The changing global working class – and its implications in the imperialist world

Posted: July 30, 2012 by Admin in capitalist crisis, Class Matters, Economics, Imperialism and anti-imperialism, Internationalism, Marxism, Open Borders/Immigration Controls, Poverty & Inequality, Workers history, Workers' rights, Workers' strikes

by Tony Norfield

Here is a chart produced by John Smith that sums up the changes in the global industrial workforce from 1950 to 2005. It was produced as part of his PhD thesis, completed in 2010, and illustrates in a striking fashion the way in which, since the late 1970s, the distribution of the global working class (defined here as industrial workers) has changed.

The key features are the absolute decline in the industrial workforce in the ‘more developed regions’ since the early 1980s and a persistent and dramatic rise in the size of the workforce in ‘less developed regions’. By 1980, the absolute size of the latter exceeded the former, a development exacerbated by the absolute decline of the industrial workforce of the developed countries (indicated by the dashed line) from the early 1990s.

The source of the thesis is given in an earlier note on this blog (‘Imperialism and the Law of Value’, 3 December 2011), and this chart is on page 141, together with notes on where the data came from.

The working class does not simply consist of industrial workers, but these figures give a clear indication of where the bulk of workers producing value for, and being exploited by, capital is located.

In the past three decades, developments in the imperialist world economy have seen the centre of gravity for capitalist production shift towards the poorer countries. Now we have a situation where most products consumed in rich countries are made in poor countries, by super-exploited labour. Any working class movement in the rich countries fighting against austerity measures imposed on them needs to confront this cardinal fact, both in order to be taken seriously as opposing capitalism, and to be in a stronger position to oppose imperialism and the role their own states play in the global system of exploitation.

This piece first appeared on Tony’s blog, Economics of Imperialism, here.

  1. A great analysis of this shift from a marxist feminist perspective is Maria Mies’ “Patriarchy and Accumulation On A World Scale’ (, if anyone is interested.