Insurgent Notes #2, October 2010

Issue two of the journal of communist theory and practice.

Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The condition of this movement result from the premises now in existence.

- Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Communist Manifesto

Editorial: Shock and Au-sterity

1. Scared to death that all the lights were about to go out after pulling the plug on Lehman Brothers, the bourgeoisie rolled up its sleeves, girded its loins, crossed its fingers, and reached deeper than deep for that thing of all things, that relation of all relations that is the life of all lives for the bourgeoisie—OPM, other people’s money.

Tapping the unrestricted credit lines offered by the banker’s banker—the government—the bourgeoisie helped themselves to what they knew they were entitled to, the public purse.

For the bourgeoisie, it’s always other people’s something or other. For capital to be capital, it must command other people’s labor. For finance to be finance it must command other people’s money. So when the bourgeoisie through those great organizations of inter-governmental cooperation, regulation, and exchange call for austerity, it’s always somebody else’s austerity.

After the billions in direct transfers from public treasuries to private accounts, after further billions in government guaranteed debts, after more billions in government sponsored special investment vehicles, after more than more billions in toxic assets, non-performing loans, bad debts bought and overpaid for—after all that expenditure of other people’s money, the bourgeoisie had come to the shocking conclusion that: <ol><li>money changes everything;</li><li>whatever changed, it wasn’t enough;</li><li>a hundred billion dollars here and a hundred billion Euros there and pretty soon you’re talking about serious money;</li><li>somebody has to pay;</li><li>somebody else has to pay;</li><li>there is no such thing as being too rich or too thin.</li></ol> “We,” say the bourgeoisie “can never be too rich. You [meaning all of us] can never be too thin.”

So first from the hack economists, journalists, commentators, representatives, ministers, senators—those agents and bagmen employed by the bourgeoisie—come the expressions of shock that other hack economists, journalists, commentators, representatives, ministers, senators—other agents and bagmen of the same bourgeoisie—could have acted so irresponsibly, could have acted with such profligacy. This only means that the bourgeoisie needs this other section of hacks to act even more irresponsibly, with even more profligacy. This time, however, the wastefulness requires a specific universality—a wastefulness in the very basis for human existence; a wastefulness determined to deprive human lives of the bare necessities for living a human life. Then even and ever greater misery and poverty must be piled atop that mountain of misery and poverty already piled up as the more than equal but opposite symbols of capitalist wealth.

First comes the shock then comes the austerity.

2. When in April and May of this year the government of Greece stood just a stone’s throw from collapse, suspended between pit of bankruptcy and the pendulum of mass demonstrations and strikes, the European Union hesitated to provide a “rescue” package, transfixed so it seemed, not by the spectacle of the conflict, but by the image of itself it saw in Greece. It wasn’t the cost that paralyzed the governments of the European Union, it was the mirror.

Merkel was reluctant to approve the “rescue” of the government of Greece without assurance that Germany’s interests would be protected, which meant that Germany’s contributions would be considered as senior to, and secured prior to, any other obligations. Merkel, of course, was only reprising the role she thought her mentor and role model would have played in the discussions. Her role model is Margaret Thatcher, but not the Thatcher of 1981, of Attila the Hen fame, but the Thatcher of today whose addled brain and lack of recognition of her current environment make her the once and future champion of everything bourgeois.

After the hemming and hawing, the toing and froing, the after you Alphonse-ing, after you Johann-ing, the half-hearted and half-assessed agreement on a “rescue,” the high command of the European Union received a phone call from US Treasury Secretary Geithner. Geithner’s elevated stature among the titans of finance is due as much to the fact that he sits on a telephone book at his desk and in restaurants as to his previous and ongoing service in Maiden Lane I, Maiden Lane II, Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers TALF, TARP, PPIP, ABCPFF campaigns.

“You guys and dolls need to do something big,” said secretary Geithner to his counterparts, counterparties, across the Atlantic. “You need to do something dramatic. You need to impress the markets,” he said getting to the real issue, the only issue.

“Yeah,” he said, gaining confidence if not height with each pregnant pause. “You’ve got to do something completely different. Like create an off-balance sheet funding facility with a really big number and guarantee its initial capital with the revenue of the EU itself, and then you get the IMF to supplement, to partner, in this vehicle, with the IMF vetting the economic program of any government stupid enough—check that—finding it advantageous to request funding by this off-balance sheet special funding facility guaranteed by your own revenues. How does that sound?”

They looked at each other, these ministers, presidents, financiers. “It sounds just like Greece to us,” they said.

“Exactly,” said Tim, sounding less like a munchkin and more like a wizard in Oz. “That’s the point. You’re all Greek to me.”

3. Greece revealed that Europe was the sick man of Europe. The markets translated that as “you’re all Greek to us.” Banks in the sixteen euro zone countries had amassed a euro 1.25 trillion exposure to sovereign and private debt instruments of Greece, Portugal, Ireland and Spain. UK banks had amassed euro 270 billion in exposure. French banks accounted for euro 370 billion, and German banks for euro 394 billion, with approximately euro 624 billion of the total in private debt instruments and euro 140 billion in government debt issues [it was this sovereign debt exposure that Deutsche Bank was so reluctant to reveal to EU bank commissioners during the “stress test” evaluation]. The total amount of debt outstanding from these four countries exceeds euro 2 trillion. Outside this group of four, Italy alone has outstanding debt of approximately euro 1.7 trillion.

With so much debt concentrated in such poorly performing economies, the European Union commercial banks and other financial institutions found themselves virtually unable to refinance their own operating requirements in the commercial paper money markets. Banks that did attempt to circulate their short-term instruments in these markets were forced to pay three or four times their previous average interest rates.

The European Central Bank, by the end of 2009 having guaranteed bank debts in the amount of euro 433 billion, increased its direct loans to euro zone commercial banks. At the end of June 2010 the volume of these loans measured euro 879 billion. In addition to finance the operating needs of its member countries, the ECB took to directly purchasing government debt issues.

With the commercial paper markets inaccessible, with cross border lending essentially frozen, the banks themselves decided that the best, if not the only place, to risk their cash was no place at all, depositing over euro 300 billion with the ECB itself.

Meanwhile, the costs of credit default protection on the sovereign debt of Greece, Portugal, Spain, Ireland and the UK soared. The credit default swap costs on the debt of EU private financial institutions reached the levels of costs after the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008. Debt auctions failed in Hungary, and in Germany, with issues not being fully subscribed and discounts from face value exceeding discounts planned by the issuers.

The joker in this house of cards is, of course, fiscally righteous, monetarily strict, and financially responsible Germany. Germany’s very own bankers from their lofty position in the EU food chain can turn to the west and survey their mountains of non-performing collateralized, asset backed, structured, real estate debt in the United States.

The bankers can turn to the east and survey more mountains of under-performing sovereign debt, the debt they sought to isolate and conceal from the “stress tests” performed by the European Union.

They can look straight ahead and survey yet more mountains of non-performing commercial real estate debt ranging across Europe.

The one place the German bankers did not want to look was Basel III, where the “improved” requirements for “key capital ratios,” diluted and phased in over nine years, were still too much too soon.

But it wasn’t the height of the mountains of debt that bothered the bankers; it was the fact that as high as those mountains are, they are all underwater.

Surely it’s the mountains of non-performing debt, which makes Germany’s banks technically insolvent, that weighs like an Alp on the brains and pocketbooks of the living.

“Do as I say,” implores Merkel, “Not as my bankers do.” What else could she say?

It was all Greek to the markets, with Greece itself emerging as the leader of a new world economy—a Dubai World economy with the world itself running out of Abu Dhabis.

4. So, enter austerity. Austerity appears to aim at ensuring the repayment of debt, the bourgeoisie’s first and last words being, “pay me.” In essence, in its social reproduction, austerity serves a different purpose.

