Commentary. The proletariat is not a remote 19th century anthropological category, conjuring up factory workers with eyes full of soot. Today we are realizing that even many of those who aspired to be part of the bourgeoisie have become proletarianized.

A class struggle for the 21st century

Every so often—almost every day now—in the maelstrom of indignation that public debate has become, people insist on displaying their outrage at the conditions of exploitation in which some worker or another finds themselves. For instance, organizers at a Jovanotti concert asked volunteers to clean the beaches—no pay for a full day’s work except a ticket to the show and a special gadget. Or the secretary of the Democratic Party, Nicola Zingaretti, put up a video-selfie of him waving around a paycheck for just €28 belonging to a worker at Mercatone Uno who had been temporarily laid off.

Every single time, these stories are presented as if they were revealing a dirty secret—but actually, they are sweeping under the rug the giant faultline cutting through Italian politics: class division. It’s not the case that “work” has to return to the center of the public debate, as everyone is insisting, from the government to the opposition—what needs to make a comeback is the notion of class. 

We keep talking about the middle class impoverished by the crisis, about Italian teens forced to leave Italy to find work as waiters in the UK, about people who can’t make ends meet until the end of the month: we’re talking about all of this as if there was no name by which to describe these people. Well, despite all the clichés that social classes no longer exist, all these people do belong to a social class, and it has a name: it is called the proletariat. 

The proletariat is not a remote 19th century anthropological category, conjuring up factory workers with eyes full of soot, living in the slums in the urban outskirts of Liverpool. In even the most pedestrian Marxist analysis, the proletariat is the class which does not benefit from rents, but is living off a salary. 

As Mauro Vanetti points out in his latest book La sinistra di destra (“The Right-Wing Left”), citing data from the Italian statistics institute, 2.8% of Italian households have profits, interests or rents as their main source of income, while more than 50% are making a living from salaried work (including more than an estimated 10% who are hired illegally as independent contractors). While in the last years of the 20th century it was thought that the bourgeoisie/proletariat division was no longer useful, and we had all become “middle class” or “middle income,” today we are realizing that even many of those who aspired to be part of the bourgeoisie have become proletarianized. 

Moreover, in spite of those who are calling this social entity “the people” (mostly for nefarious ends), one must object that one should not lump together in the same category someone who owns an Italian factory (even in a state of economic crisis) and someone who is working for (and might be exploited by) the same factory.

Does this seem like a banal truism? Marx and Engels disagreed. If we think about what class consciousness means, it brings no benefit to me to have the consciousness of being part of the impoverished middle class: at most, it engenders some depression or resentment. However, if I understand that my lack of rights is determined by the privileges of someone else, or if I realize how my surplus labor produces surplus value for someone else, perhaps I can develop sentiments that would have more significant political effects. Such as, for example, class hatred.

Class hatred would seem to be one of those obsolete concepts as well, one to be thrown into the dustbin of history after being properly stigmatized. When Edoardo Sanguineti dared to invoke it in public in 2007, he was nearly the object of a lynching: we were in the pre-crisis era back then, and the magnificent and progressive future of neoliberalism was taking up our entire horizon.

Today, 12 years later, while personal hatred, civic hatred and sovereignist cynicism have become, understandably, the prevailing sentiments behind every public speech, class hatred still appears to be a taboo. However, it would be crucial to rediscover its political value, precisely as contrasted with that hatred which is emotional and individualized, rotten bile which can be directed against whomever: the poor, the foreigners, even one’s neighbor. Class hatred is simply the way in which this resentment translates into political power—as it always has—by proceeding to recognize who is truly responsible for exploitation, inequalities and the ferocity of the class divisions themselves.

How can this come to pass? It’s probably impossible to achieve it via protests, let alone symbolic ones. Does it serve any use to wave around a €28 paycheck in a social media post? Or to be outraged by the news of the Sicilian young man with multiple university degrees who was forced to emigrate to work in a Starbucks in Dublin, the nuclear physicist who is working as a Deliveroo rider, or the Nigerian woman who will spend the entire summer in the Foggia ghetto, picking tomatoes for €25 per day? Most likely, what is needed instead is to organize the protests and give them a real political value—as none other than the infamous class struggle.

There’s a difference between a protest and a struggle. The protest is a spontaneous, often idiosyncratic phenomenon: it can break out and dissipate on short notice. The struggle is not like that: while it does need to be organized, for the most part it involves people who feel they are part of the same political entity. This is why we have always spoken of class struggle, and never of “class protest.” This summer, if you want to understand where the left can begin again, instead of trying to incite strange, abstract entities to protest (“the marginalized,” “the workforce”), it would do you well to read, or reread, Marx’s Capital. In that way, we will be a little better prepared for the fall, which promises to bring plenty of strife.

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