Samir Amin, the late Africanist, Marxist, and revolutionary theorist, wrote in 2019: “the proletariat seems to disappear just at the moment it has become more widespread.” Samir was not wrong.
Today, among many Marxists and labor scholars in the Global North, the largest segments of the world’s workforce is, amazingly, rarely considered or conceptualized as part of the working class. The segment of the workers I´m referring to is the world’s informal workers, especially the informal workers in the Global South and in Africa.
61 percent of the world’s workers are informal. These informal workers produce one third of global GDP. In the Global South, the rates are much higher. West Africa has the highest rates of informality of any region in the world. In the West African country of Sierra Leone, 92.5 percent of all workers are informal.
Informal labor can be defined as income-producing labor undertaken without enforced and/or encoded regulation/recourse for protection from a government. Informal workers work all kinds of jobs, from construction to taxi driving to selling home-cooked meals on the streets of cities across the Global South.
Because informal workers lack the sort of formalized labor protections and recognition that can come with formal recognition by the state, they are also excluded from social safety nets associated with formalization, such as social security or unemployment insurance. Informal workers are more likely to live in poverty and earn less income than their formal counterparts.
Important Yet Largely Overlooked
A majority of the world’s workers, then, lack formal jobs. Yet, in the popular imagination, and among many contemporary Marxist scholars, the idea of the working class and the labor movement largely revolves around traditional conceptions of workers as formalized wage workers engaged in commodity production or some other supposed relatively structurally significant job, such as dock workers or truck drivers. As a result, informal workers, especially informal workers in Africa, have been largely overlooked as working-class actors and as labor movement participants.
In the twentieth century, it was long assumed by liberal economists that informality was a holdover from precapitalist economies: the informal economy was often conflated with the traditional economy, and the assumption was that the spread of capitalism, and its attendant economic growth, would lead to a decline in rates in informality.
The actuality of the neoliberal era proved these assumptions wrong. Instead of diminishing informality as neoliberal economists predicted in the 1980s and ‘90s, the imposition of neoliberal free-market policies as well as the integration of the Global South and the former Eastern Bloc into global value chains since the 1970s has resulted in higher or consistent, not lower, rates of informality around the world.
So why have many Marxist thinkers been so slow to recognize informal workers as the largest segment of the global working class and, thus, imbued with revolutionary potential on which to build today’s international labor movement?
One reason is the stubborn, and incorrect, assumption that informal workers are all own-account workers (i.e., self-employed individuals) engaged solely in survival activities. In West Africa, 34 percent of all informal workers are actually employees. This means that millions of the world’s industrial workers, especially in the sweatshops of Mexico and East Asia, are informal workers engaged in industrial commodity production.
A second, and perhaps more significant, reason is the assumption that the survival activities of informal workers who are own-account workers are somehow irrelevant or exterior to capitalist dynamics and the reproduction of the global capitalist system. The idea is that the roughly one billion street vendors today, ubiquitous in the cities of the Global South, are insulated and excluded from broader dynamics of capital accumulation.
But the survival activities of informal workers do not occur in a vacuum. As I have argued here, street vendors in Africa actually serve important roles in the realization of profit for capitalists and in the social reproduction of the local and global working classes. Informal workers enable extractive-based economies across Africa and are crucial for the political reproduction of the global geopolitical system.
Lastly, Marxists and labor scholars from the North have argued, or strongly implied, that even if informal workers are recognized as members of the global proletariat, they lack the social conditions and structural power necessary for becoming significant labor movement actors. One reason for this assumption is the idea that own-account informal workers are simply members of the industrial reserve army, their only function being to drive down wages of those workers employed directly by capital. But the concept of the industrial reserve army (or surplus humanity) is one of the most underdeveloped and underutilized concepts in Marxist thought. At worst, some Marxist thinkers and practitioners have even written off the unemployed and urban masses as the lumpenproletariat, arguing they have an inherent tendency towards reactionary politics and should thus be treated with caution or even derision by the labor movement.