If debt originates in the lags, delays, the a-synchronicity of capitals’ metamorphoses from money through commodity production and back to even more money as a claim on that expansion of value, debt concludes, realizes, itself on the extinguishing, the annihilation, the devaluation of the accumulated values of society necessary for the reproduction of value but which themselves, can no longer be sustained, be reabsorbed, recirculated, reproduced as value. Primary among that expanse of social accumulation that can no longer be sustained is the reproduction of labor power, and all that makes up labor power, itself.

So to that part of the population who are working, austerity means some will be working harder, longer, some will be working less, and shorter, but all will be reproducing a lesser social basis for reproduction. All that was substantial will become marginal, and the marginal will become substantially greater.

For that part of the population retired and receiving a pension, fewer will retire; fewer will receive pensions, those that do will receive less.

For that part of the population born into poverty, deprived of a basic, necessary education, of proper medical care, even more will be born into greater poverty. Even more will be cheated of and by an even poorer education. Even more will be excluded from already inadequate medical care.

All value must be devalued. “Everything must go!” is the slogan of this bourgeoisie’s staying in business forced liquidation sale.

The call for austerity, the programs of austerity are about destroying the overproduction of accumulated values, even and especially the miserably paltry assets of public health, transportation, education—those things that make up the social basis for expanded reproduction which is inverted into overproduction and becomes a burden to capital.

5. “Everything must go!” proclaim our salesmen of austerity. But not exactly everything will go. Military spending—that’s one thing that doesn’t really have to go, as Greece itself has shown.

Greece, the largest importer of conventional weaponry in Europe; Greece, with military spending as a percentage of its GDP twice that of the European Union; Greece whose deficit revision “scandal” has in fact been driven by military expenditures; Greece who year ago purchased two submarines from Germany neither of which has been delivered; Greece with plans to buy six frigates and 15 military helicopters from France; Greece having purchased 24 F-16 fighters from the US , has managed to exempt those expenditures from its austerity program.

Military spending is the near perfect vehicle for non-reproducible accumulation by the bourgeoisie. It is not-reproductive production, it is finance made real, its values only being realizable in not only their own destruction, but in the destruction of all other values. Military spending acts as a conduit of recuperation for the bourgeoisie, with taxes transferring and restoring a portion of the wage expenditure to capitalism and without any need for enhanced social reproduction to make use of the commodities.

If revolution is one way, the exploited’s way, of resolving the contradiction of use value and exchange value, military spending is the exploiter’s penultimate way of resolving the same contradiction. War, of course, is the bourgeoisie’s ultimate method of resolving that contradiction.

Greece shows the way to, for, and of the brave new Dubai World where submarines that list to one side, helicopters with nowhere to go, circulate among the artificial islands bursting with abandoned homes, vacant condominiums, and empty streets.

When Greece, upon agreeing to the EU rescue package, enacted the terms of its austerity program, a financial analyst remarked, “They were supposed to make these changes ten years ago.” Maybe “they” were, as part of the entry into the European Union, but guess what? Seven years ago, Portugal did make such reforms as part of its adherence to the European Union, and today it finds itself in the same predicament as Greece.

And something else not for the guessing: This is the economic contraction capitalism was supposed to have ten years ago, after the capital spending bubble of the 1994-2000 period.

6. Meanwhile, how much better off than their European cousins are the bourgeoisie in the United States where the market is the austerity program; where stimulus and contraction go hand in hand; where poverty is so established in the fabric of everyday life that increases in poverty, declines in household income, and declining numbers of insured are the recovery?

The US Census Bureau’s Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage in the US: 2009, released in September 2010, verified the progress the bourgeoisie had made in reversing the little bit of progress made against poverty in the 1990s. After stagnating between 2000 and 2007, the inflation adjusted median income for families plummeted between 2007 and 2009. It took the bourgeoisie almost a decade, and two recessions, but at last poverty was back up where it belonged—embracing one in seven of the general population, but more importantly, almost one in four for those under the age of six. Nothing secures the future of capital like no future.

In 2009, per capita income declined 1.2 percent from 2008 levels. The growth in the overall poverty rate 2007-2009 exceeded the rate of increase in the 1973-1975 recession and the rate of increase measured in the combined double dip recessions of the 1980s.

In 2009, the family poverty rate increased from 2008’s 10.3 percent to 11.1 percent. The poverty rate for single-parent female head of household reached 29.9 percent.

Those without medical insurance increased to 16.7 percent of the population and the absolute numbers with coverage declined for the first decrease since 1987.

Among all workers over the age of 16, the poverty rate and absolute numbers increased in 2009, and the increase is solely the result of the decline in full-time employment. Of the general population between the ages of 25 and 34, 42.8 percent live below the poverty.

The legacy of Ronald Reagan, unlike Reagan himself, lives forever.

Besides collateralized debt obligations and synthetic asset backed securities, the legacy of that administration of Ronald Reagan, the US’s idiot version of the UK’s Thatcher, includes “new federalism.” “New federalism” was designed as the mechanism through which the national government dramatically reduced its participation in, and administration of, social welfare programs. Some forty three social welfare programs were returned to the administration of the individual states, with the national government awarding block grants which the states were to utilize toward defraying some of the costs of these programs.

The “reasoning” behind this policy was painfully clear to the most casual observer. The legislatures of many states were configured to dramatically reduce the political strength of the urban centers, and consequently, the urban poor. State governments were much more permeable to corporate influence, and much less vulnerable to that of organized labor.

Capital thought globally and acted locally well before any leftist made that a slogan.

Lobbying by corporate and large-scale agricultural interests, allied with the small town and rural distrust of big cities could, and did, effectively maintain the burden of regressive financing on the urban and poor populations. The fact that these same corporate interests proceeded to close industries, reduce employment, shatter the wage structure and generally devastate the small town and agricultural areas was the dirty, little not-so-secret tucked within the “revenue sharing” of the “new federalism.”

Sales tax and personal income taxes account for 80 percent of state government revenues in the United States. Since 2008, these flows have declined by 12 percent. So while US corporations have booked over $1 trillion in cash and liquid assets, over the next two years, state governments are facing budget shortfalls amounting to $127 billion. In some states, pension liabilities are underfunded by half.

After imposing furloughs, wage reductions, and cutting support to education and transit, states have responded, as states always respond, by attacking the weakest, the most vulnerable, those most in need of service and support. Home care services to the elderly and disabled have been reduced. Illinois has ended its support for Meals-on-Wheels programs. Alabama has reduced its provisions for housekeeping assistance to elderly people. California is proposing to eliminate adult day care centers and home support for 400,000 disabled or elderly people. Nearly every state has reduced eligibility in and payment for Medicaid services.

As reported in the New York Times of July 21, said the director of senior and disabled service for Rogue Valley, Oregon, “I’ve seen, in a matter of months, thirty years of work go down to drain.”

A decade, the 1990s reversed, a decade 2000 to 2010 lost, but most importantly, 30 years of work gone in 24 months.

“In a matter of months, thirty years of work down the drain.” There in a dozen words is the liquidation of pensions, 401Ks, the attacks on immigrant laborers, the destruction of wages, the rolling back of opportunity and equity for women in the workplace, in the doctor’s office, in the schools. There in a dozen words is the past, present, and future of capitalism, of human beings under capitalism. There in a dozen words is all you need to know about valorisation and devaluation.

7. It is not the task of the working class, or of Marxists, to reverse capitalism, to restore capitalist valorisation in the face of capital’s self-devaluation. It is the task of the working class, of Marxists; it is the task for revolution to oppose this devaluation that capital imposes upon all human relations, not things, not commodities, but actual human relations.

It is the most essential, critical task of the working class to defend the need for better than adequate medical care, better than basic education, better than tolerable public transit; to meet the needs for home care assistance, day care centers; to defend immigrant labor, women’s access to safe healthcare; to defend the social basis for human beings actually reproducing themselves as social human beings.

That defense requires the disavowal, rejection, cancellation, shredding of the debts accumulated by capital in its own attacks on that social basis; of the debts accumulated by our asset-liquidationist bourgeoisie.

