Nobody talks about the “proletariat” these days. The word has disappeared, just like “working class” or even “worker.” There is no “workers’ movement” anymore, no labor parties, the trade unions no longer fight. It is widely believed that the the “proletariat” existed only in history, in Manchester capitalism. In those days, the workers were class conscious: they understood that they not only had to work for their living costs, but they also had to fight for them.
Supposedly, this means that the proletariat belongs to the past and, with the removal of the word, bourgeois society has overcome this contradiction; the resistance resulting from class conflict was pacified within capitalist society. The best example of this “progress” by bourgeois society is a previous winner of the class struggle: the trade unions. Today they no longer want to hear about “class struggle,” “wage conflicts” or “strikes” – or any fights at all. They represent themselves as a business service. The goal of Social Democracy was for the proletarians to attain the status of citizens by securing their national rights; it is tremendously proud of this achievement. Since achieving its goal, it can conceive of nothing better than the current capitalism.
In the social sciences, it is also passe to talk about the “proletariat.” There are several trends:
- The class term originates in industrial society, but in the present it would designate too large or too small a social layer to apply to a single class unit. This argument is about as reasonable as stating that apples and pears do not fall under the category of fruit because they are different.
- The working class experiences only one form of discrimination among many (like discrimination against women, foreigners, the uneducated, etc.).
- The term might have been meaningful in previous times, but affiliation with the working class did not prove important for the formation of community. Therefore there can also be no objective common position. This point of view shows that the proletariat was of interest to social science only insofar as it was a problem for bourgeois society. If it does not represent a problem, then there is also no need to be concerned with it. However, everybody knows that poverty exists and is not desirable. In school it is known that factory work is to be avoided later in life if possible. Now the wage laborers are called by other names: as “the little guys” or “the man on the street.” As such (and not as proletarians!) they are a major reference point for democratic politicians. “The little guy” is dissatisfied with his existence, but holds to his role with an iron grip. This means that he is not in opposition to his boss, but to all possible scapegoats who do not do their duties properly.
Then there is also the “socially disadvantaged”: those in need who cannot meet their living expenses. (By the way, this danger threatens nearly everybody.) It is concluded that the state must concern itself with them; and if it does, then the problem is already settled. Some of the “socially disadvantaged” finally give up hope of ever finding a job. Of them, the designation “prole” pops up every now and then as an insult word – with the objective circumstances fading from view, it turns from an objective class designation into a moral reproach.
However, only consciousness of the problem has disappeared with the disappearance of the term, but not the problem itself. The democratic state can define a “proletariat” quite well in practice – certainly without a theory behind it. For example, by setting social security payments by income it recognizes that humans with a smaller income have actually too little money to insure themselves. They must be forced to do this as a precaution, while this happens automatically for those who own assets.
In order to understand how it came to this, it is enlightening to take a look at the situation of workers back in the times of Manchester capitalism – but without losing the commonalities with the current situation. They had to offer their labor as factory hands, but could not live on their wages. It was (is) not only because there was (is) never enough wages paid, which was (is) shown by their low amount, but in that wages also always threatened(s) to disappear when there was (is) a lack of demand for labor or if one was (is) in an accident, gets ill, etc. Since the workers could not live on wages, they led fights against the factory masters. The state opposed them with repression. This led to the correct understanding that the state must also then be fought. However, they made the error that they criticized the state only because it was the state of the “factory magnates and financiers,” in relation to which they were without rights. Therefore they fought not against the state as a repressive force, but for its impartiality: the working class should be recognized as honorable and worthy of protection and the state should be accessible to proletarians too and thus made impartial. When Marx attacked this long-term “holy column” of the workers’ movement in the Critique of the Gotha Program, he was already in the minority.
This call for democracy was gradually fulfilled; in some places, such as Germany, representatives of the working class even fulfilled the long-held dream of becoming a majority in parliament. By orienting towards the government, they had to take part in the competition over the best state program and thus also recognize the hostile interest of the factory masters. Because of this orientation by the working class towards the “public interest,” the interest of the possessing class – although in democratic theory the minority – became the strongest socially. Finally, their interest was objectively recognized (“in order for there to be higher wages the economy must flourish,” etc.), instead of assumed to exist only due to the balance of power. The distress was not repaired, but only the distress as a social problem.
