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The Working Class Isn’t Just White Male Factory Workers (And Never Was)

A leading exponent of global labor history, Marcel van der Linden's work looks beyond the Fordist industrial workforce to examine the ever-changing forms of exploitation on which capitalism relies.

Since the 1970s, the transformations of capitalism have had an ever-deeper effect on the varied world of work — and thrown into question established understandings of class. (Ivan Henao / Unsplash)

In his classic work The Black Jacobins, C. L. R. James offers a perhaps surprising judgement on the slaves of San Domingo. For the Trinidadian historian, the slaves’ situation on the Caribbean island over two hundred years ago was not just an artifact of the past, but closely linked to modernity: “Working and living together in gangs of hundreds on the huge sugarfactories which covered the North Plain, they were closer to a modern proletariat than any group of workers in existence at the time.” Citing this quote at the beginning of his major essay “Unfree Labour: The Training-Ground for Modern Labour Management,” pioneering global labor historian Marcel van der Linden invites us to rethink our understanding of class.

Van der Linden’s work as a labor historian is remarkable for both its long-term historical perspective and its rejection of Eurocentric approaches. Unraveling the categories and the deterministic impulses inherited from traditional labor history and ossified variants of Marxism, he insists that these readings themselves have to be historicized: that is, seen as a product of their time. After all, since the 1970s, the transformations of capitalism have had an ever-deeper effect on the varied world of work — and thrown into question established understandings of class. Hence while van der Linden’s work deals with an apparently remote past, it is important precisely because it starts out from questions on the meaning of class raised by our own present.

This is particularly important today. Rethinking the historical genealogies (and internal transformations) of labor relations, in terms of both their continuities and moments of rupture, can allow us to understand capitalism’s compatibility with multiple forms of labor and exploitation.

This labor can be free or unfree, material or immaterial, more or less flexible or precarious, feminized and racialized; the heterogeneous character of the working class is perhaps the element that most obviously colors the various historical expressions of the labor-capital relationship. Moreover, this creates a web of different, often opposed subjectivities, even if they share a common subjection to systems of domination and forms of marginalization.

In this lies the particular value of van der Linden’s work. Grasping the complexity of the global working class over the long term — and thus gaining a historical memory of both the forms of oppression and the many forms of solidarity, mutualism, self-organization, and resistance — could prove vital. After all, the patterns of work today are still extremely complex, and the circuits of the global economy have begun to make this plurality more obvious. This is happening as the growing socioeconomic polarization and criticisms fueled by the pandemic emergency have given a powerful boost to social conflict.

Understanding the totalizing, subaltern position of the working class — and the material and cultural differences that pervade it — can help us rethink a collective dimension of both identity and struggle, able to unite the class struggle with battles for recognition. This is a matter not just of how we interpret present reality, but also of how we can turn things in a different direction.

The End of Work?

First, it’s worth considering the question of labor’s political weight — and the importance of the 1970s in reshaping labor in the West and/or Global North. After all, from this period, both a theoretical and material crisis of labor began to transform the structures of work and their social and political implications.

This dramatic change in economies and social structures was related to a deep change not only in workplace practices but also the very idea of work, deconstructing the previously established industrial framework. The neoliberal turn quickened this process, hastening the multileveled fragmentation of work and accelerating labor’s declining role as a key vector for social emancipation.

The material crisis that followed the neoliberal transition — and the hegemony of neoliberal individualist ideology — was accompanied by a deep and multifaceted crisis that cut across society, institutions, and our political and cultural horizons themselves. Since then, many hitherto central aspects of our lives have started to collapse; from the key role of work in generating collective identities to the forms of workers’ self-representation and political representation; the legitimation of work’s place in democracy and the definition of the institutional spaces of social conflict; and the significance of political and trade union discourse.

Such a transition brought about a restrictive context deafened by the thunderous proclamation “there is no alternative.” Intellectual debates were deeply influenced by the conviction that we had arrived at “the end of work,” now fragmented amidst a galaxy of fragmented and intangible jobs. Cultural studies started to emerge as the sole point of reference for research; however important it was, this phenomenon also led to a growing analytical gap between material and cultural life. This separation responded to a privileged standpoint. It ran against the conception of capitalism as the abstract matrix which articulates (and constantly reshuffles) the relations between economy and culture.

Yet, after a long stasis period, a series of emergencies, uncertainties, and transitions activated a kind of self-reflection and autocritical process: Especially starting from the late 1990s, a challenging rethinking process made it possible to formulate some new categories related to the complex and many-sided universe of labor.

