Class Struggle is too Little

by Lothar Galow-Bergemann

german version

(This article published on January 23, 2020 is translated from the German on the Internet.] Published in Jungle World #4/2020, January 23, 2020.

Many leftists, who for decades focused on identity politics and forgot about the social question, are practicing self-criticism for good reason, because by doing so they left the interpretation of important social conflicts to liberals, conservatives and fascists. Even if some have lost sight of the working class – it exists and class struggles are necessary. But class struggle today can at best achieve makeshift and unstable successes for individual groups of the working class; it can no longer provide lasting answers to the social question. Because the constraints of capital exploitation block the solution of all decisive questions for the future, social struggles today must directly pose – theoretically as well as practically – the system question. And it is precisely here that the problems with the class struggle begin. The class interest of the working class has long since turned out to be the system-immanent interest of those who depend on the sale of their labor power. There is a lack of system-busting potential.

Class struggle is a number too small for the necessary social struggles. Only struggles that break the theoretical as well as practical fetters of the „interest of the working class“ can take on a truly anti-capitalist character. Consider, for example, the question of working time. The digitalization thrust dwarfs everything that capitalism has produced so far in terms of productivity and potential savings for human labor power. In the logic of capital valorization, many more people will become „superfluous.“ Whoever accepts wage labor as the natural basis of life and puts the wage worker’s interest in the center, is driven by only one question: How can we nevertheless maintain the level of employment? If, on the other hand, you keep in mind the fundamental difference between abstract and material wealth, the world could be arranged quite differently for you. We need material wealth to live (food, clothing, technology, science, culture), abstract wealth is needed only for capital utilization (value, money, capital). Because the possibilities for the increase of the material wealth grew exorbitantly and grow further, today all humans would have to work substantially less and could live thereby substantially better – if the society beyond the abstract wealth of the „economical reason“ would finally really manage rationally and would place the production and distribution of the material wealth into the center. The result would not be a 30-hour week, but rather a five-hour week, which would no longer have to be a utopia.

The interest of the labor sellers does not help here. Even the most militant workforce and the most „revolutionary“ union, as long as it is in its right mind, will not strike down its „own“ companies. After all, they can only sell their labor power if it remains on the market. The worse the conditions of capital exploitation are, the narrower the scope for class struggle becomes. A struggle for a reduction of working hours „with full wage and personnel compensation“ might still be enforceable for some in a rich country like Germany with a view to a 30-hour week – given very favorable and rather unlikely relations of forces. But even that would be miles away from the necessary turnaround. The fight for good old-age security is just as lacking in perspective if it is waged from the standpoint of work. It is an open secret that anyone who is under 30 today will not have a pension to live on at 80. The radical reduction in weekly and lifetime working hours that is necessary and possible today can work neither with „full staff and wage compensation“ nor on the basis of pension insurance. Those who believe this are under the illusion that under conditions of exploding productivity it is still possible to maintain the wage system for masses of people. Class politics is at an end here.

A truly anti-capitalist position takes leave of the standpoint of class interest and says: It’s nice that we are running out of work. If the enormous potential of disposable time (Karl Marx), which the development of productive forces gives, is used, masses of people can finally do what until now only a few could do: not spend the whole life with toil and work, but devote themselves to all the beauty that life has to offer. To hell with being a worker and „class identity,“ you should finally get rid of them.

The „livelihood through gainful employment“ model has never been a reality in large parts of the globe. Today, even in the centers of capitalism, it works for fewer and fewer people. It no longer has any perspective, and with it neither does „full staff and wage compensation.“ What is needed instead is a radical reduction in working hours, with an exit from the wage system and the abstract production of wealth, and an entry into the social appropriation of material wealth. This is already essential for reasons of climate protection. Producing for the dump has become a mainstay of capitalism. Everyone knows, for example, that there are far too many cars. But whoever’s livelihood depends on VW, Daimler&Co selling as many of them as possible is trapped. That „the whole place will eventually go to the wall“ has become almost common knowledge. The answer immanent in the system is: We must continue to race towards the wall because our lives depend on it.

The destruction of the earth is programmed in this system. The point of view of the interest of the labor sellers does not deviate a millimeter from this logic. That’s why the „Fridays For Future“ movement regularly hits a rubber wall as soon as jobs are discussed: „You’re probably right, and actually I sympathize with you, but tell me what my family and I are supposed to live on in the future,“ is the tenor. The fight against climate change must therefore go hand in hand with a fight for radical reductions in working hours. The two could fuel each other and develop enormous explosive power. As yet, few of the players are aware of this. Thus, the tentative attempts at rapprochement by trade unions and environmental associations remain trapped in the illusion that climate protection and „full employment“ go together. Regrettably, the question of reducing working hours is not considered, not to mention the radical reduction in working hours that would be possible.

But also feminist struggles for a just distribution of reproductive activities, solidarity with refugees, the struggle for a real mobility turnaround, for decent housing for all and many struggles more could flow together in the struggle for radical working time reduction. This could lead to an anti-capitalist transformation movement that would increasingly withdraw more and more areas of life – consumer goods, housing, health, education, science, culture – from market logic and organize them according to criteria of purely material rationality. This would – theoretically as well as practically – raise again and again the question of property and power. But the answer would not be the transfer of property and power to sellers of the commodity labor power, who are becoming increasingly without prospects, but to social – not state – structures and forms of organization, which leave the abstract production of wealth of capital exploitation behind and are already being thought about, for example, in the debate about commons (common property) and other forms of solidarity economic activity.

Translation published on Saturday, Apr. 16, 2022 in Los Angeles Indymedia : Activist News (scroll)

With thanks to Marc Batko