a Review of Beverly Silver’s Forces of Labor


The working class is not particularly high on the agenda of the US left. It is quite telling that many on the left were eager to support Ralph Nader’s campaign for the presidency despite his failure to win any notable support from organized labor. Furthermore, those on the left opposed to Nader rarely if ever raised this as a serious limit to his campaign. It was as if there was a tacit agreement between both supporters and foes of the Nader candidacy that the opinion of unions was inconsequential to their strategy. Even in Counterpunch, much more attention is devoted to the perfidy of capital than to the struggles of labor. But a dialectic where only one side is described is like a marriage (or any other activity involving two people) in which only one is present-not really a dialectic at all.

The alienation of the left in the US from the working class has a lengthy history. In the sixties, it took the form of pessimism based on the prosperity of workers-excessively middle class, they were believed to be unlikely to pose a revolutionary challenge to the system. These days, the pessimism is more likely to arise from the perceived weakness of the working class-on the one hand facing competition from the vastly cheaper, and seemingly unlimited labor reserves of China and other poor countries, and on the other, worn down and frustrated by the legal and psychological machinations of the likes of Walmart. Although the years since Seattle have brought an impressive revival in thinking about capitalism as a central obstacle to human liberation, many, if not most of the militants in the global justice movement place little hope in working class struggle in the traditional sense.

Beverly Silver’s Forces of Labor: Workers Movements and Globalization since 1870 provides, if not undue optimism, grounds for believing that working class struggle will continue to play an important part in the shaping of the social order into the twenty first century. It unfolds a highly imaginative narrative of the last century, one which, while touching on many familiar events, is unlikely to leave reader’s understanding of the dynamics of labor and capital (or twentieth century history) unchanged, and encourages one to look in fresh ways at the contemporary world.

Silver draws upon a database produced by identifying every mention of labor unrest in the London Times and the New York Times since the 1890s. Three chapters illuminate the dialectic of labor and capital-that when capital organizes a profitable strategy, it produces resistance, generating new strategies of accumulation, and hence new forms of resistance.

Workers resistance is divided into two strategies: ‘Marxian’ struggles, in which workers fight to claim a greater share of profits and control over the work process within a productive complex, and ‘Polanyian’ struggles (named after Karl Polanyi, author of the classic The Great Transformation) in which workers struggle against being treated as a commodity, and having their livelihood threatened by being subjected to pure market forces. What is impressive here is that the text avoids the bathetic tone of much writing on the left these days, where it is imagined that capital’s strategy of dispersing production to impoverished labor pools is both new and virtually impossible to fight (or, in a similar narrative, states have been hopelessly weakened by the unprecedented power of international financial capital).

Far from being new, this is a strategy that has been used recurrently for at least 100 years, and probably longer. This relocation strategy (which she calls the spatial fix) has the contradiction of relocating workers bargaining power to the new sites of production. In any case, it is only one of several strategies capital adopts.

To illustrate the spatial fix, the history of struggle in the auto industry is recounted. The American auto productive complex, originally rooted in MidWestern areas with weak unions, seemed difficult to challenge because it displaced skilled labor processes that craft workers controlled (the heart of union struggles just a little earlier) with un- and semi-skilled work controlled by the pace of the assembly line. However, this new form of production created a new weakness-because the assembly line linked thousands of activities into a single process defined by the capital-intensive machinery at the center, stoppages at any point of the process could pose major challenges to capital. Hence the sit-down strikes of the 1930s, generated by a militant minority of workers but successful in consolidating the place of unions in the American auto industry for decades, and, indeed, helping to legitimize industrial unions and New Deal measures in general. To tame the militants, the auto companies agreed to both unions and higher wages for workers, even while retaining control of the decision making process on the factory floor.

