New Proletarians – Antunes

MARXISM ALIVE 1 – June 2000

The New Proletarians of the World at the
Turn of the Century

Ricardo Antunes

This text corresponds to chapter VI of the book
“Los Sentidos del Trabajo: Ensayo sobre la Afirmación y la Negación del

Editora Bomtempo 1999, São Paulo

It is very curious that, while the numbers of social beings living
from selling their labour is increasing worldwide, there should be so many
authors who bade farewell to proletariat, defended the idea of
decentralisation of the category labour, defended the end of human
emancipation through labour. What I am going to present here is a way to
show how it is possible to go in the opposite direction with respect to
these tendencies that are very much present and very much mistaken.

Workers today, if not identical to the workers of mid last century,
neither they are on the verge of extinction as – with differences between
each other – is posed by such writers as Gorz, Offe, Habernas and, more
recently, Dominique Meda, Jaremy Rifkin just to mention some of them.

I am going to design, therefore, an analysis contrary to that of these
authors, atrying to understand what the proletarians – or, as I called
them in ¿Adiós al Trabajo? (Farewell to Work?), the class-that-lives-from
work, the class that
lives from selling their labour – today are. I wish to point our that, of
course, this expression is not an attempt at offering a new concept; far
from being so, it is an attempt at characterising the amplification, an
attempt at understanding proletarians today, workers today. We know that
Marx finished The Capital when he was beginning the concept formulation
on classes. He wrote a page and a half, a text that meant offer us a more
a more systematic, more articulate treatise on social classes and,
particularly on what is the working class.

Marx very often defined the working class and proletariat (generally
as synonyms) and so did Engels. Engels’ book The Forming of the Working
Class in England Might as well have been called The Formation of
Proletariat in England. The famous quotation from the Manifesto,
“Proletarians of the World, unite” is often translated as “Salaried
workers of the world, unite” and even “The emancipation if the proletariat
is a task for proletarians” as “The emancipation of the workers is a task
for workers”. Marx and Engels used the words workers and proletariat as
quasi synonyms. We might say, perhaps, that in the mid- XIX century
Europe, salaried workers were predominantly and centrally proletarians.

All right then, our first challenge is to try and understand what the
working class today is and what the proletariat today is, in the most
ample sense of the word, not referring to them only as the “proletarians
of the world” or exclusively the industrial proletariat. I should say,
then, that to begin with, we should make a design of the problem is about,
the proletariat or working class, or – as I put it above the class that
lives from selling labour comprehends the totality of those who live from
selling labour and who are deprived from any means of production. This
Marxist definition seems to me to be totally pertinent, just as is the
rest – or the essential whole – of Marx’s formulation, when we think of
working class today.

From this point of view, I should say that the working class today has,
as a central nucleus, the whole of what Marx used to call productive
workers, to mention specially the Unedited Chapter (VI) as well as
numerous passages of The Capital, where the idea of productive work is
formulated. It is from this point of view that I should say that the
working class today is not limited to direct manual workers, but that the
working class incorporated the total amount of social work, the total
amount of collective work where labour is sold for a salary. But today
this is mainly composed of the whole lot of productive workers who also
participate directly in the process of valorisation of capital. It has the
central role in the process of production of surplus value. In the process
of production of goods, from the most advanced factories, where the level
of interaction between the dead work and the live work, between human
labour and scientific-technologic machinery, where there is the greatest
interaction between live work and dead work.

This constitutes the central nucleus of modern proletariat. The
Toyota, Nissan, General Motors, IBM, Microsoft, etc products are the
result of the interaction between the live work and the dead work no
matter how much many authors – once again Habermas leading – may say that
abstract work may have lost its structuring force in present day society.
Just for the sake of the debate: if abstract work (expenditure of physical
and intellectual energy, according to Marx in The Capital) has lost its
structuring force in present day society, how are the Toyota cars
produced? Who creates the IBM computers, the Microsoft programmes, the
General Motors or Nissan cars? And that is just to mention a few examples
of the great trans-national firms.