That disavowal of debt requires in turn the immediate end to all military spending.

And that’s just the beginning.

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Elephant on a skateboard - S Artesian

S Artesian writes for Insurgent Notes on how the very mechanism of capital accumulation becomes a barrier to its own accumulation.

1. Love and Infamy

The bourgeoisie, the one we know and don’t love so well, thinks it has the solution to the problems it knows and doesn’t love inherent in the accumulation of capital. The solution for everything and anything that besets capital is of course…. more capital. The solution to the problems of too little return on capital, and too little capital is more capital. The solution to the problem of too much capital, of more capital is even more capital, but relatively.
Capital, for our well-known unloved capitalist, does not mean production. It does not mean creating products, or creating the means for creating products, or creating the means for creating the means. For our capitalist, capital means only the expansion of value.
Our capitalist doesn’t mean production even when he or she says “production.” Our capitalist doesn’t mean product even when he or she says “product.” Our capitalist does not mean productivity even when he or she says “productivity.”
For our well-known unloved capitalist, product means value, production means the process of aggrandizing value, productivity means increasing the rate of aggrandizement.
For our unloved, well-known capitalist, productivity is mis-represented as the productivity of capital, which is just our capitalist’s way of taking over a quality that is alien to him or her, and to his or her property; a quality that is alienated from labor. All and everything the capitalist means is proportionately greater aggrandizement of value output per unit of input, with the input itself being measured by, existing as, value. There’s the pot, the gold, and the rainbow all wrapped into one.
So whenever capital expands, the expansion is the result of the “productivity” of capital; of improved efficiency; of optimized allocations; of rationalized resources.
Whenever capital recovers, the recovery is the result of productivity, of improved efficiency, of optimized allocations, of rationalized resources.
When capital contracts? Here our chest and tub thumping capitalist is brought up short, literally and metaphorically. If expansion and recovery are the result of improvement, optimization, productivity, rationalization—in a word “progress,” in another word “capital”—how could anything as irrational as contraction, as recession, devaluation, and depression, even occur?
When Marx, known and beloved, says reproduction he means the renewal of the circuit, the process by which labor is transformed into value. When he says expanded reproduction he means the reconversion of the surplus value aggrandized by the capitalists into the components for capitalist production for the aggrandizement of more labor. When he says accumulation, he means that the expanded reproduction requires the introduction of relatively greater amounts of machinery as value into the production process.
When Marx analyzes accumulation, he is analyzing a single process, a totality where both expansion and contraction are the result; where the sub-optimal, inefficient, irrational, unproductive moments and structure of capital are the result of the optimal, efficient, rational, magnified “productivity” of capital.
Capital itself, whether in flower or withering on the vine, has no productivity. It assumes, expropriates the productivity of labor through the command of labor time.

2. Materialism and History

Marx initiates his critique, his engagement through opposition, of capital after his critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Hegel, in this last published work, becomes the object lesson of his own definition of
liberalism as a philosophy of the abstract that capitulates to the world of the concrete. Hegel’s dialectic of reason, dialectic through negation, had reached its end, and become a veritable negation of reason. The state is an abstraction. The abstraction embodies reason. The real embodies the rational, and becomes the end to rationality. Rather than being the product and producer of history, no longer representing the sojourn of consciousness through history, the real and the rational abandon history.
Marx’s critique recognizes that Hegel’s philosophy relates a history of human beings making themselves “at home” in the world, but that the philosophy is an estranged representation of an estranged history. Hegel gives us a disavowal of reality. The dialectic of negation, conflict, opposition, antagonism becomes the affirmation of things as they are.
Marx identifies the real material by which human beings make themselves at home in the world; retrieves the real content of history, and extracts that rational kernel of the dialectic—the kernel of opposition, conflict, antagonism. That material of human history, that basis for the kernel of the dialectic is the labor process. The labor process is that activity where human beings appropriate nature and make themselves at home in the world of not entirely their own making.
The appropriation of nature through labor is a social process. The appropriation is mediated by the forms of society. Appropriation of nature, then, is simultaneously the appropriation of the labor itself. Labor creates itself and the forms in which the labor is organized, rendered, captured. The forms of capture are the different forms of private ownership, of property. If Hegel is presenting us with an estranged representation of an estranged history, the estrangement is a reflection of the estrangement in the labor process. Labor creates the conditions for its own reproduction, but only in the reproduction of its expropriation, its loss.
So we get from labor, to the labor process, to the conditions of labor, to the organization of labor as property, to labor producing the conditions for the material reproduction of society.
The conditions of production, the loss that labor imposes on itself, is nothing other than dispossession of labor from its own usefulness in directly meeting, creating, expanding, and satisfying need. Needs can only be met through the mediation of exchange, through the quantifying, the measuring of the single element common to all human labor, which is of course also the essence of history— time.
Labor dispossessed from its individual, particular abilities to provide for the laborer; labor stripped of its use; labor as time; time as the measure for exchange. Labor’s loss is time.
If time is the measure, then absent that bigger fool of whom every capitalist dreams, then the formal exchanges of commodities have to be equal, and fair; they have to be exchanges of time for time.
The reduction of labor to time is only possible because of labor’s capacity to create greater quantities than can be directly consumed. The time of labor is a quality; the quality is the ability of labor to convert itself into material products extending forward in time, beyond its own particular, and immediate, needs; to create surplus; to overproduce.
Labor’s ability to overproduce is precisely what is captured, fixed, by capital in the conversion of labor time into value.
Within the fairness, the equality of exchange of labor for wages, the unequal exchange of quality, time, for quantity takes place. Only a portion of the labor time is compensated, that time necessary for the reproduction of the laborers as a value-producing class; only that portion required for the workers to expand the reproduction of capital.
The more this labor power produces, the relatively less the power of labor; the more this labor power produces, the proportionately less is returned to the laborers; the more this labor power produces, the less the need, use, production and reproduction of labor makes up the value of the products; the more this labor power produces, the more the surplus labor, the surplus product, the surplus value, the overproduction is converted into the property of the capitalist; the more this labor power produces, the more the capital displaces, outweighs labor power in the process of reproduction; the more this labor power produces, the more the productivity of labor is consumed by and converted into the overproduction of capital.
Overproduction, inherent in the organization of labor as wage-labor, is the source and the limit to the aggrandizement of surplus-value. Overproduction is the origin and barrier to profitability. Overproduction is always the overproduction of capital, and is capital’s immanent critique.
The extraction of proportionately greater amounts of surplus labor time through reducing the time necessary for the laborers to reproduce, “work up,” values equal to their own wages, does not, and cannot, increase the new value embodied in the individual commodities, or the value of the commodities in total. Time is time.
Exchange is based on the formal equality of capital’s values, of time for time. The valorisation of capital, its expansion, requires a growing inequality in the exchange between the components internal to capitalist production, an exchange of less time for greater time—of objectified, quantified time for the quality of labor power, its surplus labor time.
Valorisation, expanded reproduction, accumulation, all these are simply manifestations of the conflict that is the heart of capitalism. From the critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Marx gets us to that heart—overproduction.

