Are We Not a Working-Class Movement?

Aasim Sajjad

The current resurgence of populist activism encapsulated in the so-called “anti-globalisation” and anti-war movements indicates that disaffection amongst working people and others ideologically committed to challenging neoliberalism is significant and that this activism is growing and spreading. Much of the discourse that surrounds this burgeoning movement asserts the need to move beyond the “class reductionism” that characterized the left through most of the 20th century. In general, activism around women’s freedoms, the environment, and a variety of other concerns plays a much bigger role in the today’s populist current than do straightforward livelihood or economistic “class” struggles.

While it is not within the scope of this discussion to delve into detail over the specific failings of the cold war left, the broadening of horizons within progressive circles over the nature of exploitation and over the need to express solidarities in terms other than economistic ones must be acknowledged as an important step forward. However, there is a sharp break between the present global movement and the international radicalism of the 20th century. The very clear identity of the past has now been replaced by a rather more vague, and some would say inclusive, identity. In much the same way, whereas in the past the objective of radical left movements was to replace capitalism with socialism, today the only clear objective of the movement (which is not even wholly a radical left movement) is that capitalism in its current form is causing polarisation that must be addressed. For example, to speak of women’s rights in isolation is very different than situating women’s systemic subjugation under partriarchial societies and locating emancipation in a distinct systemic alternative.

It is important to assert that the current movement is in its infancy stages. Therefore it reflects the confusions and uncertainties of a decade in which the left was pronounced dead, as well as the necessary reactions to the most abrasive manifestation of capitalist expansion in decades. The global movement as it is presently constituted is dominated by the specific cultural, political and historical demands of European and (North & South) American constituencies. The specificity of these demands cannot be understated; it must in fact be emphasized. Without elaborating on this specificity, it can be conclusively argued that the variegated nature of labour makes it impossible for a culturally and geographically lopsided “global” movement to accurately represent the nature and aspirations of Asian and African labour. 

This is not to say that the present movement should be unduly criticised for being ethnocentric, but simply that its composition and focus must be acknowledged. In Europe (and for that matter North America or East Asia), where modern capitalist institutions and trends are advanced far beyond those in the periphery, the so-called new social movements have relatively organic roots in that they are a product of genuine popular sentiment amongst environmentalists, feminists, etc. In contrast, the proliferation of environmental, women's rights, and other such groups in many post-colonial states in Asia and Africa has more to do with the foreign-funded NGO phenomenon1than with any organic political or social impetus.

Understanding this difference requires a short survey of the class composition of the general population in these different contexts. The organised working class in the core countries (or global North) now articulates concerns that are far removed from those of the traditional working class, primarily because of its considerably enhanced material wellbeing. The more vulnerable members of the working class, on the other hand, remain outside the ambit of the larger global movement (with immigrant labour perhaps more integrated in the movement in Europe than elsewhere).

In the classical Marxist literature, the industrial proletariat was depicted as the historical entity destined to come into conflict with the capital-owning class. The industrial proletariat as described by Marx, Engels and virtually all later socialists has been radically transformed over the course of the 20th century, particularly over the past 2-3 decades, in all parts of the world. In this regard, a clear distinction must be made between the worker in the core countries and the worker in the peripheral countries. The potential schism between the two is hardly new. The significant difference and apparent contradiction between (relatively) affluent labour in the core and impoverished labour in the periphery has been a reality since the global capitalist economy took shape following England’s industrial revolution. Indeed, contradictions within the working class have always been described by Marxists as being a primary impediment to overthrowing capitalism.

Although the working class is highly differentiated, some general trends can be observed. In the core countries, the traditional industrial worker has definitively come to comprise a smaller proportion of the overall labour force over time, in part due to the changing nature of the core economies and because of the continuing expansion of capital into areas where labour costs are low. On the whole, what is commonly known as “big labour”, i.e., steelworkers, automobile workers, dockyard workers, etc., generally has melded with the educated middle class in terms of its standard of living. On the other hand, labour in the service sectors, e.g., hotel and restaurant workers, is considerably less well off, partly because of the peri-urban/rural nature of this labour and also because much labour in the service sector is migrant.

