From Proletariat to Precariat
Probably one of the main reasons that the political and social philosophy of Karl Marx failed to preserve its relevance and potency in the post-World War world was owing to its reliance for its effective realisation upon an enduring class of labourers called “the proletariat”. This social class of toilers no longer exists in the same way Marx understood the condition of labour and of the working class of his time. No one today speaks of “the proletariat”, at least in the Western context (although it might be said to exist still in places like the sweatshops of Bangladesh). Instead, some today speak of a “precariat”, and this creature is something quite different from the traditional proletarian.
To clarify our terms, the use of the word “proletariat” descends from the Roman Empire, and refers to an unpropertied class called the “proles” who were thought fit only to reproduce themselves for service to the state, and who otherwise had no political or social value or standing. The “proles” were simply breeders, reproducing human raw material. And that function is retained in the meaning of the word “prole” as “offspring”. The prole, in that sense, was not deemed to be a person or a personality.
Marx saw a clear similarity between the industrial working class of his time and the condition of the proles in the Roman State — a class dispossessed and preserved, forcibly if necessary, only for the purpose of breeding human raw material as livestock for use and consumption by the Roman state and the propertied classes, allowed only so much sustenance as would preserve them in life solely to produce more offspring, more “hands”, more grist for the mill. These are what Marx referred to as the “wage slaves” of the industrial working class, a proletariat that would never be allowed to rise above its condition of serving as grist for the mill or as cogs in the machine. They could have, in effect, no “personality” or individuality, but only a function, and to reproduce themselves and their kind only for replenishing the proletariat itself. Class boundaries and barriers were strictly enforced as much as the caste system was in India.
It is in this context that Marx’s famous slogan from the Communist Manifesto (1848) made its powerful appeal: “Proletarians of all countries unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains”. Marx saw in the despised and exploited proletariat, denied all individuality and the free development of the personality guaranteed to others, the basis for a world historic revolutionary transformation of society and the emancipation of the worker from the condition of proletarianism and wage slavery — that is, from the condition of being like mere livestock and from the state of massification and quantification that industrial capitalism had driven the worker into.
The appeal was so powerful in raising the class consciousness of the proletarian that it is even inscribed on Marx’s tombstone as his epitaph, “Workers of the world, unite!” — the summary statement of his life and thought. And it was powerful because, in form, it resembled God’s commandment to the Hebrews, “Harken, Israel!”, that fused twelve fractious desert tribes escaping their own slavery in Egypt into a singular entity with an awareness of nationhood and a transcendent destiny. In this it is true, as some have noted, that Karl Marx was a modern day secular Moses who resembled more a thundering Old Testament prophet than a political philosopher. He even looks the part from his photographs,
The “spectre haunting Europe” — the prospect of a proletarian revolution — was no fantasy. It was an age of revolutions. The social philosopher, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, although not himself a Marxist, nonetheless held that the only thing that kept Marx’s vision of communism from being realised through the agency of a revolutionary proletariat was not the resistance of liberal capitalism or reactionary (ultra nationalist) conservatism, but the communist parties themselves, who had a political interest not in the emancipation of the person from the proletariat, but in preserving the proletariat as a class and as a base for their own political power. Marx had never made a fetish of the proletariat, “the masses”, “the working class”, nor idols of “Labour” and “Capital”. Rather he found these class conditions deplorable and an obstacle to the free development of the personality. Abolition of the working class, of “Labour” as a social category, of “the masses”, not its preservation or elevation, was his ultimate aim, nor was it to extend the rule of the proletariat or to dissolve all social classes into the amorphousness of a proletariat or a universal labouring class. These were the aberrations of his successors.
So, what happened to the proletariat? For even as late as 1949, George Orwell, in his dystopian novel 1984, was still placing his hopes for the emancipation of humanity from conditions of degradation and debasement in “the proles”, via his character Winston Smith. How Orwell understood “the Proles” in relation to the IngSoc state is Marx’s understanding,
“So long as they (the Proles) continued to work and breed, their other activities were without importance. Left to themselves, like cattle turned loose upon the plains of Argentina, they had reverted to a style of life that appeared to be natural to them, a sort of ancestral pattern…Heavy physical work, the care of home and children, petty quarrels with neighbours, films, football, beer and above all, gambling filled up the horizon of their minds. To keep them in control was not difficult.”
Doesn’t sound too much different from today, in some ways.
So, what happened to the proletariat? One can suggest a couple of things. The Russian Revolution of 1917 so alarmed the ruling classes that they made concessions to the working class, as a way of co-opting the revolutionary thrust of the proletariat. Chief amongst those was the 8 hour day. This was significant for Rosenstock-Huessy who noted that the earliest strikes were not about wages but about hours of work. When workers in Berlin struck during the First World War under the slogan of “8 hours work, 8 hours leisure, 8 hours sleep”, Rosenstock realised that the workers had become real proletarians — that they had cemented their status as a proletariat by dividing their life-time up into discrete chunks in this way. Gone was the revolutionary thrust. They had submitted to be regulated by the calendar of interest rate calculation and the clockwork mechanism of industrial capitalism. The economic system simply adjusted by organising production into shifts. But no fundamental change in the socio-economic arrangements or in the relationship of production occurred. The “system”, as such, had conserved itself, and in some ways if the proletariat has become invisible, it is because it has become pervasive and ubiquitous. In a sense, we have all become proletarians.
