From: Rakesh Bhandari (rakeshb@STANFORD.EDU)
Date: Sun Nov 09 2003 - 12:56:18 EST
EPW Book Review October 25, 2003 Globalisation: A Perspective for Labour Globalisation and Labour: The New 'Great Transformation' by Ronaldo Munck; Madhyam Books (by arrangement with Zed Books), 2003; pp xiii+216, Rs 250. Rohini Hensman The subtitle of this book refers to Karl Polanyi's The Great Transformation, published in 1957, in which he argues that the so-called 'self-regulating market' would have destroyed human society and its natural surroundings if not for a counter-movement of social regulation to protect human beings and nature. At the forefront of this movement, he said, are those who are most adversely affected by the market - namely, the working classes - using trade unions, protective legislation and other instruments of intervention which remove labour, which is not just a commodity like any other, from the orbit of the market. For Polanyi, "Socialism is, essentially, the tendency inherent in an industrial civilisation to transcend the self-regulating market by consciously subordinating it to a democratic society". The Industrial Revolution was 'the great transformation'; the 'new great transformation' is globalisation. Throughout most of the 20th century, argues Munck, "nations competed with nations and their workers were foot soldiers in that war" (p 3), but now, "while corporations have headquarters in particular nation states, they are effectively disembedded from these societies by their economic logic" (p 4). Russia, the eastern bloc, India and China have entered the domain of marketised economies. This process of globalisation is based on the proliferation of wage labourers: the global proletariat doubled between 1975 and 1995 to reach 2.5 billion workers, with the bulk of this growth in the third world; in 1995 the World Bank projected that fully 99 per cent of the workers who would join the labour force in the next three decades would be from the low- and middle-income countries. The female workforce also grew rapidly: by the mid-1980s, more than half the world's working-age women were in paid employment. While labour markets are not yet truly global, labour has become a global resource; corporations go anywhere in the world to seek labour and import highly skilled labour from anywhere, workers are driven to seek work everywhere. The book outlines the transition from the 'Golden Age' of capitalist stability after second world war to the crisis in the latter part of the century. The Bretton Woods Agreement of 1944 linked the dollar to gold, the IMF was set up and established parities between major currencies, US MNCs expanded phenomenally in the 1950s and 1960s, and were joined thereafter by European and Japanese MNCs. The right of workers to organised representation was recognised by capital and regulated by the state, not only nationally but also internationally through the ILO, set up in 1919, which likewise "reflected the principle of tripartite representation, with representatives from government, employers and trade unions sitting down together"(p 29). In the advanced capitalist countries, employment grew by 30 per cent between 1950 and 1970, trade union membership increased from 49 million in 1952 to 62 million in 1970. The rise of 'classical Fordism' linked mass production, mass consumption and the welfare state, with the National Health Service in Britain perhaps providing the most radical innovation. The technological revolution resulted in a huge growth in productivity. According to the ILO, the period from 1950 to the 1970s or 1980s was also a 'Golden Age' for third world countries like Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and India, where industrial production for the domestic market had taken off during the depression and after. (This development is ignored by the New International Division of Labour theorists like Frobel, Heinrichs and Kreye, who argue that the colonial division of labour broke down only when manufacturing for the world market was shifted to third world countries in the 1960s.) Anti-colonial struggles superseded colonialism. Meanwhile, industrialisation and expansion of employment was also taking place in the Soviet Union and eastern bloc countries, with fairly extensive social rights for workers, although in other ways the human cost was huge. However, this whole edifice was in crisis by the end of the 1960s and early 1970, when profit rates in the advanced capitalist countries fell by one-third. Full convertibility of the dollar to gold was unilaterally abandoned by the US in 1971, stagnation led to the abandonment of the central planning model in the eastern bloc as well as some third world countries, while restrictive monetary policies and a huge rise in interest rates resulted in the third world debt crisis. There was an anti-union employers' offensive in the US from the 1970s onwards. By the 1990s, the primarily national capitalism of the 'Golden Era' had ended. In this post-Fordist era, 'flexibilisation of labour' became the watchword for capital. While flexibility as such can take forms in which labour gains, employers interpreted it to mean deregulation and informalisation of labour. Also called 'Brazilianisation', because it meant the spread of conditions already prevailing in the third world to advanced capitalist countries, it resulted in insecurity and loss of welfare benefits in the latter. It has also been called 'feminisation', but this thesis conflates the introduction of more women into the labour force - in the EU, for example, 20 million out of 29 million new workers joining the labour force between 1960 and 1990 were women - with the unregulated, insecure employment conditions under which most women are employed, but which are not peculiar to female labour; it also ignores the fact that women's jobs too have been informalised. This new era is seen by globalists as a movement towards a borderless world in which TNCs rule supreme. The same view, but in a nightmare version, is presented by the 'anti-globalisation