In many cases “big labour” tends to be conservative, largely because of its (relatively) upward socially mobile nature. Immigrant and service-sector labour tends to be badly organized, or hampered by problems of discrimination and bias. In general the declining state of unionism points to the problem of inculcating and mobilizing around a distinct worker consciousness after the "death" of leftist politics. Even relatively vulnerable workers are often oriented towards immediate and personal material advancement, a trend due in large part to the consumer hegemony that has been firmly established in most capitalist societies.

Meanwhile in the periphery countries, the industrial workforce has fragmented beyond recognition in that industrial workers no longer comprise a distinct identity. Sub-contracting is now standard practice and the possibility of organizing workers in such a context becomes less and less with each passing day. This is because of the peripheral state’s tendency to bend over backwards to create incentives for multinational capital, and also because of the decline in (independent) trade unionism. There are some contexts within which industrial labour (to the extent that it has not been fragmented) is still reasonably well organized, such as in parts of Latin America and South Korea, but on the whole the classical form of industrial labour stands dismantled.

In its place has proliferated an unorganized and completely unprotected form of labour that is unprecedented in its size and degree of exploitation. Whether in the agricultural, manufacturing or service sectors, huge surplus pools of labour and the collapse of progressive politics have ensured that conditions of labour decline at a staggering rate. All pretensions at the local, state, regional and global level of protection for “informal”-sector labour can be easily dismissed as mere rhetoric. In countries like Pakistan, an estimated 3% of the workforce is unionized, which is also a pretty good indicator of the proportion of the workforce in the industrial sector. Meanwhile in the former countries of 'actually existing socialism', there has been a similar process of fragmentation and decline in unionism such that the vast majority of wage-earners are extremely vulnerable and poorly organized. The decline in facilities and living standards of workers in these countries has been most acute now that they are back within the capitalist fold.

This brief survey suggests that only a minority of the populations in the core countries can be considered economically vulnerable. While this figure may be growing due to the neoliberal onslaught, the fact of the matter is that decline in class consciousness among "workers" in the core countries is due as much to demographics as it is to the decline in working-class politics at large. As a result, traditional labour in the core countries has been less visible in the current movement than have NGOs and new social movements. The latter have played an important role in, for example, agitating against the role of the international financial institutions as well as bringing women’s, environmental, and sexual rights issues into the discourse. It is widely argued that they play a more radical and internationalist role than established working-class entities such as “big labour” unions. The existence, nature and politics of such NGOs in the core countries is arguably quite legitimate given the changing composition of the working class, and other factors that will be discussed below. However, it needs to be acknowledged by these NGOs and those operating in the periphery that the needs of labour in the peripheral countries are not only inadequately represented by such groups, but in fact may be misrepresented.

As an increasing number of observers and activists have pointed out, the proliferation of donor-funded organizations without the kind of political constituency that has long characterized popular working-class movements has had a significant impact upon radical discourse in the periphery. Even in Latin America, where the radical tradition has survived to a much greater extent than in many other parts of the periphery, there has been a tendency towards the “liberal” visions that are often represented by NGOs. Buzzwords such as participation best represent the liberal rhetoric of NGOs. This is not to say that plurality and democratic expression is not an important and coveted feature of the present movement, but that it can also be potentially limiting if it starts to take on too much of an apolitical edge.

In this regard, examples of NGO interventions in recent movements in Pakistan offer an important insight. The country’s most vibrant and politically visible working-class movement for many years is one of landless tenants on state land in the biggest and politically most powerful province, Punjab. The Anjuman Mazarain Punjab (Tenants Association of Punjab, AMP) has spearheaded a revolt since June 2000 against the existing tenure arrangement that has prevailed for almost a century (institutionalized under British colonial rule) under which tenants surrendered at least half of their harvest shares to government agencies including the army. The relationship between the tenants and these agencies, particularly the army, was quite clearly oppressive and based on an extractive colonial social contract. The revolt was comprehensive: almost a million tenants and their families, spread out over 10 districts of the province, effected a massive civil disobedience campaign by refusing to give up harvest shares and then proceeded to demand immediate ownership of the land in question, approximately 70,000 acres.

