Proletariat as Geo-Engineer: On Mike Davis

Can the working class still change the world?

By David Lau
DSA Socialist Forum / Winter 2019

Review of Old Gods, New Enigmas: Marx’s Lost Theory by Mike Davis (Verso, 2018)

Class struggle is the original form of geo-engineering. This idea is among the great strengths of Mike Davis’s Old Gods, New Enigmas: Marx’s Lost Theory, his recent work on the history of the workers’ movement, environmental history, and climate change. This work picks up from 2006’s Planet of Slums, as extreme poverty and the jobs crisis of contemporary global urbanism haunt his analyses the historical workers’ movement. He compares the classical period of the workers’ movement (roughly 1830-1920) with the present moment, when the disintegration of the labor movement challenges socialists with new questions and problems.

According to the United Nations, two billion people worldwide earn their livelihoods in the informal sector. For Davis, the growth of unwaged surplus populations alongside the formal working classes distinguishes our epoch from the recent past. Working class formation is understood here as an ongoing process ­that simultaneously decomposes and recomposes the labor force, and promotes the growth of a “superfluous” humanity alongside the formally employed. Davis views these political-strategic questions in the context of a new period of job-killing automation, with the “third wave” of digital technology further eroding engineering and assembly line jobs. While in Slums Davis opposed the idea of an iron law of silicon capitalism’s technological development, he now seems open to the idea that some threshold has been crossed. With the commonplace ideas of mainstream economics, radical social theory, and urban studies thrown off kilter in our unfamiliar historical predicament, how do we reconstitute collective organization in an age when “superfluous” humanity has become a core problem for 21st century Marxism? Here is the deep unifying principle of Davis’s research agenda over these past two decades: the defense of the working class as a bearer of “that most potent of Marxist talismans, ‘historical agency.’”

The opening essay of the new book begins with the dismal situation of U.S. manufacturing employment. Manufacturing’s share of real GDP has remained stable since 1960, but manufacturing employment has plunged steeply since the Reagan years—from 20 million in 1980 to 12 million in 2010. Andre Gorz and Eric Hobsbawm feature as early interrogators here. Gorz was one of the first Marxists to see the possibility of a new “jobless future.” Automation on a scale feared by socialists and labor for the past century is finally here. In 2016, the Council of Economic Advisors noted that 83% of jobs with hourly wages below $20 were threatened by near-term automation.

Davis’s work in Slums helped establish the premises of different forms of “accelerationism” that are common today. In their book Inventing the Future, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams extrapolate these trends in manufacturing employment to claim that capitalism’s approach to potential full automation means the classical revolutionary working class “no longer exists.” Outfits like the Endnotes collective also project an ever-growing level of joblessness around the world. For Williams and Srnicek and Endnotes, these developments mean that the working class is outmoded as an agent of radical social change.

Proposals and schemes to deal with the challenge of climate change abound today. What distinguishes Davis from others on the Left is his orthodox commitment to the proletariat as the driving force of a movement radical reform and revolutionary change. There are many parallels in his reconstruction of the classical workers’ movement and our own day. As it was then, so today the proletariat is concentrated in big cities. While the organized workers’ movement has grown smaller, it still can assume a strategic role in broader coalitions, as it did in 19th century Europe (i.e. France in 1848) or in early 20th century tsarist Russia. The question of how workers can build hegemony through class alliances in these new conditions is answered in part by a return to the high moments of the past.

These are still “post-Marxist” times despite the resurgence of socialist politics, so Davis has been criticized for his orthodox position. In a recent review of Old Gods, New Enigmas, Troy Vettese argues for a global cooling of the earth by returning much of the planet to nature. His suggested solution appears to be something like a globalized form of Cuba’s “special period,” the years of agro-ecological austerity after the end of the Soviet Union and its generous subsidies for Cuba’s heavy industry and industrial agriculture. The world thus cools by rewilding cities and farms, eating strictly vegan food, leveling down electricity usage down in rich countries and extending it out to the rest of the world. Sanctions-burdened Cuba becomes an improbable, austere socialist forerunner in this vision. Returning much of the planet to a “state of nature,” a “half-earth” approach (the term and concept is borrowed from E.O. Wilson) would create great new carbon sinks and begin the necessary process of removing carbon from the atmosphere. Eco-austerity and the de-urbanization of the planet on a substantial scale would both involve enormous population transfers and workable plans for processes that are at best partially understood.

Vettese’s argument doesn’t offer any sense of how any of this might come about. Rather than reckon with the problem of strategy, Vettese criticizes Davis’s commitment to proletarian agency, endorsing the Endnotes collective and their one-sided account of the history of the workers’ movement. For Endnotes, the retreat of the workers’ movement means that a substitute agent of revolutionary change is found in the surplus populations mentioned above.

What these and other “green futures” lack is a transformative social agent that can lead a political alliance with the informal workers of the planet of slums. One can also see a similar strategic vacancy in various Green New Deal proposals. Without an ecosocialist organization rooted in a new workers’ movement, climate change responses will tail behind left-liberal proposals coming from politicians and NGOs, unable to change the balance of class power necessary to any radical political developments. Building up the economic and political power of labor remains the main wellspring of independent political capacity.

Davis recognizes that capitalism has undermined the classical forms of collective organization, but still holds out hope that these great weapons of the oppressed could be reconstituted in the 21st century. For him, the classical Marxist view that the working class is still the most potentially powerful social group is still basically correct, even accounting for the new realities that confront us. The working class, though politically demoralized in a period of defeat, still occupies the most strategic position within the capitalist productive system. The workers still have the leverage and remain positioned—on what Kim Moody and others consider the new terrain of just-in-time logistics capitalism—to develop a hegemonic political project.

Even in their period of greatest strength, workers’ organizations were often under duress, with their advances always prone to reversal. In the face of extremely challenging conditions, however, an international movement was still able to develop. Migration gave the workers an international character in many lands. Reversals could also turn into sudden advances. Social democratic parties disastrously embraced nationalism in the First World War, yet that same war and post-war revolutionary period saw the development of movements where skilled metal workers and others could embrace “a radical program of workers’ control of the factories.” Revolutionary movements were defeated in Germany, Hungary, Italy, and elsewhere, but the crisis that gave rise to the war was not overcome. It took another catastrophic world war followed by decades of U.S.-led global capitalist growth to do so.

As Davis writes, however, history has now come full circle “in a world economy that cannot create jobs in pace with population growth, guarantee food security, or adapt human habitats to catastrophic climate change.” A revitalized workers’ movement, in his view, is an absolute necessity in these forbidding historical conditions: “It’s a frighteningly long road just to reach the starting points of earlier attempts to build a new world.”