I would like to thank Andreas Bieler for his interesting and engaged review of my recent book Rethinking Global Labour, optimistically titled After Neoliberalism and Adam David Morton for hosting it on his excellent cutting-edge site. After explaining what the book is about Bieler makes two critiques that I think are worth pursuing as I think they go to the heart of what a Marxist reading of contemporary labour struggles is about.
According to Bieler:
Polanyi could only envisage a re-embedding of the capitalist economy within bourgeois social relations, a kind of capitalism with a human face. By drawing on Polanyi, Munck falls into the same trap and condemns his assessment of potential for change to reformist considerations….Second, Munck expresses an unwarranted optimism when assessing the potential role of his ‘emerging global working class’…. the problem here is Munck’s autonomist Marxist approach, which one-sidedly celebrates labour’s agency without acknowledging the structuring conditions of capitalism.
So, first to Polanyi and whether his counter-movement framing leads inevitably to a reformist politics. We might of course question whether reform vs revolution has not had its day as an adequate framing of left strategy. But on Karl Polanyi I think the debate is a bit more complex than this. Bieler mentions in support the work of Adam David Morton (2013, 2018) but I do not think acknowledging the gaps and contradictions in Polanyi’s thinking and politics warrants dropping him altogether. Along with others, I brought a Polanyi counter-movement frame into global labour studies back in the 1990s when the neo-liberal unregulated market paradigm was in its prime. It was not so much because of its ‘optimism’ – that social counter-movements will always contest the depredations of the free market – but because it allowed us to capture the breadth of resistance from traditional trade union struggles to new struggles against commodification and dispossession. This was a time when many followed Manuel Castells in seeing labour as a failed political actor. It was time to widen the net and break with economism.
Of course Polanyi has many weaknesses as I have always pointed out – we are never clear what social actors will animate his counter-movement, social class seems absent from his analysis – but there is good cause for the exponential growth of interest in his work in recent years. Especially his keen interest in the social relations of non- capitalist societies and how they can inform the prefigurative construction of post-capitalist societies today. Polanyi was not an advocate of ‘capitalism with a human face’ as Bieler puts it, he engaged in an original way in the analysis of the ‘new’ capitalism of his day from a broadly libertarian socialist perspective, committed to co-operative based society.
The second of Bieler’s points regarding autonomism’s equally ‘optimistic’ celebration of worker’s agency is a bit puzzling. Bieler explains in a bit more detail how:
Munck puts the capital/labour relationship at the heart of his understanding of historical development. ‘Capitalisms have always responded to strong labour movements through technological innovation, or through the shift of production to other locations’ (p. 220). He thereby overlooks that capital does not only respond to labour militancy, but equally to inter-capitalist competition, itself the result of the way capitalist production is organised around the private ownership or control of the means of production and wage labour. As Marx pointed out, ‘under free competition, the immanent laws of capitalist production confront the individual capitalist as a coercive force external to him’ (Marx 1867/1990: 381). It is especially this inter-capitalist competition, which drives capitalism’s relentless outward expansion in search for higher profits (emphasis added).
Well I do not think Mario Tronti – whose 1966 Operai e Capitale is scandalously only now out in English – needs lessons in basic Marxism, nor does ‘Marx said it, so it must be right’ cut it these days. Of course, capital does not ‘only’ respond to workers struggles but they are crucial, if often hidden motivations, for capital’s strategies. Andy Herod (2001) showed how US multinationals in the 1990s were often responding to workers’ struggles when they relocated overseas and how they actively shaped the economic geography of capitalism. And what Tronti and the autonomist or workerist current teaches us is that it is workers’ struggles that drive the course of capitalist development. We need only think of recent struggles in the advanced industrial societies against the precaritisation of labour through the gig economy. A Marxism that does not place workers’ struggles at its core would simply be a form of economism.
I do not think anyone would contest that people make their own history but not in conditions of their own choosing. Thus, there can be a false debate being posed between an autonomist Marxism and a political economy Marxism to put it that way. What we probably need now, to move forward, is a much more grounded debate based on where the (not so) ‘new’ global labour studies are at, remembering they have a predecessor in the ‘new international labour studies’ of the 1980s (see Munck 2009 Beyond the ‘new’ international labour studies).
