There have been many theories put forward over the years that the British or European working
class is dead and no longer the potential grave-digger of capitalism that Marx identified. These have
typically argued that capitalism has somehow solved its contradictions and overcome the disparity in
wealth between rich and poor, thus permanently buying off the working class. Evidence cited for
this has been the increasing affluence enjoyed by members of the working class. Indeed it became
something of a cliché to hear the assertion;’ the workers don’t want a revolution they all have
To argue that First World workers have largely been bought off is not necessarily to argue that
capitalism has succeeded in overcoming its greatest contradiction. Where the Maoist-Third
Worldists can be differentiated from the right-ward moving sociologists of the recent past is that
they argue not that capitalism has triumphed but rather it has, for the most part, relocated the point
of exploitation to the Third World.
Most workers in Britain and Europe do not produce anything these days.
. ‘Ahh’, my former Trotskyist friends used to say, ‘they don’t have to, because if you are a lorry driver, bus driver, rail worker etc. you help to transport materials and other workers to factories where the surplus value is produced so you have still facilitated the process and are therefore part of a chain of exploitation’. (the same argument was extended to hospital workers, nursing a worker back to health so he/she could return to the factory and to teachers educating the next generation of workers).
The problem I see with this argument, having since become one of those rail workers who are
indirectly exploited through the process of facilitating surplus value, is that practically all of the
customers I see heading to and from work each day, do not make anything either! The point of
exploitation, the point at which value is actually created is far, far removed from my job as an
averagely paid (by British standards) rail worker.
Lenin’s distinction between trade union consciousness and revolutionary consciousness is relevant
here, however in my experience, rather than the former being a potential stepping stone to the
latter, as Lenin believed, trade union consciousness often plays a mitigating role in the development
of revolutionary consciousness. The Daily Mail stereotype of the militant left-wing trade unionist is a
fallacy. Some of the most militant trade unionists are actually fairly right wing in their views. For
them the union isn’t a ‘school of revolution’ but a vehicle to improve an already comfortable
standard of living enabling them to ‘live the dream’ of nice house, flash car, designer clothes and
One union rep speaking several years ago at a meeting to discuss industrial action (perhaps
unwittingly) summed up the situation of a typical First World worker when he spoke out against an
overtime ban stating; ‘an overtime ban would be difficult to enforce, some of our members rely on
overtime to pay the next instalment on their BMW’.
It is true that many fellow workers on my pay and above struggle from month to month, pay slip to
pay slip but when one is struggling because she has a fetish for designer shoes it’s not the same as
struggling to feed a family or even pay the electricity bill as lower paid workers in Britain and many
millions elsewhere do. Whilst those struggling with mortgages may invoke the struggles of those
(other First World workers) in Spain, the USA and elsewhere fighting foreclosures and evictions,
when the house you are buying is worth around a third of a million pounds can you really be
considered one of the ‘people without property’.
I imagine a conversation between an averagely paid worker in Britain on nearly £30,000 per annum,
with a Palestinian worker in Gaza or a textile worker in Indonesia; ‘I know how you feel, I’m a worker
too, we have the same interests’, such sentiment, which I used to believe was laudable is, I now
believe, condescending rubbish.
It is not just the fact that First World workers (to say nothing of the bourgeoisie) achieve wages and
salaries that are disproportionately higher than those in the Third World (disproportionate that is to
the cost of living) but they benefit also in the relatively low cost of consumer goods; clothing,
electronics, children’s toys etc. Corporations clearly still make profit out of these low cost items so
the cost is borne elsewhere; paid for by minimising the wages paid to the Third World worker and
short-cutting on what in the First World would be obligatory expenditure such as health and safety
And then there is the environment. Sitting in the canteen one day watching an item on the news
about CO2 emissions, one of my fellow workers piped up ‘I don’t see why we should cut back, it’s the
f**king Chinese, they are responsible for most of it, let them cut back first’. As he spoke he held the
latest iPod in his hand, almost certainly made in China. The fact that China’s CO2 emissions are
mainly from factories producing manufactured goods for their export market; i.e. supplying
affordable goods for First World workers would have been totally lost on this proletarian.
The proletarians of the First World clearly have far more to lose than their chains.
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