But to advance on this more general design of what the today’s working
class is it is necessary to say that it also embraces the whole lot of the
unproductive workers, in the sense given by Marx. Those whose form of work
are used as services, be it for public use, as the traditional public
service, be it for capitalist use. Unproductive work is is what is not
constituted as a live element in the direct process of valorisation of
capital and creation of surplus value. That is why Marx shows the
difference from productive work, which participates directly of the
process of creation of surplus value. According to Marx are the workers
whose work is consumed as usage value and not as work that creates
exchange value.

At the turn of the century, working class includes also an ample range
of salaried workers from the sector of services, but who do not create
value directly. This scope, of the unproductive work, is expanding
vigorously in contemporary capitalism, even if some of its segments are
receding. For example, there is a tendency in the factories nowadays that
seems to me quite visible of reducing, and even in some cases of
eliminating, unproductive work which is then done by some productive
worker. So in this era of globalised capital, he becomes even more
exploited, so there is an intensification of the exploitation of labour.
Many unproductive activities are disappearing – that is to say – those
that capital can eliminate, because capital also depends on unproductive
activities for productive activities to be carried out. But those
unproductive activities that capital can eliminate have been eliminated
and many of these activities have been transferred to the universe of
productive workers.

Unproductive workers, the, being generators of an antivalue in the
process of capitalist work experience situation that are similar to those
experienced by productive work. They belong to what Marx used to call
“false costs” which are notwithstanding absolutely vital for the survival
of capitalist system.

So I should say that firstly, the world of labour today consists of, as
Marx used to think, of productive work and also of unproductive work. What
is new about this focus is the need to understand, within the production
of capital as a whole, what today’s “productive activity” is and what
belongs to unproductive activity.

Let us now see a second block of problems: since all productive work is
salaried, but not every salaried worker is productive, I believe that a
contemporary notion of working class, that the “proletarians of the world
at the turn of century”, must incorporate all the salaried workers. The

working class today is more ample today than last century’s industrial
proletariat, even if it – the modern industrial proletariat – constitutes
the fundamental nucleus of the salaried workers, this scope that forms the
world of labour, since it is centrally that of the productive workers who
also do other activities, whether material or immaterial. Who do direct
manual activity, in the most advanced poles of the modern factories, doing
more “intellectualised” jobs (for a certain much more reduced figure)
which what Marx referred to when he spoke of “supervisor and watchman of
the process of production! (Grundrise).

In this design I am outlining, I should say the role of centrality is
still clearly within what we call productive work, of social and
collective work that creates values of exchange, that generates surplus

But an amplified notion of the working class today, seems to me
evident and decisive if we wish to respond to the essential meaning of the
way of being of this class and thus oppose it to the critics who proclaim
the end of labour, the end of working class. What I means is a critique of
a critique.

Offe, for example, in an essay I take as reference (Labour as Clue
Sociological Category), attributed the loss of centrality of labour to –
among other facts – the fact that proletarian work no longer bestowed with
the ethos of work. But I would like to ask, since when is it that Marx
considered labour to be central because of its ethos? This argument would
make sense to Weber, but not to Marx. According to the latter, working
class is ontologically decisive due to the fundamental role it plays in
the process of creation of values. It is in the materiality itself of the
system and because of the subjective potentiality that this means, that
its role becomes central. Therefore, Offes’s criticism about the
decentrality of work (as a matter of fact a Weberian criticism to a thesis
Weber, the one about the prevalence of the positive ethos of work) – and
for a Marxist reflection – it is irrelevant. Marx has a deeply negative
and critical vision of salaried work, of fetishised work. In the
Manuscripts of 1884, Marx says, “If he could, a worker would flee from
work as if it were a pest”.