I also think we need to move beyond a 1980s ‘political economy’ approach as being what orthodox Marxism is about. The ‘new’ Marx as articulated by Marcello Musto and others, based on the recently emerging complete works of Marx, should alert us to the need to be more self-critical. As Musto puts it, with huge textual evidence, ‘Marx spurned any rigid linking of social changes to economic transformations alone. Instead, he highlights the multiple possibilities that the passing of time offered and the centrality of human intervention in the shaping of reality and the achievement of change’ (Musto 2020: 33).
We should also by now have digested the critique of capitalocentrism in the inspiring work of J.K. Gibson-Graham in their 1996 classic The End of Capitalism as we Knew it: A Feminist Critique of Political Economy. For them it is the socialist left that has constructed capitalism as all-powerful, systematic and self- reproducing, thus postponing anti- capitalist initiatives to an ultimate day that never comes. This is not ‘sober realism’ but simply defeatism.
So I would ask Bieler, who has contributed to the global labour studies debates in the past (see Bieler et al., 2008 ), to join the real debates now underway and not create false targets. A good starting point is a recent wide-ranging review of the new global labour studies by Brookes and McCallum in the always worth following Global Labour Journal. They argue amongst other points that:
The theoretical literature inspired by Marx and Polanyi connects labour’s transnational activities to broad themes: global inequality, societal backlash and the future of capitalism – the big questions of our time. The strategy-focused literature sheds light on labour transnationalism “on the ground” through empirical investigations of the actors, interests and interactions driving this phenomenon.
They ask for more middle range theory and bridging the big picture of Marx and Polanyi with what is happening on the ground. I can but concur and plead guilty to some lack of mediation myself.
We could also consider the emerging debate across the Global South on the different ways in which trade unions (but other forms too) can take on the urgent task of organising the majority of workers in the informal sector. Trade unions, even ones with strong corporatist traditions, now recognise that the working class reaches well beyond the factory and that their own future depends on engaging with these ‘non-traditional’ layers. Efforts to organise workers have increasingly brought together informal workers, street traders, the newly unemployed and, sometimes, migrant workers. When different kinds of workers are brought into the fold, trade unions may rediscover more militant approaches to collective organising and political impact (see Munck 2019 https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/beyond-trafficking-and-slavery/organising-precarious-workers-view-south/).
It is time to unify forces, cut across disciplinary boundaries, question our own ways of thinking and help develop a bold twenty-first century labour strategy in the spirit of Marx when he engaged with the early labour movement.
Bieler, Andreas, Ingemar Lindberg And Devan Pillay, Ed., 2008. Labour And The Challenges Of Globalisation: What Prospects For Transnational Solidarity? London: Pluto Press.
Brookes, Marissa and Mc Callum, Jamie, 2017 The New Global Labour Studies: A Critical Review, Global Labour Journal, 8(3).
Gibson-Graham, J K. 2006 (1996), The End of Capitalism (As we knew it): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy. Oxford: Blackwell.
Herod, Andrew 2001 Labor Geographies: Workers and the Landscapes of Capitalism. New York: Guildford Press.
Morton, Adam David, 2013, The Limits of Sociological Marxism?, Historical Materialism, 21 ,1.
Morton, Adam David, 2018, The great trasformismo, Globalizations, 15:7, 956-976,
Munck, Ronaldo, 2009, ‘Afterword: beyond the ‘new’ international labour studies’, Third World Quarterly, 30,3.
Munck, Ronaldo, 2019, ‘Organising precarious workers: a view from the South’, Open Democracy, 15th October https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/beyond-trafficking-and-slavery/organising-precarious-workers-view-south/
Musto, Marcello, 2020, The Last Years of Karl Marx. An Intellectual Biography. California: Stanford University Press.
Tronti, Mario, 2019 (1966), Workers and Capital. London: Verso.
The set image is Ettore Sottsass and the Social Factory.