IT has been a decade since the political uprisings known as the Occupy movements burst onto the mainstream of Western societies. The backdrop was the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression, and the slogan of the ‘99pc vs 1pc’ captured the sentiment of people whose lives were in ruin due to the collapse of major financial institutions following decades of reckless profiteering.
The Occupy movements may not have succeeded in toppling capitalism but they put the wind back into the sails of class politics after years in the wilderness. Leftist politicians like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders who have spent most of their political lives on the margins are now in the running for the highest elected office in the UK and US respectively, an indicator of just how dramatically the financial crisis and the Occupy mobilisations shifted everyday common sense in Western societies. In Greece, in France, and most recently in Spain where leftists won a majority in the general election, class is back on the political agenda.
Around the world, International Workers Day was celebrated this past Wednesday, Pakistan being no exception. There was a time when IWD was a massive occasion in this country, just as the labour movement exerted substantial influence over the tone and tenor of the intellectual and political mainstream. In comparison, IWD this year — as in recent years — was a damp squib, with most trade unions going through the motions, their own constituents hardly inspired to rehabilitate working-class politics.
Industrial labour was arguably even a bigger player in Western countries during the Cold War, and has similarly struggled to recover its past glories in the new millennium. Yet a politics of class has been resuscitated in at least some Western contexts, and all progressives in Pakistan ought to take note.
These ‘working people’ have taken on other concerns.
The Occupy movements brought together a motley crew of progressives in society, with few hailing from traditional ‘working-class’ backgrounds. The major movers and shakers of the movements were young, educated people mired in odious amounts of debt which they had accumulated during university education and as young working professionals.
These young people were not poor, but they definitely were not rich; in many ways they represented the median segment of society that enjoyed a decent standard of living but was subject to increasingly demanding and precarious working arrangements. Debt featured centrally in all of their lives, particularly those who took out mortgages/loans to become homeowners.
The Occupy movements confirmed that a large number of educated, white-collar professionals have come to see themselves as workers. Not industrial workers in the classical sense, but in the sense of having to work for a living to secure a decent standard of living — and having to work longer and harder and take out more and more loans to sustain this standard of living.
It was thus that the slogan of the 99pc vs the 1pc gained credence, the gaping inequality associated with the uninhibited power of high finance and a complicit neo-liberal state triggering a rupture in the self-image of relatively educated professional segments who previously would not have called themselves ‘working people’.
These ‘working people’ have taken on other concerns that indicate their ability to speak not only for their own interests, but for the mass of people on this planet — in ways that Marx hoped would be the case when he eulogized the original industrial proletariat almost 200 years ago. They speak for low-skilled workers, including immigrants. They try and bring together various strands of identity politics, including feminist, race/ethnic and sexual rights campaigners. Most notably, ecological sustainability and the attendant imperative of regulating the irresponsible profiteering of MNCs has become a major political issue, driven by ‘working people’.
I do not want to suggest that a revolution is upon us; in most contexts the populist right wing is still stoking ordinary people’s fears against the mythical ‘other’ whilst leaving the crisis of capitalism and political representation unaddressed. This is particularly true in Pakistan where the forces of reaction and their narratives dwarf progressive alternatives.
Yet the burgeoning politics of class in at least some countries confirms that emancipating the poor can be congruent with the cause of ethnic equality, and indeed with the struggle against male domination. Young people — now the majority of our population — can bring all of these segments together, even as they struggle for a decent standard of living and dignity themselves.
Conversely, a depoliticised middle class aspiration can take a hold of us, while we indulge in a politics of identity from time to time. In due course, we will have to make a choice, and the consequences will affect generations to come.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, May 3rd, 2019