Very well, then, let’s continue. To think, then, about the proletarians
or about the workers of the world today implies also to think about those
who sell their labour for a salary, incorporating, too, the rural
proletarians who sell their labour to capital, the so-called boias-frias
of the agro-industrial regions. This rural proletariat, who sell their
labour, is also part of the workers of today, of the

The workers of the end of the XX century have also incorporated (and
that seems meaningful to rebuff the thesis on the loss of importance on
behalf of the world of labour) the precarious worker; and that is
happening all over the world: from Japan to Brazil, from USA to Korea,
from England to Mexico and Argentina. In my book, ¿Adios al Trabajo?, I
refer to them as the modern sub-proletariat of factories and services, the
one who works part time, whose feature is temporary work, as is the case
of the workers of McDonald’s, of the segments of services, of the fast
foods. Recently an English labour sociologist, Huw Beyon, referred to them
as partialised workers, expressing the same idea as I did when I called
them the class-that lives-of-its-work; They are part-time workers,
precarious workers, workers by the hour. A beautiful film that was on
here, in Brazil, last year, The Full Monty, very ironically shows a bit of
what today’s English worker is now that we are in the decadent industry
phase. It is a beautiful photograph that shows ironically (the film is a
comedy of great sensitivity) the tough conditions of life of the English
salaried-unemployed, the precarious workers. They find jobs in
supermarkets, for example, earning three or four pounds an hour. Today
they have a job; tomorrow they don’t, but what they do not have at any
time is rights. This is the part time proletariat, that I call
“sub-proletariat”” because it is precarious with respect to their working
conditions and lacking the most elementary rights.

This is the “modern” version of proletariat of the XIX century. If in some
very small sectors we can find, on one hand a “more qualified and
intellectualised” proletariat (in the sense given to these concepts by the
capital), on the other hand we have a much more intense expansion all over
the world of the more precarious proletarian, as the women workers of
Nike, in Indonesia, who work about 60 hours a week and earn $38 a month.
Women workers toiling 240 hours a month, producing thousands of trainers,
and they do not have enough money to buy a pair for themselves at the end
of the month, for a salary of $38 does not allow them to buy Nike

You know that, according to data provided by ILO, there is over a
billion women and men workers toiling in precarious conditions,
underemployed, people whom the capital uses as if they were discardable
syringes – or who are unemployed. Human labour is discarded just as
flippantly as a syringe. That is what the capital does. That is why there
is an enormous mass of men and women who have already become part of
structural unemployment. They are part of an monumental industrial reserve
army that spreads all over the place. This tendency has become sharper due
to the strengthening of the validity of the destructive nature of logic of
capital which has become much more evident in these last 20 or 30 years.
That is so, because on one hand there has been an expansion of the
ideology and pragmatism of neo-liberalism and, on the other hand, the
social floor that took shape accordingly to the new configuration of
capitalism – it has been called the phase of productive re-structuration
of the capital – where Toyotism and other experiments of de-regulation,
flexibilization an so on have marked the capitalist world more intensely
after the structural crisis initiated in the 70s.

But it is clear that the-class-that-lives-from work, the working class
of today, the new proletarians of the turn of the XX century does not
include what Joao Bernardo called the managers of the capital, those who
constitute a part of the ruling class due to the central role they play in
the control and the fact that they are in charge of the capital. The high
rank officials who control the process of valorisation and reproduction of
capital in the firms and collect very high salaries for it. They are part
of the hierarchic system, of the command, they are a fundamental part of
the social metabolism of the capital. Remember Meszaros’ formulation, a
system of social metabolism that subordinates labour in a hierarchic order
to the supremacy of capital. The managers of the capital are not salaried,
of course, and are evidently excluded from the working class.

This characterisation we are making of the working class, excludes as
well – evidently – the petty entrepreneurs, for they are holders – even if
on a small scale – of the means of production. Evidently, also those who
live on their income and speculation. So, to understand today’s working
class amply implies understanding this whole ensemble of social beings who
live from selling labour, who are salaried, and who do not own means of
production. This is the synthesis that I make of the working class today
in ¿Adios al Trabajo?: a heterogeneous, more complex and more fragmented

After this more analytic bracket, in the second part of my
presentation, I shall try to draw the main characteristics – empirically
speaking – of today’s working class.

