A term associated with the thesis that process workers in automated industries, and white-collar workers in large industrial corporations, possess the potential to assume the historic revolutionary role of the proletariat anticipated by Marxism. Both groups have become productive workers in the functional sense that their expertise is indispensable to the most advanced sectors of the capitalist labour process. Yet, at the same time, it provides them with the intellectual tools to recognize and challenge the power structure of capitalism and the (from their point of interest) allegedly irrational market system by which it is accompanied. Though most recently associated with Serge Mallet, and other members of the Sociologie du Travail movement in France, the argument that ‘engineers’ are in some sense a new revolutionary vanguard may be found in the writings of Thorstein Veblen and the Technicist Movement.
In La Nouvelle Classe ouvrière (1965), Mallet argued that the old working class of the archaic industries (coal-mining and such like) could no longer envisage an alternative society. Rather, ‘only the strata of the active population who are involved in the most advanced processes of technological civilization are up to formulating alienations and envisaging superior forms of development’. Modern industries (such as oil-refining and chemicals) are characterized by automation, which is said to increase the responsibility and involvement of workers in enterprises; to make obvious the links between the well-being of the firm, the workers’ pay, and his or her expertise; and so encourage employees to campaign for greater control over management of the processes of production. Plant-based unionism (syndicalisme d'entreprise) further encourages workforce solidarity, and ‘the more the modern worker reconquers at the collective level the occupational autonomy he lost during the mechanization phases of work, the more trends develop towards a demand for control.’ By restoring issues of autonomy and control to the centre-stage of the struggle between labour and capital, the new working class transcends the narrow economism (wage-orientation) of its predecessors, and comes to form the vanguard of a grassroots revolutionary movement for socialism.
For a thesis that was (at best) weakly substantiated by some rather questionable data, Mallet's argument proved remarkably influential in the Western industrial sociology (not to say the industrial and political turmoil) of the late 1960s, although systematic research soon made its empirical weaknesses obvious (see, for example, D. Gallie's In Search of the New Working Class, 1978). Factual inaccuracies aside, the thesis also suffered from technological determinism, analogous to that which underpinned the alternative arguments proffered by the embourgeoisement theorists; a failure to take the power of the state seriously; ambiguity about precisely which strata of employees were involved (Mallet identifies two types of ‘new worker’—process workers and technicians—but both groups include a list of rather vague occupational categories); and serious imprecision, both in defining central concepts (such as automation), and in specifying the precise causal mechanisms linking technical milieu, high earnings, and unionization of employees.
Recent empirical work stimulated by the new working-class thesis shows that it greatly oversimplifies and even exaggerates the extent to which the latest technologies of large-scale industrial production transform traditional distinctions between mental and manual labour (see manual versus non-manual distinction). On the other hand this research yielded much evidence that the objective class situation (though not necessarily the class consciousness) of much white-collar work is being affected by information technology. However, in the opinion of some writers, the more precarious global markets of the late 20th century have ushered in an era of post-fordism and flexible employment, involving smaller-scale firms and more traditional craft-based forms of production, as a result of which automated technology and large-scale production, and along with it the thesis of the new working class, appears passé.