The International Working Class in 1864 and Today

by Ricardo Antunes


The International Workingmen’s Association (IWA) was born in London on September 28, 1864. Its founders, together with Marx, were a distinguished group of communist, socialist and anarchist intellectuals and activists, who dedicated to the project an important part of their lives.

The history of the IWA, which lasted only until 1876, was short but seminal. During the era of formation of the world market, it was necessary to bring together the various working-class organizations from different parts of the world, so that they could share their experiences of struggle and weave ties of solidarity. As capital acquired global contours, so also should the working-class movement. The working class would need to become organically international, capable of exerting power at an international level while at the same time respecting the distinctive features of each of its national components. This was the leitmotif underlying the IWA.

Already in its inaugural manifesto, the First International noted the increasing impoverishment of the working class: “It is a great fact that the misery of the working masses has not diminished from 1848 to 1864, and yet this period is unrivaled for the development of its industry and the growth of its commerce.”1 Given this hard reality, the nascent international movement recognized the urgent necessity of developing a political economy of labor in opposition to the political economy of capital. As stated by Marx in the inaugural manifesto:

… to bear fruit, the means of labor need not be monopolized as a means of dominion over, and of extortion against, the laboring man himself; … like slave labor, like serf labor, hired labor is but a transitory and inferior form, destined to disappear before associated labor plying its toil with a willing hand, a ready mind, and a joyous heart.2

The First International thus pronounced in its Statutes the essential principle, “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.” Further, “the economical emancipation of the working classes is therefore the great end to which every political movement ought to be subordinate…. All societies and individuals adhering to it will acknowledge truth, justice, and morality as the basis of their conduct toward each other and toward all men, without regard to color, creed, or nationality”4 The General Council of the IWA would act as an international organ linking “the different co-operating associations, so that the working men in one country be consistently informed of the movements of their class in every other country.” And, “when immediate practical steps should be needed, as, for instance, in case of international quarrels, the action of the associated societies [would] be simultaneous and uniform.” Nonetheless, “While united in a perpetual bond of fraternal co-operation, the working men’s societies joining the International Association, will preserve their existent organizations intact.”4

If these were the goals of the IWA 150 years ago, what does it mean to think of an international organization of the working class today? Would its most general principles become dated? Or would they, on the contrary, become even more relevant? If today’s working class needs an international organization, how can we imagine what it would look like? Is it even possible, in fact, to defeat the social metabolic system of capital with forms of struggle that are carried out only at the national level? Or, on the contrary, given the globalized shape of capitalism, has it not become even more urgent to create a new project of international working-class organization?

In order to explore these crucial questions, we must try to understand the new morphology of labor and some of its principal tendencies.

The new morphology of labor: informality, casualization, infoproletariat, and value

Particularly since the widespread restructuring of capital, unleashed on a global scale in the early 1970s, the contemporary world of production has shown increased levels of casualization of workers.5 Work has become more and more destructive. As new mechanisms for extracting surplus labor are generated, jobs become more precarious, and masses of workers become disposable and unemployed. This has a downward effect on the wages of workers who are employed. The latest global crisis has amplified this effect. We now witness a huge ‘waste’ of human labor power, as the secure industrial jobs that were typical during much of the 20th century have become increasingly scarce.

Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) have invaded the world of commodities, providing greater intellectual capability (here understood in its narrow meaning given by the market). In this universe characterized by the subsumption of labor to the machine, stable work – associated with Taylorism/Fordism – is being replaced by atypical work, outsourced work, ‘cooperativism,’ ‘entrepreneurship,’ ‘volunteer labor,’ etc. At the same time, this new morphology of labor has been expanding the range of invisible labor, using new and old mechanisms of labor-intensification. It is as if all possible activities – whether manual or intellectual – were converted into generators of surplus-value. The most important example is that of the service sector: whereas in the early period of industrial capitalism its activities were mostly unproductive, with the financialization of capital and with neoliberal privatization, the activities of the privatized service sector became productive for capital, even though they had the appearance of being unproductive. They also became generators of surplus-value.