The first tendency that occurs in the world of labour today is a
reduction of manual proletariat, steady factory workers, typical of the
Taylorist and Fordist period. The shrinking of this proletariat has
happened all over the world, though obviously there are differences due to
the particularities of each country, of its insertion in the international
labour division. Brazilian industrial proletariat, for example, grew
enormously between the late 60s and early 70s. The same thing happened in
Korea, just to quote another example. But in this case I am talking of the
last 20 years in the central countries and particularly in the last decade
in the subordinate countries, such as Brazil. The Sao Paulo ABC* used to
have about 240 000 metallurgic workers in the 80s. Now it has just over
110 or 120 000. In the same period, Campinas had 70 000 metallurgic
workers and now has 70 000 stable full-timers. You will remember that in
the past, a factory like Volkswagen would claim to be important because it
employed over 40 000 workers. It is now under 20 000 but it is producing
much more. That means that nowadays it is a synonym of “feat and vitality”
of the capital to talk of a factory that produces much more, with fewer
and fewer workers.

You might then say that André Gorz was right when he foretold the End
of Proletariat, because following this guideline or arguments we might as
well say that all that diminishes tends to disappear. But it so happens
that there is another guideline for the argument, which is the decisive
one and which Gorz himself noticed, for Gorz is an intelligent social
scientist though he cannot treat things analytically. This second
extremely important tendency contradicts the first one and it is the one
that is marked by the enormous increase in salaried work and of precarious
proletariat in the world. In these last decades, parallel to the reduction
of stable jobs, there has been a boom of jobs for part time men and women
and for temporary jobs. This is a strong manifestation of this new segment
that composes the working class today, an expression of this new

The third tendency: there is an increase of feminine work in the
labour world, not only in industry, but also and essentially in the
services sector. Working class has always been as much feminine as
masculine. Only that now the proportion ahs altered considerably. In
England, for example, working women have outstripped working men. In
several European countries, abut 40% 0r 50% or more of the whole labour is
feminine. Even the more are the part time jobs spreading, the more the
feminine labour penetrates this universe.

This tendency has decisive unfoldings. I can’t go into detail on this
topic, but the complex questions that arise from there are enormous.
Firstly, the incorporation of women into the labour market is, of course,
an important moment in the partial emancipation of women for previously
this access was much more marked by the masculine presence. But, and this
seem essential to me, capital does it its own way. How? Capital has set up
a sexual labour division. In the areas where the presence of intensive
capital is greater, where the machines are more advanced, men prevail. In
the areas where labour is more intensive, where there is an even greater
manual labour exploitation, that is where more women work. This has been
proved, for example, by the research made by the Englishwoman Anna
Pollert. And when it is not women, then it is the Negroes, and when it is
not the Negroes then it is the immigrants, and when it is not the
immigrants then it is the children… or all together.

And if the working class is as feminine as it is masculine, socialism
will not be built only by the masculine part of the class. The class
trade unions will not be those of men-only. The emancipation of mankind
against form of oppression by capital – which as we know are central,
decisive – are mixed with other forms of oppression. Apart from the class
oppression given trough the system of capital, gender oppression has a
pre-capitalist existence, it continues under capitalism and will have
post-capitalist life if this form of oppression is not totally eliminated
from the relations of social beings, the relations between men and women.
Emancipation from capital rule, just as emancipation of gender, are
constitutive moments of emancipation of mankind from all kind of
oppression and domination. The same as the Negro rebellion against the
white racism, or the struggle of immigrant workers against xenofophobic
nationalism, or that of the homosexual against sex discrimination and so
many other factors that oppress social beings nowadays. I should say that
if we want to think of the question of human emancipation and of the
central struggle against capital, these elements are decisive. Therefore,
emancipation battles are multiform.

Of course, working class has always been feminine, too. But it has been
predominantly feminine in some productive sectors, such as textile, for
example. Today it is predominant in many areas, in diverse sectors, and
especially in the sector of part time jobs, which has been spreading all
over the world in these last years. Precisely because capital has realised
that women do polyvalent activities, at home and in their jobs out of
home, it has exploited this polyvalence intensely. Capital has become
aware of the polyvalence in it. It has already been exploiting feminine
work in the domestic chores, in the sphere of reproduction, and now this
exploitation is amplified to embrace also the factory and services space.
It is therefore becoming even more important to articulate the action of
class with the actions of gender.

