Opinion | The American proletariat does not exist

By Thomas Riley, Staff Columnist

The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains, or so Marx claims in the “Manifesto of the Communist Party.” They are the revolutionary class of workers whose political aims, while constantly impeded, grow back mightier after every setback until they see victory over the oppressive bourgeoisie.

America has an abundance of wage laborers, a status most consider synonymous with the proletariat, yet the current state of the American working class lacks a proletarian organization. Rather than a community of laborers with common political aims based on their common oppression, America fosters an aggregate of workers whose relationship with capital, labor and activism is entirely incohesive and isolative. 

Capital, the greatest offender of this dissolution of the proletarian class, now entirely consumes the American worker in every moment of every day. From an obsession with the job market to a constant urge to produce, this panoptic relationship with capital leaves the laborer with almost no conception of how a given event will impact their financial prospects. Every action and every interest carries a burden — How will this look on my resumé? How could this affect my investments? Is there something more financially productive I could be doing with my time?

Because the worker has no indication of whether or not something will impact their standing with capital, they always act as though it will. This is the nature of the panopticon. The resulting neurotic relationship with capital individualizes the workers and prevents them from focusing on larger class interests, as they can only focus on their personal struggles with capital. Even if an individual can achieve some degree of class consciousness, they must stop and ponder, “Will revolutionary action hurt my stock portfolio?”

The intangibility of capital also leads to a working class that has no way to vent their frustrations, and thus they turn to each other and to the internet. There is no way to encounter and address capital, as it is nothing but a concept, yet for many, it is a cause of immense rage and even hatred.

Consider a man who enters a retail store looking to return an item he bought only days prior. The item is completely undamaged, but he lost the receipt. Store policy states there are no refunds without a receipt, and the man is now understandably frustrated with capital — as without a profit incentive by the store, they would take back the item with no questions asked. The only object he has at which to direct his frustrations is the teenage employee who cannot change anything or their manager, who also cannot change anything.

The man can either show courtesy and stifle his rage toward the company, or he may yell at the employees. Neither will have any effect, as his anger has no real object, and even if he were to traverse a labyrinth of bureaucracy to receive a refund, he will never be able to directly address the real object of his anger — capital.

Marx notes the importance of the inhibitions of proletarian organization, claiming that despite the mutual competition between workers, their pursuits only grow back stronger after they resolve. The problem that arises with modern American workers lies in the fact that their conflicts either are not in relation to each other, as in the example above, or they take place in entirely online spaces.

People desire control and the ability to make a difference, and now more than ever, Americans tend to distrust that their real-world efforts — especially in relation to voting, their primary civic duty — will amount to anything. Therefore, individuals may naturally flock to online spaces where their voice and actions are guaranteed to have an impact.

This not only leads to a more politically polarized population, but to a population that finds more success engaging in online forums than with other members of their class in the real world. The internet facilitates the ability to organize events in the real world, but it also serves as a vacuum into which a disillusioned worker may spew their grievances without needing to work to change their real material conditions. Online, someone will always listen to what you have to say, and for even a staunch leftist, this “education” is enough activism to replace real-world worker solidarity.

Even the labor force itself fractures the working class amid the rise of “bullshit jobs,” a concept introduced by David Graeber. These positions enforce a split between traditional labor and nonproductive, often managerial positions. Secretaries answer phone calls, schedule meetings for their bosses and greet people who are ultimately looking to speak with somebody else in the office. Line managers generate productivity reports about other workers, relay orders from higher ranking managers and create unnecessary work for their subordinates. Telemarketers fabricate demand for otherwise unwanted products and intentionally trick clients to make sales.

The list goes on, but they all have one thing in common — no value is created from their labor. They are necessary only in the realm of the corporate world, and this isolates them from the rest of the labor force.

Marx places great emphasis on the alienation of labor as an oppressive institution, but also as one which allows the proletariat to recognize their role in relation to the means of production. The lack of a clear product of labor in these “bullshit jobs” inhibits this sect of the working class from realizing how the bourgeoisie oppresses labor.

America contains a very large working class, but one that is entirely incohesive as one proletarian class. Divided by their experiences with labor and disillusioned by their overwhelming obsession with capital, the workers of the United States are not a group one can label as a proletariat.

As leftist groups fight for the interests of the proletariat, they first must cohere the class for which they advocate so intensely. America has all the ingredients for a revolutionary class of workers, but this proletariat does not currently exist.

Thomas Riley primarily writes social satire and stories about politics and philosophy. Write to them at [email protected]