Workers across the developed world have been moving away from traditional working-class parties, while the left has shed most of its connections to anyone outside the email economy, and working-class concerns increasingly meet with progressive resentment and hostility: Witness the furious leftist response to the truckers’ protests in Canada last winter—one of the largest and most visible working-class mobilizations in decades.
In 2022, all this is obvious, almost banal. The more interesting question is: What comes next for working-class politics?
If you were a member of the broader left in the late aughts and early-to-mid 2010s, you were desperately on the lookout for any sign of people getting political. Anarchist occupations and rowdy protests at G-8 gatherings were “green shoots” that told you that one day, hopefully soon, people would wake up and start acting collectively to roll back the gains made by neoliberal capitalism since the 1970s.
Looking back, those stories of small-scale protest seem rather pathetic. In 2022, the sleeping giant of working-class militancy has reawakened. Barely a month goes by without some new outbreak of wildcat strikes, mass protests, or occupations somewhere in the West. Activists in 2009 prayed for a bit of rain; a bit more than a decade later, we got a monsoon.
It would be a mistake to assume that the current wave of militancy will let up anytime soon. Covid revealed something very important about our societies: They are fantastically vulnerable to even tiny and temporary disruptions, especially when it comes to the circulatory systems of commodities, goods, transport, and services. The general assumption of the left in the post-Cold War era was that the working class was mostly a spent force incapable of causing much trouble, because the massive corporatist labor unions were all either dead or dying.
Surprisingly, perhaps, the collapse in union density hasn’t made workers as such less powerful. In a twisted way, the opposite is true: Because our systems are now so fragile, even tiny groups of workers can cause serious damage to the smooth functioning of the economy, as long as they are located in strategic sectors. US railway companies, for example, have cut their workforce down to the bone, worsening conditions for those who remain. Does this make angry railway workers less dangerous? No, it in fact makes them even more dangerous, because just a few people can shut down an essential component of the economy.
Logistical chaos—at airports, rail junctions, and ports—is an indicator of the massive veto power accrued by people whose wage labor is necessary to prevent chaos. It is only a matter of time before angry workers exercise that power on a grander scale. Both the United States and Europe are locked into recession and runaway inflation, with the cost of living spiking at an unsustainable pace. Add Western technocrats’ growing democratic deficit, and conflict is pretty much inevitable. As I write, the Netherlands is being brought to its knees by angry farmers, and things will only worsen come winter, as ordinary people risk freezing to death as a result of the confrontation with Russia.
Workers possess the means (neoliberal management has paradoxically increased their ability to damage systemically vital sectors, even as it has decimated their numbers and collective-bargaining power). And they have ample motive to seek change (whether it’s Covid policies or price hikes or energy austerity).
Notably, these explosions of militancy take place with little or no leadership or support from the institutional right or left. Talk of restyling conservative parties as “pro-worker parties” may be in earnest, but it’s almost comically out of touch with reality. As a project, it is barely past the planning stage, and internal contradictions are rife; too often and too easily, the supposedly pro-worker right falls back into the settled grooves of Thatcherite orthodoxy. As for the left, it has become increasingly hard to find people who even bother to pretend to care about these workers. Which means that the farmers, truckers, pilots, and so on will have to go it alone for quite a while.
Tomorrow’s working-class movements are going to be tough, flexible, and brittle at the same time, weird as that might sound. The trucking protests in Canada and the current ferment in the Netherlands demonstrate that workers possess a remarkably high capacity for real spontaneous self-organization. Logistical, practical, and organizational obstacles seem to present little trouble to truckers or farmers, provided they are angry enough, as they set up their own fuel systems, pitch tents, and make sure everyone is fed.
The activist left’s gatherings are no match. In Seattle, leftist activists occupied an area they proclaimed the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone. Much laughter was had at their expense, as pictures circulated online of their shoddy community garden and their “barricades” announcing to visitors that they were now leaving sovereign US soil. When the independent working class builds barricades, they are finished at more or less superhuman speeds and to very impressive specs. This has held true thus far, and it will likely remain true in the years ahead.
The shortcoming of the new workers’ movements is the durability of their protests. This isn’t exactly a new development; one of the largest and most politically consequential general strikes in world history, Russia’s Great October Strike of 1905, eventually ran out of steam and was soon suppressed. In today’s context, low durability means angry workers and ordinary people will conspire to shut down an entire country—and sometimes maybe even succeed at it—only for the movement to dissipate as the political system “catches up,” and political parties and factions are forcibly reconstituted to harness all that energy.
Over time, given the deteriorating economic situation, the frequency of these kinds of events will rise. More and more angry explosions lead to more and more demands. Ruling classes will respond with either the brutal application force or offers of compromise. Gradually, the pattern of confrontation and concession will transfigure Western societies: New parties (or remade old ones) will occupy the commanding heights before tumbling down, coalitions will form and break apart, factions will coalesce or dissolve as a result of a constant and increasing pressure from below.
Napoleon once commented about his own rise, that he didn’t steal the French crown, but merely found it lying in the gutter and picked it up with his sword. Today, it seems that workers are no longer interested in asking for permission to cause trouble. As a result, quite a few crowns might end up lying in the various gutters of the West. It remains to be seen how they will be picked up—and by whom.