August 07, 2022

Neoliberalism, Workers’ Heterogeneity and Class Formation

Sanjay Roy

CREATING heterogeneity of labour through the production process had been the strategic objective of capital since its inception. As capital becomes more concentrated and centralised and acquires greater power it essentially produces its dialectical opposite, heterogeneous labour. In periods of capital’s ascendancy, therefore the heterogeneity of labour and its various categorisation becomes predominant and sometimes these differences are celebrated as post-modern identities that make ‘class’ invisible and irrelevant. The weakening of the working class in a particular moment of class correlation is then conceptually theorised as intrinsic to the process of production.

Sometimes in the context of developed countries, this pessimism has gone to the extent of denouncing work as no longer being the cardinal principle of organising society. What essentially follows from this kind of theorisation is that production relations seize to be important determinants of defining collective voice, instead, other identities and momentous fluid communications and shared goals define the matrix of friends and enemies in radical politics. This is linked to a deeper rooted proposition that production is becoming more and more capital intensive with the use of new technology and a vast section of the poor people is delinked from the process of capitalist accumulation and essentially redundant to the process. Exploitation by capital therefore no longer remains the anchoring point of class formation. Some are also focusing on the relative importance of precarious labour identifying them as ‘precariat’ as against the traditional workers who enjoyed some space to negotiate with their employers by the mediation of the State and its various institutions. Assigning relative importance to the proletariat and pitting one against the other has been the new innovation for demobilising the working class.



The juridical framework of capital-labour relations that legitimises and defines the scope of contestation in the rubric of industrial relations is an expression of temporarily resolved conflicts between classes setting the norms of negotiation. These are not sacrosanct and independent of the intensity of contesting class power neither they flow from some eternal moral grounds. The post-World War II regime of accumulation which defined the industrial relations in the North Atlantic and later on propagated as accepted models of managing class conflict was essentially a process of creating the ‘mass worker’. It was a process to isolate the vanguard from the class and destroy the autonomy of workers by fragmenting labour into minute details making them nothing more than appendages to machines within the assembly line.

 On the other hand, the existence of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the working class as an alternative pole of power forced the capitalist class of the advanced countries to introduce welfare measures to establish an economy-wide balance between production and consumption which by that time, particularly with the persistent crisis since 1929, became evident that the balance cannot be achieved relying on free market. The managing of the balance between contesting class poles and interiorising class autonomy of the workers within the realm of capitalism was the driving force behind social democratic welfare regimes. The decline of the Soviet Union and the weakening of the socialist bloc was the pretext of an ideological counter-revolution of the capitalist class aiming to dismantle all identities based on class solidarity and collective control. The individuation of benefits and the facilitation of micro-level welfare schemes were meant to destroy all modes of class solidarity. The responsibility of survival and deriving gains rests essentially on the individual who through a

The Darwinian process of competition should emerge as the fittest of all. The State’s role was limited to facilitating individual capabilities such that individuals can become winners and the obverse of that was that a large chunk of them has to lose. The game of uncertainty and the unequal distribution of opportunities and risks created a society of consumers and producers and the capital-labour class relation apparently becomes diffused into a matrix of gainers and losers cutting across the class.

Workers often attain a higher degree of marketplace bargaining power when the labour market is tight or if they have strategic positions in vertically integrated production structures having critical power to disrupt the production process. Globalisation essentially increased capital’s access to a reserve army of cheap labour existing in the global South and also used technologies that are amenable to increased modularisation and externalisation of production. These changes have reduced the bargaining power of labour across the world. As a result, propertied technology accumulated by advanced economies particularly appropriated by MNCs and the supply of cheap labour and natural resources of the South built the edifice of capital’s empire in the neoliberal phase.


The history of capitalism is the history of both decomposition and recomposition of labour. It is essentially the history of class struggle where capital has deployed technological and organisational change in production to enhance control by decomposing workers’ autonomy. But history never ended there, rather the working class bounced back by recomposing the formation of class.

The massification of workers in the Fordist structure was an assault on workers’ autonomy but the mutual interdependence articulated through the assembly line became the pretext for building class solidarity once again. There is no doubt that fragmentation of work in the neoliberal regime and increased commodification have gravely hit class solidarity. But at the same time, it has expanded the scope of conflict between labour and capital. The production structure is far more socialised, and the global assembly line is stretched to homework. Every aspect of our lives is increasingly commodified, hence, opening up huge scope for producing a surplus in the realm of services. The service workers, care workers, and home workers are no longer only receivers of revenue generated in the process of production but also producers of surplus. The site of production and reproduction comes closer to each other. Production and appropriation of the surplus are no longer confined to the boundaries of factories instead it encompasses every aspect of our life. This actuality inaugurates a new dimension of class formation and class conflict much wider in scope and very much anchored into the process of production.

The class formation is never predetermined rather it grows as a process of struggle against capital on the basis of shared experience within the production relations. The different segments of working people; workers in factories, workers in small workshops, self-employed petty producers, care workers, gig workers, service workers, interns, casual workers, undocumented migrant workers and various other segments of working people who are heterogeneous in nature but increasingly tied up in the dense network of production and appropriation of surplus in the neoliberal regime face capital in their own ways.

Radical construction of ‘people’ involves a process of evolving a collective voice, homogenising individual stories of confrontation rather than celebrating difference. The process of homogenisation entails a process of mediation that enables people to see the common enemy and identify generality in their differing segmented experiences.

The objectivity of homogenisation exists within capitalism through the formation of abstract labour. Abstract labour according to Marx is a reduction of concreteness and this is not some conceptual abstraction but reflects something that happens concretely in capitalism every day through the market. The dominance of exchange value and its universal expression of money tend to measure all work ultimately in terms of time equivalents and that creates the homogenising tendencies within heterogeneous labour. The social exchange of different forms of labour, their mutual dependence and shared experience of exploitation and oppression can only be realised through struggle in a fetishized world of commodities. The worker does not see himself as a part of a class spontaneously by working together with fellow workers, instead class evolves by realising exploitation and by confronting capital. This conflict can be multi-dimensional and need not be confined to wage relations alone, it includes issues relating to working conditions, human dignity, a claim for ‘social wage’, decommodification of certain services, protecting existing rights or proposing new rights, protecting the commons and so on because all these dimensions are constitutive to the process of production, appropriation and distribution of surplus. All these create the objectivity of class formation bringing together the exploited, oppressed and excluded in the process of capitalist accumulation.