Perhaps the most important legacy of classical Marxism—the theory as espoused by Marx, Engels, and Lenin—is its insistence that conflict is built into the very heart of modern capitalism. The focus on conflict stems naturally from Marx’s conception of class, in which the dominant group advances its interests at the expense of subordinate groups. The very act of defending their respective interests pits the main social classes against each other. Given the emphasis on conflict, it is not surprising that Marx and his followers also took the system to be inherently unstable. They also identified the conditions for its supersession. Chief among these was the growth of the industrial proletariat, which not only had an interest in overthrowing the system, but also the capacity to do so. And indeed, for the first half century or so after Marx’s death in 1883, the emphasis on instability seemed to be amply borne out. From the 1890s to the 1930s, not only did the system seem to be teetering on collapse, but the very contours of social conflict appeared to amply vindicate Marx’s expectations—it was the emerging industrial proletariat that was at the helm of the revolutionary outbreaks across the capitalist world.
For the early generations of class theorists, then, the lesson was obvious: The economic structure was the source of contradiction and instability. It followed that whatever the sources of system stabilization might be, they would be found outside the basic structure. And they would be swimming against a powerful tide in that they would have to neutralize the contradictions at the very core of the system itself. The postwar left, for all its criticism of the early Marxists, accepted this basic premise more or less in toto. Thus, while they correctly insisted that classical Marxists had dramatically underestimated the system’s ability to survive and then undertook to explain that phenomenon, they sought the answer in the “superstructure,” not in the economic foundation of capitalism. This was a tacit acceptance of the classical framework, even though it was fulsomely expressed as a repudiation of it.
Classical Marxists and the postwar left were both wrong in their belief that capitalism was stabilized by something outside the class structure. The real source of social order in capitalism—of its stable reproduction over time—isn’t culture or ideology; it is the class structure itself. The structure ensures that individuals within the working class choose individualized forms of resistance over collective ones. They do so not because they fail to recognize their interests, as theories of false consciousness or cultural hegemony would have it. Both of these approaches insisted that workers in some way failed to understand their immediate material interests. Actually, it is because workers accurately perceive the risks and costs associated with collective action. Hence, they typically opt for individualized forms of advancement over collective ones. But to opt for an individualized strategy is nothing other than to accept the dominant position of the employer—and of capitalists as a class. It leaves unchallenged the employer’s structural power over the worker and seeks simply to maximize the worker’s welfare within the latter’s parameters. It is a tacit acceptance of the rules of the game, rather than an effort to transform or even challenge them.
It follows that class formation—of the kind predicted by early Marxists—is anything but automatic. It happens when workers become inclined to choose collective strategies over individual ones for the pursuit of their interests. But this requires a set of circumstances only contingently available and even now poorly understood. Broadly, collective action becomes more likely when the risks and costs associated with it are reduced, when workers feel a sense of confidence in their capacity, and when they develop a sense of common purpose and mutual commitment deep enough to make the sacrifices that are inevitable in any labor struggle. Now, some of the circumstances that reduce the material impediments and increase the sense of solidarity have, at certain times and in certain places, fallen into place without conscious effort by labor. Sometimes capitalism itself creates the conditions that increase the chances of class formation. But this can’t be taken for granted. More often, it takes conscious agency to bring them about. Whether they address the material disincentives or the psychological orientation, institutions undergirding class formation have to be built from the ground up and then sustained over time in the face of considerable resistance from a far more powerful agent—the employer class.
Institutions enabling working-class formation aren’t naturally occurring. They are hard to build, and the project of sustaining them as effective fighting organizations is even harder, which means they are highly vulnerable to destruction. Mistakes are therefore very costly—a badly timed strike can destroy a union, a corrupt leadership can demoralize the members, even the death of a leader can send an organization into decline. And the resulting losses can make the entire enterprise appear to be a Sisyphean undertaking. In sum, capitalism places the burden of class formation entirely on the shoulders of the working class. And this is why the process is highly contingent.
Employers, on the other hand, have less need to generate their own class organizations, because their interests are preserved simply by the reproduction of the employment relation. The contrast with the conditions faced by labor is very stark. Capitalists don’t have to organize themselves in order to advance their interests. Since the class structure places every employer in a position of dominance over his employees, collective action is unnecessary to secure an advantage over the latter. As long as workers show up to work every day, as long as they submit to the terms of the employment contract, they also serve to advance the capitalist’s economic interests. This is the basic asymmetry between the two classes.