So that the workers (class) could exist – i.e. in the interest of their functioning – the state set limits to their exploitation. These can be dealt with, however, with sufficient money: e.g. overtime bonuses, compensations, danger bonuses, etc. Marx criticized it as extremely characteristic of this mode of production that even these minimal protections still had to be fought for. The fight for rights was thus successful; this did not, however, put in perspective the dependence of the workers on the sale of labor. Insisting on rights is unfavorable all around. This is also said by business management schools, by the way, in their cynicism, when they define a protection as a discrimination against the group protected by it on the labor market; e.g. maternity leave = lower wages, protection against layoffs because of age = no more employment … If the workers hurt their rights by this circumstance, they cannot be meaningful protections.
The state proves the working class’s inability to survive in principle in its own actions. It forces the lower income brackets, by social insurance obligations, to protect themselves with their own wages against the risk of one day no longer being in a condition to feed themselves from the sale of their own labor. In the social insurances, a state-forced redistribution takes place not between the classes, but within the working class. With the social insurance system, financed by the total wage of the class, the state ensures on the one hand that the wage is a means of livelihood, but on the other hand provides by this compulsory solidarity for a generalization of scarcity. This ensures new lines of conflict in which – in contrast to “wage laborers issues”! – “exploitation” is talked about: “the old persons cost the young ones too much,” etc. So looks the material side of political emancipation …
Something similar can be said about the trade unions. They are no longer illegal, a fact which is highly regarded by them. Since they may fight, however, it does not bother them any longer that they must fight, and they want to do this less and less. This is structurally demonstrated in their history. Because they fought for wages as a means for living costs instead of against the hostile wage system, a lack of consequence and strength inevitably set in. In the end, someone who wants more wages may not spoil the business of the opposite side – otherwise no more wages could be paid. The trade unions fight for a compromise, while the entrepreneurs fight for their interest (they do not orient their offers towards what is needed by the workers). Examples here are campaigns against “super profits,” “unnecessary exploitation,” “entrepreneurial arbitrariness,” etc., i.e. for limits to “excesses.” Then they defend “regulated” and “normal” capitalism against “exaggerated demands” from their own ranks, or fire communists. In the end, they must consider what is “necessary” for the entrepreneurs. By this relating of the interest of the hired hands to national success – and thus the interest of the entrepreneurs – the trade unions are also permanently in the dilemma that the achievement of the conditions for the possibility of fighting is threatened by the elimination of jobs and thus by what they can never really extricate themselves from.
The proletarian’s political emancipation was accompanied by his total administration and regulation, differentiating between “pious hopes” on the one hand and “entitlements” which are based on a legal situation on the other. Every demand is submitted to this examination for its authorization. Instead of implementing one’s own demands with a fight, one strives for permission from the responsible institutions.
Since the working class is perfectly integrated, the proletariat becomes the freely manageable means of competition for state and capital; it is at the disposal of the state for its respective needs. By means of the location competition in “globalization,” the working class must prove their results (i.e. the relationship of productivity to wages) are cheaper than those available in other states. Since it is perfectly integrated, the measures that served for their integration are gradually diminished again in the course of this process.
The statement that the workers have a high standard of living can be refuted. Clearly today they can afford certain consumer goods (e.g. car, refrigerator, television) – but this is, however, under the higher productivity of the 21st century. Out of these conditions others follow than was the case in the 19th century. The mentioned consumer goods are, under these conditions, no longer luxuries, but necessities for working with the higher level of productivity: a car for flexibility, a refrigerator because the supply of food must be adapted to work times, a television for recuperation, etc. Since the prices for these products are also fully paid for by the workers and must remain profitable for the businesses that produce them, the products become cheaper to produce. This takes place in capitalistic competition only through the lowering of the wage portion of the value of the product – either by longer and/or harder work for the same wages and/or by replacing the workers by machines, which forces a higher work intensity upon the remaining workers. The working class’s exploitation is increased; instead of becoming prosperous, they become poorer, i.e. they get a smaller portion of the products produced by them (as social wealth).
If the working class continues to let itself be useful, then it will probably get ever worse for them. However, it is meaningless to make grand prognoses; the analysis should point to the imperative for action. Objectively, feelings of discontent have not been eliminated. The workers just have wrong explanations and argue for their rights (“that should be forbidden”) and thus appeal to the state. This results from incorrect ideas about their source of income (wage labor). We aim to reorient their criticism.
Available English translations from Das Proletariat: