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Labor

Radical Leisure

Connections, both real and hoped for, between the labor movement and environmentalists have been news for at least fifteen years now. The possibility of such a connection came into wider view at the Seattle World Trade Organization protests in 1999, when alliances between trade unionists and other protest groups made headlines…. Despite the once-exciting and novel possibility being now institutionalized in such organizations as the Labor Network for Sustainability, the Blue-Green Alliance, and SustainLabour, the thrill seems to be gone for mainstream environmentalist discourse, and labor has largely faded from view.… [The struggle to reduce work hours is fertile ground for uniting the efforts of workers and environmentalists.]… That fight for time, however, came to an end decades ago. Now those with jobs demand higher wages instead, and perhaps even overtime work, while the many unemployed and underemployed fight to work at all. Today the dominant idea of a working-class agenda is to fight to be allowed to sell one’s time. | more…

Organizing for Better Lives

Todd Jailer, Miriam Lara-Meloy, and Maggie Robbins, The Workers’ Guide to Health and Safety (Berkely, CA: Hesperian, 2015), 576 pages, $34.95, paperback.

The new Workers’ Guide to Health and Safety—with drawings on every page—is a fun read, which is an unusual thing to say about a book with such a serious intent. Garrett Brown, an industrial hygienist with decades of experience as an inspector and activist in California, Mexico, and Bangladesh, claimed with some justification that of all the books on occupational health and safety, “almost none…are accessible to workers or their organizations.” The Workers’ Guide is the first major book aimed at organizing for healthier conditions in the labor-intensive export industries of countries like Bangladesh and China, Mexico’s maquiladora frontier, in Central America and Southeast Asia, and even in the United States itself, where for many, working and living conditions are being beaten down. | more…

Marx’s Theory of Working-Class Precariousness

Its Relevance Today

As a concept, worker precariousness is far from new. It has a long history in socialist thought, where it was associated from the start with the concept of the reserve army of labor. Frederick Engels introduced the idea of precariousness in his treatment of the industrial reserve army in The Condition of the Working Class in England. Marx and Engels employed it in this same context in The Communist Manifesto, and it later became a key element in Marx’s analysis of the industrial reserve army in volume I of Capital.… In recent years, however, the notion of precariousness as a general condition of working-class life has been rediscovered. Yet the idea is commonly treated in the eclectic, reductionist, ahistorical fashion characteristic of today’s social sciences and humanities, disconnected from the larger theory of accumulation derived from Marx and the socialist tradition. The result is a set of scattered observations about what are seen as largely haphazard developments.… In the face of such a confusion of views—most of them merely ad hoc responses to what is presumed to be an isolated social problem—it is necessary to turn back to the classical Marxian tradition, where the issue of precariousness was first raised. | more…

Should New York City Teachers Support Opt Out?

Two Views in the UFT

New York State’s Opt Out movement was described by the New York Times as “the vanguard of an anti-testing fervor that has spread across the country.” The movement consists primarily of parents and students who fought against high-stakes Common Core State Standard (CCSS) tests by “opting out” of taking the exams.… [However,] this article is not about the massive parent and student-led “Opt Out Spring” of 2015. It is about how Opt Out threw into relief two different ways of thinking about unionism within New York City’s UFT [United Federation of Teachers].… The leadership of…[the UFT,] the largest union local of any kind in the United States…. supported the CCSS and standardized testing, including the use of student test scores as part of teacher evaluations, and refused to support Opt Out.… Meanwhile, rank-and-file UFTers in the MORE-UFT (Movement of Rank and File Educators) caucus and other groups joined the city’s Opt Out movement as part of the struggle against “ed deform.” | more…

A Hidden History of the Cuban Revolution: How the Working Class Shaped the Guerillas' Victory

A Hidden History of the Cuban Revolution: How the Working Class Shaped the Guerrillas’ Victory

