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what is class composition?

Below is an introduction to the concept of class composition.

One of the classic definitions of class composition was set out in the first issue of the American journal Zerowork:

"Capital's 'flaws' are not internal to it and nor is the crisis: they are determined by the dynamics of working class struggle. To be understood, that dynamics and cycle of struggles requires an analysis that must operate at four, interconnected and necessary levels.

First is the analysis of the struggles themselves: their content, their directions, how they develop and how they circulate...

Second, we study the dynamics of the different sectors of the working class: the way these sectors affect each other and thus the relations of the working class with capital...

Third, we consider the relations between the working class and its 'official' organizations, that is, the trade unions, the 'workers' parties', welfare organizations, etc...

Fourth, all these aspects have to be related to the capitalist initiative in terms of general social planning, investment, technological innovations, employment and to the institutional setting of capitalist society...

Through these interdependent levels of class analysis we can understand the relations between the working class and capital. They enable us to specify the 'composition of the working class'. At the same time such an analysis allows us to see how the working class changes that relation and reconstructs its composition at a greater level of power, that is, in its 'political recomposition'. By 'political recomposition' we mean the level of unity and homogeneity that the working class reaches during a cycle of struggle in the process of going from one composition to another. Essentially, it involves the overthrow of capitalist divisions, the creation of new unities between different sectors of the class, and an expansion of the boundaries of what the 'working class' comes to include.

[From the 'Introduction to Zerowork 1', now in Midnight Notes (1992) Midnight Oil: Work, Energy, War, 1973-1992 Autonomedia, New York.]

Grappling with the changing nature of class composition and class struggle


Most of the debate on class composition over the past forty years has occurred in and around the Italian revolutionary left. While much of the Italian discussion has been stimulated by that country's autonomist movement, members of other political tendencies -- for example, the anarchists and libertarians associated with the journal Collegamenti/Wobbly -- have also made notable contributions to this discussion. In Germany, important work has been carried out by comrades such as Karl-Heinz Roth, and members of the magazine Wildcat.

In the English-speaking world, however, only a fraction of this work has become available -- and even that in a selective fashion. Meanwhile, a number of writers in North America, Britain and elsewhere have begun to develop their own distinctive approach to the question of class composition and social conflict. We hope that AUT-OP-SY can be a place where these different approaches can be evaluated: not as some academic exercise of theory for theory's sake, but as a way of judging their usefulness to the further understanding and development of working class self-organisation.

For example: the brief definition of class composition we quoted earlier was written back in 1975. How well does it stand up today, in the face of the dramatic shifts that have reshaped the worlds of waged and unwaged work since that time? What does mass struggle mean in a period when the mass worker seems to have lost its centrality? What do the struggles of women mean when the family and the welfare state have continued to fracture? What does the circulation of struggle mean at a time when millions are fleeing their place of birth? What does communism mean in the face of the 'socialist' bloc's collapse and the emergence of a global ecological crisis?


Some other themes to explore

While the heart of this discussion list concerns the possibilities of working class self-organisation, it is clear that the questions raised above impinge upon a number of current debates which hold a wider interest. >From the exploration of restructuring, 'post-fordism', and value theory, to that of gender relations, notions of difference, and the meaning of development, this list welcomes contributions which challenge and enrich understandings of contemporary class composition.

Beyond this, we offer AUT-OP-SY as a place for the documentation of autonomous struggle and organisation around the globe -- from the social centres in Italy, to the Zapatistas in Chiapas. To this end, we will be collaborating closely with the European Counter Network and similar collectives in order to further circulate information and debate about the initiatives of those involved in such struggles.

Marx once called for a 'ruthless critique' which 'neither shirked from its results nor from a conflict with the powers that be'. We endorse this stance, but also believe that those who seek to develop such a critique must do so in a manner which respects honest political and intellectual differences. Thus, while our intention as moderators is simply to help discussion flow along, we don't intend for AUT-OP-SY to become the vehicle for blood-letting or name-calling into which some other Internet-based 'discussion' lists have degenerated.


For more, go to the readings, here.