Is Marxism just about factory workers?

This article is part of Fightback’s “What is Capitalism” series, to be collected in an upcoming magazine issue. To support our work, consider subscribing to our e-publication ($20 annually) or magazine ($60 annually). You can subscribe with PayPal or credit card here.

In short: no. Or, it shouldn’t be.

A Marxist analysis of capitalism highlights who owns the means of production: farms, factories and so on. Most people in capitalist society do not own factories. That includes the unemployed, white collar, blue collar, pink collar, public-sector workers, students, caregivers, most self-employed people,1 and peasants – although there aren’t many peasants around these days. Workers are those compelled to sell their labour to live, whether they currently do so or not.

Although most people share a common dispossession, we also have diverse experiences, and distinct social positions. Caregivers may do essential work, but it’s distinct in purpose and experience from factory work. Tithi Bhattarachaya outlines this relationship:

If workers’ labor produces all the wealth in society, who then produces the worker? Put another way: What kinds of processes enable the worker to arrive at the doors of her place of work every day so that she can produce the wealth of society? What role did breakfast play in her work-readiness? What about a good night’s sleep?2

These basic needs are often met or assisted by unpaid, or underpaid caregivers. Marxist feminists have focused on this work, often performed by women, terming it social reproduction. Caregiving work reproduces not just the person, but the whole social system (you can’t have capitalism without workers, workers without food, food without a cook – often cooking free of charge). While recent socio-economic shifts may have undermined the ‘traditional’ nuclear family, Time Use Surveys show that women still perform most unpaid work.

Various forms of wage labour, other than factory work, are also clearly necessary to capitalism. Sales, banking, translation, and various other jobs lubricate a complex social system. Capitalists would not pay workers if they were unnecessary. Public-sector workers maintain the state and social services, stabilising the social system (for better or worse).

Unemployed people are the most dispossessed, of course. Despite regular propaganda to the contrary, unemployment is a structural failing rather than a personal one. As a socialist friend of mine put it, did everyone just suddenly get lazier in the 1980s, when unemployment rose? In Alister Barry’s documentary In a Land of Plenty, Susan Snivelly, a member of the Reserve Bank Board of Directors during the crucial reform period of 1985-1992 states:

It was a manageable thing for the Reserve Bank to use unemployment as the way to get wages down. It was far easier than any other means of getting inflation down. So they used it.

Even though insiders admit that unemployment is a structural rather than personal matter, unemployed people face routine abuse and humiliation, from national television to WINZ offices. Auckland Action Against Poverty has blazed a trail in challenging this bullshit, supported financially by FIRST Union: the union movement as a whole must do more to connect the struggles of employed and unemployed workers.

Marx focuses on industrial workers not because they are somehow better than others, more heroic, or more oppressed. Rather, he focuses on industrial workers because they directly produce commodities, the fundamental basis of the profit system. Industrial workers are not the only people oppressed by capitalism, but they pump the heart of the machine. You couldn’t have finance without ore, sheepskin or steel; you could have these things without finance.

Direct disruption of industry interrupts capitalism in a way that other tactics do not – such as voting, or rallies at parliament. This is not to deny we should use other tactics, but to recognise their limitations. Collective, direct action can be powerful and liberating in a way that more symbolic, or isolated actions are not. If workers keep the heart of capitalism pumping, they can also stop the blood-flow. Classical Marxists therefore focus on the strike, the withdrawal of labour at the point of production.

Restructuring of the global economic system has also restructured these points of resistance. Now 10s of 1,000s of factory workers strike in China, whereas factories have largely retreated in relatively prosperous nations such as Australia and Aotearoa.

Yet global restructuring has also opened up new sites of struggle in the ‘deindustrialised’ nations. Although strikes are rare nowadays, and only around 10% of the private sector are unionised, workplace organisation is growing in unexpected areas. As the service sector has grown, it has also become increasingly militant, with fast food workers carrying out strike actions from Aotearoa to the USA. For decades union leaders saw fast food workers as impossible to organise.

In Aotearoa, most union members are now women,3 in contrast to the stereotype of the male breadwinner. The recent nurses’ struggle in Aotearoa, or the teachers’ strikes in the USA, both powerful struggles showing deep community roots, demonstrate a shift in the union movement towards feminised industries: care, service and public-sector work.

Meanwhile, the so-called ‘logistics revolution’ – a move towards automated, rapid global circulation of goods – has opened up ‘chokepoints’ where circulation can be disrupted: “the containerization of bulk goods now allows a single dockworker to do what it took an army to accomplish in the past.”4 In automated ports, a small amount of people enable a large amount of goods to circulate. Ports remain strongly unionised, so blockades remain very disruptive.

Blockades may be led by workers, or by the wider community – but they are strengthened if community groups form links with unions. In the USA, blockades led by Occupy Oakland and the BDS movement have shut down ports, with the support of striking port workers. In Aotearoa, strikes against nuclear shipping played a role in winning the nuclear free policy. As these cases demonstrate, strikes need not be limited to the fight for better wages: they are also a tool in the wider transformation of society.

We cannot and should not return to the age of the Western male breadwinner. However, union and workplace organisation remains a key to broader liberation struggles. If you’re working, join your union! In the likely event your worksite is not unionised, you can find your union online:

  • Aotearoa: union.org.nz/find-your-union/

  • Australia: australianunions.org.au/affiliates

union

1Depending on the size and nature of their business – particularly whether they have employees.

2Tithi Bhattarachaya, Social Reproduction Theory

3Sue Ryall & Stephen Blumenfeld, Unions and Union Membership in New Zealand…, Victoria University of Wellington website https://www.victoria.ac.nz/som/clew/publications/new-zealand-union-membership-survey-report.pdf

4Charmaine Chua, Logistics, Capitalist Circulation, Chokepoints, The Disorder of Things

https://thedisorderofthings.com/2014/09/09/logistics-capitalist-circulation-chokepoints/

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