Precisely because of this structural asymmetry, how the classes utilize their political agency is also very different. For laborers, any advance of their interests depends on building up and then sustaining institutions that enable collective action. The working class has to direct its political agency toward creating political organizations and defending them. But relative to labor, capital is relieved of this burden. Employers do benefit from creating class organizations of their own to coordinate their activities against labor. But this is not a precondition to their sustaining their position, much less advancing it. Their greater power is built into the class structure itself. Because this relieves them of the need to build organizations the way labor has to, they can direct their political agency toward blocking and breaking up the institutions labor is straining to create. Employers like Walmart, Amazon, Ford, Citibank, and even smaller entities can direct enormous resources toward preventing others’ collective action instead of engineering their own.
This has a very important implication for the more mundane exigencies of political contestation. Because their power is located in the class structure itself, and not in political organization, employers are relieved of the burden of creating class organizations to advance their interests. The corollary to this is that, when they do create such organizations—parties, trade associations, lobbying groups, and so forth—they are less dependent on the quality and ability of these entities. Parties can fail, their leaders can turn out to be corrupt, even the president can have the mind and temperament of a child—but none of this typically poses a deep threat to the power and dominance of the class. As long as the class beneath them continues to show up for work and produce the revenues that sustain the system, it gives capitalists the time and space to fix the breakdowns—to replace incompetent managers, weather any scandals, and build better parties.
Even when labor overcomes the political resistance of employers and cobbles together its class organizations, they are eroded by other properties of the class structure. Chief among these is technical change. Capitalists fight the competitive battle in product markets by upgrading technology, bringing in new machinery, and reorganizing production around them. The new technology has a dual effect—it phases out some occupations and the skills attached to them, while generating demand for new ones. This process plays out at a micro level, but as it scales upward, it transforms the occupational structure itself. Skills become obsolete, particular occupations once in demand start to drop off, regions that were once economic hubs begin to stagnate, and economic backwaters become new centers of accumulation.
This process, unleashed by technical change, is built into the class structure; it is a direct and unavoidable result of capitalists’ profit-maximizing drive. For labor, it creates an enormous political challenge. As the occupational structure changes, so does the constellation of interests attached to it. Alliances based on a certain spread of interests begin to fray, and new ones emerging and gaining traction create an entirely new terrain for organizers. Organizing strategies have to adjust around the new skills and new work conditions, new alliances have to be forged across the occupational groupings, and the cultural work that cements the class project has to take on entirely new challenges. The labor movement has to adjust continually to the dynamic properties of the class structure. Employers face no corresponding imperative, since their power is not founded on the success of their class cohesion, but on the simple reproduction of the class relation itself.
This is how the capitalist class structure achieves stability. The structures are constantly working against labor while largely shoring up the political power of capitalists. The class structure slants the political terrain systematically against the working class so that it has to bear the entire burden of creating and sustaining its political institutions, and it does so against a foe that is structurally and institutionally advantaged. Not surprisingly, the response from the typical worker is to choose prudence over valor—to prioritize holding on to what he or she has, rather than risking it on the arduous work of collective action. This is not, in any way, a false consciousness—it is a sober appreciation of the terrain as it actually presents itself.
Marx was certainly right to insist that conflict is built into the class relation itself. But the conflict is everywhere and always lopsided. Or, to be more precise, capitalism endures because the same class structure that generates conflict also distributes political capacities unequally between the contending classes. The system locks the classes into an antagonistic relationship, but the unequal distribution of capacities ensures that the conflict, where it occurs, tends to be resolved in employers’ favor. The laboring class, for its part, has to bear the onus of figuring out how to organize itself—in an ever-shifting occupational structure and an evolving political terrain—against a political rival that has the structural forces set up in its favor.
But one can commit to a materialist class theory and also affirm that there is no teleology, no set of deterministic forces pushing toward class formation. When and where the latter does occur, it comes from a set of conjunctural factors that enable labor to overcome the forces that typically inhibit organizational success. And as these circumstances change, as the enabling conditions weaken or are eroded by the constantly evolving character of the structure, the organizations that were built up around one set of circumstances become unstable. They have to either adjust to the new environment or face extinction.