Already in Marx’s time certain service activities added value. This role is even more prevalent nowadays. Enterprises that provide services such as information and communications technology, telemarketing, fast food, hypermarkets, transport, etc., can no longer be considered as simply unproductive, but must be carefully analyzed in relation to global production networks and the production of value.

In Capital vol. 2, Marx recognized that certain transport and warehousing activities could produce surplus value. In his words:

… what the transportation industry sells is change of location. The useful effect is inseparably connected with the process of transportation, i.e., the productive process of the transport industry. Men and goods travel together with the means of transportation, and this travelling, this locomotion, constitutes the process of production effected by these means. The useful effect can be consumed only during this process of production. It does not exist as a utility different from this process, a use thing which does not function as an article of commerce, does not circulate as a commodity, until after it has been produced. But the exchange value of this useful effect is determined, like that of any other commodity, by the value of the elements of production (labour power and means of production) consumed in it plus the surplus value created by the surplus labour of the labourers employed in transportation.6

Thus, the theory of value does not lose its relevance. Instead, we witness new and more complex methods of extracting surplus-value, including in activities considered non-material in Marx’s terms.7

Our hypothesis is that various service activities are taking on an increasing role in constituting value, insofar as, in their interaction with dead labor, they participate in the process of valorization of capital. In the early stages of capitalism, productive activities (generators of value) were mainly linked to industry and agriculture, mostly excluding services.8 With the new forms of interaction between material and non-material labor, as well as the prevalence of collective labor in global production networks, the production of surplus-value grew significantly beyond what was possible in the traditional factory.

Today, the new contingent of workers in information and communication technologies (ICT) has been called cybertariat (by Ursula Huws)9 or infoproletariat (by Ruy Braga and myself).10 Huws’s study remains central for understanding the interactions between material and non-material labor, as well as their connections with value’s new modalities. As we know, telecommunications privatization led to an intensified process of outsourcing and introduced multiple forms of labor casualization and intensification of the labor process.

Contrary to what was argued in theories of ‘post-industrial society’ and creative ‘informational activity’, work in the telemarketing industry has been marked by a contradictory process, since

  1. It combines 21st-century technologies (ICT) with 20th-century working conditions.
  2. It combines strategies of toyotized flexibility11 with Taylorist rigidity.
  3. It combines group work with the individualization of labor relations, encouraging both cooperation and competition between workers.

A preliminary phenomenology of labor informality demonstrates a sharp increase in the number of workers subjected to a succession of short-term contracts: they have neither stability nor formal status; they work in temporary activities, under the direct threat of unemployment. Workforce casualization has been a central mechanism used by capital to intensify the rhythms and motions of labor, and thereby to extract more value from it.

Otherwise, why, in the middle of São Paulo, the most important industrial area of Brazil, would there exist today a 17-hour shift in the clothing industry, to be performed by Bolivian or Peruvian or other Latin American immigrant workers, who are informally hired and controlled by usually Korean or Chinese employers? We can also cite the case of African workers who pack textile and clothing products in Bom Retiro and Brás, small businesses in the city of São Paulo, whose products for the African market are produced by arduous manual labor.

Other examples can be taken from the sugar agribusiness sector. Even though there is some formal labor in this sector, the rights of boias-frias [rural laborers] continue to be circumvented. Rural laborers cut ten tons of sugarcane per day in the State of São Paulo and as much as 18 tons per day in the northeastern region. Their workdays are exhausting, and their production is often undercounted by management. This scenario of work-intensification causes many fatalities among workers. Between 2003 and 2008, some 21 cane-cutters died from overwork in the State of São Paulo).12

In Japan, there is the recent case of cyber-refugees – young workers from the outskirts of Tokyo who do not have money to rent rooms. They stay in cybercafés at night to rest, use the Internet, and search for new contingent jobs. The best known example is that of young workers in various parts of the world (known as dekasegis in Japan) who migrate to cities in search of jobs. Without fixed residences, they sleep and rest in small rooms (glass capsules). I call them encapsulated workers.

