Interview with Beverly J. Silver

Text of an interview with Beverly Silver about her book, Forces of Labor.

Submitted by Steven. on January 5, 2010

In the last issue we published the translators’ preface for the German edition of Beverly J. Silver’s book “Forces of Labor”[1]. The author came to Germany in early June 2005 to present the book. This is an interview for the German magazine “Analyse + Kritik” []

In your book Forces of Labor you put a certain emphasis on the perspective that labor unrest is a kind of driving force of the development of capitalism. That bears a specific resemblance to an approach in Europe called workerism or autonomist Marxism. Are there any direct connections with that kind of thought or is this resemblance accidental?
The emphasis on labor unrest as something that is continuously transforming capitalism in part comes out of US traditions. I grew up in Detroit in the 1960s, and there was in the general understanding of the 1930s sit-down struggles in Detroit this idea of the structural strength of workers - that is, the idea that workers’ gains came in large part through their strategic position at the point of production. This is something that has been developed in US labor history and industrial sociology. One of the major influences on my work is the writings of Piven and Cloward.[2] There are several arguments that they use at the national level in terms of discussing the history of poor people’s movements in the US, that reoccur in FoL, but brought to a global scale. There is the idea of major advances or transformations coming through upsurges that come only periodically, that these upsurges are themselves not the result of efforts by organizers or political parties, but that they come out of structural conditions that allow for certain kinds of movements. And, in particular, in the understanding of the 1930s’ labor unrest they emphasize the structural, positional power of workers at the point of production, in terms of workers being able to push forward demands. At the same time, they emphasize that each of these upsurges is brought under control through a combination not only of repression, concessions and cooptation, but also through systematic transformations in the organization of production that weakens movements “behind their backs”, so to speak.
So there is that heritage or roots of the argument, but also one of the key intellectual influences on FoL has been my work with Giovanni Arrighi. During the early period of operaismo Arrighi was actually out of Italy, he was teaching in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, and then Tanzania, developing arguments in which the problem of labor supplies and labor resistance was seen as central to how colonialism developed, as well as to the development of national liberation movements in Africa. When Arrighi went back to Italy in 1969, it was at the height of the autunno caldo. And at that point, there was the strong influence of the workers’ struggles at FIAT and, again, the recurrence of struggles where workers were very skeptical of politics and associational bargaining power and very determined to preserve their autonomous power and strength in the struggles - a social-political context that also strongly influenced the development of operaismo.
But there are several differences between the operaismo as it developed in Italy and the influences that came to me, to this book. In 1971 Arrighi and others formed the Gruppo Gramsci. From the start, in their perspective there was a very strong Third Worldism and global perspective, which was something that was not really there in the early operaismo. A second difference is a much stronger combined theoretical and empirical approach, as opposed to the more philosophical tendencies within much of operaismo. One of the strong emphases in the Gruppo Gramsci was on the actual, concrete study of empirical conditions on the ground as they influenced the nature of workers’ bargaining power. In this sense they were closer to Romano Alquati and Sergio Bologna than to Mario Tronti and Toni Negri. Finally, whereas certain tendencies within operaismo emphasized that the working class is strong, and getting stronger and stronger all the time, in FoL there is the attempt to see both the long term processes tending to strengthen labor, but also countertendencies brought about by the various capitalist fixes in response to the strength and militancy of labor.
On this last point, we also have developed our thinking over time. If you compare a piece that Arrighi and I published in 1984, “Labor Movements and Capital Mobility”[3] to FoL, you can see that there is a little bit of implicit self criticism in FoL and in later joint articles. The 1984 article emphasizes the growing strength of labor, the long term secular trend toward growing strength of labor on a world scale. Our argument was that the geographical relocation of capital in the 70s and early 80s had to some extent weakened labor where capital had moved out from, but strengthened labor elsewhere, and that overall, seen as a global tendency, the overall process was one of labor strengthening. Then the depth of the crisis of labor in many parts of the world in the 90s was not something that we were really prepared for. We began to say: okay, what happened? In thinking this through, we began to look at the impact of the financialization of capital (what I call in the book the “financial fix”) as a key explanation behind the depth of the crisis for labor. Up until the mid-80s capital had responded to labor’s strength with a series of fixes (spatial, technological/organizational, product), none of which were particularly effective in undermining the overall strength of labor. The result was a deep crisis of capitalism. Then the financialization of capital began to take-off; capital withdrew heavily from trade and production (and from the purchase of wage labor), turning the deep crisis of capital into a deep crisis for labor.
Let me circle back to the differences with operaismo: Another difference that I should mention has to do with - and I think this is a fair critique - the question of whether workers’ struggles are always good. This issue comes up in the development of the argument about boundary drawing in FoL, and the questions raised there about Marx’s and Engels’ interpretation of the homogenization process, of proletarianization, as producing an inherent tendency toward unified working class struggles. Workers’ struggles as localized defense are always understandable, but how do the localized defenses add up to something that leads toward greater global justice, global equality?