In the early 20th century, labor was able to figure out how to take advantage of the structural and institutional facts of the time and build organizations that brought workers together as a class. They were able to shoulder the burden of class formation. But as those conditions changed, the class institutions the left had built up began to disintegrate, and the class itself changed in composition, so that the sectors where it was growing the fastest were those that fell outside the protection of its organizational apparatus. Today, when much of that apparatus is either significantly weakened or dismantled, the challenge is to build it anew, under dramatically changed conditions, and devise a strategy capable of navigating the current economic landscape.
The Growth Phase of the First Left
It was the very success of class organizing in the early 20th century that led the classical Marxists to underestimate the stabilizing properties of capitalism. What accounts for this success? Heading the list were some key facts about the class structure itself. In the parts of Western Europe that served as the leading edge of the working-class movement, the economies were experiencing a profound transition from agriculture to urban manufacturing. These were rapidly industrializing countries. This meant, first and foremost, that the industries that were expanding fastest were the most hospitable to class organizing. This is true, of course, when you compare manufacturing to agriculture. As Marx and countless social scientists since him have observed, industrial employment is far more conducive to unionization than agricultural labor. And since workers were primarily being drawn from agriculture into urban industry, they were transitioning from a low-density organizational environment to a high-density one. Further, the establishments where they worked solved some collective-action problems for them. This was the era of massive factories that employed thousands of workers. For organizers, this provided important economies of scale—a small number of unionists could reach hundreds and thousands of workers in a small setting. And, finally, the fact that industrial employment was expanding rapidly meant the fear of long-term unemployment was mitigated to an appreciable extent. Getting fired for political activity was less of a deterrent to organizers than it would have been in a slow-growing or stagnant industrial sector. If they were sacked, they were confident that employment would be available elsewhere—probably in the same industrial district, where they could resume their organizing activities.
Layered on top of this structural fact about the capitalism of the time were some institutional facts. The most important was the political status of the working class. Until the second decade of the century, workers in virtually the entire capitalist world were disenfranchised. This was true even in the United States, where white working men technically had the right to vote but effectively were pushed out of the system for two decades after 1896, when, under the banner of anti-corruption efforts, large sections of the working class were disenfranchised, as of course were the formerly enslaved in the South. The political exclusion of the working class reinforced the sense of economic injustice emanating from the work conditions of the time. Both factors pushed in the same direction. Both instilled a sense within the class that the system was entirely captured by the propertied classes, for the same people who dominated them in the workplace also passed the laws within the state. This was a crucial factor in solidifying a sense of class identity among the poor.
Additionally, as many urban historians have pointed out, the residential layout of urban centers deepened the separation between the classes. There were many kinds of segregation in the growing urban centers at the turn of the 20th century. Some facilitated working-class formation, and others undercut it. But the basic fact of class segregation is undeniable, and it extended well into the early decades of the century. Equally well-established is the fact that, all else being equal, the rise of working-class ghettos and slums contributed mightily to the growing sense of common condition and interests among their inhabitants. It wasn’t just the experience of common economic conditions and social isolation; it was also the ubiquitous growth of the self-help and mutual-aid societies workers had to develop, all of which centered around home and neighborhood and tied them materially to one another in the course of everyday life.
These overlapping and reinforcing institutional factors comprised the bedrock on which trade unionists built early 20th-century class organizations. But the actual work of organizing them was indispensable to the outcome. Whatever the structural conditions, however cloistered the social life, however deep the sense of political marginalization—these factors couldn’t and still don’t of themselves create class formation. The baseline obstacles to that outcome remain very much in place: the crushing imbalance of power at work, the insecurity on which it is based, and the background of asset scarcity that makes even a short bout of unemployment so costly. All these factors make it alluring to opt for an individualized resistance strategy, rather than a collective one, even in the conditions of the early 1900s.
The actual success of class formation, therefore, was very much an achievement. Had it not been for the concerted efforts of the organizers at the time, the enabling conditions might have remained politically inert. One of the signal developments of that era was the simultaneous birth of mass working-class parties and the trade-union movement. Each fed and reinforced the other. While neither of the two institutions had much purchase around the turn of the century, they had become mass phenomena by the 1930s. Together, they not only created the most effective political vehicle that labor has ever seen in the modern era, but, alongside that, sustained the very culture of solidarity and mutualism that is essential for effective collective action. Almost all the labor movement’s mass organizations today were born in those decades, and the movement has never managed to build anything even approaching them in terms of their scale, scope, depth, and ambition. This was the final, indispensable element that contributed to class formation in the early part of the century.