In China, since the beginning of the century, there have been high rates of unemployment as transnational capital stretches to the limit the superexploitation of the working class. The case of Foxconn is illuminating. Foxconn, a computing and information technology enterprise, is an example of Electronic Contract Manufacturing (ECM), a firm that assembles electronic products by subcontracting from Apple, Nokia and other transnationals. At its Longhua plant where the iPhone is assembled, there have been several suicides among the workforce since 2010, most caused by the intense exploitation and isolation of the work. According Pun Ngai and Jenny Chan

The Foxconn tragedy has been dubbed the “suicide express” by Chinese and international media. In the first eight months of 2010, a startling 17 young workers attempted or committed suicide at the Foxconn production facilities in China, bringing worldwide attention to all Foxconn’s customers. 13 died, while four survived their injuries. All were between 17 and 25 years old … and their loss called upon concerned academics to closely study the changing pattern of global capital accumulation and its impacts on workers. Foxconn is a microcosm of the conditions that dominate the lives of Chinese migrant workers. When Time magazine nominated workers in China as runners-up to the 2009 Person of the Year, the editor commented that Chinese workers have brightened the future of humanity by “leading the world to economic recovery.” The new generation of Chinese migrant workers, however, seem to perceive themselves as losing their futures. More than 900,000 young workers, who have been placed in the “best” Foxconn factory-cum-dormitory environment, seemed only to show more anxieties, and see fewer alternatives, than their peers.13

This pattern is repeated in many other plants across China. According to SACOM (Students and Scholars against Corporate Misbehavior), at the beginning of 2010, Foxconn workers work an average of 12 hours per day with a basic monthly wage of 900 yuan (just under US$150) which can reach 2,000 yuan for extra hours or for more strenuous work.

Immigrants are perhaps the most conspicuous victims of the structural trend toward casualization. Given the enormous growth of the new informal proletariat, including the manufacturing and services sub-proletariat, new jobs are being filled by Gastarbeiter in Germany, lavoratori in nero in Italy, Mexican immigrants in the United States, East European immigrants (from Poland, Hungary, Romania, and Albania) in western Europe, dekasegis in Japan, Bolivians and Africans in Brazil, and so on.

The cleavages that exist today between stable and precarious workers, men and women, young and elderly, white, black and Indian, and between skilled and unskilled workers are expressions of the new morphology of labor. Pietro Basso, who has studied this phenomenon in Europe, summarizes the reality as follows:

Once a continent of emigrants and settlers, as it had been for centuries, Western Europe has become a land of an increased flow of immigration from the entire globe. Today, 30 million immigrants live on its territory. And if we add to the immigrants without citizenship those who have obtained citizenship in one of the European countries, the total reaches 50 million, about 15 percent of the entire population of “15Europe [referring to when the EU consisted of 15 countries].14

Among the immigrants, 22 percent come from Africa, 16 percent from Asia – half of these from the Far East (mainly China), and the other half from the Indian subcontinent. Fifteen percent are from Central and South America, and the remaining 45-47 percent come from other European countries, including those outside the EU (e.g., Turkey, the Balkans, Ukraine, Russia).15

Immigrant workers are paid the lowest wages and work during the least desired times, at night and on weekends. Yet Basso states that it is not about

… ‘just’ overexploitation. In Europe, the whole existence of immigrants and their children is marked by discrimination. There is discrimination at the workplace, or when looking for a job, for unemployment insurance, and for retirement. Immigrants are discriminated against when they apply for housing benefits, when they must pay the highest rents to inhabit dilapidated dwellings in the most degraded areas. In fact, they suffer discrimination even in schools (in Germany there are very few children of immigrants who go to university; in Italy 42.5 percent of students who are children of immigrants are behind in their studies). They are discriminated against in their chances to reunite with their families, and, especially if they are Islamic, they suffer religious discrimination as well (being regarded as potential ‘terrorists’).16

