We could argue that class conflict is not important for historical development and that the changes in the social relations among classes (from landlord to bourgeoisie, from peasant to worker) are driven by external factors like technological development (weaponry and navigation to conquer faraway places, steam engine to create industries and factories) or state-centric developments (king usurping power from the landlord, enclosure or primitive accumulation, whereby peasants are kicked off the land and become city vagabonds).
I will not and cannot deny that these external factors are crucial to determine the changes in the fate of human development. But nowhere do I see that Marx had dismissed these external factors as part of his analysis in the Communist Manifesto. In the account given in the Manifesto, Marx took account of the technological changes that favored the growth of the city-based bourgeoisie. He took into account the capture of international markets via European seafaring, colonial conquests, the slave trade and general trade. Societies become more complex with trade and new technology, while feudalism relies on simplicity and stagnation. The landlord says to his peasants, “I tax your produce, and in exchange I protect you from marauding bands.”
Now, back to class struggle. Is class struggle at the root of those changes? The class struggle is the undercurrent, the constant underlying development, but it is true that class antagonism does not lead to social change without technology, state centralization and colonial conquest. But to dismiss the class struggle argument we have to prove that in the absence of class struggle we would have gotten to the same social changes as with class struggle. But that is impossible to determine, because class struggle is not just an independent variable, but also a dependent variable. It is not just the cause but also the effect. The social change, i.e. the shift from landlord to bourgeoisie and from peasant to worker, is itself the manifestation of class struggle. External factors reinforce class struggles and thus forcing social change.
Critics will counter this is too broad of a definition, and that we should restrict class struggle to the violent warfare and bloody revolution among different social classes. But I ask why we should have such a narrow definition? If I am a bourgeois (businessman, merchant, financier etc.) and I make more money than the landlord, pay more taxes to the state than him, and bring the king to side with me to pass the enclosure laws that remove peasants from the land, and I open the factories to employ those landless peasants as my workers, thus depriving the landlord of his peasants, and in that process have not shot one bullet, am I engaging in a class struggle with the landlord? Yes, I think so.
So to repeat myself, class struggle is the undercurrent of social change, but is by itself not a driver of social change. Call it a necessary but not sufficient condition. Yes, we need the other factors to help bring it about. I think the question in the title is an odd and confusing one. I would not go as far as saying that class struggle is a cause for any change, but that it is a permanent feature of human society that manifests itself differently in different epochs with different state systems, technology and imperial power.
The more interesting question that we are dealing with is whether class struggle continues to play a role in today’s world. Some of my classical liberal and conservative friends will deny to entertain the possibility of class struggle in the 21st century. Let me help them open their eyes a little bit.
Trade unions, who have fought hard for gains throughout the industrial revolution and into the 1970s in the west, are now in full-scale retreat, fighting rearguard battles against the resurgent capitalist class, which is reflected in declining rates of trade union membership, declining coverage of collective bargaining arrangements, growing number of concessionary contracts, social program focused government austerity measures, elevated rates of corporate profits, low corporate tax receipts in national governments and outrageous sums of money being squirreled away in the world’s major tax havens. Strike activity at the workplace is reduced in much of the developed world (though China’s labor actions are interesting to observe as their labor markets appear more robust), but don’t mistake worker docility for worker satisfaction. What we are seeing is more and more workers are going through ever longer periods of credentialization, such that college degrees today are worth as much or even less than high school diplomas a generation ago. Zero hour contracts, part-time and low paid positions in the service sector have become our major occupation (the “Uberization” of the economy), as much of the genuinely productive work is either handled by robots, machines or by workers in cheap labor countries. If the capitalist class plundering more and more resources and shifting them away from the workers and the unemployed (of which there are more and more) does not constitute an act of class warfare, then I don’t know what does.
The working class is the only class which can fight back and protect the interests of the underdog class (the’99%’) because of their important role in providing the surplus labor, which is the source of all profits. But organizationally, it becomes ever more complicated to form a phalanx to oppose the unjust claims of the global oligarchy. Let us not get bogged down by the ‘false consciousness’ argument that the workers are too stupid to become a self-conscious class. If a company decides to shut down a plant in the rich country and move to a poor country, the decision-making power is concentrated in the corporate headquarter, while the workers in the poor and rich country see no reason for solidarity because they have no way to communicate with each other and poor country workers see the benefit of getting job opportunities, which makes them unwilling to collaborate with the workers in the rich countries.
Technology also weakens the position of the working class, which was well predicted by Marx, because we don’t have so many manufacturing workers left following automation and we are transferring more and more workers into the service sector, which keeps the so-called equilibrium wage down in those industries. People are so scared and loaded up with college and mortgage debt, that they will work longer hours for lower wages and only concern about daily survival rather than the general class struggle, which is the only way to improve their lot. With automation continuing apace, the only way to return dignity to every human being and stabilize the position of the underdog class is to have a universal basic income scheme. These demands will continue to pop up among the left, and for the sake of maintaining human civilization we can demand nothing less.