This kind of boundary drawing isn’t something that is put upon the working-class by capital, it’s produced within the working class, is that right?
I distinguish three kinds of boundary drawing. There is one that actually does come from the workers themselves. It is workers themselves using non-class bases of identity - citizenship, gender, race - in order to defend particular privileges. Because there is an ongoing tendency of capitalism to continuously bring workers into competition with each other through these various fixes, this is an inherent reaction, it’s an endemic kind of reaction. That doesn’t mean that the only boundary drawing is going on by workers themselves, but it also goes on by capital in terms of segmenting labor markets, and by states in terms of delimiting citizenship rights.
It’s also not to say that workers are not also involved in breaking down boundaries. What I suggest as a very broad conceptual apparatus to work with, is that if we look historically that established working classes, who are the beneficiaries of the last wave of struggles, attempt to maintain boundary drawing against competition from newly formed working-classes, whereas newly formed working-classes are more likely to try to break down the boundaries. If we look at rural migrant-workers that come into Chinese cities to work, the initial reaction of the established urban workers was to keep them out. The migrant workers themselves now are drawing on the language of citizenship rights in the urban areas and are saying that these kinds of distinctions between urban and rural workers and the rights of urban and rural workers shouldn’t have any place. We recurrently see that with struggles by immigrant workers; for example, both historically and today in the US, immigrant workers have argued that the same rights should apply to workers regardless of race, regardless of nationality.

In your book you mention three different types of labor power. In your comparison of the struggles of the automobile workers and the textile workers, you state that although textile workers were much more militant, they lost most of their struggles. Does that apply to a kind of hierarchy between the different types of power - sometimes I read it like that, that those parts of the working-class building their strength on the shopfloor, on the big factories for example, on workplace bargaining power, that, although they might be not as militant as others, their struggles are much more effective, they hurt capital much more. Is that right, is there that kind of hierarchy?
What I argue is that there is actually a similarity between the first round of successful struggles in Britain in the 19th century and in the US in the 1930s, in the initial phase of the product cycle. In those moments there is a certain amount of profits that are available that provide the potential for some kind of stable, redistributive social contract. In fact there was such an outcome in Britain in the late 19th century in textiles, and in the US in the 1930s in the automobile industry. In both cases, the wave of labor unrest led to a multi-decade social contract, in which there were some redistributive processes going on, where capitalists were forced to share part of the profits with labor.
There is, however, a difference in the basis of the strength of labor in the textile industry versus in the automobile industry. In the automobile industry the highly centralized organization of production means that a strike in, say, a part of the assembly line in a single engine-plant can bring an entire cooperation to a standstill; whereas this kind of structural workplace bargaining power didn’t exist in the textile industry because of its decentralized nature with many smaller and medium sized factories. Without this kind of workplace bargaining power, then workers’ victories had to depend on alternative sources of bargaining power. So I make the argument that associational bargaining power was much more important in the case of the initial textile industry victories.
If we look at the early 21st century, in some ways the bargaining power of workers within services industries - with multiple worksites, multiple employers - has much in common with the kind of situation faced by textile workers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Thus, I suggest in FoL that associational power is likely to be more central to effective workers’ struggles in the present situation than it had been for much of the 20th century. But we can also underestimate the amount of workplace bargaining power that workers still have, even in the service sector industries. The most effective struggles will probably find ways to leverage a new combination of workplace and associational bargaining power.