However, as this deal squeezed their profits, they began to look elsewhere to base production, most notably, in the post-World War II era, Europe and Japan. In Europe a similar factory regime took hold, but in Japan, where the auto industry emerged immediately after a huge labor revolt, a new form of organization was introduced, which included lifetime employment for a core of workers (who also participated in production decisions) and dependency on small contractors beyond the core. The Japanese strategy bought a lengthy period of labor peace; however, in Europe by the late sixties disruptions of the assembly line similar to what took place in the US were occurring. In Europe, the workers won greater control over the factory floor, as well as wage increases, but this was a pyrrhic victory. Much more rapidly than in the US case, capital migrated to new sites-South Africa, Brazil and South Korea. Here again, the same forms of struggle emerged, now integrated into broader societal struggles for democracy. Again, capital has moved elsewhere, to China and Northern Mexico. Additionally, production, now heavily automated, has revived in the US.

This process of struggle followed by relocation is not simply one of recurrence; it accelerated as time went on, since unlike the American auto industry, later versions did not possess a monopoly status in the world market, and hence did not have windfall profits to buy workers off with. In addition, production was not only moved from country to country; it was transformed by the Japanese model of subcontracting and increasing automation. This process is called the ‘organizational/technological fix’, a general principle that one of the ways capital responds to labor revolts is to transform the production process in ways designed to weaken the stronger workers. The new complexes, described as ‘post-fordist’, or ‘Just-in-Time’ are often seen as particularly impervious to struggle, since they scatter production and force workers into teams mobilized for management goals. However, Silver identifies two weakness-first, unlike the Japanese complex, they do not involve a core of workers whose loyalty has been purchased through lifetime employment, and, secondly, the complex requirements of JIT that products appear in particular places at particular times actually increases vulnerability to interference with the delivery process. Thus, new waves of militancy are likely in China and Northern Mexico.

In the next part, Silver compares the auto industry experience with that of the textile industry, usually regarded as the quintessential industry of the nineteenth century. This is not done simply to compare the two industries, however; the comparison also highlights the fact that as profits decline in a leading sector (for the nineteenth century, textiles) investment is shifted to a new industry (in this case, auto). This is referred to as the ‘product fix.’

In some ways, the textile industry followed a similar dynamic as the auto industry. After worker’s struggles in the original center (the United Kingdom) resulted in their ability to strike a better deal with capital, the industry began to migrate to other countries where wages were lower. In turn, all of these countries eventually become the sites of labor unrest. However, there were important differences. First, textile production was not as centralized; each mill was not as important to production. This made it more difficult for strikers to create difficulties for capital. Their workplace bargaining power was not as great as it was in the auto industry. Secondly, it migrated to a wider variety of countries, compounding this challenge. As a result, textile workers depended more on alliances with other sectors of the working class and movements, a strategy Silver identifies as associational power. Particularly notable is the tendency of the struggles of textile workers to converge with nationalist struggles in the colonial world. The middle class nationalist leaders required a mass base, while the textile workers needed allies. Thus textile workers are often found playing a strategic role in these struggles. However, for the most part they were not able to achieve as good deals as autoworkers were.

In line with the principle of the product fix, Silver attempts to highlight what industries might become the leading enterprise(s) of the twenty-first century. Unable to settle on one, she considers the semiconductor industry, producer services, the education industry, personal services, and, in an interesting section, speculates on the potential strengths of each. While office work (producer services) has been directed overseas and over the internet, perhaps hacking and viruses will prove a potent tool. Although teachers are dispersed in many work places, they mostly have one employer (the state) which increases their bargaining power, and play a crucial role in the social division of labor, since if they don’t work, it’s difficult for parents with kids to go to work.

By contrast, fast food workers (personal services) seem structurally weaker-even if an entire fast food chain were to go on strike, the general population would not go hungry, disruption would be minimal. The most concrete discussion of an actual workers struggle in this section involves the Justice for Janitors campaign. It is striking that one of the most militant union campaigns in recent American history was carried out by a work force heavily composed of non-citizen immigrants. Because ‘world city’ headquarters of capital-particularly those heavily capitalized with new communications technology wired into the buildings-cannot simply be moved overseas, those who do the work cleaning and maintaining these areas (producer services) have a certain amount of bargaining power. However, to be effective, the Janitors campaign had to develop associational strength through alliances with other unions, church groups, community groups, etc.