3. Elephant on a Skateboard

Since 2001, the number of production workers has declined by 21.9 percent in U.S. manufacturing industries. Economists, business school professors, union bureaucrats, journalists, politicians, some of the living junk of this junk bond capitalism, have attributed this decline to capital flight, taxes, regulation, union representation, competition, outsourcing—all of which supposedly restrict, and subvert, the natural, exuberant, uninhibited productivity of capital.
Other economists, other journalists, politicians, union bureaucrats, professors–some of that other junk– point to speculation, “financialization,” outsourcing, capital flight, and competition for the decline in the employment of production workers by “productive” capital.
These tweedledums and tweedledees of capitalism with their twiddling explanations are all of a cloth, and of the cloth. They are peddling the gospel of accumulation, more capital, as the path to increased manufacturing employment. It’s the gospel of the productivity of capital.
In the profane world, the one where money is made, the decline in the numbers of production workers is the direct, and sustained, result of the capital’s reconversion of surplus value into the means of production, into capital that amplifies the productivity of labor. Between 1973 and 1995, manufacturing productivity grew at an average annual rate of 2.7 percent in the United States. Between 1995 and 2007, the average annual rate of growth measured 4.1 percent.
The increase in labor productivity was the result of alterations, adjustment, changes in the production process brought about through the investment in fixed assets —the structures, equipment and software dedicated to production.
Fixed assets, fixed capital refers to those instruments and structure of capitalist production the value of which is transferred to the finished products only incrementally, over extended periods of time, and numerous cycles of production. Marx writes in his volume 2 of Capital:

It is this advance in one sum and the reproduction in natural form by small degrees which distinguishes this capital in the role of fixed from circulating capital.

The essential, distinguishing characteristic, of the investment in fixed capital is that it yields its value only to the degree that its usefulness, its physical capacities are consumed through the labor process. The exchange value of the fixed capital is only preserved through the destruction, depreciation, of its use value, in the labor process, which is the aggrandizement of surplus value, surplus labor time. Value is recuperated only in the slow annihilation, the extinction, of the instrument itself.
The average annual growth in productivity since 1995 is the result of very uneven periods of investment in fixed assets. The increase in manufacturing fixed assets, as measured by historical costs, measured 30 percent in the 1996-2000 period but only 13 percent in the 2000-2008 period. More importantly, the replacement rate, new investment in the stock of fixed assets compared to depreciation [which is the transference of value through the consumption of use value] measured:
167 percent of depreciation in 1996, declining to:
140 percent of depreciation in 2000, before falling in the ensuing recession to:
103 percent of depreciation in 2004, recovering to:
121 percent of depreciation in 2006, never reaching the 2000 rate, much less the 1996 ratio despite increasing to:
125 percent of depreciation in 2007 and 2008.
As profitability was peaking for nonfinancial corporations in the US in 2006, these corporations increased, albeit modestly, their investment in fixed assets.
The asynchronous aspect of the replacement rate investment in fixed assets and profitability is neither ironic nor random. This increase in investment isn’t just bad timing on the part of our bourgeoisie. Rather, the investment in fixed assets brings the hands of the clock, and the profitability of capitalism, down.
It is the essential characteristic of fixed capital that it is advanced, and procured, in a single sum, recuperating its value over repeated cycles of production. While all of the fixed assets are necessary to, and required for the labor process, for reducing the time spent by labor in reproducing the value of its own wages, only portions of the fixed capital participate in the valorisation process, which is the preservation of values through the accretion of more value.
Without a lengthening of the working day, the labor process itself only preserves the value of the fixed capital consumed in production by increasing the physical quantities of finished products, adding nothing more to the total time expended in the conversion of objects into values. Time is time, and 8 or 9 or 10 hours can never be more than itself.
While the extensive application of fixed capital to the production process reduces the time necessary for the reproduction of the value in any individual commodity, including the time necessary for the reproduction of the commodity of labor power, in displacing that labor power, the application of fixed capital lengthens the cycle, the time necessary for the reproduction of the total capital deployed in the production process. This shortening of the particular time needed for reproduction of any commodity extends the space, the volume of commodities, needed to reproduce the value of the commodity of fixed capital; and it extends the time necessary to achieve that reproduction.
Marx writing in the notebooks for his economic manuscripts that are now part of volume 33 of the Collected Works puts it this way:

The fact that the annual returns decline in proportion as the capital advanced, if there is an increase in the part of auxiliary capital consisting of fixed capital, that is if its turnover periods extends over several years—its value only entering into the product annually in the form of depreciation—is not a phenomenon peculiar to agriculture, but a general one.

General it is indeed, to capitalist development. The cycle of reproduction is lengthened by the very means that initially expands profitability, and reduces the time to the realization of profit.
The annual rates of return decline as more capital is accumulated and reintroduced into production. The exchange of fixed capital with wage-labor in the labor process aggrandizes relatively more surplus value, but it is an exchange in the valorisation process which reduces the proportion of capital actually exchanged with wage-labor. The more that capital exchanges of itself with less wage-labor, the relatively less of itself capital exchanges with wage-labor.
Our well-known and unloved capitalist is between the rock and the hard place or in this case…the fixed place. What’s to be done? If our capitalist is first on the block with his new fixed capital, the rock isn’t quite so hard, as the general social time necessary for reproduction will not yet have been altered, and our capitalist can, in essence arbitrage the difference between his or her new, improved reduced cost of production and the general, social, old price of production.
Now it’s in this arbitrage that each and every individual capitalist thinks he or she finds comparative advantage, market superiority. In a word, finds value. This arbitrage allows our unloved capitalist, and more unloved than usual by his competitors, to reroute, channel some of the profit that would flow to his or her unloving competitors into his or her own wallet. The capitalist may think he or she is pocketing the surplus value that has been personally aggrandized, but that’s never the case since, although expropriated privately, value always and only materializes in a social form, as a product of the general, abstract social labor. The arbitrage is always and only the capitalist garnering a portion, a ratio, a rate of that general, social profit.
So what do our other unloved capitalists do, now put between that same rock and the new fixed place? The answer to the problem is the problem itself. More capital. In their social existence as a class, the capitalists do en masse what they try to do individually, which is to apply more capital to production, to the accumulation of capital. In so doing, the arbitrage, the variance between any individual capitalist and the class of capitalists disappears. The arbitrage between any particular cost of production and the general social price of production approaches zero.
Still, in the process of expanded reproduction, it is precisely this moment with capitalists acting as individuals “collectively” that constitutes expansion, growth, development, increased accumulation—those happy days and good times where the future is so bright the bourgeoisie are all wearing sunglasses.
What else can our capitalist do? In reality, the question is not what the capitalist can do, but what the capitalist will/must do to offset this slowing and lengthening of the rates of return. The capitalist can/must/will charge off more to depreciation, but charging off more to depreciation is an accounting trick and has no significance to the actual costs and prices of production.
Moreover, depreciation itself does not account for the loss of accumulated value in the means of production when new mechanisms and methods of greater amplifying the productivity of labor are introduced into the labor process. Then the as yet unrealized, unabsorbed, non-transferred value stored in the old productive apparatus, a value that demanded realization at its purchase, and after purchase exists only in a latent condition to be recuperated, or re-realized, through the transfer to the entire mass of final products, is transformed into a loss. The arbitrage works the other way against our capitalist. It cuts directly across the profitability of current production.
The capitalists can/will/must attempt to function as a cartel to control production and raise, or at least stabilize, prices, thus restoring a bit of arbitrage between production and realization. Yet, raising prices only redirects the total socially available profit to specific sectors and enterprises. It is the opposite identity of the precipitating condition where the variance between the cost of production and the price of production narrowed, where the blades of the capitalist scissors began to close on the throat of accumulation. Now with the attempt at an increase in prices, the capitalists as a class are once again parceling out the socially available profit, and the total rate of accumulation will stagger and slow coincident with the hyper-accumulation realized in one or two particular sectors. Our unloved capitalists call this “stagflation.”
Our capitalist can/will/must attempt to improve the means of communication and the means of transportation in order to measure the market, moved the finished products to the markets more quickly. In short, our capitalist will inject more capital into capitalist production as a whole in order to reduce the time and cost of circulation, circulation being itself the gap, the variance, the arbitrage between production and realization, the domain of price.
Our capitalist can/will/must increase production through either intensification of labor, application of even more capital to the production process. Nothing begets overproduction like the declining returns that are the result of overproduction.
Our capitalist can/will/must push for reductions in wages, and/or the aggrandizement of greater quantities of absolute surplus value, achievable only through a lengthening of the working day.
Surplus value has, upon its, materialization only the most ephemeral of existences. Money is nothing, making more money is everything to our bourgeoisie. The realized surplus value must be moved from money in hand to money out of hand, money seeking its own expansion. That is the diktat of capitalist accumulation.
Our capitalist can/will/must liquidate, sequester, cancel, warehouse, and retire the assets of fixed capital. Liquidation will produce a relative increase in the rate of return through the diminution of the fixed asset base. In addition, forced sales of fixed assets are devaluations which work to reduce the length and number of cycles required to realize the latent value in the assets themselves. There it is! The bourgeoisie have found the perfect solution to the problems of capital that more capital can only reproduce—asset liquidation. The asset liquidation, however, then reproduces that same form of capital with the shortest half-life, cash in hand. Cash in hand is the accumulation of anti-accumulation. It is capital all dressed up with nowhere to go, except right back into contraction.
Ultimately, none of the solutions are; all of them are the manifestations of the conflict between the growth of the social means of production and the private property of the capitalist. Fixed capital is the overproduction at the heart of capital, the conversion of the “overcapacity” of labor power, of the expropriation of surplus time, surplus labor, and surplus value, made solid.

