Category Archives: labor

Reply to Richard Wolff on Class Struggle from Above and Below

In the Guardian, Richard Wolff argues that the U.S. Right has adopted an explicit class war rhetoric for advancing its political objectives. In “Class war redux: how the American right embraced Marxist struggle”, he writes:

Conservatives and Republicans are classifying the population into two key subgroups. Gone are images of the US as one big happy middle class. Instead, one class […] comprises self-reliant, hardworking taxpayers: true social givers. The other class comprises […] takers who give little as long as dependence saps their creativity, responsibility, etc.

Romney’s campaign showed that conservatives and Republicans increasingly use this class analysis to understand society and construct their political programs. Romney’s campaign also proved the increasing determination of conservatives and Republicans to pursue class war explicitly in these terms.

True! But this was already clear a few years ago (as I wrote here) before the presidential race of 2012.

Wolff is right to observe that “the political terrain has shifted” so that class conflict has become more openly expressed, particularly from above. Yet following the emergence of the Occupy movement, public opinion polls showed that the perception of class conflict amongst the broad public has drastically grown over the last few years, and its “intensity” more deeply felt.

A new Pew Research Center survey […] finds that about two-thirds of the public (66%) believes there are “very strong” or “strong” conflicts between the rich and the poor—an increase of 19 percentage points since 2009.

Not only have perceptions of class conflict grown more prevalent; so, too, has the belief that these disputes are intense. [T]hree-in-ten Americans (30%) say there are “very strong conflicts” between poor people and rich people. That is double the proportion that offered a similar view in July 2009 and the largest share expressing this opinion since the question was first asked in 1987.

Compared to other societal conflicts, the study shows, class conflict now tops the polls, and is the most significant conflict in U.S. society, above those centering around “race”, nationality, and age.

In response to the class war from above, Wolff argues, is a class war from below, ie. the Occupy movement and similar movements abroad, as was anticipated here.

But I take issue with Wolff’s interpretation of these new movements, or of precisely how they “borrow [and] depart from earlier socialist traditions.” Certainly, he is right to observe that the movements today do not explicitly frame the problem in terms of market vs. economic planning — (though I do think you can to a degree find that implicit in the movement). What I find less convincing about Wolff’s portrayal is his claim that the new (class struggle) movements are focused on building worker cooperatives. He writes:

Champions of the exploited class aim to change the system by ending the division between worker and capitalist inside the enterprises.

If he is referring to Argentina or Spain (where he cites the Mondragon Cooperative), he is on solid ground, but these forms of organisation and articulation are marginal in the current U.S. social movements. I think he is mixing up a normative position with an empirical observation. (Wolff is a strong advocate of workplace democracy.)

If you look at the new class struggles over the past few years in the U.S. — be it, the Wisconsin uprising, the Occupy movement, the Chicago teacher’s strike, Walmart strike, fast food strikes, etc. — the fundamental issues do not resolve around workplace democracy. They are expressed in class terms about wealth disparity, democratic participation and social protection. The Occupy movement in many ways, goes a lot further, posing much deeper questions about cultural and societal transformation.

Yet, hardly any workplace occupations have taken place in the last years. In fact, only one, rather high-profile one, comes to mind. This is the Chicago Republic Windows and Doors Factory, originally occupied by employees against wage and benefit theft, and later turned into a worker cooperative. While this may have inspired some people to think about workplace cooperatives elsewhere, this has not been a significant development in the movements.

Instead, the Chicago factory occupation has had other implications for the new movements. Occurring in 2008, it was the first oppositional action taken against the economic crisis. It was a high-profile case, with supportive statements coming from Obama, against the layoffs and rising unemployment. But the employees’ use of a corporate campaign targeting Bank of America for refusing to extend loans to the bankrupt and corrupt company — funds which BOA had received from the federal bailout — made this conflict into a much broader one, at least on the symbolic level.

There was widespread identification with the workers’ struggle because it was seen as a reflection of broader dynamics and tensions in society following the crisis. It was in the heat of the Chicago factory struggle that the slogan “The banks got bailed out, we got sold out!” emerged.   

That is, the factory occupation did not inspire a movement for workplace democracy. The argument could be made that the movements, in an amorphous way, desire economic democracy, but this has not been developed in the direction of workplace democracy, which is only one specific articulation of it. Instead of worker coops, the Chicago factory occupation aroused a broader democratic movement, expressing disaffection with the state bailout of the financial sector at the expense of the broader population, the lack of social protections, drastic wealth disparity in the face of widespread material deprivation, and the state’s failure to ameliorate this situation. This is the content of the new class movements against the crisis (in a general sense), even if in many ways, the Occupy movement in particular, goes far beyond this.