The political outcome of this enormous growth in working-class organization was, for the first time in modern history, a significant redistribution of income and wealth toward the lower rungs of society. The nascent labor organizations leveraged their newfound power into rewriting not just the labor contract, but the social contract more broadly. Material gains in the workplace were complemented by a qualitative leap in access to basic services outside it—in housing, health care, transportation, and so on. The latter gains were then institutionalized as rights and became embedded into the very idea of citizenship. Together, this institutional ensemble comprised the foundation of social democracy, which so dramatically changed the contours of capitalism that, by the end of the 20th century, many social scientists considered it a new social form altogether.
Social democracy was sustained as a kind of political exchange between capital and labor—a negotiated compromise in which employers were forced to accommodate labor’s interests in exchange for labor agreeing to industrial peace. If ever there was an instance of cultural hegemony in capitalism—an era in which the system relied on the active consent of labor the four decades after World War II come closest to it. This was the period in which, through their rising living standards and the improvement in working conditions, workers to some extent offered their active consent to the system. They witnessed the greatest advance in their standards of living that they had ever seen, which served to boost capitalism’s legitimacy to an extent that would have been unimaginable during the century’s first decades.
This consent, where it existed, was dependent upon material factors. It was a hegemony expressed in the culture, but it was not the product of culture. Its conditions of existence were organizational and economic. Organizationally, it was the trade-union movement and its accouterments—the various labor parties being the most important. Economically, it was the unprecedented growth of the postwar decades, which expanded national income at a pace rapid enough to fund the rapidly expanding welfare state, while also expanding corporate profits.
As long as the economic pie kept expanding, the competing demands of labor and capital could both be sustained—they didn’t turn into a zero-sum game. But starting in the late 1960s, this began to change. With the manufacturing sector as its epicenter, a slowdown in economic growth slowly enveloped the advanced economies. Corporate profits, hitherto generous and bountiful, began to contract noticeably; starting in the United States, and then slowly fanning out into the rest of the West, employers began to experience a squeeze on their profit margins, which triggered a dramatic reversal in their attitude to the political exchange with labor. Whereas union demands on them had been obnoxious but tolerable during the 1950s, they now became intolerable as profits margins shrank. Employers who felt hesitant to upset the apple cart in earlier years now felt they were willing to risk a confrontation with unions—and the possibility of economic disruption.
US employers thus led the charge against the postwar class settlement, with Margaret Thatcher’s Britain in train. Using aggressive tactics at the workplace and every lever that labor law provided them, they beat back the union presence in their establishments. And, indeed, while there was a muted retaliation by the labor movement, the actual economic disruption turned out to be minimal. By the mid-1980s, union membership in the United States had declined precipitously, almost down to pre-New Deal levels. Continental Europe followed a decade later. By the turn of the millennium, organized labor had shrunk to a fraction of its size across much of the advanced industrial world—even in the Nordic countries, hitherto the bastion of trade-union prowess.
From Consent to Resignation
As the organizational strength of the working class waned, the role of “consent” in the economic settlement shrank. It was replaced by employer diktat. The proportion of the working population represented and protected by labor unions shrank in size, leaving employees to negotiate their labor contracts as individuals. This could only mean a dramatic weakening of their bargaining power relative to their employer, which increasingly offered “take it or leave it” terms of employment. Consent was displaced by resignation. Since “leave it” is simply not an option for typical wage laborers, they had to “take” what they were offered.
And what they were offered was a return to the status quo ante and the conditions typical of the era before unions. In the United States, the postwar gains in wages and general employment came to a virtual halt in the mid-1970s, along with a deterioration in several other indices of economic welfare. The retreat in income was jarring enough, but it was more than matched by what was happening to wealth. As recent research has established, the share of wealth captured by the top one-tenth of 1 percent (0.1 percent) of the population in 2010 had reached the same levels as just before the Great Depression—a retreat to the state of affairs almost a century ago, erasing the gains made in the decades since. By 2010, white, working-class males experienced a decline in average life expectancy—something not witnessed in this segment of the population in more than 100 years.
