OPE-L review of Munck's Globalization and Labour

From: Rakesh Bhandari (rakeshb@STANFORD.EDU)
Date: Sun Dec 14 2003 - 14:20:53 EST

Vol:20 Iss:17 URL: http://www.flonnet.com/fl2017/stories/20030829000107200.htm

Workers and globalisation


Globalisation and Labour: The New Great Transformation by Ronaldo
Munck; Madhyam Books, Delhi, 2003; pages xiii + 216, Rs.250.

GLOBALISATION is usually considered to be sponsored and promoted by
transnational corporations (TNCs) with capital, especially finance
capital, as its chief agent and new technology as its primary
carrier. Viewing the phenomenon in this manner is necessary to
counter the notion that it is some kind of impersonal force spreading
across the globe through its own internal propulsion. However, it is
still a partial view. For, if globalisation is the contemporary
manifestation of capitalism, it cannot be confined to capital and its
agents. While capital plays a crucial role in the capitalist order
(like land under feudalism), the defining feature of capitalism is a
certain kind of relationship between capital and labour. It is
because of this relational aspect that capitalism becomes a social
order, much more than a mere organisational arrangement or even an
economic system. If so, it follows that labour - concretely workers -
too have a role in globalisation.

What is it? A popular view is that the role of workers is to oppose
globalisation. And a great deal of energy is currently expended in
that direction. Surely, there are aspects of globalisation that
should be opposed, and who but workers will or can oppose them? But
is an oppositional posture alone adequate to deal with the
complexities of globalisation? Is the call to the workers of the
world to unite a constituent aspect of any authentic globalisation?
And if it is, can the role of workers in the contemporary
capital-dominated globalisation be merely that of a countervailing

These are the issues that Ronaldo Munck, Professor of Political
Sociology and Director of the Globalisation and Social Exclusion Unit
at the University of Liverpool, raises in this volume. It is one of
the rare studies that specifically concentrate on the role of workers
and the trade union movement in the context of contemporary

The thesis of the book may be presented as follows:

Though capitalism does not respect national boundaries, in its
historical evolutionary process it has been closely linked with
nation states. Initially, nation states were the defenders, if not
the sponsors, of capitalism. But the inner propensity of capitalism
to transcend national boundaries led to a period of capitalist
internationalism. Capitalist internationalism received new impetus
from its opposition to communist or socialist internationalism of the
Cold War era. Capitalism has entered a phase of new internationalism
or transnationalism after the collapse of the socialist regimes in
the 1980s and early 1990s and now manifests itself as global

The reaction of workers and that of workers' organisations too have
followed a similar pattern. Initially workers tried to deal with the
conditions in the workplace, the factory, and resorted to a variety
of methods, including machine sabotage. Many of these were
spontaneous reactions. Then came a stage of broad-based and more
organised attempts - through strikes and rallies, for instance - to
get the rights of workers established legally. With the state thus
drawn into the matter, understandably, trade union activities began
to be national. The call to the workers of the world to unite was a
recognition of the transnational character of capitalism and an
emphasis on the need for workers to rise above their nationalistic
loyalties - quite significant in an age of colonial domination of
many parts of the world by capitalist nations - and to become a human
community at the global level.

That there was a genuine attempt to make the workers' movement truly
international from the very early stages can be seen from the history
of the Internationals. Karl Marx himself was responsible for much of
the international ethos of the First International. It brought
together diverse social categories of labour and different political
ideologies, quite a remarkable achievement in the mid-19th century.
True, the ethos could not be sustained for long and by the 1870s,
labour movements of Europe became steadily nationalistic. In 1889,
the Second International again revived the spirit and kept it alive
until the outbreak of the First World War. With the Bolshevik
revolution in Russia in 1917 under the leadership of Lenin, the Third
International again attempted to bring in the international
orientation. However, the formation of the Red International Labour
Unions led to a major realignment of labour policies across the globe
with one section following the revolutionary ideology of the
communists and others holding on to different forms of social

The question to be considered at the dawn of the 21st century is how
to recapture the truly transnational spirit of workers' movements in
the context of the aggressive capitalist globalisation. Munck
suggests that it is important to recognise that a major implication
of contemporary globalisation is the rapid informalisation of workers
throughout the world, including the advanced capitalist countries. An
aspect of this informalisation is what is often claimed to be a
`flexibilisation' of work associated with the new information economy
and which certainly confers some advantages to the new knowledge
workers. However, the flexibilisation and informalisation that result
from organisational practices such as subcontracting and franchising
only increase a sense of insecurity in the majority of workers.

Another factor relating to and, in a sense contributing to,
informalisation is the feminisation of the labour force, again,
particularly in the North. By the mid-1980s more and more women
across the world were getting into paid employment, and the tendency
has continued to grow. And "with many more women continuously in the
labour force or finding it easier to move in and out of it, or
combining labour force and other work, more women are remaining in
the labour force until a later age" (page 74).

