Ben Selwyn suggests that the ‘Really Big Question’ (RBQ) of the 21st century is ‘the rise of a planetary labouring class of over 3 billion (and counting), living, for the most part, in poverty or near-poverty’. In previous posts, The New Agrarian Question and The condition of the working class in the age of globalization, I discussed Amin’s and Pelz’s attempts to address the RBQ. This post reviews Bill Dunn‘s assessment of the effect of global restructuring on the RBQ.
The sub-questions to the RBQ are:
- What is the cause of this grim condition of the working class?
- Is it safe to assume that the global restructuring, which started in the 70s, the root cause of the decline of the poor’s living standard and the accelerated wealth accumulation of the rich?
- Is the global restructuring the cause of the increasing, and at record high, national and global inequality?
- Is the RBQ the ‘natural’ consequence of economic change or does the working class share the blame?
- In short, is it the structure or the agency?
In Global Restructuring and the Power of Labour, Bill Dunn investigates some of these questions. This post attempts to present the main messages of the book very briefly. Although in doing so, I will reference to Dunn’s other publications, the main focus of this post is the book.
Global Restructuring and the Power of Labour is a concise review of the literature on labour and globalisation. It quite comprehensively covers the literature up to its publication date in 2004. The book is so full of great material that my notes and direct quotes became more than 7500 words. I had a quite tough time rearranging and omitting the notes to keep this post as brief as possible.
The book is full of references. In some sense, in this book, Dunn talks with quotes. This fact is probably the main reason why the first time I read the book, I had some difficulty fully comprehend and appreciate the book. But the second reading, after reading other material on this topic, showed me how valuable the book is.
In this book, Dunn takes an anti-reductionist historical materialist approach. He is very cautious not to make rash judgements or overly grand conclusions. However, for this post, I would summarise the message of the book in the fact that structural changes have not been so great during the last two decades of the 20th century to solely account for the disempowerment of labour. Although ‘labour was often in retreat, this did not appear to be based primarily on structural changes’. Labour’s agency is also a key, and perhaps the main, contributor to this decline.
Many authors argue that the condition of labour has worsened during the past decades, particularly since the 1970s. To support this claim, they reference ‘the falling union densities and levels of industrial action, weakening links between unions and social democratic parties and diminishing influence on government policy’.
The condition of labour can be the result of the agency and the structure. Many authors have attributed the decline of the power of labour to the structure. They recount economic restructuring as systematically eroding the basis of labour’s position.
In both Global Restructuring and the Power of Labour and Myths of Globalisation and the New Economy, Bill Dunn argues against the overstated role ascribed to the structure. While he does not refute the worsening of the workers’ condition, he contends that the economic changes have been so significant to cause such a dramatic decline in labour’s power solely. Dunn, to some extent, agrees with Richard Walker that ‘we should understand the contemporary period more regarding labour’s political defeats than capital’s economic successes’.
Global Restructuring and the Power of Labour investigates four industries and assesses their extent of economic change. The industries are Automobiles, Construction, Semiconductors, and Finance. While it may seem self-evident that capital mobility increased during the 20th century, Dunn problematises this claim and investigates it within those industries. He narrows the extent of his study to the experience of workers in the ‘North’ during the last two decades of the 20th century.
Fordism vs Post-Fordism
Dunn also dedicates a chapter to the claims of post-Fordism. Fordism is referred to the regime of accumulation that dominated the US economy after World War II. The key features, attributed to this period, are presented in Figure 1. The most important component and also the result of these features was a greater power of labour, demonstrated in more stable jobs, higher employment rates, and higher purchasing power. Proponents of the Post-Fordism notion assume radical changes in the major features of the Fordism period. Figure 1 contrasts the features of Fordism and Post-Fordism.
Dunn provides several points against the claims of Post-Fordism:
- The social relations of production of Fordism were not as straightforward, clear-cut, and homogenous as the table suggests. E.g., even ‘at the height of Fordism there were numerous small firms’.
