What the new international division of labour has not solved
The proletarian was long treated as an irreconcilable enemy, then as a partner in conflict: he now appears to non-exist.
If human labour is now inessential or immaterial, i.e. indiscernible, and if we live in a knowledge economy, as we're told every day, the advertising agent who invents a slogan as he showers, or the executive who's laptopping in a taxi, definitely create a lot more value than the machine operator, the lorry-driver or the warehouseman, whose functions must be automated as soon and as much as possible. Productive acts become elusive, and the materiality of manufacturing seems to vanish. The 1850 worker was looked down upon, the 2000 worker is invisible.
Western Europe did not replace hundreds of thousands of dockers by container-handling technicians only for reasons of cost, and it did not get rid of most coalmines because the seams were running out, but first of all because these sectors were favourable to organised concentrated labour, in strategic spots that put the workers in a position of strength. "Who runs the country ?", as the English media and bosses used to say in the mid-1970s: the government or the strikers ? Thatcherism was to give a definitive (or longstanding, at least) answer to that question when it crushed the miners' strike ten years later. De-industrialisation was not caused by the intrinsic superiority of the "computer revolution", but by the necessity to do away with worker unrest.
At the time when work was starting to weigh more heavily on our lives, when schools were forced to train for jobs, when clerical tasks were reorganised according to productivity norms that used to apply only to manual tasks, worker activity properly speaking was denigrated, and whenever possible transferred to Rumania, Mauritius, Indonesia, later to China.
Capital tends to treat man as an appendix of the machine, but if it succeeds too well, capital dysfunctions. The proletarian is only profitable when he's left some margin of autonomy. He is not a labour power: he sells it, and that sale implies a minimum of freedom, the freedom of the owner of a commodity, even if the item he sells is his body and brain. Hard labour has little economic profitability: even with good food and no mistreatment, the Gulag and Lao Gai are more punitive institutions than workplaces. The contemporary firm denies this freedom: when the job interviewer asks the applicant about his leisure time and expects socialising and dynamic activities that prepare the future worker to fit in a team, he reduces the worker's personality to a productive factor. The modern wage earner must not only be good at his job, he must also be good as selling himself.
Merchant society, however, can't turn everything into a commodity. Human beings are not rational calculators each seeking his own advantage measured in money. Gift (a transfer without expected quantified compensation) has a role to play in societies ruled by commodity exchange. A wage earner does not simply spend about 40+ hours a week in a firm in exchange for his wage. The essential is how he is part of the firm: how he was hired and how he works, what relations he has with his mates, with the management, and how he can modify these relations. That relationship is collective. Contrary to what we're led to believe, nobody sells his labour power on his own, and no boss buys it alone either. Thatcher's There's no such thing as society was a provocative slogan useful in the dismantling of working class sociability, but damaging in the long run. Wage labour is built up by the whole social link. There is a limit to capital's treating the proletarian as a mere individual.
In self-proclaimed developed countries that try to free themselves of cumbersome workers, de-industrialisation is hardly compensated for by the expanding service sector, and real de-skilling is masked by the growth in the number of students (and in people doing "research", another magical word of our time). The "lower classes" (blue collar and other manual workers, plus menial office job holders), who for instance in France account for about 60% of the working population, fight an often lost battle to maintain their income and social benefits. The "middle classes" find it more and more difficult to keep up with their position and to promote their children. In other words, a relative impoverishment, which won't be perpetuated without social upheavals.
Britain prides itself on having stepped into the future, with little manufacturing left, an ageing rentier class, a young efficient internationally-geared service sector, and meagre welfare for the exworkers and their offspring. This is only valid as long as the emerging countries accept the present international division of labour. When New Delhi or Nanking firms develop tertiary activities as profit-making as those now performed in London, the function, the income and the purchasing power of the London bank executive, researcher, journalist, commercial artist or computer expert will be as much threatened as the Birmingham steel worker was thirty years ago by the coming of cheaper Japanese or Korean steel on the market.
Dislocating traditional ways of life and depriving millions of people of their previous means of existence to force them totally or partly to become proletarians: this process has repeatedly given capitalism a renewed energy and impetus. But there's a limit to the exclusion of crowds forced to search for jobs that don't exist, or to accept jobs worse than the ones they had before. When pushed to the extreme, the process turns round on itself. No social system, and even less so one that's based on mass consumption, can afford to push half of the human beings under its direct rule and then reject most of them.
A non-Fordist capitalism is indeed possible, providing it could conceive of another way of organising large scale consumption. Science-fiction gives us foresight of a "dual" society that leaves the majority in misery, while a privileged minority enjoys quality and Hi-Tech goods: junk food at Tesco's for the underclass, plasma screens for the wealthy. But nothing points in this direction. On the contrary, accumulation still relies on the production of goods bought on ever-expanding markets. Tesco's or Woolworth's are likely to be soon selling cheaply produced plasma screens next to huge bags of saturated-fat crisps. This means a certain purchasing power for Tesco's shoppers. The contradiction is sustainable for a while, not in the medium term. As in the 1920s, the current technological boom does not go together with the type of wage system that is necessary for that boom to function with the best possible social equilibrium.