There are voices that insist, all those workers in the precarious workplaces, they can’t fight, so we still have to concentrate on the factories and on the public sector with the large bureaus. Others say there aren’t any privileged places, everybody can fight wherever she/he is. What do you think about that?
Well, everybody can and often does fight wherever she or he is; but there still are privileged places, in the sense that there are places where workers have much stronger bargaining power; where their struggles have a much greater impact on capital and on state power. In part what I have argued is that, with each successive spatial fix, the privileged site of strong workplace bargaining power has moved successively to each new site of rapid industrialization. Thus, today a key place to look is China, which has been experiencing very rapid industrialization and proletarianization, including the creation of industrial sites in the automobile industry with workers concentrated in large factories, working on assembly lines, with workplace bargaining power that can be leveraged; and that, I expect, will be leveraged by Chinese workers.
With regard to the future of workers’ movements in the core, I think we should be asking: what are the new, main sites of working-class formation in the core countries? And then look to: what are the forms of bargaining power within the hands of these workers? It is useful to look at the existing struggles by these workers - even if they are for now still marginal in their impact - and the kinds of strategies they use. If you look for example at the US, particularly in California you have this round of very successful mobilizations by janitors, who were mostly immigrants, working in the office buildings downtown. They don’t have the kind of workplace bargaining power that comes from working in a complex division of labor – if one janitor does not work, this does not stop the whole thing, even if one building stops, this doesn’t stop the other buildings. There is, however, bargaining power that comes from the place-bound nature of the work. This ideology of globalization, that everything can move, anything can move anywhere, is not true: there are economies of agglomeration, there is tremendous sunken investments in terms of fixed capital in the buildings, so that it would be a huge loss of sunken capital to move. They can’t send the buildings overnight somewhere else to be cleaned. The ability to have successful struggles there comes from some elementary structural bargaining power that shouldn’t just be ignored.
But at the same time, it’s clear that there are capitalist organizational strategies in this industry - for example, the use of multiple subcontracting firms as the direct employer - that combined with the less complex division of labor means that these workers certainly have less workplace bargaining power than, say, automobile workers. So it is clear that the success of the ‘justice for janitors’ campaign also depended on developing and leveraging forms of associational bargaining power including community organizations and the power of a central trade union structure that played an important role in funnelling resources to the campaign.

Do you think that were the two main factors: a community based fight and the strength of the union?
Community organization was important, including networks that existed within immigrant communities. The SEIU (Service Employees International Union) played an important role, in that they provided significant financial resources for the campaign. The campaign was very expensive (legal and research costs) - which may be one of the limits of the campaign strategy. To be sure, there were lots of problems with that campaign (with the undemocratic, top-down nature of how things were done), but they were able to do something very important; to show that it was possible to mobilize and organize immigrant workers, and to win struggles in precarious workplaces.

In your book you write a lot about the textile and the automobile industry as the main industries of the 19th and 20th century. You try to identify certain industries or sectors which might become similarly important in the 21st century, but you are very cautious.
It is very difficult to identify a sector that has the kind of economic and also cultural weight that textiles had in the 19th and automobiles had in the 20th century. It may be because it is too soon to tell; that is, these types of transformations only become obvious to us post-facto. Or it may be because we are living through a real substantive transformation in the nature of capitalism. There is an argument to be made for semiconductors as a new leading sector in the sense of the multiple impacts that it has had, but at the same time it is not key in the sense that the semiconductor industry itself is not producing large working-classes - if anything its effect is to reduce total employment. In different ways, I think we should also be keeping an eye on both long-distance transportation and military-related industries. In a different direction, it is interesting to note one clear trend that came out of the World Labor Group data[4]: in the last decades of the twentieth century, labor unrest in the education industry, among teachers, showed a clear upward trend worldwide.

I think that is a consequence of what you have called a socializing state: big expenses in the public sector, social work, education…
Yes. So, the crude argument, ‘where capital goes, conflict goes’, is carried forward throughout the book – both as a geographical argument within industries (with each spatial fix), but also from industry to industry (with each product fix), including the movement of ‘capital’ into state sectors, with education understood as a key public sector industry.

Another question concerning intellectual heritage in FoL: Yesterday[5] you talked about ‘making and re-making’ of the working-class. Was there any resemblance with E.P. Thompson[6] and that kind of thought?
Certainly, understanding working class formation as a process is an important similarity. Clearly the strong emphasis in social history on grassroots struggles is an important source for this work. Also, the idea that consciousness often comes out of struggles, rather than being a pre-condition of struggles is implicit throughout the book – trying to problematize the assumption of a linear progression from proletarianization, to consciousness, to struggles to…

The mechanistic understanding of classical Marxism, the social category called labor class…
That’s right, that’s also an influence.