Millions of words have been written about the Cuban Revolution, which, to both its supporters and detractors, is almost universally understood as being won by a small band of guerillas. In this unique and stimulating book, Stephen Cushion turns the conventional wisdom on its head, and argues that the Cuban working class played a much more decisive role in the Revolution’s outcome than previously understood. Although the working class was well-organized in the 1950s, it is believed to have been too influenced by corrupt trade union leaders, the Partido Socialist Popular, and a tradition of making primarily economic demands to have offered much support to the guerillas. Cushion contends that the opposite is true, and that significant portions of the Cuban working class launched an underground movement in tandem with the guerillas operating in the mountains. | more…

Digital Labor and Imperialism

A century has now passed since Lenin’s Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916) and Bukharin’s Imperialism and World Economy (1915), as well as Rosa Luxemburg’s 1913 Accumulation of Capital, all spoke of imperialism as a force and tool of capitalism. It was a time of world war, monopolies, antitrust laws, strikes for pay raises, Ford’s development of the assembly line, the October Revolution, the Mexican Revolution, the failed German revolution, and much more. It was a time that saw the spread and deepening of global challenges to capitalism.… This article reviews the role of the international division of labor in classical Marxist concepts of imperialism, and extends these ideas to the international division of labor in the production of information and information technology today. I will argue that digital labor, as the newest frontier of capitalist innovation and exploitation, is central to the structures of contemporary imperialism.  | more…

Social Movements and Progressive Governments

Building a New Relationship in Latin America

The major element missing from Latin American politics in recent decades has been, with rare exceptions, the traditional workers’ movement, beaten down by flexibilization, subcontracting, and other neoliberal measures.… The fall of the Berlin Wall and the defeat of Soviet socialism left the parties and social organizations of the left inspired by that model seriously weakened. At the same time, trade unions were hit hard by the weakening of the working class, part of the larger social fragmentation produced by neoliberalism. In that context, it was new social movements, and not the traditional parties and social organizations of the left, that rose to the forefront of the struggle against neoliberalism, in forms that varied widely from one country to another.… The situation in the 1980s and ’90s in Latin America was comparable in some respects to the experience of pre-revolutionary Russia in the early twentieth century.… [M]any of the region’s peoples said “enough” and started mobilizing, first in defensive resistance, then passing to the offensive. As a result, presidential candidates of the left or center-left began to triumph, only to face the following alternative: either embrace the neoliberal model, or advance an alternative project motivated by a logic of solidarity and human development.… [Consequently,] a major debate has emerged over the role that new social movements should adopt in relation to the progressive governments that have inspired hope in many Latin American nations. | more…

The Silvertown Strike

A Partisan History

There is a concept in biology called “punctuated equilibrium”: organisms can display little discernible change over long periods of time before sudden, sharp, and profound changes. Without wishing to give credence to teleological or determinist views, it does seem that human history is profoundly dialectical. Sharp change that bewilders an apologist for the status quo can inspire and give hope to those of us who believe that a better world is possible. We live in interesting but depressing times today. Neoliberal ideas are hegemonic. The old collectivist values of the labor movement have been submerged in a tide of market fundamentalism, summed up in Margaret Thatcher’s claim that “there is no such thing as society; there are only individuals and families.” When I began researching for my Silvertown book, it became apparent to me that a similar flood tide of liberalism had washed over much of nineteenth-century Britain. This portrayed the status quo as normal, natural, and inevitable, but the equilibrium was punctuated in the last decades of the century. | more…

Monthly Review Volume 67, Number 5 (October 2015)

October 2015 (Volume 67, Number 5)

Fifty years ago this month, beginning in early October 1965 and extending for months afterwards, the United States helped engineer a violent end to the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI). Between 500,000 and a million Indonesians were killed by conservative factions of the military led by General Suharto and by right-wing Muslim youth—all with the direct involvement of the CIA, the close cooperation of the U.S. Embassy and State Department, and the guidance of the Johnson administration’s National Security Council.… In forthcoming issues of Monthly Review we are planning to publish work on the Indonesian genocide, which, alongside the Vietnam War, constitutes a major turning point in the history of Southeast Asia in the period, and one of the most brutal acts of mass carnage inflicted by imperialism in the twentieth century. The dire implications of this carry down to the present day. | more…