But more recently, if it had become anachronistic to still speak of a “proletariat” in the older sense, nonetheless a new term has arisen to describe a novel situation — the Precariat — a new “class” whose conditions of social existence are tenuous, being without security or predictability. And this is quite different from the classical proletariat.
Clues to the meaning of this, and the emergent “precariat”, were long ago provided by Rosenstock-Huessy. In reassessing the structure of the modern commercial enterprise or corporation, Rosenstock noted that the old antagonism of interests represented in the terms “Capital” and “Labour” failed to take account of the basic structure of contemporary industrial arrangements and enterprise. Capital versus Labour wasn’t the crucial dimension. There was actually a fourfold arrangement of modern enterprise corresponding to his “cross of reality”: management and marketing constitute one polar relation corresponding to “inside” and “outside”, while the engineer and the worker constituted the other polar relation, corresponding to future and past or “forwards” and “backwards”. The industrial worker was less at the mercy of the capitalist than he was at the mercy of the engineer and inventor constantly altering the efficiency of the means of production, and constantly changing the ratio between worker and machine in favour of the machine. As the pace of technological innovation accelerates, the situation of the worker becomes increasingly unpredictable and “precarious” because he or she cannot be certain of long-term employment with any one enterprise, and therefore, of feeling at home in any enterprise.
Management and marketing, Rosenstock noted, are the relatively stable elements of the enterprise because they are most linked to the administration and regulation of spaces. But the engineer and production worker are the unstable factors or poles because they are both at the mercy of time and flux. They are the most vulnerable elements of a commercial and industrial enterprise because constant innovation in the means of production — in technology — threaten both with immediate obsolescence, particularly during times of rapid social change due to accelerating innovation in technology. Uncertainty, unpredictability, and anxiety are the lot of the Precariat, which cannot plan for the long term as a result but lives day-to-day, not knowing whether they will be made redundant tomorrow. This is what distinguishes the precariat from the old style proletarian.
This contemporary character of economic arrangements was brought home to me by an article that appeared in today’s Montreal Gazette, “Tech savvy jobs of today can disappear but jobs in sales and finance remain“. The article doesn’t once mention the “Precariat” as the new shape of a proletariat class, but it is nonetheless its meaning. And it affirms Rosenstock-Huessy’s earlier analysis of the structure of contemporary economy, largely presented in his short book The Multiformity of Man (which is available for download for those interested).
What distinguishes the proletariat from the precariat is the issue of time. For the proletariat, life was too predictable and too routine. Eight hours work, eight hours leisure, eight hours sleep. Nothing truly new could enter through this arrangement of hours. Life time was boringly predictable in its total banality — a tedious aggregate sum of moments, hours, days or weeks, all the same, that ultimately led nowhere but the grave. The situation of the proletarian was neatly expressed in a song I came across yesterday by a rock band called “Carcass”, a song entitled “Arbeit Macht Fleisch” (“Work Makes Meat”), and it gives expression to the quintessential mood of an industrial proletariat or “cog in the machine”
Prognathous gears grind
So diligent and serrated they mesh
Toothed cogs churn
So trenchant, against soft flesh
Worked to the bone
Up to the hilt, depredated
To stoke the furnaces
Life slowly slips away
In this mechanized corruption line
By mincing machinery industrialized, pulped and pulverized
Enslaved to the grind
Blood, sweat, toil, tears
Arbeit macht fleisch
Grave to the grind
Inimitable gears twist
To churn a living grave
Stainless cogs shredding
Scathing pistons bludgeon and flail
Stripping to the bone
Retund mandrels levigate
Just raw material
Your pound of flesh for the suzerain
Life slowly dissipates
In a corruption line, mechanized
By mincing machinery, industrialized, crunched and brutalised
A grave to the blind
Such is the lament of the industrial proletarian, and you will note that nothing is said about wages. Most work songs of that kind seldom mention wages. It’s about life abused, “dissipated”, “consumed”, brutalised by drudging routine, “mincing machinery”, and life sacrificed to a clockwork mechanism and endless predictable repetition. Into such a life, nothing new can enter, and real personality suffers and suffocates as a result.
An industrial proletariat (and the nature of work) faces a different problem in relation to time than the precariat of the “technotronic” era, and it’s not difficult to see that this has to do with the changing nature of time and timing brought about by a revolution in the means of production, and that this also brings with it new and very serious problems of social stability and even social durability.
None of which are presently even being addressed.