I found very interesting, as I understood, that you have an understanding of class as a kind of process, developing, shaping and re-shaping. Would you think it is possible that the working class is completely atomized and, as a social formation, no longer an actor?
Let me offer a historical analogy. If you look at discussions about the US labor movement in the 1920s, you see that the overwhelming consensus was that Fordism itself was producing a hopelessly disaggregated, weak, and atomized working-class: it was drawing in immigrant workers from all over the place who didn’t share a common language or culture, whose skill-based bargaining power was undermined by the new and alienating technologies. It was only post-facto, when you start getting the success of labor movements in the mass-production industries, that then the whole frame for understanding things changed. Now the advance of Fordism, instead of being seen as a labor-weakening process, was seen as a process that was inherently labor strengthening. Now, also with Postfordism everyone is going back to analogous types of argument to those being made in the 1920s, in which the new ways of organizing production and the new technologies are seen as clearly labor-weakening processes. But it is likely that there is also a process now going on, in which workers themselves are discovering where their bargaining power is in the new situation, where their leverage is - it takes time to figure it out. And once that kind of process of discovery is more widespread and generalized, and also acted on – that then we will get again another shift in the way that social sciences thinks about Postfordism, seeing it as actually opening up all sorts of new opportunities for struggles. But that will be a post-facto understanding based on an analysis of the struggles that come up themselves. The reason for a lot of the tentativeness in the discussion of the early 21st century and Postfordism is precisely because this is something that we as analysts can try to guess based on certain kinds of conceptual frameworks, but ultimately we will see what comes up in the struggles. And the basic argument just is that they - the struggles - will come up.

One argument that you stress in your book is that labor unrest not only forces capital to move around the world and that where capital goes, conflict goes, but that labor unrest is also shaping and re-shaping the national and international structure of politics. Yesterday you spoke about war and the new forms of war. What do you think about this war on terrorism, is that a kind of reaction on labor unrest? And what do you think how does this war on terrorism affect the working class?
There is no doubt that prior to 9/11 [2001] there was a feeling that immigrant based labor movements were gaining strength rather quickly. And one effect of the post 9/11 repression was that immigrants’ political organizing and labor militancy has become much more problematic, difficult, particularly for undocumented workers. In the US, the Department of Immigration was moved into the Department for Homeland Security. There are many more opportunities for the state to use Homeland Security directly or indirectly as a way of weakening labor struggles, particularly to the extent that they involve immigrants. However, a central argument in FoL is that repression has its limits as a form of rule, and moreover, that historically war itself has had radicalizing effects on labor and other social movements. Yesterday, I showed a figure from chapter 4 of FoL that charts the annual mentions of labor unrest in the World Labor Group database for the twentieth century. One striking feature of that figure is the impact of the two world wars: you get dips in labor unrest in the initial years of wars themselves. There is repression, there is the “rally around the flag” effect. But in both cases these dips were short term, and were followed by major explosions of labor and other forms of social unrest. The argument in the book is that for most of the 20th century wars on the one hand were an occasion for repression, but on the other hand they had a labor strengthening effect, increased the bargaining power of labor in face of the reliance of states on workers in the battlefield and in the factories. So the question becomes whether these new forms of war also have a labor strengthening effect or whether states have effectively emancipated themselves from their reliance on mass public and workers’ support to successfully fight wars.
I think that there is a conscious state strategy to reduce its dependence on the mass of the population and the working class through various strategies including the automation of warfare, privatization of a wide array of military activities, the elimination of compulsory military service - but there is a whole discussion to be had on whether this is actually working.
Coming back to the first part of the question: I think the whole counterrevolution of the 1980s, the combined counterrevolutions in the military and in the economic sphere was in good part a reaction against working class power.

In Germany some say that in the Middle East there is a kind of blockade for capital accumulation and the war is seen as an instrument to break through this blockade.
I’m more inclined to think that this is a geopolitical struggle over oil and the control of oil and that there was a rather misguided attempt by the US to basically get control over the oil supplies as a way of having leverage vis-à-vis Europe and particularly vis-à-vis China, but that it didn’t succeeded. But the war probably wouldn’t have gone forward if it didn’t also mesh with the interests of those seeking opportunities for profitable capital accumulation: the direct interests of the oil companies in profits, and military-industrial complex interests like weapons producers, private security companies, etc.

[1] Beverly J. Silver. 2003. “Forces of Labor. Workers’ Movements and Globalization since 1870”. New York: Cambridge University Press
[2] See: Piven, Francis Fox and Richard A. Cloward. 1977. »Poor Peoples Movements. Why they succeed, how they fail.« New York: Vintage Books
[3] Arrighi, Giovanni and Beverly Silver. 1984. »Labor Movements and Capital Migration: The US and Western Europe in World-Historical Perspective.« In C. Bergquist, ed., Labor in the Capitalist World-Economy, pp. 183-216. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage
[4] In the mid-1980s the World Labor Group started the data base on world-wide labor unrest from 1870 to 1996, starting point for the research that lead to the book “Forces of Labor”.
[5] ‘Yesterday’ refers to a presentation on FoL in Berlin, Germany, in early June 2005.
[6] See: E.P. Thompson. 1966. The Making of the English Working Class. New York. Vintage Books.

[prol-position news #3, 8/2005]