Immigrants are thus at once the ‘most unprotected and the most global’ category of worker. Hence, they constitute a sector of the working class which is, “objectively and more than any other, the carrier of equalitarian and antiracist aspirations, even amid a plethora of contradictions, opportunism and individualism.” They thus become “a collective subject which carries a need for social emancipation,” as they refuse to “passively accept the condition of legal, material, social, cultural inferiority” associated with their immigrant status.17 Citing the Italian case, Basso stresses that there have been some successful experiences of unionized immigrants. If, in the beginning, immigrants resorted to unions for aid, with the passage of time and with the consolidation of their presence in the workplace, they increasingly participate in union activities, as they come to represent the general interests of workers.18

The recent demonstrations in Europe by immigrant workers and unemployed youth are emblematic. Precarious workers in Portugal organized a movement called Precári@s Inflexíveis [literally, Inflexible Precarious Workers].19 Their Manifesto affirms the following:

We are precarious in work and in life. We work without contract or on short-term contracts. [We have] temporary, uncertain jobs, without guarantees. We are call-center workers, interns, unemployed people, independent workers, immigrant workers, casual workers, student-workers.…

We are not represented in statistics…. We live off filler jobs. We can hardly provide a home. We can’t take leave; we can’t have children or become sick. Not to mention the right to strike. “Flexicurity”? The ‘flexi’ is for us, while the ‘security’ is for our bosses. This ‘modernization’ is tricky and it has been planned and implemented by businessmen and Government, hand in hand. We are in the shadows but we are not silent.

We won’t stop fighting for fundamental rights alongside the workers in Portugal or abroad. This struggle is not about trade-union or government statistics…. We don’t fit in those figures.

We won’t let our conditions be forgotten. And using the same force with which we are attacked by our bosses, we will respond and reinvent our struggle. In the end, there are many more of us than of them. Yes, we are precarious, but we are inflexible.20

They are discriminated against but not submissive; as members of the working class, they seek to improve their living conditions through work. Immigrant workers in Western Europe are perhaps the tip of the iceberg, in terms of their working conditions and the precariousness of their jobs.

The new era of structural casualization of labor, in sum, has these features:

  1. Erosion of contracted and regulated work, and its replacement by various forms of atypical, precarious and ‘volunteer’ employment;
  2. Creation of bogus cooperative societies, aimed at further squeezing wages by eroding workers’ rights and intensifying exploitation;
  3. Configuring ‘entrepreneurship’ as a hidden form of wage-labor, by proliferating various forms of wages, schedules, and functional or organizational flexibility;
  4. An ever more intense degradation of immigrant labor on a global scale.
  5. In the last few decades, we have been experiencing new forms of casualization, a phase of “toyotised” flexibility, which displays both continuity and discontinuity in relation to the Taylorist-Fordist modality. On the one hand, there are more highly skilled jobs for a reduced contingent (as exemplified by the workers of software industries and Information and Communication technology companies); on the other hand, work is increasingly unstable for a growing number of workers at the other end of the spectrum. Meanwhile, in the middle of the pyramid, we find hybridity, i.e., skilled labor that may disappear or be eroded by the temporal and spatial changes that have affected production and services worldwide.

Casualization of labor seems to have become a constitutive feature of capital accumulation. The various manifestations of informality/casualization entail a break with contractual obligations and regulations of the labor force such as prevailed under the Taylorist/Fordist regime of the 20th century. Informalization/causalization is an important instrument used by capital to increase the rate of exploitation of labor and to make jobs globally more precarious. Although casualization is not synonymous with precariousness, they are interrelated, insofar as informality and casualization deprive workers of rights.

In this sense, lean production, team work, layoffs, productivity increases, and subcontracting constitute a model of the flexible enterprise governed by organizational lyophilization.21 Whereas during the apogee Taylorism/Fordism – the era of the mass working class – the strength of an enterprise was proportional to the number of its employees, one can say that in the era of lean production and flexible accumulation, the enterprises that stand out are those that combine the smallest number of workers with high rates productivity.

