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1. The Working Classes: Origins Of The Concept
The concept of the working class emerged in Western Europe during the nineteenth century. Originally, the term was used as a plural, denoting a heterogeneous conglomerate of social groups performing various forms of wage labor. The working classes were considered to be a fraction of a larger ‘proletariat,’ that is, the estate of people without property, beyond honor. The wage earners were only a part of this amorphous mass. According to the French nobleman Granier de Cassagnac (1838, p. 30), the proletariat formed ‘the lowest rank, the deepest stratum of society,’ that consisted of four groups: ‘the workers, the beggars, the thieves and public women’. ‘The worker is a proletarian, because he works in order to live and earns a wage; the beggar is a proletarian, who does not want to work or cannot work, and begs in order to live; the thief is a proletarian, who does not want to work or beg, and, in order to make a living, steals; the prostitute is a proletarian, who neither wants to work, nor beg, nor steal, and, in order to live, sells her body.’ As capitalist relations crystallized more and more, the desire arose among the ‘respectable’ workers to distinguish themselves from the rest of the ‘proletariat.’
Over the course of the nineteenth century, social theorists and the emerging labor movements began to redeﬁne these notions: (a) the working classes became homogenized as a singular working class; (b) this working class was identiﬁed with the proletariat; and (c) this proletariat / working class was marked off in three ways: from the petty bourgeoisie, from the so-called lumpenproletariat (the criminal and unsteady ‘dangerous classes’), and from the unfree workers (slaves and serfs). An early example of this development was the Manifesto of the Communist Party of 1848, which emphatically distanced the proletariat working class on the one hand from the ‘lower middle class, the small manufacturer, the shopkeeper, the artisan, the peasant,’ and on the other hand from the ‘‘‘dangerous class,’’ the social scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of old society’ (Marx and Engels 1973, p. 77). A similar sharp distinction was drawn between ‘free’ workers and the slaves in the South of the United States and in some colonies.
Moreover, the notion of a working class was a gendered abstraction, based on the assumption that workers’ families exist mainly on the wages earned by the male head of the household and perhaps the additional income of other household members. From 1900 or so scholars of various theoretical orientations seemed to have reached an agreement on what a worker is. In 1926 the German social-christian sociologist. Briefs summarized this communis opinio as follows: ‘The worker is personally free, i.e., his physical and spiritual-moral powers are completely at his own disposal. […] He has no property, i.e., he has no exclusive material power over capital as a secure basis with relative permanency. […] He has neither a stock of consumer goods that enable him to live, nor permanent interests of capital. […] He lives in economic circumstances in which means of subsistence can be obtained only through economic returns. […] He is forced to offer personal capacities with an economic exchange value in return for means of subsistence (Briefs 1926, p. 149).
2. Origins In The ‘Core Countries’
Detailed surveys of the living and working conditions of the working classes date from the ﬁrst decades of the nineteenth century. A relatively early example was the Tableau de l’etat moral et physique des ouvriers employes dans les manufactures de coton, de laine, et de la soie, written by Villerme (1840), a medical doctor with a great interest in the social and physical condition of ‘the people’. Many writings of this kind were intended partly as moral and political indictments of social abuses. One of the best known instances is Engels’s (1845) Die Lage der arbeitenden Klasse in England [The Condition of the Working Class in England ], which gave a minute description of the working classes in English industry, mining, and agriculture. During the second half of the nineteenth century social surveys became a quite common genre, especially in industrializing Western Europe. Highlights include the many studies of Frederic Le Play and his school which covered all of Europe, beginning with Les ouvriers europeens (1855); Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1851–61) with the signiﬁcant subtitle ‘a cyclopaedia of the conditions and earnings of those that will work, those that cannot work, and those that will not work’; Charles Booth’s Life and Labour of the People of London (1892–97); Alphons Thun’s detailed monograph Die Industrie am Niederrhein und ihre Arbeiter (1879) on the industrial and working classes in West Germany; and numerous publications of the German Verein fur Sozialpolitik (Social Policy Association), including Max Weber’s famous study of agricultural laborers in East Prussia (1894).
All these works were mainly contemporaneous, though they have by now themselves become important historical sources. Truly historical studies of working classes followed at the beginning of the twentieth century. A pathbreaking effort was the trilogy written by John Le Breton Hammond and his wife Barbara Bradby. The Village Labourer, 1760– 1832 (1911), The Town Labourer, 1760–1832 (1917), and The Skilled Labourer, 1760–1832 (1919). Together these studies provide a rich survey of the British working class during the Industrial Revolution. In other countries similarly wide-ranging works usually were published much later, generally after the Second World War.
3. Classical Debates
The study of the working classes has always been central to social and labor history. But different aspects have been studied and emphasized.
The concept of the working class has been used in many different ways. Somewhat simplifying, one might distinguish three main patterns of interpretation. The structural approach uses the notion of the working class in a restrictive sense as a term merely characterizing the common socioeconomic location of a group of wage earners. The historical study of a particular working class then boils down to the reconstruction of their joint ‘class position.’ How this class position is analyzed depends on theoretical assumptions (Marxist, Weberian, or otherwise) and on the various ways in which research is operationalized (models of social stratiﬁcation).