5. Wafer Thin

The nexus of despair and exhilaration, of mania and depression, of fear and greed for our capitalist is that capital lives only in its process of accumulation, in its command of the labor of others. Once accumulated, however, capital has no life, no purpose, nothing to wear, nothing to do, and no place to go, except to dissolve itself back into the process of origination. It is not just that the relationship of capital to the capitalist is as the monster describes his relationship to Dr. Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s novel—“You are my creator, but I am your master. You must obey!”—it is also that wage-labor’s relationship to capital is the complementary opposite, the inverted identity of that relationship: “You are my master, but I am your re-creator. You’re nothing without my obedience.”
The light and life that burn so weakly beneath the mists of value are threatened with extinction in their materialization as more capital.
Our well-known, unloved capitalist undertakes his or her great responsibilities, shoulders these great obligations, carries these great burdens: to buy low and sell high; to seek out, close with, and engage a sucker every minute; to find anew a new and even bigger fool; to conduct a war of all against all; to exploit, expropriate, and otherwise reduce human labor by any and all means. All this weight is endured in the capitalist’s belief that he or she will be able to realize in the markets, will extract from the universe of exchanges, more value than he or she has in fact paid for.
By its very nature, fixed capital precludes the ability of the capitalist to recover the value of the total capital committed to the labor process through the valorisation process in a single cycle of production. If the capitalist could do so, then by definition that investment would no longer be fixed but would part of the circulating capital and the reproduction of capital would require the impossible—replacement of the means of production in their entirety in every single cycle.
Given that all capital cannot be recovered in the immediate cycle of production, but that simultaneously it is possible for the capitalist to bring a portion, a ration, of that fixed capital value to market as part of the cost of production and recover a profit, a price greater than that cost, our capitalist now lives his or her entire life, and life cycle, on the margins —on edge and at the edge over the portions, rations, ratio, rates of return on the total value that is achieved in the differential between the costs of production and the price of production.
All of capitalist economics, of capitalist theorizing, philosophizing, managing, marketing, is about margins. All of these margins are simply the ratios, the relations that capitalism utilizes to keep itself alive; to keep itself half-alive; to keep a half-life.
The margin that means more than most to our capitalist is that of the rate of return on produced assets since that ratio is derived from the ratio of net operating surplus [corporate profits + net interest + income from transfers, royalties etc] to the produced assets [net stock of capital + inventory].
In May, 2009, the US Bureau of Economic Analysis published a study of that rate of return for the years from 1997 through 2007 for US nonfinancial corporation.1. In 1997, that ROR for US manufacturing corporations peaked at 16.4 percent before sliding to 13.7 percent in 2000. The rate then collapsed to 11.2 percent in 2001, marking the onset of the 2001-2003 contraction.
The mass of the operating surplus actually peaked in 1998, and was above the 1997 mark in 1999. However, the growth of the produced assets exceeded the growth in the mass of the operating surplus. Produced assets increased 14.6 percent between 1997 and 2001.
The recovery from the 2001-2003 contraction saw the ROR peak at 15.2 percent in 2006, declining to 15.1 percent in 2007. Despite being delayed and restricted, capital investment between 2003 and 2007 increased produced assets by 19 percent.
Nowhere did, or does, capital produce itself right out of its glory and right into its misery more blatantly than in the information-communication-technology [ICT] sector. This sector’s rate of return peaked in 1997 at 22 percent, declining to -0.7 percent in 2001, as the produced assets increased 38.6 percent. The recovery of 2003-2007 was hardly anything to email home about, as the ROR peaked in 2005 at 11.7 percent, despite the fact that the ICT sector dramatically reduced its accumulation of produced assets, with the increases amounting to only 15 percent.
While the ICT sector lowered its own expansion of produced assets, capitalism as a whole directs more and more of its accumulation into the means of information and communication, and the “motorized” complement of information and communication, the means of transportation. In 2008, 62 percent of the $679 billion US businesses spent on new equipment was directed towards communication and transportation with $233.5 billion was dedicated to means of communication and information and $185.2 billion in accumulating the means of transportation.
The improvement in communication and transportation reduces the circulation time, which itself is the variance, the gap, between production, the labor process, and exchange, the valorisation process. The means of communication assesses, prepares, and secures [as much as possible] the prospects for exchange. The means of transportation deliver the finished products to the markets where they assume the life, that brief half-life, as commodities.
Our capitalist feels something approximating love when the telephones are ringing and he or she needs more lines. Our capitalist knows something approximating love when the trucks are always out making deliveries and he or she needs more trucks.
But it’s a tough love. In his or her every attempt to improve circulation, to offset the lengthening of the cycle of return brought about by fixed capital, our capitalist can do nothing more than increase the investment in fixed assets.
The “motor” of the information-communication sector is semiconductor fabrication. The cycles of semiconductor fabrication are particularly severe given both the costly investment in the instruments and materials of production, and the rapid pace of technological innovation both in the manufacturing equipment and the processing power of the semiconductor. This lovely/deadly-profitable/unprofitable combination initially brings more powerful semiconductor arrays into the markets at prices well above their actual costs of production, but with lower prices relative to the use value, the “productivity,” the processing power of the previous semiconductor configuration.
Then, as the technological innovation in the semiconductor processing power or the method of semiconductor production proliferates throughout the industry and becomes the “normal” social time of reproduction. Market prices begin their steady decline. Production intensifies as declining prices and processing power enhance consumption. The greater processing power becomes the standard. However, as prices decline, production based on the less advanced technologies becomes unprofitable, and the market moves from furious expansion to overproduction, glut, and contraction.
Technical innovation has becomes overproduction in bulk, because overproduction of the finished product can be nothing other than the result of the overproduction of the means of production as capital. The oversupply of the semiconductors in the markets stands in the same relation to the overproduction of the fixed assets of semiconductor production as that of market prices to value.2 Emerging from the 2001-2003 recession, the equipment utilized in semiconductor fabrication embodied three significant technical innovations: 1) replacement of the 200mm size disc by the 300 mm disc, allowing greater surface area for the building of more chips in a single production cycle. This advance was first introduced in the 1997-1999 period.2) use of .09 micron technology increasing processing power and performance. 3) use of higher conductivity copper interconnects.
As the lower production costs boosted profits, and provided greater processing power, the amplified demand for flash-memory and DRAM chips sustained the use of the older 200mm disc fabrication processes. Meanwhile, capital spending programs accelerated
In 2003, only eight semiconductor fabrication companies registered more than one billion dollars in capital expenditures. In 2005, 15 companies had capital spending programs greater than one billion dollars. In 2006, and again in 2007, 16 companies had programs of more than one billion, with these 16 companies accounting for three-quarters of the entire sector’s capital expenditure.
Despite the fact that sales had peaked in 2007, fabrication capacity rose in 2008 and the first part of 2009 as the capital expansion programs were completed, and completed just in time for the implosion in chip sales. By January 2009, chip sales were 33 percent below the year earlier level.
A little too late, and a little too little, in 2009 only three companies announced capital spending budgets greater than one billion dollars. Meanwhile, the industry has fashioned a recovery of sorts, as it always fashions its recovery: shutting production lines, reducing capacity, laying-off production workers. In particular, almost all the older 200mm wafer lines have been closed, allowing the industry to register a capacity utilization rate for the first quarter 2010 of 93 percent versus 2009’s first quarter rate of 57 percent.
Numbers are one thing, but capitalism is about money, real—more or less—money. So, as a money professional said of the semiconductor industry: “This is a horrible, terrible business that no one should be in, the way it’s organized currently…You get some incremental profits for a little while, then everybody moves in and there’s oversupply again."3
The “horrible business” is not, of course, the business of semiconductor fabrication. It is the business of capital accumulation, where the very machinery of accumulation becomes the obstacle to its own valorisation. Our capitalist, unloved and well-known, is at war, now more than less, with the usefulness of his, or her, own property in the means of production. The “solutions” for recovery are reproductions of the fundamental conflict. To offset the delayed return on the accumulated fixed assets, the capitalism will demand, and sooner rather than later, lengthening of the working day in order to garner absolute surplus value; physical destruction of accumulated assets; reduction in wages and consumption not because wages are significant factors in the costs of production—they are not, in the semiconductor industry production worker wages amount to 1 or 2 percent of the total costs of production—but because reducing wages provides additional surplus value. All this and more amounts again to a reproduction of the fundamental conflict between labor organized as wage-labor, and the means of production organized as capital, a conflict to which capitalism has no, and seeks no solution. Rather it is in liquidation, destruction, deprivation, immiseration of capital—fixed, circulating, constant, and variable— that our capitalist places all of his, or her, hopes for the future.