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Obama’s Privatization Course Ensures Further Conflicts with Labor and the Left

In the opening 5 minutes of the first presidential debate Obama was praising his education reform, “Race to the Top”, the school privatization project that drove 29,000 Chicago teachers into the streets two weeks ago for a historic, broad-based, and successful strike. If Obama continues along that trajectory, his second term will likely see even more conflict with labor and left social movements than did his first.

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On Class and Unions in Wisconsin’s Recall Election

I’m just getting around to reading some of the analysis following Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s successful electoral victory against recall.

First, Abby Scher argues in “In Wisconsin, Union Defeat Doesn’t Mean Tea Party Win” that Walker’s victory did not rely on switching from economic class issues to cultural ones, but rather by framing the economic interests of the population as being opposed to public sector unions.

“While Thomas Frank would assert that blue-collar voters of modest income are swayed from voting their class interest by conservative social issues like gay rights or abortion, [Walker’s campaign] was all about unions and economic issues. [….]”

“Unlike Tea Party voters, who tend to be better off and more likely to slash and burn the social safety net, less well-off voters support government action and a social safety net. But this constituency also feels abandoned by elected representatives who too often ignore them in favor of big donors, he argued. This breeds its own resentment.

If government doesn’t represent them, then why should they support the government workers who make more money than they do?

Instead of a referendum on “economic freedom” and slashing the safety net [which is how the Democratic opposition framed the issue], [Walker’s] attack on public unions managed to focus resentment on workers who are better off than many.

Where government jobs are disproportionately held by people of color, the “government union” talking point can also mobilize racial resentment without mentioning race.

Rather than pure ideology, the Republican strategy of pitting non-unionized private sector workers against unionized public workers is based in the real failures of the union movement, argues Doug Henwood.

In “Walker’s victory, un-sugar-coated“, he writes, “twice as many people (68%) think that unions help mostly their members as think they help the broader population (34%).”

And:

A major reason for the perception that unions mostly help insiders is that it’s true. Though unions sometimes help out in living wage campaigns, they’re too interested in their own wages and benefits and not the needs of the broader working class. Public sector workers rarely make common cause with the consumers of public services, be they schools, health care, or transit.

Since 2000, unions have given over $700 million to Democrats—$45 million of it this year alone (Labor: Long-Term Contribution Trends). What do they have to show for it? Imagine if they’d spent that sort of money, say, lobbying for single-payer day-in, day-out, everywhere.

Like many, on both sides of the political spectrum, Henwood recognizes the weight of this failure for the Left. He writes:

Collective bargaining has mostly disappeared in the private sector, and now looks doomed in the public sector. There are something like 23 states with Republican governors and legislative majorities ready to imitate Walker who will be emboldened by his victory. And there are a lot of Dems ready to do a Walker Lite. If they don’t disappear, public sector unions will soon become powerless.

His suggestion:

[I]f unions ever want to turn things around—and I’m old-fashioned enough to believe that we’ll never have a better society without a reborn labor movement—they have to learn to […] act politically, to agitate on behalf of the entire working class and not just a privileged subset with membership cards.

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David Harvey: Middle Path Between Autonomism and Statism

Here is a selection from David Harvey on the shortcomings of autonomist and statist approaches, and his view of a “middle path” that could work as an “antidote to the power of capital”. (“The Urban Roots of the Financial Crises: Reclaiming the City for the Anti-Capitalist Struggle” in SOCIALIST REGISTER 2012): Continue reading

Labor’s Location and Power in Finance

From Bryan and Rafferty, “Deriving Capital’s (and Labour’s) Future” in Socialist Register 2011: 215-218.

“[L]abour itself is being incorporated into capital in new ways, not just via workplace discipline but via the process of securitization. Some have sensed this new development, but have cast it in terms of growing household debt, with the appropriation of interest payments out of labour’s income being treated as a further ‘take’ on surplus value. But this is not the critical aspect of the development, and it is certainly not new…. The critical development is the recasting of labour as the provider of income streams for securities, to facilitate asset diversification and the search for yield. The rapid growth of mortgage, auto, credit card and student loans, as well as contracts on telephones, energy and healthcare, all provide the raw materials on which securities are built to meet the demands of global investors. Continue reading

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