[OPE] proletarianization and the economic crisis

From: Jurriaan Bendien <adsl675281@tiscali.nl>
Date: Mon Mar 09 2009 - 08:53:23 EDT


In Latin, "proles" means the "offspring" or the "human progeny", and "proletarius" means "a citizen from the lowest class who, lacking any wealth, serves the state only by the offspring (proles) he/she procreates".

So the proletariat in Roman times was basically regarded as "those citizens who are only fit for breeding", in other words, they don't produce any wealth or really perform a socially useful function, except creating more population (more workers), and their "productivity" was mainly limited to sex (there was a punk band in modern times called "the offspring"). It was a bit of a prejudice since the proletarius still had to do some work for a livelihood anyway.

Such a propertyless rabble existed also in medieval times in Europe, but the urban authorities typically compelled them, on pain of severe punishment or ostracism, to "work for a living" at some point, and rural dwellers were often hostile to these "parasites", they were often regarded as dangerous scum, though sometimes also a source of casual or seasonal labour. That was one of the historical origins of the modern proletariat.


The proletarian condition in the modern sense means "being under the socio-economic compulsion to sell one's labour-power for a wage and work for an employer, because alternative means of livelihood, assets or income are lacking". This is the obverse of the capitalist's compulsion to accumulate capital under the pressure of competition and market power.

The economic aspect of the proletarian condition is, that you need money to buy the werewithal to survive, and somehow you have to earn it, do something to get it, it takes work to get it. The social aspect is that the family has mouths to feed, your family upkeep forces you to earn money from work, and that the state authorities also force you to look for work and at least to attempt an independent existence, so that you are not simply a drain on society's wealth. So from different directions you are forced to work for an employer. A proletarian culture develops because you don't get the goodies of life handed to you, and you have to invent ways to somehow get the goodies of life or negotiate your way into them with your peers.

The proletariat is in principle "freed" from property ownership but also "free" to choose an employer, and that defines the dialectics of proletarian development ("dialectical" because independence combines with dependence, want combines with lack, freedom combines with unfreedom, and everything gets pregnant with its contrary).


But there are many different "gradations" in this socio-economic compulsion, and how it is socially organised.

Historian Marcel van der Linden describes in his book ("The workers of the world", which I edited) how wage labour can combine with slavery, with subsistence production, and with independent proprietorship, with criminal appropriation, whoring etc. - thus, sometimes (e.g. in Latin America) they also talk of the "semi-proletariat" meaning people who live a half-peasant, half-proletarian existence. Marxist schematism doesn't really do justice to this.

But there are still more aspects which Marcel doesn't mention (he doesn't really talk about middleclass salary earners as workers).

Firstly, when a social statistician compares the wage earners of the North with the wage earners of the South, there is a big difference in asset-wealth, savings, and income levels. So the workers in the North and the South often live in completely different worlds, highlighted also by Mike Davis.

But it isn't just that, it secondly is also, that in the North, workers are comprehensively insured, have retirement provisions and get other social benefits, a difference highlighted by Mark Duffield for example.

Currently there are more than 30 "failed states" in the world (severly dysfunctional, decaying and corrupt government bureaucracies) and over 90 other states barely able to secure the minimal conditions for human life in their national territory. Most of this happens in Africa. This is a completely different world.


The effect of all that is, that qua social existence, e.g. a Dutch worker, a Swedish worker, an Australian worker, a Japanese worker, a North American worker, or a German worker or labour-aristocrat is often (by no means always) "better off" than any other social class anywhere else in the world, s/he's got the best of both worlds, the best deal, because s/he can freely choose his work, had no responsibility other than to himself, s/he gets financial support for his education, and is insured against all kinds of risks - s/he has security and freedom at the same time, and s/he can save money and go for foreign holidays as well, own stocks, cars, even yachts etc.

Maybe life is not perfect, there are always life's problems and cultural/spiritual issues, but social-structurally speaking life simply doesn't get any better than this, you couldn't humanly want for more, in terms of possibilities and potentials for human development. The only limit is what you actually do with the opportunities available, and consequently popular culture pornozes into what people do with themselves and who they think they are. This is the real meaning of Fukuyama's "end of history" idea, stripped of fancy liberal philosophies, the material content of it. In other words, the end of history in this sense is, "what more could you want as an individual qua opportunities for life? Study Nietzsche?".

In this case, the socio-economic compulsion to work still exists, but you can annul it or keep it at bay, it exists theoretically, but it doesn't bother you much. It's the kind of thing that the AEI constantly emphasizes to show the benefits of capitalism - failed states need more capitalism, then things go better. There are all kinds of "development theories" in this sense.


Now "proletarianization" in this setting means, that the socio-economic pillars of your privileged existence get taken away, and that the old socio-economic compulsion starts to assert itself again with a vengeance, you really have to fight for your material existence again. t could be that the bottom drops out of your life, and you're out on the street again.

If you no longer have the income, the savings, the assets and the insurance, if the whole complex of social relations changes, then the socio-economic compulsion to work for a living becomes very powerful, because you have to survive. This changes what the French philosophe Lucien Goldmann calls the "mentality" ("mentalite" or "conscience") of people and of society.

By the way, the conservatives think this is a good thing: people have become too spoilt and too soft, and they need a good kick up the ass, so that they learn to fight to earn an independent existence, rather than expect everything to be handed to them "as of right". Sending troops to Iraq and Afghanistan is a good thing, because then people have to learn again to beat the shit out of the infidels. Otherwise civilisation is doomed and the descent into barbarity inevitable (sic.).


The "new middle class" consists of skilled, higher-educated more genteel professionals who earn higher incomes than the working class does, are able to save and accumulate assets on a significant scale, and can insure themselves comprehensively. Typically they are the first to reap the benefits of new technologies and products. They may be able to work on own account. Once they accumulate a certain amount of wealth, working becomes optional, or, at any rate, a free choice that can be decided in good time, rather than an urgent survival necessity. If however, the high incomes, the savings and the assets are reduced or disappear, the new middle class becomes proletarianized as well - the socio-economic compulsion to work for a boss and earn wages begins to assert itself more, and more forcefully.

The cultural and psychological meaning of proletarianization, the ambiguities of the process, the change in the parameters of human choices and opportunities etc. is a big topic but I do not have the time to discuss all that now. Save to say that if you become unemployed and you don't have any means of livelihood than the dole, you are also effectively proletarianized. Marxist intellectuals often do not theorize unemployment well, and it is worth reading a good work such as John A. Garraty, Unemployment in history (New York: Harper and Row, 1978).


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Received on Mon Mar 9 08:56:06 2009

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