[Marxism] "Industrial workers" (was Re: Richard Estes on...)

DCQ davecq at yahoo.com
Mon Apr 1 12:30:06 MDT 2013

Warning: more undigested thoughts ahead.

On Apr 1, 2013, at 9:55 AM, Louis Proyect <lnp3 at panix.com> wrote:

> I don't know about "forever" but I have been a Marxist since 1967 and have not seen the American working class acting as a powerful instrument of social and political change in the way it did in the 1930s and during the Debs era.
> So we are talking about a 46 year period, at least from my perspective. If the contradictions of capitalism are deepening, how does one explain the fact that not a single socialist group has attracted significant numbers of industrial workers?

Also, from a previous post:
> The sad truth is that the American working class does not think or act in class terms. The trade unions are becoming weaker and weaker, and those that exist have leaderships that are solidly pro-Obama.

What are these "industrial workers" of which you speak?

The romantic (and, to my mind, un-Marxist) image many Marxists have of "industrial" workers needs to be buried ASAP. Industrial workers (by which some people seem to mean those involved directly in the large-scale manufacture of tangible products, though the term is not always so well-defined, and often seems to mean workers who get their hands dirty or those who seem to *act* or at least *look* like a stereotype of industrial workers) were never a majority of the class. The most radical strike of the 30s (the Minneapolis General Strike) was led by service workers who worked in the equivalent of mobile cubicles. 

Union organizers used to focus on "industrial workers" because, due to a few contingent factors, these workers were essentially easier to organize (lived in cities, in high concentrations of other similar workers, all doing similar jobs, often multicultural/high concentrations of immigrants, low wages, no benefits, competing businesses in the same locality, etc., etc.). (NB: not *easy* but *easier*--I also think we vastly underestimate how miserably difficult it was to organize back then and how creative and talented those organizers *must have been*.) The fact that union organizers were often also socialists of one stripe or another (this was when organizing a union was largely illegal and hence "revolutionary") meant that these things tended to blend into one another. But there was, I propose, nothing *essentially* more important about industrial workers as industrial workers than other types of workers.

Today, the US ruling class has largely figured out how to negate those contingent factors. The placement of factories, internally and externally, is something the bosses put an incredible amount of thought into. The deliberate ruralization of large-scale factories is not an accident. A Kia factory opened in Georgia a few years ago 100 miles outside Atlanta. Why so far outside the main city, especially when there was a prime location just vacated by GM? Why in this po-dunk town of 3,000, when they required at least 3,000 workers? A Forbes reporter highlighted a workforce that was "highly motivated," "highly trainable," and "eager to learn the 'Kia Way.'" Of course, this will transform the town in time. It already has. But you just have to look a few miles north to the shuttered Saturn plant in Spring Hill, TN to get a clue what is in store for West Point, GA as soon as the plant has been depreciated, the machinery has aged, and the tax-subsidies have expired. In the meantime, Kia doles out patronage like an emperor to local schools and charities and parks (a small fraction of what it would have paid in taxes without the collusion of local, state, and federal politicians), for which the local residents are "grateful." Meanwhile, no other major corporation will build any plant within 100 miles of Kia. Why would they when they can easily find some other po-dunk town next to a highway with its own little pond of desperation to act savior to?

My point isn't to be depressing.

My point is that if we are looking to "industrial workers" to play the role they did 80 years ago, then we will be disappointed because capital has figured out a way to reduce and/or negate those contingent factors which made industrial workers so potent a force back then. We are looking for a ghost.

On the other hand, modern cities *are* filled with workers. Workers who are both more atomized and more collectivized and connected to each other than at any point in human history. Workers who have absolutely no tradition of militancy or self-organization or even self-identity. They do not see themselves as a class. How could they when the entire ideological apparatus of the ruling class is dedicated to convincing them that they are individuals who are alone responsible for their situation...and they have no experience otherwise?

That is why I think Occupy (and indeed every popular upsurge) is important. Because it gives us the material basis for us, the modern working class, to begin to wrestle ("with sober senses?") with its actual conditions, so that it *can* begin to act like a class.

To complain that American workers or workers in general are not acting in their own interests *as a class* is to be ridiculous. When workers do act in their own interests as a class, there will be a revolution. In fact, a revolutionary crisis will erupt when far less than a majority of the working class begins acting in its own interests as a class. 

All for now. 


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