The Demise of Andy Stern and the Question of Unions in Contemporary Capitalism - Loren Goldner

The rise and recent fall of Andy Stern illustrates, as if through a glass darkly, that in this epoch there is nothing positive for the class as a whole to be achieved through the unions. With the resignation of SEIU leader Andy Stern, Loren Goldner looks at his legacy and analyses the development and function of trade unions over his career.

For decades, since the beginning of the world crisis in the early 1970’s, militants around the world have groped for a way to turn the relentless attack on the global working class from defensive, usually isolated (however valiant) struggles into an offensive one. The rise and recent fall of Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) for fifteen years, illustrate some of the issues at hand. They illustrate, as if through a glass darkly, that in this epoch there is nothing positive for the class as a whole to be achieved through the unions. Let’s first look at the specifics in order to arrive at a general perspective.

Andy Stern resigned as president of the SEIU in April of this year in the midst of acrimony and scandal that has hardly abated. As many commentators said at the time, the once “fastest-growing union in the U.S.”, having at its peak added 900,000 new members during Stern’s tenure, had become perhaps the fastest-shrinking union, as the result of massive defections, raids on other unions and untrammeled high-handed bureaucratic politics within the SEIU itself.

Stern left the SEIU to assume a position on the board of SIGA Technologies, Inc[1]. His departure marked the ignominious end of a period of “renewal” in U.S. unionism that began with the accession of John Sweeney to president of the AFL-CIO in 1995, amid hoopla and enthusiasm by much of the left. While the technocratic Stern was never quite the object of similar enthusiasms, the SEIU itself ranked high among “progressive” unions, and Stern’s breakaway (along with six other unions) to form the rival Change to Win (CTW) coalition in 2005, in the wake of Sweeney’s abject failure to reverse union decline, further revealed terminal symptoms of the situation of unions in contemporary capitalism.

While we were neither among the cheerleaders for Sweeney nor Stern, and while we do not see (to put it mildly) trade unions as vehicles for the next emergence of the “class for itself”—the wage-labor proletarian class unified consciously and practically to take over the world in the dissolution of all classes, including (and first of all) of itself—the end of the Stern era presents an opportunity to draw up a “balance sheet” of several decades, going back to the late 1960’s, of left-wing agitation in the U.S. trade unions and more broadly in the working class, and thus to see more clearly the strategic questions of the present and the future. Few will disagree that the forty-plus years of “boring from within” existing unions by currents radicalized in the late 60’s and early 70’s, riding on the wildcat strike wave of that period (even more in Europe than in the U.S.) have overwhelmingly proved to be a dead end. But we also reject the sterile posture of currents in our own broader “libertarian” or “left communist” milieu according to which “rank-and-file” developments in and around the unions in advanced capitalism are nothing but rumblings within the “left wing of capital”.

Before dealing with the developments following the 1995 takeover of the AFL-CIO by Sweeney and his team, some background is necessary to see how the current dismal situation of the working class in the U.S. came to pass. We look for continuities and discontinuities in each phase of struggle.

In all of the class struggles in the West in the 60s and 70s, from the wildcat movement in the US, Britain and France, via the French May 68 and the Italian hot autumn, to the role of the Portuguese and Spanish workers in ending the dictatorships in Iberia in the mid-1970s–in none of these cases was the expansion of unions central to what the workers were doing or demanding.

The formation of the CIO in the US in the 1930’s and 1940’s (with formal legal collective bargaining sanctioned by the state) had already represented a step backward from the openly anti-capitalist “one big union” strategy and tactics of the IWW from 1905 to 1920. But it is undeniable that millions of workers during the Depression and up to the end of World War II were demanding and forming unions, not accidentally in a complex dialectic with the politics of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal[2]. By contrast, during the wildcat strikes of the 1960’s and 70’s, the 1968 general strike in France, the so-called ‘creeping May’ in Italy and thereafter, in none of these strikes were workers saying “We want more unions”. The existing unions were mainly fighting against the radical workers’ movement. In Italy in the early 1970s, union bureaucrats could not even go into many factories because they would be run off by the workers. All this was in the context of the post -World War II boom, when it was easy for workers to change jobs and when very few imagined the drastically worsened situation of today. And since the end of that period and the beginning of a decades-long world economic crisis and restructuring of capitalism, no major union in the US has ever gone beyond a narrow corporatist viewpoint in dealing with the crisis.[3]

The United Auto Workers (UAW), for example, had 750,000 members in 1973 and today they probably have no more than 100,000 auto workers. During that whole period of decline, when rank-and-file left opposition groups criticized the union’s relentless accommodation to the management of the “Big Three” auto companies (GM, Ford, Chrysler), the union bureaucrats and their shills would say in a chorus ‘If it’s not broken, don’t fix it”. Now, it’s broken beyond repair. As in many other unions in decline, the bureaucrats’ main concern seemed be preserving the flow of union dues long enough to secure their own retirement. In the early 1970’s, similarly, 300,000 truck drivers in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) were covered by the nationwide Master Freight Agreement, whereas today that number has fallen to 80,000. The almost mythical United Farm Workers (UFW) had more than 100,000 people under contract in the early 1970’s, and by the death of its founder Cesar Chavez , in 1993, merely a few thousands.

At the bottom of the world recession of 1973-1975, when official unemployment in the U.S. neared 10% (and real unemployment undoubtedly higher), various left groups in the U.S. founded their short-lived unemployed leagues (most of them barely-disguised front groups for recruitment), remembering the role of similar organizations in episodes such as the Toledo Auto- Lite strike of 1934, but nothing came of this and other “class-wide” approaches in the new period of rollback.