The revolt garnered considerable popular support and was taken up by numerous political parties, including those of the left. The state response was expectedly violent. In the four and a half years since the beginning of the revolt, 9 tenants have been killed by state agencies, thousands named in serious criminal cases including anti-terrorist cases, hundreds incarcerated, and tenant villages have been literally besieged for months on end by security forces. Given the nature of the conflict, both local and international NGOs kept an arm’s length for a long period, volunteering only vague statements of support periodically. Eventually however, an international NGO offered a handful of tenants financial support without consulting the movement’s organized leadership or even considering the effect that such an intervention might have on the movement’s internal dynamics and its overall legitimacy.2The results of this intervention were disastrous. An internal split and questions from allies about how organic the movement really was were the two most obvious outcomes. The impact of this intervention continues to be felt even now, although it is worth pointing out that the movement has survived at least in part because the NGO intervention was superficial and did not proceed after the initial damage was done. In any case, such NGO interventions are not isolated instances and reflect the general lack of political understanding that NGOs tend to have of complex political dynamics within working-class struggles. At a general level, NGOs have contributed to the weakening of a progressive political culture in Pakistan, most significantly by undermining the volunteerism of the political activist by introducing material incentives and remuneration into activist work.

In the context of the AMP’s struggle it is also worth considering how the ‘new’ activist discourse that has been propagated in Pakistan, particularly after 1991—in which class has been replaced by terms such as ‘marginalized’ and ‘excluded’—has affected working class struggles. Needless to say, the political content of terms such as ‘marginalized’ and ‘excluded’ is far more tame than ‘class’ and has coincided with the onslaught of donor funding. Around the world, the post-1991 era has seen an eruption of neoliberal idiom, including that of democracy, human rights, and freedom. Although there is a critical discourse challenging neoliberalism that has gained ground in some parts of the world in recent times, the political and academic discourses in peripheral countries such as Pakistan are still heavily influenced by, and some would say entirely shaped by the neoliberal pretensions of donors, the state, and political entities that toe the official line. Meanwhile, radical parties and intellectuals who have long been victimized by the state are far too scattered and disorganized to challenge this new discourse. As a result many clearly radical and class-based movements are either coopted or severely weakened.

This tendency to undermine the potential of radical struggles is found not just among those actors that would be expected to do exactly this, but also within influential segments of the current global movement. As suggested, while the discourses of new social movements in the core countries may be justified under specific conditions, they may have deleterious effects upon movements in the periphery. An attempt to understand the objective conditions in both the core and periphery that have contributed to the creation of this dichotomy was made above. How do these conditions translate into a distinct difference in the potential configuration of radical struggles?

In the first world, the proliferation of NGOs and other new social movements has been a function of a shift in organising strategy. Radicals now spend more time organising at the community level rather than at the workplace. This may be explained by a variety of factors, but definitely has something to do with the degree of radicalism (or more accurately, lack of it) within the labour movement. It also reflects the fact that it is potentially easier to organise vulnerable working-class groups in their communities rather than at their workplace, largely because of state repression. Also, youth and students without a direct link to the pre-1991 left comprise a fairly large proportion of the current movement, which reflects the emergence of a distinct counterhegemony to the New World Order rhetoric of the early 1990s. Finally and perhaps most importantly, the emergence of an enhanced political consciousness and more organised demands amongst groups committed to challenging patriarchy, emphasising the ecological imperative, etc., has transformed radical discourse in the core countries. 

The community organising issue is important because it reflects that working communities in the core countries are responsive to mobilisation efforts on non-workplace issues, including housing, health, education, and crime, alongside larger political concerns such as ecology and patriarchy. In fact, as the state relinquishes more and more of its responsibility to the welfare of citizens, such issues will come to occupy an even more important place in the lives of working people. Politically too it is strategically far wiser for the left to organise beyond the workplace because, as mentioned above, the economistic concerns of the traditional working class ultimately are limited by demographics. In any case, the evolution of radical discourse in the core countries has ultimately been a function of the organic increase in the demands of groups other than traditional labour.

In contrast, in much of the periphery, livelihood issues still dominate the political landscape. Organic struggles that do emerge (even while the trade union and student movements active in the past have weakened dramatically) are invariably connected to the labour power of the working class and its exploitation by capital. As hinted at earlier, this has much to do with the dynamics of capitalist expansion whereby more and more daring assaults are being made by multinational capital on the resources and markets of the third world. These assaults are necessarily inducing responses from those under attack. This is not to say that non-workplace or non-livelihood issues are not a major battleground. They most definitely are. For example, urban squatters in most third-world cities have constantly engaged in struggles to maintain their shelter. However, at some level even these struggles can be directly correlated to class conflict. The different politics of groups associated with such struggles in Pakistan offers another insight into the legitimacy issue surrounding NGOs in the periphery.