The New Imperialism of Globalized Monopoly-Finance Capital

An Introduction

It is now a universal belief on the left that the world has entered a new imperialist phase.… The challenge for Marxian theories of the imperialist world system in our times is to capture the full depth and breadth of the classical accounts, while also addressing the historical specificity of the current global economy. It will be argued in this introduction (in line with the present issue as a whole) that what is widely referred to as neoliberal globalization in the twenty-first century is in fact a historical product of the shift to global monopoly-finance capital or what Samir Amin calls the imperialism of “generalized-monopoly capitalism.” | more…

Imperialism and the Transformation of Values into Prices

In this article, we aim to demonstrate that the low prices of goods produced in the global South and the attendant modest contribution of its exports to the Gross Domestic Product of the North conceals the real dependence of the latter’s economies on low-waged Southern labor. We argue that the relocation of industry to the global South in the past three decades has resulted in a massive increase of transferred value to the North. The principal mechanisms for this transfer are the repatriation of surplus value by means of foreign direct investment, the unequal exchange of products embodying different quantities of value, and extortion through debt servicing. | more…

Imperialism in the Era of Globalization

Capitalism is preeminently a money-using system where a large part of wealth is held either in the form of money or as money-denominated assets, namely financial assets. For the system to work, it is essential that the value of money should not keep declining against commodities; otherwise people would move away from holding money, and it would cease to be not just a form of wealth, but even a medium of circulation.… Hence, capitalism seeks to ensure the stability of the value of money in a number of ways. One is the maintenance of a vast reserve army of labor, not just within the metropolis but also in the third world. | more…

Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century

The globalization of production and its shift to low-wage countries is the most significant and dynamic transformation of the neoliberal era. Its fundamental driving force is what some economists call “global labor arbitrage”: the efforts by firms in Europe, North America, and Japan to cut costs and boost profits by replacing higher-waged domestic labor with cheaper foreign labor, achieved either through emigration of production (“outsourcing,” as used here) or through immigration of workers. Reduction in tariffs and removal of barriers to capital flows have spurred the migration of production to low-wage countries, but militarization of borders and rising xenophobia have had the opposite effect on the migration of workers from these countries—not stopping it altogether, but inhibiting its flow and reinforcing migrants’ vulnerable, second-class status. | more…

Manufacturing America’s Dreams

Auto companies shield their low-tech exploitation of workers behind high-tech displays of mechanical prowess. The less a consumer knows about the blood and guts of manufacturing, the easier it is to buy the dream. So how does America think all this crap gets built?… Last summer, in a desperate attempt to entice young viewers to buy grandpa’s dream car, General Motors (GM) ran a TV ad that featured a chorus line of robot arms dancing to techno music around a series of Cadillacs strutting like runway models on chrome-plated wheels.… Don’t let yourself be seduced and deluded. The auto industry’s master talent isn’t robotics, it’s the ability to automatize humans—including drivers. | more…

Marx on the Camino de Santiago

Meaning, Work, and Crisis

When I walked the thousand-year-old route of the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain in September and October 2014, I expected to discuss questions of health with fellow travelers. I assumed that an ancient pilgrimage would be full of walkers pondering health issues and would provide an ethnographer’s panacea for “getting in.” I was wrong. I was surrounded by walkers from all parts of Europe, but they were pondering the meaning of work, capitalism, and their lives. I found I was seeing a profound crisis of capitalism and individuals struggling with alienated labor as discussed by Karl Marx.… [W]hat I saw on the Camino de Santiago was certainly not a revolutionary movement. Envisioning satisfying work, however, helps change the shared conception of what work is. Raul Zibechi argued that as we struggle both individually or collectively, we engage in an emancipatory process that, as the Zapatista’s Subcomandante Marcos notes, “builds, includes, brings together and remembers whereas the system, separates, splits and fragments.”… Awareness of alienated labor and struggle against crisis, whether individual or collective, does seem to create imaginative space for change even if it does not necessarily reflect what has been thought of as revolutionary struggle. | more…