The labor force absorbed all this. Workers took the wage stagnation and explosion in wealth inequality, the decline in work conditions, and everything that accompanied it. They continued to soldier through it even when labor markets tightened. Not only was there no countermovement from labor unions—or the working class more broadly—to the employer offensive, but the disruption of industry by labor continued its decline to historic lows. Workers seemed to have appreciated Thatcher’s “There is no alternative” dictum—they understood that having a job, however miserable, was better than no job at all. In a climate of generalized insecurity and atomization, they were unwilling to hazard their employer’s disapproval, even when a tight labor market reduced the risk. This was labor exchange stripped down to Marx’s “dull compulsion of economic relations.”
But any system whose normative foundation is resignation, rather than consent, faces certain limits. For years, workers accepted the deal they were given, because they didn’t see any other option. On the surface, there appeared to be no great dissatisfaction. But what was, in fact, happening was a slow and quite deep erosion of support for mainstream institutions. Academic specialists had some inkling of this, as opinion polls showed a steady decline in the relevant indicators. But there was no political explosion, no mass upheaval or Polanyian “Second Movement” in reaction to steadily worsening conditions, no societal response to, or rebellion against, market fundamentalism. The more common response was, instead, to turn inward—to give up on political participation and civic association, to hunker down and try to hold on as best as possible. It showed up in declining voter turnout across the capitalist world, erosion of party identification, a withering of civic institutions—the “bowling alone” phenomenon—and sundry other manifestations of ennui and cynicism. But because it was a slow accretion of discontent, expressed individually and aggregated only as a statistical phenomenon, it could go unnoticed and hence was ignored.
Only in the very recent past, perhaps since the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement, has there been a significant public manifestation of dissatisfaction with the status quo. But the speed with which it has overtaken political culture is quite dramatic. Across the advanced industrial world, large swathes of the public, especially among the working class, have rejected the mainstream political and economic institutions. This is, of course, a continuation of the trend that was set during the neoliberal era. But the form has changed from passive to active—from opting out of public engagement to varied and uneven support for new political agencies. In the main, this has been an electoral defection, wherein the rapidly hollowing center is giving way to political forces that had been either marginal or nonexistent until recently. So declining support for the status quo has lifted the fortunes of electoral rivals that had once seemed confined to the wilderness.
On balance, the turn of events thus far has mostly benefited the far right. Since the 1990s, as the political mainstream has lost working-class support, that support has dramatically moved to an emergent cluster of parties and organizations wedded to xenophobic and racist political platforms. But alongside that, building in momentum, there has also been, for the first time in several decades, a noticeable uptick in strike activity in the United States and, to a lesser extent, in Europe. And even while teachers’ strikes in several states received the most press, over the decade as a whole, private-economy stoppages led the charge by a considerable margin over the public sector. By historical standards, strike activity is still minuscule. It doesn’t even match the levels of the 1980s, when the labor movement was in full retreat. But this is the first sign of its revival in almost four decades. Further, it is buoyed by an unmistakable cultural shift, in which a general social mobilization, both within organized politics and without, is occurring against the massive and growing inequities between the rich and the poor.
This is an unmistakable sign that the sense of helplessness within the laboring population is waning. The widely felt outrage, the mainstream’s loss of legitimacy, the uptick in strike activity—all this portends a reversal of the trends of the past half century. It is tempting to wonder if the momentum of recent events could ignite a process of class formation, reminiscent of the era a century ago. The idea is no doubt premature, for the scale of organizing involved would be so massive that the actual bursts of activity witnessed thus far seem minuscule, even trivial. But two things make this moment feel different than anything we have seen in the recent past. First, it is multidimensional in scope, covering economic, cultural, and political aspects and not just confined to one of them. Second, it is international in scale, with the mobilizations against neoliberal economic models having gained traction in virtually every continent and most of the industrial world. While it is certainly too early to announce a new wave of working-class formation, it would be folly to ignore the global turn against the neoliberal model.
The Class Matrix Today
Even if the impulse to reassemble the labor movement intensifies, the terrain on which it will unfold has shifted significantly from the 1900s. To begin, there has been a profound shift in the occupational structure—from one that was industrializing in the 1920s to one that is deindustrializing in the 2020s. The advanced capitalist world began to shift away from industry toward services by the 1960s, and the pace of that transition was quite rapid by the century’s end. This broad transformation of the occupational structure was accompanied by a slowdown in the pace of growth as well—so that the turn toward services went hand in hand with a slowdown in employment growth. Finally, the slower-growing, deindustrializing capitalism also shifted to smaller and more decentralized establishments, as opposed to the classic large manufacturing plants of the interwar years. The shift toward services also took root in the Global South—a phenomenon that economists have dubbed “early deindustrialization.” Instead of industry sucking peasants out of agriculture into stable urban employment, laborers are swelling the ranks of the semi-employed or those in ramshackle informal jobs that barely provide a living wage.