In Pakistan evictions of urban squatters are commonplace, as in most other similar contexts. The difference between radical groups committed to working-class emancipation and NGOs in their work with squatters is painfully obvious. The former engage in direct action, unafraid to butt heads with the state and keen to introduce into the mainstream political idiom the logic of class conflict and the fact that evictions are yet another reflection of the imperative of capitalist expansion. In so doing they emphasise the importance of the class composition of the state and how this fact has a huge bearing on the urban planning processes that condemn squatters to perpetual insecurity. Meanwhile, NGOs harp on about international human rights laws and engage primarily in "advocacy and lobbying" work, typically after an eviction has already taken place.

Lest the objective of this critique be misunderstood, it is important to assert that I am not propounding a blanket condemnation of NGOs in the periphery countries. In fact it is worth noting that NGOs in countries like Pakistan take up hugely important struggles that would otherwise be totally ignored, including those of women's freedoms and the environment. However, NGOs do not clearly identify patriarchy as the cause of women’s oppression,3nor do they see corporatisation as the root of the ecological crisis. The nature of the NGOs’ interventions must be seen in terms of the conscious or unconscious politics that such interventions propagate. By coopting such a large segment of activist work into the realm of donor funding, replete with all of the ideological baggage that such funding entails, the NGO phenomenon in countries like Pakistan is potentially debilitating to the working-class movement as a whole.

One of the reasons for this crisis is that a large number of left political activists of the past are now part of NGOs and are propagating the neoliberal rhetoric of the present day to the detriment of needed radical critiques. For example, Pakistan's military dictator General Pervez Musharraf has been blessed with large amounts of donor money for his self-proclaimed 'silent revolution' through which local elections have been held at village and municipal levels across the country. Even if it were not clear prior to the so-called “devolution of power” initiative, it has now been indubitably established that this silent revolution was an exercise in centralising power by creating a pliant coterie of "elected" officials at the local level. NGOs played a critical role in this entire process, legitimising it and describing it as the panacea to the problems of the ‘poor’ and ‘marginalised’ people of Pakistan.

In the context of Pakistan (like many other Muslim-majority periphery states), the potential emergence of a new and progressive radical internationalism is seriously constrained by the other major social movement of the present day, political Islam—and not only because of the obvious threat that this current poses to our own efforts to mobilise. Many uninformed segments of our global movement fail to recognise the genuine significance of political Islam and at best categorise it as the “terrorism of the weak”. The liberal and Westernised minority in Pakistan—which is essentially the same group that is closely affiliated with NGOs—has often tended to regard the religious right as the biggest challenge to its own interests in terms of how the right has encroached upon liberal public space. Conversely, most left organisations see the rise of the right as a consequence of the geo-strategic whims of empire and the Pakistani state, particularly during the Afghan War of the 1980s. The left then views its struggle as a struggle against the nexus of the state/imperialism/religious right. The liberals often do not make this connection, which explains their support of the rhetoric of imperialism and the state against religious extremism.

This is not to say that the religious right is not a very regressive force. In fact, in recent years the right has attacked NGOs both physically and otherwise by labeling NGOs 'secular' or in other words, anti-Islam. However the liberals' shortsightedness must be seen in the context of the fact that a large number of working people in countries like Pakistan are heavily influenced by Islam, even if not by its institutionalised form. In effect, NGOs and the liberal population at large are alienated from a fairly large part of the working class because they often do not relate to local culture expressed in the ‘religious’ idiom. Whether in terms of lifestyle choice—which should not be under-emphasised in the practice of working-class politics—or even because of the expression of a crass anti-religiosity, the liberal population itself tends to limit its engagement with working-class communities. Meanwhile the right is far more in tune to the cultural realities of working communities and also benefits heavily from its patronage by the state. Given this state of affairs it is difficult to comprehend why the NGO circle does not reconsider its means and methods and the fact that it is failing miserably to establish relationships with working-class constituencies. This is not to say that the overtly leftist political organisations are necessarily doing any better than NGOs, but this is less because of a lack of understanding of the requirements of an organic politics and more because of the variety of other factors that have been outlined here.