Fourth tendency: there is an enormous expansion of middle salaried, in
the banking system, tourism, supermarkets, the so-called service sectors
in general. They are new proletarians in the sense that they witness the
degradation of their salaries and an intensified degradation of labour
according to what has been said above.

Fifth tendency: there is a terrible exclusion of the young and of the
“old” in the sense given by the destructive capital. The young are those
who graduate from high schools and colleges and still do not have a space
in the labour market. Young Europeans, young Americans and also young
Brazilians see that there is no guarantee of room for them in the labour
market. In Europe, the only thing they can be sure of is unemployment.
This is also a characteristic of our labour market. And workers of 40 or
more are now considered old by the capital. Once they lose their jobs,
they do not return to the labour market.- They will do informal jobs, part
time jobs. Just look at all the professions that have disappeared: quality
control, for example, disappeared from the factories. Someone who has been
quality control for 25 years, once unemployed, will he go to another
factory with a different job? Or will the factory rather employ a younger
worker, educated according to the “patterns” of polyvalence and
multi-functioning who would be prepared to earn much less than what that
quality control inspector used to earn? The answer seems evident?
Tragically, he will be another member of the monumental army of industrial

Far from, therefore, talking of the end of labour, it seems evident
that the capital has managed to amplify all over the world the spheres of
salary work and of exploitation of labour all over the world, giving it
various forms of precariousness, under-employment, part time jobs, etc.
The essential thing about Toyotism, was characterised by Satoshi Kamata in
his book Japan in the Passing Lane, a classical report on Toyota, as “the
factory of desperation”. The main aim of Toyotism was to reduce “waste”-
Metaphorically: if a worker breathed, and while breathing at moments he
produced nothing, it is urgent to produce while breathing and never
breathe without producing. If a worker could produce without breathing,
capital would allow it, but not breathing without producing. And that is
how Toyota managed to reduce unproductive time and “waste” by 33%.

That is why Japanese car industry which, in 1955 produced a total
amount of cars that looked funny next to American output (69 000 units
compared to 9.2 million of the USA), 20 years later reached higher
productivity than that of the Americans. They pushed productivity up to
the top limit. Japanese capitalist would call American capitalist and say:
your workers are slow, your producing system is slow, you have to learn
form us. Among other things, because “we have learned with you, Toyotism
is not an original Japanese creation; it is inspired in the model of the
supermarkets, of the textile industry, etc.”.

Therefore, what is to be seen is not the end of labour, but a return
to explosive levels of labour exploitation, of intensification of pace and
time of work. It is worth while to remember that the length of the labour
day may even be reduced while the pace increases. And it is precisely this
that happens practically everywhere: a greater intensity, a deeper
exploitation of human labour. At the other end of the process of work, in
top level productive units – and evidently these are a minority – if you
look at the thing as a whole – there are, of course form or
“intellectualised” work (in the sense that capital gives it), forms of
nonmaterial work. But all this has nothing to do with this talk of end of
labour. And what is very visible is that the validity of what Marx called
combined social work. He used to say, “Never mind if the worker is more
intellectualised, or if it is a directly manual worker, if he is in the
centre, in the nucleus of the process or if he is at the fringe of it; the
important thing is that he has participated in the process of creation of
values, of valorisation of capital and this creation is the result of
collective work, of a combined social work”. That is form Chapter VI –
unedited – which I am now quoting from memory. And if it is really subject
to capital, if it participates directly in the process of valorisation of
this capital, then it is productive work.

The working class, the “workers of the world at the turn of century”,
are more exploited, more fragmented, more heterogeneous, more diversified,
also as far as their productive activity is concerned: it is a man worker
or a woman worker attending four, five or more machines. They have no
rights, their work lacks meaning, in accordance with the destructive
character of capital, where metabolic relations under the control of
capital do not only degrade nature leading to the verge of environmental
catastrophe, but also make labour more precarious, un-employing,
de-employing, under-employing it apart from intensifying levels of

We cannot, therefore agree to the thesis of end of labour and much
less to the end of revolution of labour. In our days emancipation is
centrally a revolution at work, of work, and by work. But it is much more
difficult social enterprise, for it is not easy to rescue the sense of
belonging to a class that capital and its forms of domination – including
in the decisive sphere of culture – try to mask and veil.