In Insurgent Notes No. l we alluded to the almost endless series of defeats that marked the long decline in the new period, not merely of “union membership” but of broader class struggle in the U.S. The bankrolling of the 1975 New York City “bankers’ coup”[4] by New York’s municipal unions began the trend of “sharing the pain’ with management, followed by the UAW in the bailout of Chrysler in 1979, but the crushing of the air traffic controllers (PATCO) in 1981, followed by the Greyhound bus drivers in 1983, the Phelps Dodge copper strikers in 1984, the P-9 meatpackers in 1986, and the Jay, Maine paper workers in 1987-1988 were cases where workers fought back and lost in the cascade of concessions, plant closings, outsourcings and relocations that ushered in a new era. This bloodletting continued in the 1990’s with the “Three Strikes” (Caterpillar, Staley, Bridgestone- Firestone) in Decatur, Illinois in 1993-96, the Detroit newspaper strike of 1996, or again in the Safeway strike in southern California in 2003-2004[5]. It was driven home again and again that merely “being more militant”—the main perspective of various left rank-and-file groups in the unions–was, in contrast to the earlier period of wildcats, not enough[6]. World capital accumulation had hit a wall, and that wall was falling on the working class.

In all fairness, some union struggles after the 1970’s did succeed in fighting management to a stalemate, or occasionally even winning. The Pittston (Virginia) miners’ strike of 1989 did prevent the gutting of the United Mine Workers’ (UMW) contract there, and the New York Daily News strike of 1991 prevented a management bloodletting in the print trades. Both the Harvard and much more militant HERE (Hotel and Restaurant Employees) chapter of the Yale campus workers (the latter striking four times) won gains, as did casino and hotel employees in Las Vegas and elsewhere. But it was not insignificant that these more successful struggles, in contrast to most of the defeats, took place at locales where management could not threaten to “move the factory”, or actually do so. Similarly, workers in transport sectors could, on occasion, take advantage of their location at choke points in the new “just in time” reorganization of world production flows, most notably in the 1997 United Parcel (UPS) strike, which more than any specific gains in the contract, briefly illuminated the horizon nationwide by highlighting the proliferation of precarious part-time work and by eliciting broad popular support for a worker struggle rarely seen before or since in the new (post-1970’s) era. (The chief of police in Houston, Texas even arrested scab drivers during the strike.). Two years later, the participation of 50,000 workers in the “battle in Seattle” against the World Trade Organization (WTO), despite some of the dubious ideologies on display (including nationalism and protectionism) further contributed to ripping away the media- imposed blackout on the dark underside of much-trumpeted globalization and the (now defunct) “New Economy”.

Seattle was just one (albeit dramatic) example of an attempt by some unions to project power beyond the workplace, and even there they lost control of their own rank-and-file, which joined in fighting the police. More traditional was organized labor’s unrequited love affair with the Democratic Party (a love affair to which, thankfully, millions of workers are indifferent). In exchange for hundreds of millions in campaign contributions and campaign mobilizations for Democrats[7], American unions got NAFTA and further free trade agreements (e.g. CAFTA)[8] with laughable “labor-environment set-asides”, one failed and one aborted attempt at national health care[9], and no progress whatever in rolling back “replacement worker” (i.e. scab) legal protection. Far more serious than these fruitless electoral antics by the union bureaucrats has been the ever-deepening involvement of unions in pension-fund investments, leading to situations such as the above-mentioned southern California grocery strike in which the striking UFCW (United Food and Commercial Workers) was sinking the stock market value of its own rank-and-file’s retirement fund.

We have developed elsewhere the concept of the “left wing of devalorization”[10]. “Devalorization” is a term borrowed from Marx meaning the cheapening of costs, including the cheapening of labor costs, often in a crisis situation such as the current one. The “left wing of devalorization” refers to ostensibly “progressive” phenomena where workers and other oppressed groups are offered “organization” and “participation” as the consolation prize for the diminished total social wage of the working class as a whole. A paradigm would be the corporatist self-management and worker participation schemes devised by Social Democrats and sociologists in response to the worker rebellion throughout the West in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, or the work teams first developed by Toyota and then spread around the world. One might summarize their content as mobilization and pseudo-inclusiveness with intensified exploitation and without real power.

In his fifteen years at the head of SEIU, Andy Stern brought the left wing of devalorization to new lows.

When the John Sweeney team (which included many ex-SEIU staffers) took over the AFL-CIO in 1995, American union membership had declined from its peak of 35% of the work force in 1955 to 18%. Fifteen years later, it has further declined to 12%, of which only 8% are in the private sector. It was in this situation of accelerating decline that Andy Stern, claiming to have synthesized the radical tactics of Saul Alinsky with the centralizing business ruthlessness of former General Motors CEO Alfred P. Sloan[11], emerged into national prominence, taking over the presidency of the SEIU when his predecessor, Sweeney, moved up.

Stern had begun as a social worker[12]. Born in 1950, he had caught the tail end of the New Left, before initially studying business at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, after which he widened his horizons. His experience as a social worker did give him insight into the welfare system that he later used in organizing home care attendants in…novel…ways. His business school background exposed him to management theories such as Sloan’s (the benefits of centralizing dispersed and conflicting local power bases, as Sloan had done at GM) which were in fact a departure from typical union local fiefdoms, mob-controlled or not. Stern took over the SEIU when it was riding on the prestige of the Janitors for Justice campaign in Los Angeles in 1990, when the LAPD had clubbed Latino janitors in front of the TV cameras, after which the ensuing uproar forced management to cave. The janitors’ strike was led by militants with experience in Central American civil wars in e.g. Nicaragua and El Salvador, and hence cut from a rather different cloth than many American workers. (The janitors did get a pay raise from $4 to $4.25 per hour, but the black janitors they had previously replaced had earned $12 an hour.) A paradigm for the Stern era was established early on, in 1995, when one of Sweeney’s last acts as the head of SEIU was to put the LA janitors’ local into trusteeship after it elected officers too militant for his tastes (some of the very same Central American janitors), then replace them with an appointee, from the Washington office of the union, and reorganize the janitors into a huge SEIU local covering most of California in which “rank-and-file rebellion” would be suffocated. The janitor militants staged a hunger strike at their own union headquarters, to no avail. From 1996 onward, Andy Stern took over this method, placing 14% of all SEIU locals under trusteeship over the next decade and a half, , usually sending in an SEIU staffer, fresh off some college campus, to replace the local leadership. In 2002, for example, San Francisco janitors in SEIU local 87 balked at a Stern-engineered merger and were put in trusteeship. The new regional local made significant health care concessions. Pittsburgh local 29, called an “anachronism” by Stern, was merged into a huge tri-state entity. Another SEIU “local” stretched from Trenton, New Jersey to Hartford, Connecticut. And so it went.

This was not exactly the kind of renewal of organized labor that the Sweeney team had promised, but such was in fact exactly the kind of renewal that Andy Stern delivered, adding 900,000 new members (at least on paper) to SEIU over fifteen years.

To understand Stern’s methods, as they developed after the LA janitors’ episode, a bit of context is helpful. In the run-up to the triumph of the new Sweeney team at the AFL-CIO, a rather misplaced debate had taken place in and around the labor movement about prioritizing either the “high road” or the “low road” as the way forward. The “high road” offered a rosy perspective of labor participation in the burgeoning technology sectors of the (now happily forgotten) “New Economy”, with high-wage high-skilled jobs expanding in tandem with high tech and the technology-intensive innovations in core U.S. industries. The “low road” looked instead to organizing the tens of millions of working poor, casuals and temps who had emerged from the 1970’s crisis as the gritty reality of the “great American jobs machine” that won accolades from such various quarters as conservative think tanks and European ideologues looking to break the “stagnation” of high-wage, stodgy Europe with its tougher laws on layoffs, its early retirement and its universal health care[13]. Then-U.S. President Bill Clinton had already contributed a mass of potential new constituents for the “low road” option with the 1994 passage of NAFTA, the US-Canada-Mexico free trade agreement, which gutted Mexican agriculture by American imports and forced millions off the land and into the precarious migration to El Norte, where minimum-wage (or worse) jobs, fly-by-night employers and the INS (immigration police) awaited them[14]. He added millions more with his 1996 abolition of welfare, presented, along with the other remnants of New Deal big-government liberalism, as an anachronism in the illusory, debt-driven “Great Moderation” of those years. While the majority of those affected by “welfare reform” were…children, Clinton’s “welfare to work” soon had millions of their mothers commuting hours a day to minimum-wage jobs in far suburbia for slightly more than their previous welfare checks. (Presumably anticipating further gate receipts, Sweeney’s “new” AFL-CIO said nothing about Clinton’s effective abolition of welfare.)