A slow-growth, small-workplace, service-based economy provides entirely new challenges than did the older, classically manufacturing one, for obvious reasons. The economies of scale that large venues afforded to organizers are now harder to secure; instead of reaching thousands of employees at one go, they must now bring them together a few dozen or a few hundred at a time, one establishment at a time. Further, the reliance on outsourcing has meant that the venues are smaller, and the officers managing the firms have little control over investment and workplace decisions, which often remain under the control of firms higher up in the value chain, against whom organizers may not have any direct leverage. In many cases, it isn’t even clear to whom the organizers can direct their demands. Finally, downsizing and slower growth have led to much less job security—what is commonly called “precariousness”—which has revived the fear typical of Victorian-era employment, in which workers are far more cautious about making any demands on their employers.
These conditions are now very widespread in the advanced world. But the fact of early deindustrialization in the South means they are also truly global in scope. The decline of propitious conditions for class formation in the advanced world won’t be balanced out by their shift into the developing countries. One might have supposed that rapid industrialization in the Global South might, if nothing else, shift the locus of class formation to the South—thus sustaining an impulse for labor’s reemergence in the global economy, even if displaced into new zones.
The changes are not confined to the class structure. Added to them are some very significant institutional changes compared to a century ago. At the turn of the previous century, the working class was still politically excluded on top of being economically exploited, and the former reinforced the sense of injustice generated by the latter. But by mid-century, workers across the developed world were fully vested citizens. The greater scope for inclusion in the political system was very ably utilized by them in pursuit of their interests—but they did so through organizations built up during the earlier era of political disenfranchisement. The challenge today is to build similar organizations once again but in a context where the sense of political exclusion is not felt to anywhere near the same extent. To be sure, significant numbers of working adults have disengaged from the system due to a sense of futility in the face of elite dominance, but opting out isn’t the same as facing a legal bar. The latter fueled a sense of outrage and common purpose. The former promotes individual resignation.
So, too, with another institutional fact that fueled class identification—the residential patterns of urban centers. The physical layout of large industrial centers pushed workers together into crowded spaces, while separating them from their employers. But by the 1960s, this was no longer the case. In a landmark 1987 essay, Eric Hobsbawm articulated what has become a sort of common sense among labor historians: that the flight of industry from urban centers, followed by the migration of securely employed working-class families to the suburbs, had a profound effect on class identities. Whereas, in earlier decades, the residential clusters and tenements surrounding the giant manufacturing hubs had tended to reinforce the sense of common status forged at work, this was no longer the case by mid-century. As employment itself became dispersed and housing radiated outward and beyond city boundaries, work life and social life became ever further separated. As Hobsbawm noted, “urban development, public and private, was destroying the very bases which had allowed the formation of [the] ‘urban villages’ on which so much of labour strength had rested. . . . The effect of all this on labour movements in the great city [was] to deprive them of their former cohesion.”
If we consider these two factors together, the contrast with conditions a century ago is stark. Workers’ electoral status and social conditions once worked in tandem with the class structure to push workers toward a common identity, but this is no longer the case; now, the same dimensions of working-class life have the opposite effect—they reinforce the atomizing aspects of the class structure, pulling workers apart instead of pushing them together and, hence, deepening the inclination toward individualistic resistance. Whereas the social and political conditions then partially solved workers’ collective-action problems, today they tend to strengthen the constraints.
The point here is not that the obstacles to class formation have become insuperable. It is rather that the ground under labor’s feet has shifted in new and unforeseen ways. Conditions that enabled organizing techniques to function in the past don’t work today, or if they do, it is alongside quite novel developments that pose new challenges. Therefore, strategies of organizing that were effective in the past can’t be assumed to work today. While the events of the past few years provide ample evidence for working-class disaffection from the status quo and a corresponding motivation to seek new avenues for representation in the political economy, translating this motivation into collective action will require tactical innovation.
