresented in precarious labor. They, too, receive lower wages than their coworkers. The example of the Gastarbeiter, the “guest worker,” who arrived in Germany in the 1960s and 70s shows how labor migration facilitated by capital created new factions of the class. Gastarbeiter were neither socially nor legally integrated into German society; they received lower wages, and had less job security than their German colleagues. They formed an underclass serving as a reserve labor army. The consequences of this are palpable to this day. Since socio-economic background is crucial for the opportunities available to people in Germany, the guest workers’ descendants are still overrepresented in low-income jobs – if they have jobs at all. Today, business associations propose a suspension of the minimum wage for refugees, while German companies use leased employees and loopholes in labor law to undercut the minimum wage for migrant workers – all sanctioned by the government.
Globally, the divisions caused by imperialism run deep, also in the working class. Most of the goods consumed in the Global North, also by working-class people, are produced in the Global South under conditions that would be deemed scandalous in the First World. A steady stream of dark value flows to the imperialist nations due to underpaid labor, undervalued resources, and unequal exchange. The living standards of working-class people, the political representation they are used to, and the stakes their struggles entail differ greatly across the globe. A class politics that does not acknowledge this neglects one of the most glaring of capitalism’s contradictions and forsakes one of socialism’s most basic principles: internationalism. In the worst case, supposedly left-wing projects become part of protectionist and chauvinistic politics. Not only must the working classes of the Global South be included in the international class struggle, they must at its front.
Sexism, racism, and nationalism are more than just tools to divide the working class. They are ideologies deeply ingrained in capitalist history. All workers have common interests, namely to receive fair compensation for their labor, to enjoy social security in order to live dignified lives, and to determine their own destiny. However, how this plays out in their respective struggles differs greatly. The more concrete the struggles are, the more obvious the fragmentation of the class and the complications of common action become. Who profits from and who pays for the relocation of production sites? Who profits from and who pays for service economies? Who profits from and who pays for free trade?
The key for a class politics that lives up to the challenges of our time is not to deny the divisions within the class, but to name and engage with them. If we have any desire to move ahead, there is no other way.
From Common Experience to Common Praxis
Unveiling and attacking the ideologies of sexism, racism, and nationalism are mandatory for a new class politics. However, first and foremost, a new class politics must emphasize the structural expressions of these ideologies and their significance for capitalism. The analyses a new class politics must consider the specific forms of exploitation that women, migrants, workers in the Global South, oppressed peoples, social minorities, prisoners, and people entangled in workfare programs are subjected to.
A new class politics also understands that classes are not formed by drawing boards or statistical data. They are not exclusively determined by the relations of production either. Class also has a subjective dimension. Class is not only based on people finding themselves in the same position within labor relations, but on their common experiences and actions. Wage dependency is a shared reality but not a political program. Edward P. Thompson famously wrote that “class happens when some men, as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs.” (3) This is where class struggle begins.
A new class politics must clarify where and how the specific experiences of workers based on gender, race, citizenship, and other factors converge. It must reveal the overlapping interests of workers as members of the class. This makes common struggles possible. Capital tries to keep the class divided by granting certain sectors of it relative privileges over others. It is key to understand that all sectors of the class benefit more from the overthrow of capital than from their relative privileges. This might not be measured in access to cheap consumer goods or the choice of holiday destinations, but it will be measured in a sense of social security, community, and empowerment. The by far most important way to come to this understanding is through common struggle.
Of particular importance for a new class politics are the sites of common resistance, be it because workers of different backgrounds come together in rebellion against their employers, landlords, or the ruling class and its lackeys, or because other sectors of the class stand in solidarity with the resistance against the superexploitation of women, the violent policing of working-class communities of color, or the horrendous working conditions of the new industrial proletariat of the Global South. In Europe, much of this coalesces in the migrant experience, which renders migration an issue that will decide much of the continent’s political future. It is mandatory for the left not to let the relevant debates be steered by right-wing demagogues.
A politics based on common experience and action is not only superior to the abstract hailing of a supposedly homogeneous working class; it also stands against a trend that many on the left have caught on to as other options seem to be dwindling, namely to base one’s politics on humanitarian impulses. Humanitarian values are a necessary condition for a better world, but they are in no way sufficient to get us there. First, they do not keep rulers from wanting to rule. And second, they are fleeting and can be retracted at any time. In the summer of 2015, a surprising and encouraging number of people across Europe provided material necessities, shelter, and legal aid to refugees who had survived the treacherous journey forced upon them by a merciless global system. The people of Europe, conservative pundits included, congratulated themselves for their openness and generosity. Today, much of this has faded and anti-refugee sentiments are once again on the rise. It is easy to manipulate humanitarianism in a society where self-pleasing charity has replaced the outrage at injustice. A new class politics can only be built on the latter.
The left must not surrender class politics to the right. But neither must it surrender resistance to the right to neoliberals. For one, the triumph of the latter is everything but certain – we can already see neoliberal factions buddying up to the right. (4) Most importantly, though, the celebration of neoliberalism is a celebration for the rich and successful only. Leftists can only join in if they are willing to abandon any serious ambition to create an egalitarian, just, and (socially as well as ecologically) sustainable society – and thereform any meaningful form of leftism.
A new class politics must develop medium and longterm strategies. This requires an explanation for why certain parts of the population veer towards the political right as well as the commitment to stop this development. To engage with the motives of the supporters of right-wing politics does not mean to give in to the reactionary mood. The dangers of völkisch anti-capitalism, esoteric conspiracy theories, and deceitful third positions are real. But it is of crucial importance to link progressive values to the prospect of material and social prosperity in a way that is convincing to those who are now duped by political forces that will only increase their misery. Where the left is able to do this, people will rally around it, whether they live in an urban metropolis or a mountain hamlet, whether they go to college or learn a trade, whether they work as teachers or mechanics.
To play different social groups off against each other is not worthy any left-wing project. Only fools question that social movements fighting for the rights of those who do not conform to the norm of the white, heterosexual, cisgendered male help make the world a better place. This is particularly true for working-class people. Not only do they have as many LGBT people in their ranks as any other class, but more women and many more people of color. To see the struggles of these communities as somehow separate from, or even opposed to, working-class struggles is the result of both internal (analytical, personal, and political) shortcomings and the ideological manipulation by the enemy. It is a fatal flaw that needs to be overcome.
(1) Examples reach from Terry Morgan’s My Experiences as a Working-Class Anarchist to the Swedish anthology En knuten näve i fickan: Om klass, normer och vänstern (parts of which are available in English under the title Clenched Fists, Empty Pockets: True Experiences of Working-Class Activists in the Middle-Class Left) and Didier Eribon’s celebrated autobiography Returning to Reims. In Germany, Christian Baron’s recent book Proleten, Pöbel, Parasiten: Warum die Linken die Arbeiter verachten (“Proles, Plebs, Parasites: Why the Left Despises Working-Class People”) caused much controversy.
(2) See Tariq Ali’s The Extreme Centre: A Warning (London, New York: Verso, 2015).
(3) Edward P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (London: Victor Gollancz, 1963), p. 9.
(4) With regard to the AfD in Germany, see Sebastian Friedrich and Gabriel Kuhn, “Between Capital and Volk,” Jacobin, June 29, 2017.