Understanding this process gives us better insight into why the world of labor tends increasingly toward informality: The shift from Taylorism/Fordism to flexible accumulation means that jobs are no longer tightly regulated.

How is it possible to organize this new proletariat? How can this growing sector of the working class advance toward class consciousness, under conditions of the transnationalization of capital? How can it link up with the more traditional sectors of the working class?


Just as capital is a global system, the world of labor and its challenges are also increasingly transnationalized. As yet, there has not arisen an international response on the part of the working class. It keeps itself predominantly within its national structures, which pose enormous limitations on workers’ action. As the space and time of production are reconfigured globally, there has been a process of both re-territorialization and de-territorialization. New industrial regions emerge and many disappear, at the same time that more and more factories become globalized.22

The center of present-day social confrontation is given by the contradiction between total social capital and the totality of labor.23 Therefore, just as capital makes use of its globalized mechanisms and international organs, so also must workers’ struggle become – in the spirit of the IWA – increasingly international. On this terrain, as we know, capital is well ahead of labor in its level of solidarity and class-action. Yet it often happens that the success or failure of a strike in one or more countries depends upon the solidarity and action of workers in productive units of the same company elsewhere.

Existing international labor organizations nearly always have a traditional bureaucratic and institutionalized structure that leaves them incapable of offering an alternative social vision opposed to the logic of capital. They tend to assume a defensive stance or one that is subordinate to the logic of internationalization of capital, opposing merely some of its most dire consequences. The conflict between native (territorialized) and immigrant (de-territorialized) workers reflects the process of economic transnationalization, to which the labor movement has been unable to provide a satisfactory response.

In this way, besides the cleavages that exist between secure and precarious workers, men and women, young and old people, native and immigrant, black and white, skilled and unskilled, ‘included’ and ‘excluded,’ and many other examples to be found with the national space, the stratification and fragmentation of labor are also accentuated by the growing internationalization of capital. This broader, more complex and fragmented world of labor is manifested: 1) within particular groups or sectors of work; 2) between different groups of workers within the same national community; 3) between different national bodies of labor, pitted against one another by international capitalist competition; 4) between the labor force of advanced capitalist countries – relative beneficiaries of the global capitalist division of labor – and the relatively more exploited labor force of the ‘Third World’; and 5) between employed workers and the unemployed, including those that are increasingly victims of the ‘second industrial revolution’.24

The precarious workers struggle, as did workers during the Industrial Revolution, for basic workers’ rights. The Fordist workers try to resist the complete destruction of their rights. These two basic poles of the same working class face a future in which their prospects are bound together. The former – the “disorganized” – seek a complete end to precarization and dream of a better world. The latter – the “organized” – want to avoid being degraded to the status of the world’s newly precarious.

Given that the destructive logic of capital is seemingly multiple but in essence unitary, if these vital poles of labor don’t ally themselves organically, they will suffer the tragedy of greater precarization and complete dehumanization. If, on the other hand, they forge ties of solidarity, of common class-affiliation, and of a new mode of being, defining and planning their actions, they may have greater power than any other social force to demolish the social metabolism of capital and thereby begin delineating a new way of life.

We should recall, in closing, this decisive observation of the IWA, made even stronger now by the gloablization of capital and of labor:

One element of success they possess — numbers; but numbers weigh in the balance only if united by combination and led by knowledge. Past experience has shown how disregard of that bond of brotherhood which ought to exist between the workmen of different countries, and incite them to stand firmly by each other in all their struggles for emancipation, will be chastised by the common discomfiture of their incoherent efforts. This thought prompted the workingmen of different countries assembled on September 28, 1864, in public meeting at St. Martin’s Hall, to found the International Association.25

The experience of the IWA, which for a long time appeared to have been buried, is being resurrected 150 years later.

