Is today’s working class subaltern? Or, to paraphrase the title of Gayatri Spivak’s notorious text: “can the working class speak?” At first glance, this question is shocking. At second glance, it seems misplaced. Can one really say that the working class faces the kind of radical exclusion from social representation that the notion of subalternity suggests? In the light of the worldwide spread of social democracy, and its countless trade unions and labor organizations, the question sounds paradoxical and even somewhat crazy. What does it mean to claim that today’s working class is silent?

Cut to a different scene. “Tout va bien,” a film by Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin from 1972, shows an interview with a worker in an occupied sausage factory. Jane Fonda plays an engaged reporter who has sympathy for the female workers there and wants to confront the public with the conditions of their lives. The interview, however, is presented in an unusual form: we see the interview taking place, but hear a voiceover of another worker’s inner speech as she observes from the sidelines, thinking that the interview will present the public with a yet another set of stereotypes, and indicating that social reporting is just a cliché, an excuse for keep ignoring the workers as “victims.” Godard and Gorin make it abundantly clear: no matter how hard the Jane Fonda character tries to amplify the female worker’s voices, she will never succeed. She is up against the cumulative force of discursive clichés. The more she wants to let the workers have their say, the louder their silence becomes.

In an interview [1], Godard sums up the problem: to let the workers speak for themselves or to involve them in the production of the film hardly means to really let them have their say. What they actually say is not as important as what people hear, and in the media, no one hears the workers. When an engaged mediator like Jane Fonda energetically tries to help them, their silence only grows deeper. This is why Godard and Gorin frame the interview-scene as the paradox of eloquent muteness. Can the worker from “Tout va bien” speak? Even when she says something, the sound of her voice is missing. But is this a sign of her subalternity?

An Involuntary Translation
The connection between the working class and subalternity has not simply been plucked out of thin air. Legend has it that Gramsci, who was to give the term its political definition, started using it in 1934-35 as a replacement for the proletariat in order evade the prison censors. This is how the term “subaltern,” which actually means “of lower rank,” found its way into the vocabulary of political theory. Gramsci was generally referring those groups of society that were subject to the hegemony of the ruling classes. But in particular, his use of the term also extends to the peasant classes of the peripheral South that had never been integrated into the Italian nation. These groups had not unified in themselves, and seemed excluded from social representation. The subaltern did not speak the language of the nation; they could not communicate with it, and thus failed to become part of it. Moreover, lacking any common language, every subaltern group remained alone. Unlike the worker’s movement of the time, which had developed an intelligible international language in order to constitute itself as a political subject, the subaltern was still in shards.

Translation as trans-latio
However, the full potential of subalternity only emerged in the course of what has been called globalization. With the integration of world markets, the periphery itself has been displaced. In the bel-étages of the metropolis, people think that the assembly line from Charlie Chaplin’s classic “Modern Times” has disappeared, but this is an illusion. Instead, it has only exploded the factory, taking place in mines, fields, sleeping quarters and living rooms, shopping malls, garages, and parking lots where day laborers stand around waiting. It has flooded out into the world, producing countless new subaltern groups on an industrial scale.

“Tout va bien” shows us exactly this moment of rupture. As the energies of the May revolt ebb and the movement loses impetus, the film is brave enough to claim that the defeat of 68 actually contains the seeds for the emergence of post-Fordist labor instead of frantically clinging to an orthodox notion of the proletariat, automatically marching forward to victory. The cheerful pessimism of this approach makes far more sense than the desperate optimism that pervaded on the left in the 1970s, as it went into denial. “Tout va bien,” on the contrary, recognizes the signs of the approaching future. It shows us the factory’s displacement into homes, studios, supermarkets, and souls.

In 1972, Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault were on the side of the optimists. How do these new working populations articulate themselves? No problem, Foucault answers. The working class is very good at articulating itself through action.  [2] “Tout va bien” is not alone in claiming that this actually might not be the case. Gayatri Spivak accuses Deleuze and Foucault of taking on the role of condescending experts precisely because they want to let the oppressed “speak for themselves.” This accusation may seem paradoxical at first, but becomes quite clear in any deeper reading. In the dialogue itself, the “speaking-for-themselves” of the others is represented by two intellectuals. This situation is a little like the scene from “Tout va bien,” though it takes place under different auspices. The workers are supposedly “speaking for themselves,” but we don’t actually hear anything; the expert commentary voiceover blocks them out. The experts become ventriloquists for underprivileged groups, pretending that they themselves are not there at all.

Like Godard and Gorin, Gayatri Spivak is asking how the excluded could speak. Is it enough to figuratively hold a microphone in their faces? This is more than doubtful, because in public the traces of the subaltern are inevitably distorted and deformed. But how else can such subjectivities articulate themselves? That’s the point: not at all. The voice of the subaltern, according to Spivak, resists reconstruction in principle, especially when it is female. The subaltern do not speak and especially not “for themselves.” The same thing is clear to Godard and Gorin in  “Tout van bien:” it is not the democratization of representation that is at stake here, but its proletarianization!

Autistic Monads
Nevertheless, the principle of “speaking for themselves” defined micropolitics throughout the 1980s-90s. The collapse of the socialist state also broke the jargon that the language of the international worker’s movement had become. Since then, we see ourselves confronted with a multiplicity of political movements and demands that cannot be translated into one another. Their absolute majority rests upon specific cultural or national identities. A common language of emancipation independent of identity has moved into the far-off distance.

In this speechlessness, one thing has become especially unspeakable, namely solidarity beyond identity. It is as if the dominant order no longer rests upon the exclusion of the others, but upon the radical denial of their possible equality. Even when the demand for equality is articulated as clearly as possible, it is swallowed by a hegemony that has refined diversity into a imperial technique of power. It is solidarity itself that has become subaltern today because there is no language in which it can be articulated intelligibly.

As Peter Hallward has argued, there is a general tendency to neglect the issue of equality in so-called post-colonial studies, so that their insistence on diversity lead into a dead end.  [3] The conception of a multiplicity of singular subjects, all of which are  incommensurable to one another or  at least act that way, generates an autistic universe. Faced with these developments, Alain Badiou drew the fiat conclusion that the problem was no longer difference, but the continuing lack of equality. [4]

At this point, we can return to our initial question: is today’s working class subaltern? The answer is: which working class? There is no global working class today, and there is no certainty as to whether it existed at all. As in Spivak’s definition of subalternity, it is fractured and heterogeneous, speaks no common language, and can hardly translate itself. If its components have something in common, this has yet to find its expression, other than in the depleted commonplaces of those worker’s bureaucracies that are really no more than national-social lobbies. What we perceive as their “speaking for themselves” is really little more than “lip synch” by “experts.”

In a global context, today’s working class is just as subaltern as the peasants of Southern Italy were once. Contemporary capitalism’s flexible production chains set people into a relation that goes beyond any national boundary. But how can they articulate their commonalities? How do working women and men speak to one another across the gaping chasm of the international division of labor? “Tout va bien” shows us that anything we might hear today are their silent thoughts. We should place our trust in its cheerful pessimism rather than in some shouted slogan, and first learn to listen carefully.

1. In the film “La politique et le bonheur” (1972)
2. Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze: „Intellectuals and power”. Online: First published in a special issue of L’Arc (No. 49, pp. 3-10)
3. Peter Hallward, Absolutely postcolonial. Writing between the Singular and the Specific, Manchester / New York: Manchester University Press 2001.
4. Alain Badiou, L’Ethique. Essais sur la conscience du mal, Paris: Hatier 1993.