- The changes in the recent times are not as significant, homogenous, and widespread as the proponents of post-Fordism claim. While there has been some evidence of decreasing firm sizes, the large firms still dominate the market.
- Finally, even accepting the changes, they fail to fully explain the condition of labour.
Dunn further assesses the claims of globalisation and capital mobility in Myths of Globalisation and the New Economy:
‘First, as of 2004, 71 percent of the world’s industrial production was performed in the 21 richest countries
Second, the changing patterns of production were hugely uneven. Just five countries, China and the ‘Asian tigers’, accounted for 62 percent of the poorer country growth from 1980 to 2005. FDI also went to a few favoured locations, mainly in Asia, which were seldom those with the lowest wages.
Third, only about 30 percent of FDI was in manufacturing and only 8 percent in poorer country manufacturing. Of this, only a small proportion was wholly new investment.
Fourth, that poorer country growth does not necessarily depend on rich country investments.
Fifth and finally, there was huge unevenness between industries. In some sectors such as textiles, clothing and shoes, toys and consumer electronics something of a rush of manufacturing to poor countries did happen. Here claims of globalisation as a cause of labour’s problems may seem appropriate.’
Some argue that the labour’s condition is a result of the state’s retreat. They argue that the potential mobility of capital has caused a ‘democratic deficit’ and a ‘hollowing out’ of welfare functions. While Dunn does not deny that a weakening of a welfare state can weaken labour, he nevertheless argues against asserting the state as the cause.
‘First, there is little evidence of the state’s economic decline.’
‘Second, the national level remains a highly contested arena, which labour’s opponents show no sign of abandoning.’
‘Third, assuming the state as a public good or working in the interest of the whole society is problematic.’
As Dunn suggests, the globalisation discourse may have a direct political and propaganda goal, which justifies the emphasis on this notion against all evidence otherwise. The mere threats of capital mobility and production plant relocation can pose serious problems for labour. It can serve as a bargaining tactic to make the labour and unions to agree to concessions.
A very important point that the book proposes is that ‘in theoretical terms the social world has, in an important sense, to be conceived as global to begin with.’ The importance of taking a global view in the political economic analysis is more comprehensively discussed by Ben Selwyn proposes in Twenty-first-century International Political Economy: A class-relational perspective.
Dunn views building alliances with ‘Social Movement’ or ‘New Social’ Unionism as having positive potentials. While he views the emphasis on diversity important, at the same time, he cautions against accepting division and shifting protests to ‘more manageable non-class forms’.
Dunn concludes that ‘labour internationalism (or anti-nationalism) … is hardly novel’. ‘The possibilities for activity and organisation that overcome territorial and social divisions are surely worth pursuing’. However, the ‘emphasis on the transnational or global as the only worthwhile arena … may underplay the potential for smaller scales of resistance, including their potential to increase in scale’. ‘Despite numerous shortcomings, ‘traditional’ trade union struggles often appeared to remain significant’.
Amin, S (2008), ‘Foreword: rebuilding the unity of the ‘labour front’’, In Bieler, A, Lindberg, I & Pillay, D (eds), Labour and the Challenges of Globalisation: What Prospects for Transnational Solidarity?, London, Pluto Press.
Dunn, B (2004), Global restructuring and the power of labour, New York, Palgrave Macmillan.
Dunn, B (2009), ‘Myths of globalisation and the new economy’, International Socialism, no. 121, pp. 75-97.
Esser, J & Hirsch, J (1994), ‘The Crisis of Fordism and the Dimensions of a ‘Post-Fordist’ Regional and Urban Structure’, In Amin, A (ed), Post-Fordism: A Reader, Blackwell Publishers Ltd, pp. 71-97.
Harvey, D (1990), The condition of postmodernity : an enquiry into the origins of cultural change, Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell.
Pelz, WA (2012), ‘The condition of the working class in the age of globalization’, International Critical Thought, vol. 2, no. 1, pp. 23-29.
Selwyn, B (2015), ‘Twenty-first-century International Political Economy: A class-relational perspective’, European Journal of International Relations, vol. 21, no. 3, pp. 513-537.