A second approach focuses on agency and emphasizes culture, mentalities, consciousness, and social and organizational behavior. Numerous variations on this theme have developed over time. Perhaps the most inﬂuential approach was presented by Edward P. Thompson in his The Making of the English Working Class (1963). Here, he argued that. ‘The notion of class entails the notion of historical relationship. Like any other relationship, it has a ﬂuency which evades analysis if we attempt to stop it dead at any given moment and anatomize its structure.’ Class, according to Thompson is an outcome of collective experience, and workers are active participants in their own class formation.
While the ﬁrst approach has been criticized for its ‘objectivism’ and the second approach for its ‘cultural-ism,’ a third approach considers working-class formation as ‘an outcome of temporal conjuntures between multiple causal structures’ (Sewell 1990, p. 73). In this view, class formation results from a combination of economic and technological changes on the one hand and of cultural, political, and discursive developments on the other hand.
The debate on working-class formation is paralleled by an extensive debate on working-class devolution: Does it still make sense to speak of working classes in advanced capitalist countries? Or have these classes dissolved? And if there has been a process of devolution, how and when did it start? Naturally, everything depends again on one’s conceptualization of the working class. What does one consider as decisive: structural issues (free wage labor, etc.), collective behavior (e.g., trade unions, strikes), or cultural features? Whichever position one takes, it is evident that the condition of wage earners in advanced societies has changed profoundly during the twentieth century. Research has not given equal attention to all these developments. Especially the cultural shifts after the Second World War remain underexplored.
Most early contributions to working-class history focused on work, industrial relations, and labor markets. At a later stage the ﬁeld of research was expanded and historians began to pay serious attention to other aspects of working-class existence, including labor processes, family life, religion, etc. Over the course of time the ﬁrst approach has become more sophisticated and the second approach has gained inﬂuence. The historiography of the workers as a class is now increasingly merged with the historiography of race, ethnicity, and gender. While earlier historians considered race and gender as mere adjuncts of class, it is now generally becoming ace ed that class, race, and gender are thoroughly interpenetrating, and that they shape each other. As a result of these developments, working-class history increasingly overlaps into women’s studies, ethnic studies, anthropology, institutional economics, sociology, or social psychology.
Now that there exists a huge and still growing body of literature on the various historical aspects of working-class existence ﬁrst attempts are made to integrate the history of various aspects of working-class life and to write comprehensive syntheses. The most spectacular example of such an endeavour is the ongoing project on the ‘History of the Workers and the Labor Movement in Germany since the End of the Eighteenth Century,’ co-ordinated by Gerhard A. Ritter (see Kocka 1990, 1991, Ritter and Tenfelde1992, Schneider 1999, Winkler 1984, 1985, 1987).
4. The Rise Of The ‘Periphery’
The growth of working classes outside the advanced capitalist countries has, especially since the Second World War, caused an increased interest in the working classes of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. From a contemporary point of view this ﬁeld was ﬁrst explored by anthropologists and students of industrial relations, who were interested in the problems accompanying the integration of rural migrants into the emerging wage-earning economies. Early examples were A. L. Epstein’s ethnographic Politics in an Urban African Community (1958), on copper miners in Northern Rhodesia, and industrial relations studies driven by the question how processes of social change could be controlled and how the ‘commitment’ of the workers could be intensiﬁed (e.g., Moore and Feldman 1960; see also Breman 1999).
Simultaneously, historiographical studies emerged; initially these were often based on official sources and looked at the workers through the eyes of employers and authorities. Such was for instance the case in J. Norman Parmer’s thorough Colonial Labor Policy and Administration (1960) on the rubber plantation industry in Malaya during the last decades before the Second World War. Since the 1960s and 1970s the historiography of the ‘peripheral’ working classes has changed too. First there was an upsurge of classical labor movement history. Many of the major early studies of this genre were written by radical intellectuals, like Jean Chesneaux’s Le mouvement ouvrier en Chine de 1919 a 1927 (1962) or Guillermo Lora’s Historia del movimiento obrero Boliviana (1967–70). Second, gradually the perspective broadened and everyday life, mentalities, etc. of working classes received more attention, just as had been the case in the historiography of the high-income countries. Early at- tempts in this direction were still heavily inﬂuenced by Western models of historical development. Morris D. Morris’s The Emergence of an Industrial Labor Force in India: A Study of the Bombay Cotton Mills, 1854–1947 (1965) is a major example of this approach, despite its rich empirical basis. Later attempts often tried to develop a less Eurocentric approach. Pathbreaking works include Charles van Onselen’s Chibaro (1976) on mine labor in Southern Rhodesia or Ranajit Das Gupta’s Labour and Working Class in Eastern India (1994) on plantation workers, miners, and textile workers in Assam, Bengal, and elsewhere. These new developments have been covered by a series of consecutive collections of essays (Sandbrook and Cohen 1975, Gutkind et al. 1978, Cohen et al. 1979, Munslow and Finch 1984, Agier et al. 1987, Amin and Van der Linden 1996). While the traditional historiography of the high-income countries focused primarily on artisanal and factory labor, the new working-class historiography of the peripheral countries reﬂected the peculiarities of colonial exploitation and unavoidably paid much attention to the labor in agriculture (including plantations), mining, and the transport sector (docks, railways).
