(photograph by Sebastião Salgado)
1650s (n.) “member of the lowest class;” 1660s (adj.) “of the lowest class of people;”; with – iant + Latin proletarius “citizen of the lowest class” (as an adjective, “relating to offspring), in Ancient Rome, propertyless people, exempted from paying taxes and military service, who served the state only by having children; from proles “offspring, progeny”.
Where, then, is the positive possibility of a German emancipation?
Answer: In the formulation of a class with radical chains, a class of civil society which is not a class of civil society, an estate which is the dissolution of all estates, a sphere which has a universal character by its universal suffering and claims no particular right because no particular wrong, but wrong generally, is perpetuated against it; which can invoke no historical, but only human, title; which does not stand in any one-sided antithesis to the consequences but in all-round antithesis to the premises of German statehood; a sphere, finally, which cannot emancipate itself without emancipating itself from all other spheres of society and thereby emancipating all other spheres of society, which, in a word, is the complete loss of man and hence can win itself only through the complete re-winning of man. This dissolution of society as a particular estate is the proletariat.
Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right
Much has been said of the death of the working class. And if by this notion one is to understand modern industrial labourers as the self-conscious and socially determined bearers of a future post-capitalist or communist society, then there is no reason to declare its death, for it never existed. Workers there were and are, but nothing has ever rendered them the inevitable agent of capitalism’s destruction. Nothing, in other words, marks them intrinsically as the anti-capitalist revolutionary subject.
Does it still then continue to make sense to speak of the working class, of the proletariat, in this sense? Is the proletariat even to be identified with the working class? And is the proletariat capitalism’s grave digger, without which we are condemned to its violence? In sum, is there anything resembling a proletarian (or any) revolutionary subject? Indeed, what remains of the very concept of revolution?
The essay below, in translation, was published with the french media collective paris-luttes.info and is intended to open a debate. Whatever differences we may have with the theses herein presented, the text is valuable, both for what it says, and perhaps for what it leaves unsaid.
One paradoxical idea that whispers below the surface is that the proletariat is both the victim of capitalism and its necessarily assimilated foundation. Revolution then must be made both against capital and the capitalist self within. Which is to say that the proletariat is both enemy and friend of capital, or stated different, that there is no longer any outside to capitalism, or again, that we are all, in our lives (existentially, if one wishes) and to varying degrees, capitalists, while being proletarians.
We are capitalists not in being materially wealthy, nor in being the owners of the means of production, but in having been increasingly transformed into indistinguishable workers-debtors-consumers (varying only to the depth to which that can assume these identities) essential to the production and reproduction of capitalist social relations. Beyond this global, anonymous petite-bourgeoisie are the vestiges of pre-capitalist social forms, increasingly besieged by capital, and the many forgotten and discarded, below them, and the capitalists themselves who are proportionately fewer and fewer in number (though also richer), but who are also not immune to superfluousness before the reign of commodity-spectacles, above them.
But then if most of us are both proletarians and capitalists, does not revolution, or anti-capitalism, lie in the refusal of both, in the preference to be neither?After the summer, the new year raised a number of concerns in relation to the convergence of struggles and the constitution of a unified front. The proposal that follows defends the idea that what is missing in the social movement is, first of all, a revolutionary subject; let us dare to say the word: a proletariat. But can we only speak of a proletariat today?
Is a contemporary proletariat possible?
The diffuse multiplication of dates for demonstration and protest is due not only to the absence – voluntary or not – of communication between the different organisations in struggle against the prescriptions of their world. It is even more the definition of a revolutionary subject that is missing. We lack, to say it clearly, a “proletariat”.
What is the proletariat?
The proletariat is the revolutionary subject seeking to emancipate itself. It is not a matter, as pretend the habitual critics of a dust covered communism, of metalworkers, the absence of which does not cease to increase before the evolution of the work world. The organisations which claim both communism and this proletarian conception have their place in a museum, at best.
The proletariat is the subject of its own emancipation.
The motto of the first International Workingmen’s Association translated the pronomial character of the emancipation: “That the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.” We affirm that, as with the process of emancipation, the definition of the proletariat falls exclusively to the proletariat. It is for the labour unions, political organisations and other spokespersons of the workers to carry out their self-criticism: the proletarian needs space to define itself. This stage of the revolutionary process must be renewed regularly, if not constantly, because emancipation is never fully realised, but is always something becoming.
The proletarian subject is deprived-of-a-world.