This was possible thanks to the important results obtained by mixing empirical research with a multidisciplinary and theoretical perspective. Historical studies have been crucial in this sense, especially the innovative and experimental approach adopted by global labor history. The decision to start by “provincializing Europe” — not taking this continent as representative of the whole world — offered an expanded analytical viewpoint.

In this context, labor relations started to be interpreted in a fluid and not schematic way — emphasizing the coexisting, entangled, and overlapping experiences of labor. This meant understanding wider social processes and problematizing linear visions of progress and modernity — including the supposed “natural” association between free wage labor and capitalism.

Turning from wage labor to also look at autonomous, domestic, reproductive, and care labor, we can see capitalism is compatible with many different forms of insecure, unprotected, and compulsory work. Even the distinction between free and unfree labor becomes more blurred and has to be approached as part of a single continuum of capitalist relations of labor exploitation. In his essay “Who Are the workers of the World? Marx and Beyond,” van der Linden highlights this heterogeneity — and the combined presence of multiple forms of labor.

Subaltern Workers of the World

Van der Linden begins by addressing the historical character of the concept of the working class that emerged toward the end of the eighteenth century. It emerged amidst the widespread growth, in the West, of manufacturing and industries that gave rise to new groups of wage earners who could no longer be counted among the ranks of domestic workers, nor day laborers or farm hands. Such a definition theoretically establishes the working class as a category apart from artisans, independent workers, the subproletariat, or lumpenproletariat, not to mention unfree labor.

While the Western cultural inheritance tends to point to the idea of a linear path directed toward the generalization of free waged labor, van der Linden shows concretely how Eurocentric this narration is. For an understanding of capitalism’s rise also needs to take into account the Chinese and Indian indentured workers (so-called coolies) sent off on ships to go and work in South Africa, the slaves being taken to Brazil, the Caribbean, and the US South, and the millions of migrants leaving Europe for the New World, entering a universe of subaltern work.

These observations demand that analysis be concentrated on labor as a commodity that can be articulated through the commodification processes, defined either as autonomous or heteronomous: in the first case, the bearer and owner of labor power coincide; in the second they do not. The leasing of labor-power should thus be unbound from a notion of its sale exclusively by its bearer/owners: it may instead be sold by a different person (as in the case of child labor), sold conditionally together with means of production (as in forms like the putting-out system), or even sold without possession (as in the case of slaves who are hired out).

Thus, van der Linden’s historical analysis identifies capitalism’s compatibility with heterogeneous free and unfree forms of labor, noting the blurred boundaries between “classic” wage earners and others, bound together by a shared condition of subalternity. From this derives the definition of subaltern workers — rejecting any dichotomous counterposition between proletariat and subproletariat.

This multifaceted constellation of working-class subjectivities is brought together by what the Marxist philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis called a “constitutive heteronomy.” Here, he identifies a subaltern (and thus not socially autonomous) individual “any bearer of labor-power whose labor-power is sold (or hired out) to another person under any economic (or non-economic) compulsion, whether sold or rented directly or otherwise, and whether or not they possess means of production.” Free or unfree, autonomous, waged or unwaged, but materially (and culturally) dependent: these are the workers of the world, the subaltern subjects of history.

Having recognized that capitalism is compatible with multiple forms of labor, in his “Unfree Labour: The Training-Ground for Modern Labour Management,” van der Linden questions the periodization of modern capitalism. Here, he takes the colonial experience of the seventeenth-century Barbados slave plantation as the first concrete modern form of commodity production, based on commodified labor and aimed at market circulation.

So, as in C. L. R. James, the colonial sugar factories provide an important early laboratory for labor-management “knowhow.” Moreover, we can note that this type of labor organization began to take form as early as 1627 and continued to be developed ever further: In 1680 it covered some 90 percent of the workforce employed in sugar production, of which 90 percent was used to draw profits from export (and this at a time when plantations covered 80 percent of arable land). Thus even in the seventeenth century we find a dense circuit of labor processes and transactions, in which labor-power was a commodity used to produce more commodities.

This allows us to understand the importance of a transnational analysis, making it possible to build a global labor history that pulls apart traditional schemas. It abandons the interpretation of the Global South as a space of underdevelopment and the working class as a homogeneous ideal-type conceived on the basis of Eurocentric categories.