What is important to bear in mind is that the NGO phenomenon may have extremely varying dynamics in each different context. On the whole however, there is an urgent need for the global movement to overtly recognise that due to the predominance of European, North American and Latin American influences, it has a tendency to be over-generalised in terms of its content. To its credit however, the effort to expand the movement's geographical reach has been made on more than one occasion, whether symbolically or otherwise. However, there is a genuine danger that the significant “NGO” component of the present movement—a phenomenon in and of itself—may douse the radicalism of emerging movements in the Asian and African contexts. It is also worth considering that the NGO-isation of resistance—as Arundhati Roy has called it—has contributed greatly to the wholly exaggerated importance associated with "summit-hopping". The lack of depth of a movement too reliant on paid activists will surely show up sooner or later.

If one were to trace out the underpinnings of this potential crisis, it can inevitably be traced to the “death” of socialism. The demise of Soviet communism and the gradual dismantling of the capitalist welfare state have precipitated the shift to a violent, aggressive neoliberal capitalist model that is unprecedented in its radicalism. While there is considerably less support for notions such as the “End of History” now as compared to a decade ago, and as resistance to the overt oppression of neoliberalism grows, there can be little doubt that progressive forces are still only emerging from the crisis that arguably has existed since well before 1991.

The insistence of the system’s ideologues that socialism has failed is based on the premise that it is no longer historically relevant. Some ideologues concede that socialism may have been relevant at one stage, but they argue that capitalism has proven dynamic and flexible and has successfully countered the basic contradictions that socialists of all variations claimed would destroy it. One of the central tenets of this rather vague obituary is that the historical construct named “class” has become obsolete.

In particular, the obituary proclaims that the notion that “capitalists” would necessarily come into confrontation with “workers” has been disproven repeatedly by historical evidence in numerous nation-state contexts. The argument proceeds by suggesting that the system has regulated itself and ensured that workers get to share in the benefits of capital accumulation and growth. But then socialists themselves have made this admission at various points over the past century. Most famously, Lenin suggested that the expansion of capital into foreign economies was at least partly precipitated by the hugely differing costs of labour between Europe and the colonies. The dramatic increase in real wages of European workers from 1870 onwards (with some notable periods of exception) would not have been possible without transferring the burden of capitalist expansion onto the colonies and later the third world.

But the obituary goes on. The ideologues say that the inevitability of class conflict has also been undermined by the enormous advances in information technology and the development of finance capital. This is because a large number of “workers” are now also “owners” on account of public listings and “free entry and exit” vis-à-vis financial markets. The tremendous increase in purchasing power of “workers” has facilitated this mobility. Furthermore, a larger and larger number of “workers” are involved in work that is neither menial nor degrading, and in fact is intellectually stimulating and leads to increased social cohesion and uniformity between “owners” and “workers”. Needless to say, such claims are more of an appeal to the imagination than a reflection of reality. Even if one completely ignores the situation of working people in the periphery, including the type of work and their rewards, the claim that the “working class” in the core countries is virtually indistinguishable from “capitalists” is a gross generalization that has no basis in reality.

What the ideologues really want to say, and what would be a much more accurate reflection of the facts, is that the consciousness of the working class has been eroded so much that workers in many parts of the world now sees themselves as consumers first and as workers second. No doubt this has much to do with the dynamics of capitalist expansion and the tumultuous changes that have taken place in the form and nature of the working class in both the core and the periphery. It also has to do with the tremendously enhanced scope for the creation and consolidation of a consumer consciousness—the ultimate form of capitalist hegemony given how it erodes worker consciousness.

To what extent has the global movement itself contributed to this eroding of worker consciousness? If the analysis here is accurate even to a degree, we must admit that the proliferation of NGOs in the periphery is not just due to the deliberate efforts of imperialism. In the interests of escaping "class reductionism", activists in the core countries may have exacerbated the problem. Without sufficiently considering the specific contexts in peripheral countries within which this new activism is taking root, and implicitly assuming that the growth of NGOs in the periphery is at least as organic as that in the core countries, the global movement has signally failed to understand the nature of working-class struggle in many Asian and African contexts.   Needless to say, the vast majority of activists from the periphery who are involved in "summit-hopping" are those with the means to do so, which means many more hail from NGOs than from organic working-class movements.