Once again, the burden of class formation falls squarely and asymmetrically on the shoulders of labor. Workers cannot simply return to the old script, but there is also no new script ready and available. Writing it, composing its architecture and form, falls entirely on them. And it does so asymmetrically, because the employer class has no corresponding burden on its shoulders. There is no need for employers to forge organizations to defend or advance their class interests, because the class structure continues to do it for them. As long as their employees continue to show up for work every day, as long as the profitability of their enterprises is sustained—as long as the basic elements of the system grind along on a daily basis—their basic material interests are advanced correspondingly. It doesn’t require political organizing. Their energies, therefore, can be directed at simply breaking up the organizing efforts of their employees, thus piling more layers of constraints on the ones spontaneously thrown up by the class structure itself.
So far, labor has not been able to solve the puzzle of class organizing in this new setting. The best its organizations have been able to do is to tread water or slow down the rate of decline. To the extent that members of the working class have expressed their discontent, they have done so with the means available to them, and the only such means universally available at present is the ballot box. No wonder, then, that the discontent has tended to be electoral in form and that the explosion has been populist in content, whether on the left or right. The new populist wave of the past decade is the new face of working-class rebellion today. Whether it evolves into something more substantial will depend on labor’s ability to solve the puzzle of class organizing in the new setting.
What makes it especially challenging in the current conditions is that the political vehicles committed to solving the organizational puzzle in the previous era are also missing today—the parties, syndicates, radical unions, mass organizations of the left, and so forth that were the catalyst behind class formation. Labor organizations were built by layers of dedicated organizers embedded in communities and workplaces. Today, insofar as there is a left in the core economies of the advanced industrial world, it is largely divorced from the working class. It is housed mainly in professional settings like university campuses and nonprofit organizations, not in the neighborhoods and productive establishments where labor confronts capital. Even electorally, as Thomas Piketty has very persuasively shown, the social-democratic parties in the West no longer look to the working class as their base and are far more reliant on the professional, college-educated strata. Hence, whereas there was once a natural and organic relationship between the self-styled “left” and the working class, this is no longer the case.
Undoubtedly, the very change in structural conditions is at least partially responsible for the absence of a labor left of the kind that grew so rapidly a century ago. The fine-grained causal links aren’t well-understood. But it seems plausible to imagine that the culture of resistance fostered by the structural and institutional setting in the early 20th century also fostered the political organizations that gave it shape and direction. This culture of resistance not only allowed for the coalescence of worker-militants in the neighborhoods, workplaces, and clubs of the growing urban manufacturing centers. It also attracted members of the middle class—radicals, students, and intellectuals—who were inspired by the ideals expressed by the growing labor organizations. These people in turn provided a link that connected the working class to progressive sections of the intermediate economic strata. Yet as the structural conditions changed, and workers opted for more individualized forms of resistance, the elements that had produced the earlier layer of militants and labor organizers drifted away. And as the density of labor organizers was reduced, the traditional vehicle for collective action became increasingly scarce—thereby reinforcing the spontaneous tendency to play it safe and resist individually.
The class matrix today constrains and shapes the political terrain much as it did a century ago—but in ways that differ substantially from that earlier period. Across much of the intellectual world, there is a growing consensus that the decline of labor organizations is one of the key factors behind the obscene concentration of wealth and income and stagnant standards of living among the vast majority. So, too, there is a recognition that if there is to be a recovery of anything like the improvements witnessed in the postwar era, a revival of working-class institutions will play an indispensable role in it. It is on the question of how those institutions might be revived that we find a great deal of puzzlement. There is no reason to assume the strategies and organizational vehicles that were effective a century ago can simply be revived and redeployed in the world that labor currently inhabits.
Whatever the new strategies and institutions, they will only be discovered by closely examining the actual constraints that labor faces and then mapping out a sustainable path to navigating them. That is just the first step. Then comes the arduous task of attracting the multitudes of laboring families to the agenda, harnessing their energies to it, and sustaining the organizations over time as they advocate for their interests. One small but essential step toward this is to revive and deepen the tradition of political economic analysis that earlier partisans of labor took for granted—the conviction that capitalism is a system resting on a class structure; that the structure imposes real constraints on social actors; that those constraints are facts of life, not symbolic constructions; and that political contestation is fundamentally about harnessing political interests to political objectives. If that tradition of analysis is indeed essential to reviving progressive movements, social theory will have to find a way back from the excesses of the cultural turn.