During the days of Taylorism/Fordism, in the XX century, workers were
certainly not homogeneous. There have always been men workers and women
workers, young and old, qualified and non-qualified, national and
immigrant, etc. That is to say, there have always been multiple components
marking their way through the working class. It is evident that even in
the past there has been work delegated to third parties; in general this
used to happen in restaurants, cleaning, public transport, etc.) A great
intensification of this process took place, however, and affected its
quality, causing the previously existing components to increase and to
become more intense.

Unlike Taylorism and Fordism, which – it is worthwhile to remember –
are still very much alive in many parts of the world, though often
functioning as hybrids, or mixed – in Toyotism in the Japanese version,
the worker becomes his own despot, as I defined it in ¿Adios al Trabajo?.
He is encouraged to practise self-accusation and self-punishment if his
production does not reach the so-called “full quality”, this mystifying
fallacy of the capital. He works in a collective, in teams or cells of
production, and if a worker fails to come to work, he will be punished by
his own team mates. This is the ideology of Toyotism. According to this
conception, resistance, rebellion, or refusal are rejected as attitudes
contrary to “the proper functioning of the firm”. This led a well known
scholar, Coriat, declared that Toyotism exerts an enticed commitment. I
disagree with this very strongly and I characterise this procedure as a
manipulated commitment. It is all about an effective moment of alienation
of work taken to the extreme limit when it is assimilated in the “soul of
the workers” so that from then on he can only think about productivity,
competitiveness, ways of improving the production of the firm, which is
his “the other family”. Here is an elementary example: how many steps did
the worker manage to reduce to fulfil his task? These steps reduced in one
hour, represent so many steps in the day. So many steps in a day mean a
certain number of steps in a month. And that again means a great number of
steps in a year. These saved steps in a year mean so many items produced
extra, and this creates a hellish circle of de-efectivisation and
de-humanisation of labour. There we have a worker thinking for the
capital. This is the way Toyotism and all its varieties want things to be.

And there is another very important question: Taylorism and Fordism had
a very lineal conception, where the Science management elaborated and the
manual workers executed. But Toyotism perceived that the intellectual
know-how is much greater than what Fordism and Taylorism had imagined it
to be, and that it was necessary to make this intellectual know-how of
work blossom and become proper for the capital. What Jean Marie Vincent,
among others, called the phase of validity of abstract intellectual work
is, in our formulation this moment when the expenditure of energy, to
quote Marx, becomes expenditure of intellectual energy, that the
Toyota-fied capital encourages in order to grab hold of it to a much
greater extent than Taylorism or Fordism had ever done. It is precisely
for this reason that the capital allows during a certain period of time a
week (generally about two hours) that the workers remain seemingly
“without working”, discussing in Quality Control Circles. Because these
are the moments that the ideas of those who carry out the production
blossom – even more than the patterns given by the Scientific Management.
And the capital must grab firm hold of this intellectual dimension of work
that emerges on the floors of the factories and that Taylorism/Fordism

Evidently, this process expands and becomes more complex in the
leading sectors of the productive process, something that today cannot be
generalised in any kind of hypothesis, and results in more intelligent
machines which in turn need more “qualified” workers capable of operating
these informatised machines. And, in this process of unleashed
processuality, new and more intelligent machines do thing hat up to that
moment only men could do. This triggers a process of interaction between
the live differentiated work and the dead work, more informatized. This is
what led Habernas to day – in my opinion, mistakenly – that science became
the main productive force, substituting, and thus eliminating, the
relevance of the theory value-work. On the contrary: I believe that there
is a new form of interaction between the live work and the dead work,
there is a process of technification of science which cannot, however,
eliminate live work, though it may reduce it, alter it, fragment it. But
the tragedy of capital is that it cannot definitely eliminate live work,
and consequently, it cannot eliminate working class. To sum up, what we
have been trying to do today is to understand a little of the set-up of
this working class the way is now.


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