gurus' (p 53); for them, "at times it seems that globalisation acts as a surrogate for neo-liberalism, which would make more sense as a political target" (p 54). Some, like Hirst and Thompson, argue that the globalisation of production has been much exaggerated - a view that has some truth, but ignores the qualitative changes that have taken place. For Munck, "globalisation is an ongoing process, and..to seek to 'halt' it is simply misguided and a strategic cul-de-sac" (p 20), and "I believe labour and other social movements should be neither for nor against globalisation but, rather, see the issue as one of understanding the complexity of globalisation as a process of social transformation" (p 6). This understanding is necessary in order to make use of the new openings created by globalisation, as transformative social movements such as the women's liberation, human rights and environmental movements have done. In such cases, the concept of global citizenship has been associated with processes of empowerment and democratisation. However, it would require a truly internationalist labour movement to make use of these openings, and the author traces what could be the emergence of such a movement. At its inception in the second half of the 19th century, which was also a period of globalisation, the labour movement was almost instinctively internationalist. Its scope was limited to western Europe, North America and Australasia, with humanitarian concern rather than a specifically labour or socialist perspective for the inhabitants of the colonies, but it did oppose war. The foundation of the First International in 1864 was a landmark, with Marx personally responsible for much of its internationalist ethos. At this point, it was employers who countered workers' internationalism with aggressive nationalism. But in the latter half of the 19th century, labour movements began entering into closer relationships with nation states, and in the 20th century drifted into a more 'nation-statist' perspective. Despite the formation of the Second International in 1889, the formation of the main International Trade Secretariats (ITSs) in the 1890s, and the international struggle for the eight-hour working day, the nationalist trend continued, and was confirmed in 1914, when the Second International disintegrated as its national components supported their national bourgeoisies. The Third International, formed in 1919, was strongly internationalist, but after Lenin's death in 1924, Stalin began to run it as an instrument of the foreign affairs policy of the USSR.Then Mao initiated a shift in the meaning of internationalism with his proclamation that "in wars of national liberation, patriotism is applied internationalism", and the colonial question joined the labour question at the core of the socialist project for liberation. In 1945, the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) with 65 million members created a fragile unity between communist and non-communist unions, but in 1949 the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) split off under the leadership of the US AFL-CIO, and the WFTU became explicitly pro-Soviet. There followed a period of 'trade union imperialism', as first British unions helped the colonial state to vet unions in the colonies, and then US unions colluded with the CIA to impose dictatorships in the third world, all in the name of fighting the 'communist threat'. Fighting to re-establish internationalism in the trade union movement has not been easy. Charles Levinson, head of the International Confederation of Chemical and General Workers' Unions in the 1970s, argued for international union action as a countervailing power to the MNCs, and there was limited success for the strategy of international union coordination. But this approach was criticised from two angles. Some (e g, Olle and Schoeller) argued for a more political unionism which would take up the issue of third world development, while others (e g, Haworth and Ramsey) called for a more 'social movement' unionism, taking up extra-factory issues. These criticisms pre-figured directions in which the trade union movement would move, with unions like the Danish SID taking up development issues on one side, and the development of 'social unionism' in countries like Brazil, cutting across occupational lines and taking up issues like health care, running water and housing. Examples of the transition from the old to the new forms of international solidarity are the campaign of solidarity for Black workers in South Africa against the apartheid regime and all-white trade unions, which were expelled from the International Metalworkers' Federation, and the campaign of solidarity for Coca Cola workers in Guatemala against Coca Cola and the brutal dictatorship in that country. There has been a shake-out in the AFL-CIO Foreign Affairs Department and critique of 'trade union imperialism' which has also changed the outlook of the ICFTU. The author feels that while the 'social clause' debate has been the most divisive issue facing the trade union movement, it is also "the strategy best placed to unify the world's workers" (p.128) and thus the most important political issue for the TU movement. Why? Because "For the new accumulation regime which emerged in the 1990s, based on accelerated internationalisation, there would still be a need for a global regulatory orderŠ It is this search for global regulation which forms a key horizon for international labour" (p 50). He points out that recognition of the link between international trade and core labour standards predates the ILO and is embodied in the ILO Constitution (1919), that the Havana Charter of the International Trade Organisation (1948) has social and labour clauses, while its successor, GATT, also contains labour standards clauses with provision for sanctions, so this is not something new. While agreeing with Vandana Shiva that the social clause wouldn't tackle the processes which create world poverty, he adds that rejecting it for this reason would be like