These quantitative and qualitative changes have important
implications for global workers' movements. First, they must give up
their past preoccupation with workers in the organised sectors and
become adequately inclusive of workers of all categories.
Incorporating workers of the informal sector will call for major
changes in the organisational patterns and strategies of workers'
movements. Secondly, the concerns of workers' movements will also
have to change. From treating workers as a homogeneous category, the
intrinsic differences that arise from the human attributes of workers
- and this is clearly brought into focus by the gender issue - must
be recognised and respected. Once it is granted that heterogeneities
are to be accommodated, other changes will come in too, concessions
to cultural differences, for instance. Briefly, there will have to be
a shift of emphasis - in thinking and in action - from homogeneity to

This is no easy task, though, for it is a paradigm shift from worker
as worker to worker in the household, worker at workplace and worker
in community. It is a move away from an earlier singularity to an
emerging complexity. For, globalisation is not merely an extension of
the spatial dimension. It is the recognition of a variety of
interconnected features. It is now common to say that globalisation
must be viewed not only from above, but also from below, or that the
global and the local must be taken into account together: ("Think
globally, act locally".) But such binary perceptions are not adequate
either to understand or to deal with the emerging processes.
According to Munck, "the current phase of globalisation is precisely
the intermingling of all these `levels' [as also features - added by
the reviewer] in a multiplex and `hybrid' form of interconnectedness"
(page 169). That is a little too bombastic but conveys something of
the differences that need to be appreciated.

Perhaps, what is attempted to be communicated can be captured more
readily if its operational aspects are spelt out. It means, for
instance, that on many critical issues workers' movements will have
to work closely with other agencies - feminists, environmentalists,
human rights activists, consumer protection groups. Not that the
right thing is to go along with any or all of such agencies
uncritically. Many environmentalists are just conservationists; human
rights are often championed by die-hard individualists who refuse to
recognise the societal dimension of human beings. But environmental
problems are global today and human rights must become global. As
those interacting with nature and other human beings in the process
of production, workers are in a position to know what is genuine and
what is not in these issues. They must, therefore, enter into the
agenda of workers' movements.

The author posits a "social movement trade unionism" that will not
only champion the cause of workers as workers but also incorporate
common social issues such as health, education, transport and
environment. He points out: "The `new' capitalism is more flexible,
more decentred, than the centralised bureaucratic capitalist order of
the late 1950s. The `new' working class is less male, less
manufacturing based, than it was. The trade unions that express
workers' collective interests cover far less of the workforce than
they did once and it is a truism to say that they suffer from an
`identity crisis'. In all three aspects we find a different
dispensation than in 1950.

Above all, there is a greater understanding that social identity is
both complex and fluid. Workers are also citizens and consumers; they
are also divided by gender and ethnicity, for example. Fluidity is
also a natural condition and we should not expect consciousness to be
fixed. This thumbnail sketch necessarily points towards a possible
new mode of internationalism in keeping with the `postmodern'
globalised era in which we live" (page 159).

That new mode of internationalism will have to be consciously striven
for because it is easy for workers' movements to slide back into the
illusory security of a nationalistic ethos. The workers of the North
have become attached to the variety of social security measures
offered by their governments. Workers of the South have, in the past
half century, become equally attached to the protective security that
their governments provided through their nationalistic development
programmes. A world without borders, advantageous to workers
everywhere, can come only by abandoning the temporary securities of
the past. The workers of the North, for instance, must join hands
with their comrades in the South in fighting for greater
international mobility of workers. Workers in the South must accept
the necessity of "social clauses" globally, including in their own

The second of these statements in the abstract may appear to be
threatening from the point of view of the South. It must be conceded
that in international negotiations the representatives of the North
can use the "social clauses" to protect their interest and this must
be guarded against. But, consider a concrete case such as the use of
child labour. Should workers in the South oppose eradication of child
labour on the ground that it is simply a pressure tactic from the
North, or actively strive for it because the tender age of children
should be protected everywhere, including in poor countries?
Decisions on matters like this are not going to be easy, but a
welcome aspect of contemporary globalisation is that such issues will
have to be faced everywhere in the world.

In sum, the role of workers in the context of contemporary
globalisation is not to declare to be totally against it. Rather,
they must make use of the opportunity of the growing awareness of the
need for and possibilities of a world without boundaries to bring
about an alternative global social system of production based on the
political economy of labour and the moral imperatives of universal
human rights and welfare. That, indeed, will be a great

Madhyam Books deserves thanks for making available to readers in
India this book brought out originally by Zed Books, London.

 Copyright 2000 - 2003 The Hindu

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