In an interesting reply by Ronaldo Munck to my review of his book Rethinking Global Labour he misunderstands the implications of my conceptual criticisms. Rather than pointing to my empirical work in the area of Global Labour Studies since 2008, I will make two conceptual points in response.
First, my criticism of Karl Polanyi has nothing to do with the debate of reformism = bad, revolution = good. All actions of resistance are to be welcomed. From an analytical point of view, however, it remains important to comprehend the historical specificity of capitalism, which allows us to understand the dynamics of particular moments of resistance. Polanyi is unable to do so due to his theoretical dualism between economy and social relations/civil society. Unsurprisingly, Polanyi is often referred to positively in liberal analyses of global developments. For a critical Global Labour Studies perspective, however, his work is a cul-de-sac in my view. In order to recognise that exploitation is always met by resistance and to appreciate the broad range of resistance movements with its various organisational and institutional expressions we need to go beyond Polanyi.
Second, of course, the focus is not on who interprets Marx correctly or to establish some kind of orthodox Marxism. Nevertheless, over the years, a number of distinctive rather different historical materialist positions have emerged through a critical engagement with Marx’s work. Some structuralist perspectives tend to over-emphasise the power of capital, while agency-focused perspectives such as autonomist Marxism over-estimate the role of labour. Critical Global Labour Studies scholars have to position themselves somewhere within this variety of conceptual stances. My problem with Munck’s choice of autonomist Marxism is the triumphalist assessments of the power of labour such agency-focused perspectives tend to adopt (see Bieler 2018). It is a triumphalism that is rarely justified by empirical reality. Munck reveals precisely the shortcomings of autonomist Marxism when he argues in his reply that ‘what Tronti and the autonomist or workerist current teaches us is that it is workers’ struggles that drive the course of capitalist development’ (Munck 2020).
Instead, in my joint work with Adam D. Morton in Global Capitalism, Global War, Global Crisis, there is a critical engagement with contemporary Marxist perspectives, which emphasises the internal relations between class agency and the capitalist structuring conditions through a focus on class struggle. Here, it is understood that labour does not only operate within a particular structural setting, but it is also confronted with the systemic, competitive dynamics of capitalist social relations of production, which pushes capital towards constant outward expansion in order to survive. In other words, capitalist strategies are never only a response to workers’ resistance, as autonomist Marxism argues, but equally shaped by the systemic pressures of capitalist competition. This needs to be remembered when we engage in analysing today’s multiple forms of resistance.
In my forthcoming book, Fighting for Water: Resisting Privatisation in Europe (Zed Books, 2021), it is precisely this conceptual position which allows me to acknowledge fully the successful moments of resistance against water privatisation in Europe. Instead of falling into a triumphalist celebration of resistance, however, paying attention to capitalist structuring conditions equally allows me to understand why these successes have not always been fully implemented in concrete policies and why capital has continued to come back for another attempt at privatisation.