The final substantive chapter identifies one more strategy of capital, in addition to the spatial, technological/organizational, and product fixes already identified. This is the financial fix, in which capital withdraws money from production, and invests it in financial channels. This strategy likely sounds familiar to those aware of dynamics of the last twenty five years, but it has been a recurrent element in the history of capitalism, dating all the way back to the late medieval Italian city-states Venice and Genoa (as described by Silver’s sometime co-author Giovanni Arrighi in his The Long Twentieth Century). Silver’s narrative of the financial fix is framed by one which developed in the late nineteenth century, as well as by the present-day strategy.

As a result of this earlier financial fix, workers engaged in Polanyian struggles to resist being treated as disposable commodities. The rising tide of these struggles provided the context for two world wars, and here there is an effort to illuminate the relationship between workers struggles and war. Silver considers three contradictory theories-that war is used to distract workers, that war suppresses struggle by encouraging national unity, and that wars create the context for intensified struggles and revolutions-and resolves them by arguing that each theory identifies a different phase in the cycle. Before each world war, states engaged in efforts to distract the population through mobilizing for war-classically, through colonial expansion (although this strategy also sounds strangely contemporary). This expansion itself helped lead toward full-blown world wars, which temporarily enhanced national unity -for example, the famous abandonment of international socialism by the parties of the second international–particularly because states were willing to enter into deals with workers to insure labor both for producing military goods and as cannon fodder. Finally, the denoument of the wars led to periods of intensified strike activity and revolution.

Eventually the crisis generated by the financial fix of the late nineteenth century and the world wars was resolved through the deal produced by American hegemony, which promised mass consumption and rising living standards for all. Workers in the wealthier, ‘core’ countries, were insured relatively high wages, and some security guarantees through welfare states. In the post-colonial world, much smaller groups of workers were promised the same, although these promises were more difficult to carry out. In any case, this deal did not bring lasting stability, as capital slowly began to sacrifice legitimacy (the deals with workers) for profitability by initiating spatial and technological/organizational fixes. These in turn led to explosions of militancy in the new centers of accumulation (Poland, Brazil, South Africa, South Korea, etc), which in turn led to the financial fix that has emerged over the last twenty five years. Finally, this financial fix has produced a new bout of Polanyian struggles, epitomized by food riots over IMF austerity programs designed to recomodify labor, land, and the state sector.

In the conclusion, Silver attempts to assess the present situation in light of the past. Although there is confidence that labor struggles will constitute a recurrent feature of capitalism, she is not unduly optimistic. The grounds for a new internationalism are undercut by the tremendous gap in incomes between workers in the wealthier and poorer countries. None of the new leading industries seem to deliver as much bargaining power to workers as did the auto industry.

Most notably, it is suggested that the automation of warfare by wealthy states-so that war can be waged against much weaker countries with minimal casualties among the wealthier states’ armies-may further weaken workers, since it reduces the need for the state to bargain for their support in times of war.

The above oversimplifies a complex narrative worth reading closely. But it gives some sense of the themes. As noted above, it forces a reexamination of many of the prevailing notions dominant among left thinking about the world economy. Notions that nations are in a ‘race to the bottom’ are weakened by the way the account of the spatial fix highlights both the relocation of capital and the relocation of worker’s bargaining power. Similarly, the crisis of poorer states inability to meet any demands these days looks different when located in both the cycle of the financial fixes, and their ongoing difficulties from colonialism to hard-pressed developmental states to neo-liberal states.

