The alienated ‘Multitude’: ‘the Class’ of the 21st century
Throughout the 20th century development amongst workers of ‘class consciousness‘, the subjective awareness of ones objective class interests, was seen as central to the hopes of achieving a transition away from capitalism; to a more humane and just system.
A Marxist concept of ‘class’ has huge emancipatory potential. This is resultant from classes being forged by the fires of social antagonism. This antagonism is the result of a fundamental conflict over control and allocation resources and thus generates a strong rationale for political action. However, this is only the case if actors become aware of the objective realities of the conflict which exist between their own and others’ classes. Unfortunately, objective phenomena very rarely have a strong correlation with subjective values and preferences (hence the rise of interpretivism in social science).
For Marx what later became known as the ‘immiseration thesis‘ was key to the process of the development of class-consciousness. This thesis was based upon the assumption that the continual increasing misery of the working class would force them to realise that capitalism was opposed to their interests. Often it is thought that immiseration refers only to material deprivation, as seen in the following passage from the Communist Manifesto:
“The modern labourer, on the contrary, instead of rising with the process of industry, sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of his own class. He becomes a pauper.”
However, such an understanding ignores the further elaboration which Marx gives in Capital:
“All means for the development of production…distort the worker into a fragment of a man, they degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine… they alienate from him the intellectual potentialities of the labour process…they transform his life into working-time… It follows therefore that in proportion as capital accumulates, the situation of the worker, be his payment high or low, must grow worse”.
It is clear that for Marx the development of class-consciousness not only rests upon the material deprivation of the working population but also on their psychological immiseration.
Erik Olin Wright argues that as capitalism develops the class structure becomes increasingly complex but he maintains that complex does not necessarily relate to less important. Rather a more nuanced understanding of class is needed which includes the middle class (the self-employed, supervisors and experts). Importantly Wright shows that it is not only the polarised class location of unskilled worker which can posses views which are sharply antagonistic to capitalism, so too can skilled and expert workers who are oppressed due to their lack authority in the capitalist labour process, unskilled supervisors and managers who exploited due to their lack of skill and the petite-bourgeoisie or self-employed who are exploited in the market by powerful capitalist firms. Furthermore, Gramsci’s framework of cultural hegemony suggests that political success for any group is based upon the successful forging of a class coalition around a common historical aspirations and grievances.
The contemporary labour market provides a historical condition which constitutes a form of psychological immiseration and which has the potential to transcend the traditional class locations – based upon skill and hierarchical levels. In this way it provides a potential foundation for the formation of an anti-capitalist class coalition. This condition is the insecurity which is endemic in contemporary employment. Neo-liberal globalisation has pushed flexibalisation of labour markets on all countries and in doing so has transformed the nature of all employment. Temporality is now the norm, where once it was the certainty of a job for life. Exploitation is no longer simply material but is also increasingly temporal.
Today in the UK 9 million people think it likely that they will lose their job as a result of the on going economic downturn. The importance of insecurity has often been over-looked with analysis of the labour process focusing rather on deskilling, material impoverishment and underemployment. Yet in recent years meta analysis of large scale quantitative data (supported by a number of longitudinal and qualitative studies) has provided a clear picture that there is a strong and reliable correlation between job insecurity and stress, anxiety and depression. For example, D’Souza et al’s, 2003 quantitative study of 1188 employed professionals, found that job insecurity increased the likelihood of depression fourfold. In fact often simply believing that you will lose your job has an effect of similar negative magnitude on psychological wellbeing as actually losing it. Moreover, the negative effects are not confined to psychological health with job insecurity being strongly associated with worse physical health too.
Job insecurity threatens the very core of our self identity as seen in statements such as these by a public sector worker suffering acute job uncertainty: “Yes something to go for, something you live for and at the end you get the money, do your job serve the community. When that’s gone, I’ll be at home doing what?”
As such job insecurity constitutes the total alienation from our ability to self-actualise ourselves. Marx defined labour as ‘active alienation’ this is because labour is a commodity which workers must sell. Therefore, the more commodified labour is the more alienating it will be, labour is more commodified the more it relies on the market and thus the more insecure it is. The realisation then that an employee’s job is under threat constitutes a subconscious awareness that an intrinsic part of their identity is a commodity; that their direct connection to their work, to a core tenet of their identity, is an illusion mediated and dependent on the will of someone else who has the power to severe that connection and thus cut away part of their identity. Job insecurity brings into focus the possibility of not only being alienated from the product of one’s work but being alienated from being able to work at all.
Not only does job insecurity create immiseration which transcends the traditional class locations created by the material immiseration of capitalism. It moreover, as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri point out, leads to homogenisation of the labour process. Previously the experience of workers in different jobs was vastly different, but increasingly all workers have the same experience of insecurity. What is more this experience forces them to take on a higher level of independence. Hardt and Negri see this process as creating what they refer to as the ‘the multitude’ forged “from the diverse forms of flexible, mobile and precarious labour” and that political struggle will take place “when the poor, the precarious, and the exploited want to reappropriate the time and space of the metropolis.”
It is this ‘multitude’ of the insecure, united by a want for secure jobs which presents a new and powerful opportunity for challenging capitalist hegemony. Security does not only mean control over tenure but also sustained decent wages and pensions in retirement. Economic and environmental sustainability are a prerequisite for security but history has shown that neither can be achieved under capitalism. The flexibility created by contemporary capitalism has forged this new political force, a multitude of the insecure, and it is this force which must must be harnessed if the transformation of capitalism is to be possible.