In the case of Latin America, there are other considerations. For example, the landless workers movement in Brazil, which has maintained some distance from NGOs, has at the same time been hesitant to associate itself overtly with left parties with a clear post-capitalist agenda. One of the outcomes of this disinclination has been the obvious disillusionment with what was thought to be the anti-capitalist agenda of the Workers Party President Lula. It is impossible to sit on the fence any longer. This is not to say that we must take state power in the way that Lula did and use it for a far more transformative project, or that taking state power is necessarily even desirable, but only that we need to now take some steps forward beyond what we don't want. Similar arguments could be made about the fate of the popular movement in Argentina: "where do we go from here?" might be the refrain.

Historically through the course of the 20th century, the tendency towards revolutionary upheaval has been greatest in Latin America. The persistence of a principled and resolute anti-imperialism and inclination towards progressive ideologies even after the decline of the global left in the post cold-war era cannot be understated. While this has much to do with response to the unmitigated disastrous effects of neoliberal adjustment, it is important to consider that the social and political infrastructure to resist this onslaught remains in Latin America whereas in much of the periphery it stands either discredited or dismantled. In particular, political entities in Latin America which overtly organise around the working class are still genuinely popular.

It is in fact true that the more radical segment of the current global formation is based largely in Latin America. Unfortunately or fortunately however, there is a tendency within this radical segment too to distance itself from overtly political entities including socialist parties, under the pretext of avoiding "class reductionism" or—in more politically correct idiom—'exclusive ideologies'. On the one hand the aversion of influential segments of the global movement towards a singular ideology is understandable and even laudable. On the other hand, it is slightly misplaced because there is no necessary reason to believe that any overtly political entity that is committed to replacing capitalism with socialism will detract from the movement’s overall plurality; in fact a case could be made that such focus will allow the movement to move towards an implementable post-capitalist vision that learns from the revolutionary experiences of the 20th century.

No one committed to the basic precepts of socialism will argue against democratic expression given what we know now after the downfall of "actually existing socialism". No one will make a case for a modernisationist paradigm that overlooks the ecological imperative. Nor is it possible to claim that oppression is limited only to the traditional conception of class and that patriarchy is not at least as compelling a mode of systemic domination, or for that matter racism, etc.  However, by engaging in polemic about "class reductionism", segments of the global movement are undermining the very basis of our collective struggle: that capital continues to dictate over labour, and that this relationship must be overturned conclusively for a global society based on principles of inclusion and freedom to be constructed.

NGOs tend to sit on the fence. Overtly political entities do not. We might disagree among ourselves on strategies and tactics, and we may even disagree on where we are headed. But the one thing that we cannot disagree on is that the real battle is with capital over the right to decide about resources, mobility, what gets marketed and what does not. The battle is between capital and those who do not dictate terms because they do not have the capital. It is still a class conflict first and foremost. Why not just acknowledge it without fear for how it may limit us? We have to be strong enough to make sure that it doesn't limit us. If we cannot even do that, then how will we ever win?


1. On NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations), see, by James Petras, “Imperialism and NGO's in Latin America" Monthly Review, December 1997, and “A Marxist Critique of Post-Marxists,” Links (Sydney), No. 9 (Nov. 1997- Feb. 1998).

2. ActionAid International is the NGO being referred to. Discussions with ActionAid officials in Pakistan who were involved in the decision to intervene in this manner suggest that they are unwilling and/or unable to recognise the sensitive dynamics of the AMP’s struggle. Therefore – whether consciously or unconsciously – they are propagating the agenda of both the state and imperialism by de-radicalising a very important and potentially anti-systemic working-class movement.

3. That being the case, it is important to consider how a fragmented working-class movement can incorporate the struggle of women and thereby strengthen itself. AMP’s movement offers a decisive example in this regard. This movement has been characterised by extensive involvement of women in a manner that has challenged prevailing patriarchial norms in rural Punjab and has dramatically opened up space to women to assert themselves in decision-making both in the home and as part of the larger social formation.