arguing that trade unions shouldn't demand higher wages, because that doesn't attack the roots of wage oppression! He also points out the inconsistency of those who oppose global free trade, and at the same time oppose the social clause as protectionist, i e, an obstacle to free trade! On the other hand, he takes the AFL-CIO to task for its opposition to China's entry into the WTO, which he characterises as protectionist and racist, and agrees with Amartya Sen that global solidarity needs to be based on equality between north and south as well as global rights for workers, transcending national legal recognition. He points out that "some of the debates on the social clause hinge on tactical disagreements", such as the requirement that the ILO should be the body responsible for monitoring workers' rights, and concludes, "However, none of these debates seems to affect the principle of valid core labour standards. In that sense I think we can usefully start with Julio Godio's statement that, 'if the struggle to transform the world is international, the fight for a social clause can mobilise workers on a global scale to regulate the market', renewing thus, this time at an international level, the historic confrontation between capital and labour" (pp 166-67). If one were to sum up the argument of this book, it would be: globalisation need not be detrimental to labour, so long as international regulation and social policies counteract the destructiveness of the market economy. "There is no better example to demonstrate this than a comparison of Chile under Pinochet and democratic Chile in the 1990s" (p 110), which has been pro-labour without opting out of the global economy. Some governments and TNCs recognise the need for this regulation, and even international organisations like the World Bank "have increasingly engaged with global social movements and shown a certain permeability" (p 179). This is not out of altruism, but because the more far-sighted representatives of capital realise that deregulation can undermine international trade and the growth of the international economy by leading to a contraction of demand (a fact which has not yet dawned on Indian employers and their BJP-led government). MERCOSUR (Common Market of the Southern Cone) in Latin America demonstrates one way - i e, regional trade blocs - in which third world countries can tackle globalisation; trade unions have an active role in it, showing that local and global trade union activity are neither mutually exclusive nor in a hierarchy of importance, but have a dialectical relationship. Munck castigates the "backward-looking nature and..almost reactionary nationalist and statist outlook" of the mainstream Left, which wishes to go back to "standard nation-state-era politics" (p 19), but also questions the "globalisation from below" strategy because it "neglects the north/south dimension" (p 173), advocating instead a strategy at all levels, from local to global, and in all spheres (production, consumption, community, etc). Information technology, inextricably linked with globalisation, allows this articulation of levels to be achieved in a less hierarchical, more democratic manner. At the national level, he sees a key issue for labour renewal as being working class unity across gender, racial, ethnic, religious, age and skill (and in India, we might add, caste) divides. At the international level, as the International Federation of Chemical, Mining and General Workers' Unions (ICEM) argued in 1996, international trade union action should not be seen as a last resort when all else has failed, but should be planned on an international basis from the start. I have summarised this book at considerable length because I feel it offers an excellent perspective for labour activists across the world, including India. As the September 2003 WTO meeting at Cancun demonstrates, simply rejecting the WTO is a suicidal strategy for third world countries. The chances that a poor country like Ghana (where tomato farmers are being bankrupted due to imports of tinned tomatoes from Italy produced with huge state subsidies) could do anything to improve the situation through bilateral negotiations are just about zero; if they use protectionism to shut out imports, they would also find their exports blocked - whereas the G21 group of developing countries has much more bargaining power in negotiations for the removal of agricultural subsidies in Europe and North America. The same is true of negotiations over the production of cheap life-saving drugs. In other words, in solidarity lies strength, as the trade union movement has always known, and if they get their act together, developing countries have incomparably more power in WTO negotiations than they could ever have in bilateral negotiations with advanced capitalist nations. The challenge is to regulate the new global regime in the interests of labour, and the author offers various suggestions as to how this can be done. The book does have flaws. For example, one senses a lack of experience on the ground which leads to overly glowing accounts of the achievements of consumer campaigns and organisations like SEWA. While the former have indeed succeeded in forcing companies to adopt Codes of Conduct supporting labour rights in their supplier factories, and implementing these in a few cases, there remain hundreds of thousands of other supplier factories and sweatshops where the problem of making these standards effective simply has not been resolved. And while the latter has done an admirable job organising women workers in the informal sector, their wages remain at the abysmal levels which characterise this sector. Better editing would have eliminated some unnecessary repetition. But these are minor defects compared to the overall strengths of the book. A must for anyone interested in these issues, and fortunately Madhyam Books has made it available at a reasonable price. © Copyright 2001 The Economic and Political Weekly. All rights reserved.
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