Crisis Thinkers: Beverly Silver, #OWC and the Variety of Protest Movements Part 1

In addition to her work with Giovanni Arrighi on Chaos and Governance (the inspiration for this blog), Beverly Silver has conducted path-breaking research into the development of organised labour as a political force within the context of the long-term development of the world economy. I can’t due justice to her full argument at the moment with an in depth engagement, but I want to draw out one of the points that she makes and use it to analyse the current situation we find ourselves in.

Whatever happened to organised labour?

Silver notes the variety of different goals pursued by organised labour since it emerged as a political force around the globe, making the distinction between Marxian struggles and Polanyian struggles. The former are economistic battles on the part of labour for a bigger share of the gains from the production process, control over the conditions of work and so on. These can be thought of as workplace or within-industry struggles – the bread and butter of trade unions. Polanyian struggles, however, are broader struggles to secure social protections such as unemployment insurance and health insurance. These struggles are much broader and operate through the democratic public sphere rather than the sphere of production. Social democratic parties, supported by organised labour, successfully prosecuted Polanyian struggles in most ofWestern Europeafter WWII.

A central part of Silver’s argument is the notion that labour struggles take place through a cascading sequence or cycle of torchbearers. So for example, after Western Europe attained industrial maturity, the relocation of the centres of manufacturing to places such asSouth KoreaandBrazilgave rise to new economistic labour struggles in these industrialising nations. Mature economistic struggles often subsequently often turn into social struggles – as in Brazilwhere Lula, former the head of the metal workers union, became president on a Worker’s Party ticket and instituted a highly successful programme of social transfers to the Brazillian poor.

So for all the complaints from protectionists, outsourcing and de-industrialisation in the North seems to have opened up opportunities for the spread of social democracy (or at least welfare capitalism) in the South.

Social democracy comes to the Southern Hemisphere

But where does Silver’s account leave egalitarian struggles in the North, especially in the context of the present crisis? Well, one point of view is that such struggles are left high and dry. Faisal Islam points out that, rather than organising in response to the present crisis, employees are rolling over and accepting pay cuts. In the context of slack labour markets caused by technological change, the weakening of organised labour, immigration and competition from centres of manufacturing in the global South, the possibilities for economistic struggle seem very limited.

Indeed, this situation was anticipated over 30 years ago by Hobsbawm when he suggested that the forward march of labour had been halted. But rather than disappearing completely, the focus of egalitarian struggle has shifted in the advanced democratic nations to action in defence of existing social democratic protections. The site of struggle changed from industry to the broader public sphere. This was to some degree reflected in the writings of political theorists such as Habermas, who focused on the human capacity for communication as the potential source of progressive change rather than looking towards some dynamic within capitalism itself as radicals influenced by Marx had done.

Egalitarian struggles became linked issues such as human rights and sexual orientation, the set of issues arising from what some have called ‘post-material values’ or perhaps more accurately ‘emancipatory values’. So even as the importance of the workplace as a site of politics faded, campaigns for socio-economic equality endured and became linked to struggles to enable all individuals to live with autonomy, dignity and respect – even though these changes also led down the blind alleys of identity politics and anti-scientific thinking. The social basis of support for the egalitarian programme shifted though a process of realignment from the urban working class to a more diverse cross-class alliance including white collar workers, professionals, and networks of individuals involved in issue-specific campaigns.

John Walsh, writing a couple of weeks ago, was right therefore to emphasise that the Occupy protests are notable in that they have little link to wider struggles in the workplace or industry. As Walsh notes, that does limit the potential scope of the protests in important ways and gives rise to illusions such as the fantasy of progress without economic growth. But, like Faisal Islam, Walsh assumes incorrectly that economistic struggles are the only avenue to promoting egalitarian goals. If Silvers’ typology is correct and there are two quite distinct routes to the pursuit of equality in the contemporary world, then the prospects for campaigns on behalf of the interests of the majority within democratic societies might be a good deal better than some acknowledge.

I’ll expand on this further in the next post.

Advertisements

Posted on November 29, 2011, in crisis, crisis theorists series, historical sociology, inequality, political economy and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s