Ever since Marx, leftism has defined itself as a movement by and for the “working class.” Yet, today, this paradigm is woefully inadequate, for several key reasons: first, class consciousness is less relevant than ever before, second, workers are not the most marginalized class of people, third, the working class no longer has the power it once did, and fourth, the very concept of the working class inadvertently supports a capitalist perspective on human value.
Leftists have traditionally tried to foment class consciousness. If workers could only see themselves as part of an oppressed majority, they might be encouraged to rebel, unionize, strike, or at the very least, “vote in their economic best interests.”
But although so much of left activism has involved encouraging class consciousness, leftists themselves seem to be generally ambivalent about the concept.
Gay rights are a useful example here. When the GOP was running against gay marriage in 2004, leftists cried foul. They described the issue as a distraction, a “wedge issue” meant to blind workers to their economic interests. Yet, when gay billionaire Peter Thiel endorsed Trump in 2016, the left was angry at him for selling out his identity as a gay man to a party that was overtly hostile to sexual minorities. You can’t have it both ways — should voters vote purely on the basis of their economic interest or shouldn’t they?
The truth is that most workers never have primarily seen their identity as workers. In part, this is because as Ronald Wright said, the poor see themselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” But it’s also because other identities, such as being a conservative Christian, matter more to them than working at Wal-Mart. Trying to convince people that their dead-end jobs define them more than anything else is an exercise in futility.
Workers are Not the Most Marginalized
Leftists generally talk about the working class as though it is the bottom rung of society. But it isn’t, and it hasn’t been for a long time. Millions of Americans are homeless or in prison. Others can’t find work because of mental or physical disabilities. Some take care of small children or serve as caregivers for their friends or family. Some are students, or are retired and living on an inadequate fixed income. Some have looked for work for years and have given up. Some choose not to work voluntarily — more on them later.
Many of the poorest and most marginalized Americans do have an income, but it does not come from having a traditional, working class job. They might be sex workers or drug dealers. They might take “gig economy” self-employed jobs. They might be streamers or other online content creators. These sources of income are often inadequate, inconsistent, or illegal. They do not provide traditional benefits and they make paying taxes a nightmare. Many cannot use banks and struggle with ways to manage money.
It is all of these people who make up America’s true underclass, not the “working class” who leftists are constantly valorizing.
Workers of the World: Don’t Bother Uniting
Leftists have for over a hundred years claimed that workers controlled the means of production, and that if only workers realized this, they could unite and receive a fair share of the value they create, instead of letting the capitalist class gobble it all up.
Unfortunately, workers no longer control the means of production. The capitalist class now has near-total control. If workers unite and demand higher wages, they can be outsourced, or replaced with robots. This is already happening, even as workers largely passively accept whatever crumbs they are given.
Workers can’t control society through voting, either. And that’s because, as mentioned above, workers don’t primarily think of themselves as such and do not vote on the basis of class consciousness. Furthermore, the types of solutions that leftists politicians typically offer, such as raising the minimum wage, would only accelerate replacing workers with robots.
“The Working Class” is a Capitalist Paradigm
The traditional leftist argument for why society should be re-ordered is that workers provide all of the actual value in society, while the capitalist class are merely leeches who consume more than their fair share of the rewards. But, somewhat counterintuitively, this perspective denies empathy to those who need it most.
By measuring the worth of workers in the value of the goods they produce, it measures the value of an entire class of people in purely capitalist terms. Or, to put it another way: if we value people by what they produce, are we justified in ignoring the plight of the homeless, the imprisoned, and the disabled?
Perhaps if we were in the middle of a mass famine, and production of goods was needed for survival, this perspective could begrudgingly be tolerated. But the truth is that most jobs are simply unnecessary. Think of all the workers who are on the verge of being replaced with machines, or are literally asked to do nothing.
Or, more to the point, think of the workers who are engaged in tasks that the left wants to extinguish. Think of the workers involved in creating war machines that the left wants dismantled, the cops who police crimes that the left wants decriminalized, the prison guards who watch the non-violent prisoners the left wants released, the soldiers who fight wars that the left wants ended. Think of the coal miner, the oil tanker operator, the fracker, the counselor at a gay-conversion camp, the corporate lobbyist, the super pac fundraiser, the high-frequency stock speculator, the private health insurance claims adjuster, the student loan debt collector, the bail bondsman, or the ICE agent.
Most work either doesn’t need to be done by a human and soon will not be, it doesn’t need to be done, period, or it shouldn’t be done in a just society.
Earlier, I mentioned that some simply choose not to work. Those on the Right often call these people “lazy.” But should we prefer these people work as soon to be obsolete Uber drivers or Amazon warehouse workers? Are we better off if the lazy stay home and play video games, or get jobs digging coal?
Instead of class consciousness, we need human consciousness. We all have value, regardless of if we have a job or want one. Leftism must re-orient itself to care for all people. It should advocate for truly universal benefits, not merely benefits for the kinds of workers who might join a union. And it should always remember that those without jobs are often the worst off in our society.
The solution isn’t finding some way to give everyone(non-existent) good jobs, but to do away with most jobs altogether, and then finding a way for all human beings to share in the plentiful resources modern society can provide.