Translated by Daila Fanny and Victor Wallis


1. Karl Marx, “Inaugural Address of the International Working Men’s Association, The First International,” Marx-Engels Collected Works (MECW), vol. 20, 5.

2. Ibid.

3. Marx, “Provisional rules of the association,” MECW, vol. 20, 14-15.

4. Ibid., 15-16

5. See Ricardo Antunes, “La nueva morfologia del trabajo y sus principales tendencias,” Sociologia del Trabajo 74 (2012), Madrid: Siglo XXI, 47-65.

6. Marx, Capital, vol. II, MECW, vol. 36, New York: International Publishers, 1997, 62.

7. Marx, Capital, vol. I, MECW, vol. 35, New York: International Publishers, 1998, chapter XVI, “Absolute and Relative Surplus Value,” 509-10.

8. Ricardo Antunes, The Meanings of Work: Essay on the Affirmation and Negation of Work, Historical Materialism Book Series, vol. 43, Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2013, chapter 7. .

9. See Ursula Huws, The Making of a Cybertariat: Virtual Work in a Real World, New York/London: Monthly Review Press/Merlin Press, 2003.

10. See Ricardo Antunes and Ruy Braga, Infoproletários: Degradação Real do Trabalho Virtual, São Paulo: Boitempo, 2009.

11. Toyotism, the Japanese model for the expansion and consolidation of monopolistic industrial capitalism, is a form of labor organization that emerged in Toyota after 1945, and that rapidly expanded amongst other large Japanese companies. It differs from Fordism in the following ways: it is a form of production closely tied to demand that seeks to respond to the most individualized needs of the consumer-market; it is based on team-work, with cross-functional teams; the production process is flexible, allowing a worker to simultaneously operate various machines (at Toyota, on average five machines); it is based on the just-in-time principle, the best possible use of production time; it works according to the kanban system, command-tags or -boards for the replacement of parts and stock (under Toyotism, stocks are minimal when compared with Fordism); firms have a horizontal structure, as opposed to the vertical Fordist one; this horizontalization extends to subcontracted firms, leading to the expansion of these methods and procedures across the whole network of suppliers. Thus, flexibilization, subcontracting, total-quality control, kanban, just-in-time production, Kaizen, teamwork, the elimination of waste, ‘participatory management’ and enterprise-unionism, among many other features, become part of the wider arena of the productive process; and quality-control circles (QCCs) are instituted – groups of workers who are encouraged by management to discuss their work and performance with a view to improving productivity. See Antunes, The Meanings of Work, chapter 4, 38-9.

12. See Ricardo Antunes, Riqueza e Miséria do Trabalho no Brasil II, Boitempo, São Paulo, 2013, ch. 17.

13. See Ngai and Chan, “The Advent of Capital Expansion in China: A Case Study of Foxconn Production and the Impacts on its Workers,” p. 2,

14. Pietro Basso, “L’immigrazione in Europa: caratteristiche e prospettive,” Università Ca’ Foscari Venezia (working paper), 1.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid., 6.

18. Ibid., 8. See also Pietro Basso and Fabio Perocco, Razzismo di stato: Stati Uniti, Europa, Italia, Milan: Angeli, 2010.

19. [Translator’s note: The @ symbol is used in Portuguese (and Spanish) to combine the masculine “o” with the feminine “a.”]


21. Lyophilization, or ‘freeze-drying’, is a dehydration process that works by freezing perishable material. The lyophilization metaphor is used to evoke the elimination of living labor that occurs during the restructuring of production. See Juan J. Castillo, Sociologia del Trabajo, Madrid: CIS, 1996, and ‘A la Búsqueda del Trabajo Perdido’, in Complejidad y Teoria Social, eds. A. Pérez-Agote and I. Yucera, Madrid: CIS, 1996.

22. See Antunes, The Meanings of Work, 93-95.

23. See István Mészáros, Beyond Capital: Towards a Theory of Transition, London: Merlin Press, 1995.

24. Ibid., 929.

25. Marx, “Inaugural Address,“ MECW, vol. 20, 12.

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