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Schmidt on Munck, ’Rethinking Global Labour: Towards a New Social Settlement’

22 September 2020

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Ronaldo Munck. Rethinking Global Labour: Towards a New Social Settlement. Newcastle upon Tyne: Agenda Publishing, 2018. 288 pp. $30.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-78821-105-5; $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-78821-104-8.

Reviewed by Ingo Schmidt (Athabasca University)
Published on H-Socialisms (September, 2020)
Commissioned by Gary Roth (Rutgers University - Newark)

Global Labor

Writing about global labor at a time of escalating nationalism, trade wars, and anti-immigration policies seems like bad timing, unlike during the heyday of neoliberal globalization when some currents in unions and pro-labor academics pondered about labor’s possible contributions to an alternative globalization. Many contributions to this debate saw globalization as the trigger of a race to the bottom in which nation-states lost their ability to intervene on the side of workers. A final showdown between Seattle Man and Davos Man, to use Paul Krugman’s memorable labels, seemed imminent. Less dramatic interpretations pointed to states as architects of global governance structures in which capital could operate without interference from tax authorities, safety inspectors, and unions. According to this view, states were by no means powerless but, under pressure from corporate lobby groups, had chosen to turn from welfare state expansion to neoliberal rollback. If this was so, many adherents of this view concluded, labor, possibly collaborating with other social movements, could build countervailing powers to regain influence over the state.

In Globalisation and Labour: The New “Great Transformation,” published in 2002, shortly after the crash, Ronaldo Munck offered a synthesis of alter-globalist and statist views. He recognized that states play a role in driving globalization forward but was skeptical about the possibilities of building countervailing powers on the national level. In terms of strategy, he sided with the alter-globalists but rejected the race-to-the-bottom thesis. Instead of viewing market forces as creating a homogenous global workforce, working under equally deplorable conditions everywhere on earth, he saw globalization as a process of remaking divisions between workers North and South and between different segments of the workforces within the North and South. Uneven and combined development poses greater challenges for global movement builders than does downward convergence as it invites segments of the global workforce to seek advancement at the expense of other segments, rather than uniting with all other workers of the world. Which is exactly what happened since Globalisation and Labor was published. Ongoing wars and recurrent crises have destroyed the widespread belief that markets would coordinate individual economic activities efficiently and distribute rewards in a just manner.

Disappointment that markets did not live up to their promise, inequalities, insecurities, and a growing sense of powerlessness allowed a new right to prosper and government policies to turn to more and more protectionist measures. Under these new circumstances, the challenge for labor and other social movements is no longer to seek a more socially just kind of globalization and/or a return to the welfare state but also to fight back against the new right—a good reason for Rethinking Global Labour: Towards a New Social Settlement indeed. However, there is not much in this regard in Munck’s new book. This is all the more surprising as in an earlier book, Globalization and Contestation, published in 2006, he makes very clear that “the new great counter-movement” could come from the left but also from the right. His latest book is more update than rethinking. For readers unfamiliar with the debates around labor and globalization from the turn of the century, this is valuable enough but certainly not sufficient. The good heirs of Seattle men and women are not only up against the bad World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund, etc., but also against an ugly new right. Munck does not offer any clues in this respect, but his book does help to understand how neoliberal globalization created highly fragmented worlds of labor that can breed alternatives from the left and the right. To this end, the first part of the book provides a brief sketch of the history of labor in different parts of the world, while the second part portrays the fragmentation within the working classes of the Global North and South with a special focus on precariously employed workers all over the world. Against this background, Munck discusses the challenges of migrant labor, social movements other than labor, and internationalism in advancing a global strategy for labor.

In his historical sketch, Munck points to the complementary developments of the nation-state system, global capitalism, industrialization, and colonization. This implies that primitive accumulation is more than a phase leading to the polarization between capitalists and paid labor. Instead, it is a permanent part of capitalist development, which means that labor under capitalism includes not only wageworkers but also slaves, coolies, and indentured laborers, in other words, workers just recently forced off their land or out of independent artisan production without being free to contract with capitalist employers or to earn the right to unionize and vote as they see fit. The making of these highly diverse working classes included migrations, on the local level from rural areas to emerging industrial districts, but also, as in the case of the slave trade, across continents. This sketch does not offer anything new to readers familiar with global history but might still be a necessary and useful corrective to widespread images of factory workers, mostly male, muscled, and white, representing the age of industrial capitalism, and an assemblage of service, household, and agricultural workers, mostly female, nonwhite, and sometimes unpaid, epitomizing globalization.