Still, there are ways this narrative can be enriched and broadened. First, there is a third form of workers’ struggle, alongside the Polanyian struggles for livelihood and Marxian struggles based on enhanced bargaining power. In this third form, which we would call ‘Luxemburgian’, after Rosa Luxemburg’s theory of the mass strike, workers take control of a set of industries and replace capitalists as the organizers of the social division of labor. This happened in the Soviets of Petersburg in 1917, among the anarchists of Barcelona in 1936, in the cordones industriales of Chile in 1972, and, to a varying degrees in many other places (not least of which, Seattle 1919). There is even a moderate echo of it in the factory seizures in contemporary Argentina. Everywhere in the twentieth century, Luxemburgian struggles were crushed-either by a counterrevolution or by a bureaucratic, revolutionary state. States and parties had a powerful appeal, and typically there was willingness to abandon workers power for the promise of a state that would mobilize the resources of society for the well being of all. Nevertheless, Luxemborgian struggles raise different issues than the Polanyian types, which seek security (typically through the state) or Marxian types (which seek higher wages and more control within a factory). The Luxemburgian struggles represent the prospect of workers shaping the social division of labor. This seems particularly resonant in a time when the dream of simply higher living standards through enhanced productivity-the promise made by states of the right and left in the twentieth century-is running aground on environmental reality.

Can workers play a role in directly shaping what is produced, how it is produced, rather than only who gets what? Some of the workers in one of Silver’s leading sectors of the twenty-first century-teachers-frequently becomes embroiled in these questions during multisided struggles between students, parents, the state, religious leaders, capitalists, etc over what the content of schooling should be (much more so, at least, than fast food workers involve themselves over what McDonald’s menu should be). Perhaps in the less state-friendly climate that seems to be emerging in the twentieth century, these struggles will play a more prominent role, particularly in the vexing problem of defining what should be struggled for.

I am not altogether convinced that automated warfare will resolve decisively struggles between wealthy and poor states, or render the societies of the states waging the warfare redundant. Judging by the situation in Iraq, to produce a lasting victory, troops sooner or later need to be deployed on the terrain of defeated countries, at which point they become much more vulnerable. Already, there are signs of discontent among military families in the US.

Additionally, the era of automated warfare (in some ways initiated by the bombing campaigns of world war II) has seen a counter-trend: the rising ability of actors from poor territories to bring the war to the terrain of the wealthy countries. One can date this back to Algerians carrying out attacks in Paris, or Puerto Ricans attacking the US congress. But of course, September 11 brought this to a different level. Not unprecedented as a crime against humanity-one can identify dozens of armies and governments that have done worse (even in the very recent past, the Rwanda genocide, and the UN sanctions against Iraq were vastly more destructive in terms of human lives)-September 11 was unprecedented in its scale as an attack by peripheral actors on the terrain of a wealthy country.

Broadly speaking, it does not seem obvious that wealthy countries can secure themselves against such attacks (other than by costly measures to dampen down the anger directed toward them), any more than poor countries can secure themselves against bombardment (other than risking attack and accelerating arms races by developing nuclear weapons programs).

In the short (and probably medium) term, September 11 inflamed racist and nationalist tendencies in the US. In the longer term, efforts to create a dense security environment may require the active cooperation of the working class, and thus concessions. But eventually these forms of ‘asymetrical warfare’ seem likely to generate societal crises, if not workers rebellions, in both the wealthy and poor countries as they drag on and continue to be employed.

Finally, the prospects for international solidarity are perhaps underrated. Although its dangerous to say ‘the internet changes everything’, the internet has changed a lot. The spread of the internet is itself partly driven by financial fixes (facilitating the rapid movement of money) and product fixes (amplifying consumer ‘choice’ and driving demand for additional goods). As Silver does note, the spatial fix of transferring office work from the core to the Carribean or India requires that workers in those locales be brought on line. She fails to note, however, that their online status may be employed to produce transnational communities of struggle. The more general process of the creation of transnational communities of struggle has already begun to happen of course, with the heavy middle class bias one would anticipate given who is on line at this point. On the other hand, much as middle class nationalists eventually had to forge alliances with working classes to achieve their goal of national independence, so transnational networks may have to turn to the working class to achieve goals like environmental sustainability and human rights.

STEVEN SHERMAN is a sociologist. Check out his Three Hegemons blog.

He can be reached at threehegemons@aol.com.