Neoliberal Co-optation of Leading Co-op Organizations, and a Socialist Counter-Politics of Cooperation

Many people think of cooperatives as small, locally owned businesses, such as groceries, cafes, or bicycle shops, where people can work in an equal and participatory non-capitalist organization. In reality, the U.S. co-op movement is tied to federal agencies whose agenda is promoting neoliberalism, both domestically and abroad, and the co-op movement itself has neoliberal leaders. Many co-ops in name are profit-driven capitalist corporations in practice. And even in the abstract, the co-op principles of smaller co-ops enable neoliberal cooperative politics. All of this, however, raises the question of what a co-op based on socialist values would be, and China’s Nanjie village provides a living example of that. | more…

iCapitalism and the Cybertariat

Contradictions of the Digital Economy

We have now entered a period…when new waves of commodification set in motion in earlier periods are reaching maturity. The new commodities have been generated by drawing into the market even more aspects of life that were previously outside the money economy, or at least that part of it that generates a profit for capitalists. Several such fields of accumulation have now emerged, each with a different method of commodity genesis, forming the basis of new economic sectors and exerting distinctive impacts on daily life, including labor and consumption. They include biology, art and culture, public services, and sociality. | more…

Labor in the Global Digital Economy: The Cybertariat Comes of Age

Labor in the Global Digital Economy: The Cybertariat Comes of Age

Ursula Huws ties together disparate economic, cultural, and political phenomena of the last few decades to form a provocative narrative about the shape of the global capitalist economy at present. She examines the way that advanced information and communications technology has opened up new fields of capital accumulation: in culture and the arts, in the privatization of public services, and in the commodification of human sociality by way of mobile devices and social networking. These trends are in turn accompanied by the dramatic restructuring of work arrangements, opening the way for new contradictions and new forms of labor solidarity and struggle around the planet. | more…

Beyond the Degradation of Labor

Braverman and the Structure of the U.S. Working Class

Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital, first published forty years ago in 1974, was unquestionably the work that, in the words of historian Bryan Palmer, “literally christened the emerging field of labor process studies.” In the four decades since its appearance Braverman’s book has continued to play a central role in debates on workers’ struggles within industry, remaining indispensable to all attempts at in-depth critique in this area.… This continuing relevance of Braverman’s analysis has to do with the fact that his overall vision of the transformations taking place in modern work relations was much wider than has usually been recognized. Viewed from a wide camera angle, his work sought to capture the complex relation between the labor process on the one hand, and the changing structure and composition of the working class and its reserve armies on the other. This broad view allowed him to perceive how the changes in the labor process were integrally connected to the emergence of whole new spheres of production, the decomposition and recomposition of the working class in various sectors, and the development of new structural contradictions. | more…

South Africa’s Resource Curses and Growing Social Resistance

The African National Congress (ANC), led during the 1990s by the late Nelson Mandela, is projected to be reelected in South Africa’s May 7, 2014 national election by a wide margin, probably with between 50 and 60 percent of the vote. But underneath the ruling party’s apparent popularity, the society is seething with fury, partly at the mismanagement of vast mineral wealth. The political and economic rulers’ increasingly venal policies and practices are so bad that not only did ANC elites play a direct role in massacring striking mineworkers in August 2012, but corporate South Africa was soon rated by PriceWaterhouseCoopers as “world leader in money-laundering, bribery and corruption, procurement fraud, asset misappropriation and cybercrime,” with internal management responsible for more than three quarters of what was termed “mind-boggling” levels of theft. | more…

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