Saturday, 21 July 2012

Global Working Class

Here is a chart produced by John Smith that sums up the changes in the global industrial workforce from 1950 to 2005. It was produced as part of his PhD thesis, completed in 2010, and illustrates in a striking fashion the way in which, since the late 1970s, the distribution of the global working class (defined here as industrial workers) has changed.

The key features are the absolute decline in the industrial workforce in the 'more developed regions' since the early 1980s and a persistent and dramatic rise in the size of the workforce in 'less developed regions'. By 1980, the absolute size of the latter exceeded the former, a development exacerbated by the absolute decline of the industrial workforce of the developed countries (indicated by the dashed line) from the early 1990s.

The source of the thesis is given in an earlier note on this blog ('Imperialism and the Law of Value', 3 December 2011), and this chart is on page 141, together with notes on where the data came from.

The working class does not simply consist of industrial workers, but these figures give a clear indication of where the bulk of workers producing value for, and being exploited by, capital is located.

In the past three decades, developments in the imperialist world economy have seen the centre of gravity for capitalist production shift towards the poorer countries. Now we have a situation where most products consumed in rich countries are made in poor countries, by super-exploited labour. Any working class movement in the rich countries fighting against austerity measures imposed on them needs to confront this cardinal fact, both in order to be taken seriously as opposing capitalism, and to be in a stronger position to oppose imperialism and the role their own states play in the global system of exploitation.

Tony Norfield, 21 July 2012


  1. The sentence about super exploited labour in poor countries producing most of the goods we consume made me think of the egregiously exploited and poor factory workers of 19th century England. But then I marvel at the present material wealth and living standards of the people of England compared to then. Imagine they could see the houses we live in, the way they are decorated, heated, the indoor toilets and the technology, books, dvd's, clothes and all the other stuff, as well as the cars. This enormous material transformation and the improvement in living standards has happened through private enterprise and decades of economic growth. That's not to discount the important role of government but the economy and source of gov revenue has been capitalist.

    The capitalist system is now global and the dirt poor and egregiously exploited are the working class of other continents. While this is a bad situation for them and I would like to see legislation that improves their working lives and gives them a fairer share of the profits, wont capitalism lead to development there too?

    Nobody can doubt the exploitation of Chinese workers, yet since Deng's reforms China has been growing at a high rate for 30 years, undergoing its own transformation, and presumably it will end up as developed as Japan or S. Korea, with almost everybody eventually benefiting in material terms. That will be another significant portion of the world's population lifted out of poverty.

    There now seems to be quite impressive rates of economic growth across Africa and progress in terms of development and poverty reduction, as this article explains:

    What is a viable alternative to capitalism right now?

    Theoretically, it seems to me that unfettered capitalism with lack of regulations, with no government involvement, with no welfare state or public spending would be absolutely disastrous but regulated private capitalist enterprise can be utilized as an important engine of growth and development, along with a government that taxes it and provides health and education and infrastructure etc.

  2. I think the problem with this is that people assume that life for the Western working class just miraculously got better; the problem was Keynesianism brought capitalism to a phase of stagnation and inflation, this combination made the exploitation of the third world necessary for the further development of capitalism. While I think everyone would want material prosperity and wellbeing for all people, whether capitalism can deliver on this goal is deeply uncertain.