Contrary to such views, happily spread by liberals but also fairly common on the left, today’s diversity is not the result of liberalism overcoming the uniformity of industrial capitalism, created by big government, big labor, maybe even big business, but a remaking of older forms of diversity driven by big business seeking to escape whichever fetters unions and governments had imposed on it during the age of welfarism and developmentalism. Blindness to older forms of working-class diversity, or fragmentation, also means blindness to forms of working-class organizing that do not fit the male, muscled, and white image pinned on industrial unionism. Munck presents the mutualism of artisan workers moving from job to job and often across country and co-operatives as examples. Mutualism played a significant role in organizing the First International, and the culture of solidarity it fostered was markedly different from the exclusionary practices of much craft unionism beginning around the same time. Co-operatives existed in many forms in many places around the world but fell very much into oblivion, though, arguably, they constituted, next to unions and political parties, the third pillar of labor movements in the past. These are just two examples of working-class experiences of the past that could broaden the outlook on building labor movements for the future.

Writing about work and workers today, Munck shows that the triad of relocations, reorganization, and automation exerted massive pressure on wages and social standards around the world but did not lead to the near disappearance of work and downward convergence of wages. Against the deindustrialization thesis with its narrow focus on rust belts and high-tech clusters, he shows that, on a global scale, industrial production and employment have massively increased, not decreased, over the period commonly associated with neoliberal globalization. Although import-substitution, the developmentalist way to industrialization, was dropped, partly under pressure from corporate elites in the capitalist centers, partly because the class alliances in the South that had pursued import-substitution fell apart, industrialization per se did not stop. It turned to production for world markets. Most notable in this regard is certainly China’s market-turn. In this regard, Munck reminds readers of the doubling of the labor force available to capitalist employers following the collapse of Soviet Communism and the subsequent turn of Sino Communism. His brief discussion of the failures of bureaucratic socialism that led to the Second World’s disappearance adds to the understanding of neoliberal globalization and to the debate about advancing alternatives to it, not in the sense of bringing back the good old Soviet days or bemoaning missed opportunities of making them better than they actually were but in the sense of an urgently needed self-critique of today’s left that cannot escape its past.

Munck’s critique of the precariat as a new dangerous class can certainly be understood as an effort to overcome the delinking of the present and the future from the past that imbues a lot of left theorizing and strategizing. This thesis, according to Munck, only makes sense against the background of the so-called golden era of welfarism in the West that saw rising real wages, shorter hours, and social protections for most layers of the West’s working classes. However, as is clear from Munck’s historical sketch, these improvements were the exception rather than the rule. In other parts of the world, despite some progress that developmentalism meant for workers in the South, working and living conditions were precarious for most of the workers of the world during the golden era. And even in the West, workers—mostly women, migrants, and ethnic minorities employed in the lower tiers of the labor market—did not enjoy the incomes and protections gained by upper-tier workers. Using the upper-tier experience as a benchmark against which precarious employment today can be measured is misleading as it leaves precarious employment during the golden era, which might have been inextricably linked to the happy few working in better paid and more secure jobs, in the shade. Moreover, paired with analyses that see globalization and automation as outcomes of more or less iron laws of development, golden era welfarism does not offer much hope for the future.

Despite only benefiting some segments of the world’s working classes, welfarism and developmentalism were at some point seen as a threat by capital. However, the same institutions that locked in the gains that these segments had won turned out to constrain workers’ efforts to fight back against capital’s neoliberal offensive. These limitations were even more obvious in the Second World where capitalists had been pushed out of power. The ruling bureaucracies that replaced them caused plenty of discontent but were resilient enough to ward off any grassroots movement to the point where the economic system fractured and allowed the restoration of capitalist rule. Another limitation of labor’s partial or complete integration into state structures is that these structures, by definition governing limited territories and demarcating them from others, are an impediment to global organizing. This was the starting point for alter-globalists’ efforts to organize beyond the nation-state. Munck reviews these efforts, adds to them experiences from the new social movements that mobilized around issues neglected by most of the statist labor movements and also earlier labor experiences that were not integrated into state apparatuses, and then suggests a strategy for global labor that is as diverse in terms of issues and organizing practices as the fragmented working classes of today’s world. He does not suggest that rank-and-file organizing beyond nation-states is the alternative to state-oriented organizing, and is certainly not blind to the fact that new social movements ended up in top-down structures when they moved from a period of grassroots mobilizations to NGOism, but he does insist that such movements are necessary complements to state-oriented unions and parties. In terms of strategic vision, he casts the net wide but also remains fairly vague. Successful organizing certainly needs to be more focused, but to determine promising foci it might be a good idea to start with the net wide open rather than stuffing it into one small pond.

Citation: Ingo Schmidt. Review of Munck, Ronaldo, Rethinking Global Labour: Towards a New Social Settlement. H-Socialisms, H-Net Reviews. September, 2020.

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