Historicizing Precarious Work

A global historical perspective also makes it possible to advance important hypotheses regarding the history of precarious work. Here, too, the Western-centric vision needs to be “provincialized,” deconstructing the approach taken by socioeconomic disciplines that tend to take precarious work for a simply contemporary phenomenon. This means acknowledging the constant presence of instable and precarious work in the Global South and indeed its persistence in the Global North even during the Fordist era. This is especially true of women’s work and migrant labor — both in terms of seasonal and home-working, and the feminized and racialized labor within the factories.

In this vein, in his “Caribbean Radicals, a New Italian Saint, and a Feminist Challenge,” van der Linden refutes the myths of the “full employment economy” which emerged through World War II and lasted until the end of the 1960s, culminating in a “standard employment relation” from which a significant share of the Western workforce benefited.

Such a relationship implied continual stable employment; full-time work, with a single employer from a single firm; payment which allowed the worker to maintain a small nuclear family (the worker, their spouse, and a child) without falling below an acceptable standard-of-living threshold; legal rights to representation, protection, and participation/codetermination; and social security measures based on one’s length of employment and salary levels.

Van der Linden sees this type of relationship not as a timeless norm for employment relations, but as the conjunctural product of a specific phase of capitalism. So, it does not make much sense to define precarity in counterposition to a contractual “standard” that in fact existed only for a brief period, for white male workers in a small part of the world.

Nonetheless, this assumption has strong cultural roots. And it is difficult to conceptualize in other terms a precarious type of employment relation that lacks any legal or statistical definition, and which we (in the West at least) habitually associate with the transition from Fordism to post-Fordism. Some studies have proposed that historical analysis should be connected to that regarding the relationship between unfree and free labor, in correspondence with the both economic and noneconomic forms of coercion. This means unbinding analysis from contractual models alone and no longer discussing the “unfreedom” of labor only in relation to juridical criteria.

This allows a study of precarity that embraces a much more extensive range of working-class subjectivities. In so doing, we can avoid an exclusive focus on the traditional subjects of labor history — waged workers in industry and the associated trade union organizations — and instead pay attention to the constant historical presence of nonindustrial, unorganized workers (and even the endurance of unwaged, coerced forms of labor). By doing this, we can explore workers’ different experiences of lack of control over the labor process — in relation to employers’ and policy makers’ position of strength, and in relation to other work, the labor market, and the social reproduction of labor-power.

Therefore, a deconstruction of the dominant narratives brings into focus the different “degrees” of a shared subaltern condition, which produced loss of control and precarious living and working conditions not only after the Fordist era but also before and during it. For this reason, it is worth pulling apart the idea of precarious work as exclusively modern phenomenon, diverging from an assumed “model” — especially when this precarity is taken as the main cause for the divisions allegedly bringing the end of work, the end of class, the end of class struggle, and so on.

Precarity and heterogeneous forms of employment have colored the entire history of work relations. Understanding this, and the different experiences of the fight against the subaltern condition, can be useful in producing cohesion from the fragmented picture we have in front of us today.

New Class Perspectives

As we have seen, van der Linden and other global labor historians have tried to promote a new interpretation of the concept of class. This means viewing class as a historical process, which is not fixed in time, but rather intermingled with many different ways in which people become subjects. This is needed if we are to consider social classes not as a preexisting fact that can be taken for granted, but as rather concrete realities which take form through social conflict, involving many contradictions, heterogeneous groups, and fluid identities.

If we want to develop categories able to read transformations of labor as they unfold — useful also for informing efforts to change reality — we need to understand that class is historically changeable but always articulates other social dynamics. This meaning of class needs discussing in depth. In the words of Pierre Bourdieu, “as long as there are classes, class will not be a neutral word. The question of the existence or non-existence of classes is itself at stake in the struggle between classes.”

At the same time, a more in-depth understanding of this problem’s different aspects can lead to new opportunities for interaction among Marxism and intersectionality. This means theorizing identity politics through an analysis of domination in the contemporary world, going far beyond the experience of individual identity. Capitalism has historically produced different relations of subjugation and subjection: hence, rather than dismiss all identity politics as “bourgeois,” Marxism needs to grasp the intersecting connections between cultural and material life.

Van der Linden’s work is useful in producing a complex stratification of the historical and social reality of work and capitalism, that goes beyond stereotyped Fordist factory jobs alone. Starting from this point allows us to rethink working-class subjectivity, its fragmented composition, its common subaltern condition, and its global practices of self-organization across history. Difference does not have to mean division. To coin a phrase: Whether free or unfree, waged or unwaged, more or less precarious, marginalized, feminized, racialized, subaltern workers of the word, unite!