What according to us constitutes the originality of the proletariat is the privation of a world to which its (political, economic and social) position constrains it. What we understand by “deprived-of-a-world” is nothing but the privation of the relation between the proletarians and their world. Proletarians are those who, coming from the peasant world, lost their ties to the land. Proletarians are also those who work in a factory or in a company without being able to fully profit from the fruits of their labour. Proletarians are those youth deprived of studies or forced to work on the side to “buy for themselves a future”. Proletarians are those who just barely survive, in the biological sense of the term, on their pensions. Proletarians are those who suffer the drudgery of work. Proletarians are those who must choose between health and life, who come home everyday “with their fingers eaten by acids and their lungs barely working”, to cite Ferré.
The proletariat however exceeds the framework of labour: all of the many kinds of institutional violence have their victims, and these victims are proletarians. It is absolutely impossible to think the proletariat without thinking of the victims of the multiple oppressions that structure the capitalist and hierarchical models, whether these persons are victims because of their ethnic origins or by the choice of their gender. If we choose to emphasise these proletarians in a separate paragraph, it is because their integration in the framework of labour is not an argument to relegate their identity struggles. In effect, racist, sexist and transphobic oppression, to cite but these, are not secondary struggles, less important than the economic struggle.
The proletariat is the subject of its own emancipation. S/he cease to be proletarian who lives by hindering the emancipation of the proletariat. Accordingly, if the forces of order share proletarian features, their place in society makes of them direct adversaries of the proletariat. The police, as with other repressive institutions, is not a part of the proletariat. Police agencies are tools of domination of the proletariat, and they must be fought to the point of their destruction. As for the forces of order, they must be struggled against also, but with the objective of having them abandon their repressive function. It is not therefore a matter of taking life, but of making them change their life.
The proletariat contributes to the wealth of the world but without benefiting from it. It is the pain that Capital aims to hide, disguise, or at least soften. The proletariat is deprived of a world, integrated in the world of work, plunged into the world of fascistic consumption, and deprived of the world of freedom and joy. The happiness of the proletariat stinks of fragility and insecurity; it is illusory but addictive, insufficient but impassable; it is completely empty, but this emptiness is the only breath of air conceded to the proletariat. This last is in reality very close to what is now called the “precariat”.
Resilience of the proletariat
It has to be said that the emancipation of the proletariat only interests a small minority of this proletariat. Worse: how many proletarians have found refuge in the nationalist and xenophobic discourses of the right and the extreme right? Our incapacity to redefine the proletariat, to spread this definition and to invite the ensemble of the proletariat to join the process of defining the revolutionary subject: this is the principal cause of our failure. It is a difficult labour that we have to undertake to extirpate the many failings that s/he was able to interiorise. This labour of deconstruction, which many comrades carry out everyday while painfully lacking any support, is the first battle to engage. It constitutes the first necessary condition for the realisation of the revolutionary project of proletarian definition and emancipation.
The second problem that must be posed is that of consumption. We will not here reproduce the situationist discourse, to which we attach a great interest. We refer rather to a historical analysis of an event that appears without connection to the subject: the management of the revolt of Sepoy troops in India. In 1857, Sepoy troops rebel against the British, almost freeing India of their presence. What is the reaction of the British? The colonial army is restructured: from then on, it must no longer have the capacity to dispute metropolitan authority. The colonial forces become supplementary forces, badly equipped. The army is no longer a vector of power, but of assimilation, adaptation to the reigning order and to the dominant system of authority. The colonial army, presented as the incarnation of the values of those who dominate, is marked by submission to colonial authority, but never by equality with the colonisers.
The proletarian-consumers are the supplementary forces of capitalism. Their capacity of resilience is constantly undermined. Its capacity to consume, presented as a vector of happiness, and, in one sense, of power, is in reality a vector of assimilation. Integrated into the world of work, plunged into that of consumption, the proletarians embody the capitalist system and its values. Our second battle is therefore against ourselves: we have to endeavour to kill our capitalist self. To succeed, we have to base ourselves on something. We have identified that thing as communism.
What is communism?
Communism is above all a life, a way of life that differs from the capitalist model. This mode of life is necessarily accompanied by economic and social systems different from those dictated by capitalism. In communism, social relations are not commodities, their use value prevails over exchange value, solidarity wins out over unbridled competition, hierarchy no longer has a reason for being, avarice gives way to sharing, scarcity is overcome by abundance, the dialectical paradigm of the domination of nature gives way to a social ecology, oppression linked to gender and ethinic origins are eradicated, the economy loses its rights over life, the necessary conditions of life become inalienable rights, private property retreats before making common, etc.
If there are as many communisms as there are communists, it is undoubtedly because communism is fundamentally emotional and human. It is not made to be a monolith, a homogeneous concept. There is not one way to think communism. And yet communism is possible. It is possible because, if it doesn’t rest upon a group unity, it can rest upon a unity of groups.