5. Global Insights
The rise of working-class history in low-income and medium-income countries has made necessary a rethinking of old concepts. First, in the periphery, the larger part of the wage earners is not ‘free’ in an economic sense. According to the classic deﬁnition, wage earners, as ‘free persons’ are free in a double sense because they alone market their own labor as a commodity and have no other commodity for sale. A ‘free’ worker is, strictly speaking, someone without obligations to any particular employer. He or she can cancel employment at will and apply for a job with another employer. In reality, however, such a completely uncommitted relationship with the boss is rare, occurring for example, among some forms of casual labor. Many workers are tied to their employer, for example through debts or nonmaterial obligations. There can also be all sorts of cultural or geographic reasons why it is difficult to change employers. Somewhat better-placed personnel can be tied to a ﬁrm through superannuation provisions. Frequently, the accommodation of workers is part of the labor contract, etc. In short: what formally seems like a free labor relation is in practice often much less free. A ‘free’ worker, moreover, does not possess his or her own means of production at all. But in reality there are many types of labor relations in which the employee contributes at least part of the means of production himself. One thinks here of factory workers who own (part of ) their own tools, but one can also think of agrarian share-cropping arrangements. Still clearer is the case of self-employed workers, who formally are wholly independent, but who in fact often form a very ﬂexible labor force for enterprises. We can also mention here the case of home workers.
Second, there is wage labor integrated throughout in households and families whose survival always remains partly dependent on other activities. Not only does a great deal of subsistence labor take place every day in every family (especially, but not exclusively performed by women), but there are usually also several forms of activities remunerated with money. Already in the early 1970s Allen observed, for example: ‘Cash crops and wage employment are simply alternative methods of coping with the encroachment of capitalism on the traditional way of life. A fall in the demand for labour increases the emphasis on subsistence or cash-crop production, whereas a drought or a bad harvest, for instance, forces Africans to enter the labour market (Allen 1972, p. 181). Within these arrangements with multiple coping methods the ‘roles’ different family members have are often not ﬁxed permanently, but instead signify a transient social relationship, which can be replaced rather quickly by other sources of income.
Third, the new working class does not mainly or exclusively exist in the industrial sector. The agricultural sphere is proportionally more important in this sphere rapidly advancing proletarianization has created a large stratum of agricultural laborers and share tenants.
Fourth, in the so-called Third World and even in the Eastand Southeast Asian newly industrializing countries, permanent employment relationships have always been the exception rather than the rule. Insecure employment relationships, underemployment, and long-term unemployment are the reality there.
6. Implications For Future Research
The new insights offered by Third World historians have implications for the advanced countries as well. First, the dividing line between wage labor and small entrepreneurship is much more obscure than was originally thought. In both the ‘Third’ and ‘First’ worlds there are gray zones of (ostensible) self-employment, in which individuals formally work on their own but in reality are dependent on one or two customers. This type of self-employment has been widespread in peripheral capitalism for decades, but lately, it has been increasing rapidly in the centers as well, such as in the construction business. Generally, there seems to be a historical connection in highly developed capitalism between phases of rising unemployment, on the one hand, and stagnation or the growth of ‘small-scale’ self-employment, on the other.
Second, the border between wage laborers and the marginal groups is not nearly as obvious as older theories would have us believe. In times of desperation, regularly employed wage earners may indeed exhibit behavior characteristic of the Lumpenproletariat, such as begging and prostitution, as a way to survive. They will also steal at the workplace, which represents thoroughly criminal behavior from the entrepreneurial viewpoint. Yet, the experience in the Third World has drawn our attention to a lower social class that can be characterized neither as the industrial reserve army in a Marxist sense nor as the classic Lumpenproletariat. Inevitably we need to come up with a new concept to apply to insecure employment relationships in this respect.
Third, the concept of the ‘free’ laborer is less precise than is usually assumed. Fourth and last, the strict differentiation commonly made in advanced countries between urban and rural life must be revised. Contrary to what modernization theories like to tell us, the ties of urban migrants to their home villages often do not weaken but strengthen over time. Most likely, the reason for this is the lack of social insurance systems. Therefore, the villages become safety nets during times of economic crisis. Recently, though, many villages have not been able to fulﬁll this task, since the rise of a commodity economy has drained their capacity for subsistence.
What it means to be classiﬁed as ‘working class’ is changing; the category is becoming especially multifarious. We could even ﬂip our intellectual problem and ask why a ‘full-time proletarian’ in capitalism should have existed or can now even exist at all. From the entrepreneurial standpoint, part-time proletarians are cheaper by far. Part-time proletarians (who belong to a household in which there are other sources of income, e.g., from agricultural work or from self-employment) lower the bottommost, barely acceptable wage threshold because they have other forms of real income (Wallerstein 1983).
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