The dismission of informal workers as peripheral to, exterior to, or inconsequential for the labor movement have been present throughout much classic and contemporary Western Marxist thought. In contemporary scholarship, this line of thinking is perhaps best represented and championed by proponents of the “Power Resources Approach,” an approach to studying labor power associated with the analytical Marxism of Erik Olin Wright. According to the power resources approach, only those workers holding strategically significant jobs, such as in the transport sector, have the power necessary to disrupt capitalism and challenge the ruling class in any significant way. Informal workers, especially street vendors, have no such power, and can only ever serve, perhaps, as inconsequential allies to more significant segments of the working class.
Relatedly, it has long been argued that the demographic and geographic necessity entailed in the centralization of production and the bringing together of workers on the shop floor where they become socially integrated as a unified class opposed to a common enemy is a necessity for the development of revolutionary class consciousness and working-class solidarity. This means that informal own-account workers lack the necessary conditions to develop into a revolutionary class.
The arguments which have led to the perpetual overlooking and under conceptualization of informal workers go like this: the informal working class is too heterogeneous, lacks a common capitalist enemy (i.e., a boss) around which to unite, lacks a geographic space (such a factory or workplace) and lacks the dynamics of socialization entailed in industrialization and modernity upon which to develop into a class-for-itself. Further, even if informal workers are part of the working class, they lack any sort of structural power necessary for being effective or significant actors in the struggle between labor and capital. Thus, to recognize informal workers as workers, or to view them as significant labor movement actors, is a futile project.
But these assumptions must be rejected on empirical, theoretical, and strategic grounds.
It is precisely these supposedly “most structurally weak” segments of the working class that have brought about the most significant and earth-shattering revolutionary changes. In the Paris Commune, for instance, it was the masses of pauperized and dispossessed Parisians who established the world´s first dictatorship of the proletariat.
More recently, in the Arab Spring, it was self-employed fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi who set off the chain of regional revolutions, largely driven by informal workers, after self-immolating himself to protest the precarity and harassment he experienced daily as an informal worker.
In Nigeria, the Federation of Informal Workers of Nigeria is consistently one of the country´s most radical and progressive organizations. In Liberia and Sierra Leone, women market workers have long been the instigators and primary organizers of mass strikes, protests, and street blockages which can leave cities such as Freetown and Monrovia paralyzed.
As for the necessary conditions for class-consciousness and socialization of the working class—the marketplaces, social clubs, and traditional societies on the streets of African cities—they are more socially and culturally integrated than a typical Westerner can imagine in the context of today’s isolated, atomized West. Locales such as the tea houses that abound in the neighborhoods of virtually every West Africa city, can serve, and have served, as the social spaces necessary for political radicalization and movement building.
Even more damning, if Marxists assume that only an industrialized, formalized working class has the capacity for working-class consciousness and the power to bring about revolutionary change, they are dooming themselves to both irrelevance and defeatism. Because in the United States and other core countries, deindustrialization, offshore-outsourcing, and the transformation of the working class from the industrial sector into the service sector and the “gig economy” means that the traditional notions of class consciousness and class power no longer apply.
The global proletariat of today looks very different from the industrialized working class of the 19th and early 20th centuries. But that is no reason to despair or to cling to passe, mistaken, and often Eurocentric notions of the working class and the labor movement. We must only make our analysis and strategies reflective of, and responsive to, the actual nature and demands of the world’s workers, a majority of whom are informal.
Joshua Lew McDermott is Assistant Professor of Sociology in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at Southeastern Louisiana University. He conducts research on informal workers in Sierra Leone and Mexico.
To read more, see Joshua Lew McDermott. “Searching for the Informal Labor Movement: Theorizing Class and Collective Action among Informal Workers in West Africa” in Review of Radical Political Economics 2023.
Image: Abdulai79 via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)