High-tech capitalists showed little interest in playing their part in any “high road” strategy for a will-o-the-wisp high-wage labor-management condominium, so the “low road” won hands down. Thus, to get a bit ahead of our story, in 2005, the split between the AFL-CIO and Stern’s Change to Win was precisely between the older CIO unions still standing (however much in retreat) such as the UAW, the USW, the UMW or the IAM, and unions that stood to gain members from the new millions of minimum wage workers: the SEIU, the IBT, the UFCW, UNITE, HERE, and the Laborers (LIUNA)[15].

A Marxist—this Marxist–might say with some accuracy that the split occurred between workers producing primarily relative surplus value and those producing absolute surplus value[16]. Not incidentally, they were also in sectors least affected by the off-shoring of factories in the previous period.

Stern quickly put the ideas of Sloan and the Harvard Business Review to work, on the model of the LA janitors’ campaign and its aftermath. He engineered the cleanout of some Mafia elements in New York, Boston, Detroit and Chicago or the notorious Gus Bevona of New York’s famous Local 32 BJ (from which Sweeney had emerged) with a combination of organizational hardball and some golden parachutes to get people to go quietly. Stern aimed at national unions in hospitals, long-term care, public service, and building services. Stern’s method of “organizing” was unique in that it was more aimed at organizing key politicians such as then-California governor Gray Davis or currently embroiled ex-Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich with large campaign contributions, after which these politicians would approve collective bargaining for categories of workers who had never been mobilized.

As Stern put it in reply to some critics of his top-down, high-handed approach:

“Workers want their lives to be changed. They want strength and a voice, not some purist, intellectual, historical, mythical democracy. Workers can win when they are united, and leaders who stand in the way of change screaming “democracy” fail to understand how workers exercise the limited power they have in a country where only 8.2% of the private sector are in unions. They just don’t get it!”[17]

In the California case, , in February 1999 SEIU won the right from Gov. Davis to represent 74,000 home care attendants, claiming it was “the biggest organizing victory in the U.S.” since the 1937 Flint sit-downs of the UAW; quite a comedown from the Battle of the Overpass. The attendants got a raise to $8.15 per hour. But as Robert Fitch pointed out, most of the people organized were not really workers, but welfare recipients caring for family and friends. The SEIU made big contributions to the Los Angeles county board of supervisors and mayoral candidates to promote the creation of an entity with which union could “bargain”, which happened in due course. Only one-fourth of the eligible workers voted in the election to establish the union.[18]

The same pattern was repeated in Illinois. Stern gave Rod Blagojevich $800,000 in campaign contributions to obtain his backing for SEIU, which he granted in 2004. SEIU had in fact been collecting dues from the Illinois home care attendants for 20 years, with no agency to bargain with. As in California, the “rank-and-file” were primarily former welfare recipients caring for children, earning $50 a day, having had no raise since 1986, and with no health care benefits, sick days, or retirement[19].

But it got even better. In order to win collective bargaining representation at private nursing homes, the SEIU blocked with their managements in Florida, Texas and particularly California against indigent patients’ rights, getting the California legislature to pass a bill which gave the nursing homes $3 billion over 5 years, guaranteed company profits, and gutted patients’ rights. The SEIU then joined with the nursing homes to crush the Nursing Home Residents Bill of Rights, much to the consternation of activists attempting to curb elder abuse in such homes. The SEIU claimed this was to help workers and improve patient care. In exchange for this help, the nursing homes agreed not to block SEIU organizing. Stern and SEIU also formed an alliance with California health care giant Kaiser Permanente, and in the state of New York, lobbied with employers for legislative funding and a plan to close hospitals.

These tactics by Stern and the SEIU were not without their critics, including internal critics. One example was the widely-touted Boston janitors’ strike of October 2002. 11,000 janitors in the Boston region, including many Latinos, struck for three weeks, and ended the strike with a contract granting 30% salary increases over five years and health insurance for some part-time janitors. But under the contract, only 1,000 part-time workers in the largest buildings won fully-paid health insurance, whereas three-fourths of the strikers were part-timers, and the full-timers already had health insurance. The strike was widely supported by the local media and by the Massachusetts political and business establishment, as well as by clergy and U.S. Senators Ted Kennedy and John Kerry. Everyone except the striking workers fell all over themselves proclaiming it a victory. As one dissenting SEIU staffer of the striking local said afterward, “My first concern in calling the strike a ‘victory’ is that not a single worker I know believes it to be such.” According to this staffer, the janitors became “deeply angry” seeing the contract in print and called the union “vendidos” (sellouts) because of inadequate pay raises over five years: “…the International placed so much emphasis on winning something (on full-time jobs and health benefits for some part-timers) that they were willing to totally cave on wages”[20].

But these criticisms of Stern’s method at SEIU were nothing compared to the firestorm that developed after July 2005 when he led five million members out of Sweeney’s hapless AFL-CIO into the new federation, Change to Win (CTW), mentioned earlier.

The groundwork had been laid when Stern created the New Unity Partnership (NUP) with Bruce Raynor of UNITE and John Wilhelm of HERE in 2004. In these two figures, the New Left turn to the working class in the late 1960’s again casts a long shadow. Bruce Raynor came out of 1960’s SDS and civil rights activism to work, after 1973, for the then-Textile Workers Union of America, (TWUA) while first graduating from the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He came to prominence in the long struggle to organize the Southern textile company J.P. Stevens. Raynor, once apparently known as the “Lenin of the South”, spent 20 years in the TWUA organizing in southern states. John Wilhelm started work with HERE in 1969 after graduating from Yale and led the successful 1984 strike there. He was also involved in some organizing victories among hotel and casino employees in Las Vegas in the late 1980’s.

UNITE was the merger of three earlier textile worker unions, a merger itself reflecting the massive loss of jobs in that sector[21]. Following the merger of the Textile Workers, Amalgamated, and ILGWU (merged in UNITE) the combined membership (estimated at 450,000) was less than ACTWU alone in 1976[22]. Raynor’s UNITE and Wilhelm’s HERE in turn merged to form UNITE HERE.

After 2005, not much changed, but rather intensified, with Change To Win[23]. In April 2007, when the rival AFL-CIO endorsed single-payer (extending Medicare to all) in the brewing health care debate, Stern said that government should play only a secondary role in healthcare; a couple of months before, he had held a press conference with the CEO of the notorious anti-labor Wal-Mart announcing their joint project for “Better Health Care Together Campaign”[24]. The officials of another CTW affiliate, the UFCW, checked in with the highest salaries in organized labor, approximately ten times the average salary of a grocery employee. But criticism without and within intensified as well. In February 2006, two thousand SEIU members at the University of Massachusetts bolted from the union to reject the imposition of another mass local[25]. Stern responded with a crackdown on rank-and-file militants. In typical fashion, in September 2007, the California SEIU merged twenty locals into three and laid off hundreds of union staff based on political criteria. In February 2008, the SEIU sent Dennis Rivera, leader of New York’s health care union 1199 and another fallen angel of the left, to raid the Puerto Rican teachers’ union[26].

In August 2008, sleaze merged with the well-established high-handed organizational methods and warfare with other unions. In Los Angeles, Stern appointee Tyrone Freeman resigned after it was revealed that he had directed $600,000 in contracts to his wife and paid his mother-in-law $8000 a month to take care of his daughter and other staffers’ kids. Annelle Grajeda, the appointed president of Local 721 and Stern’s designated successor to his emerging breakaway rival Sal Rosselli (cf. below) after the latter’s pending ouster, had put her boyfriend on multiple salaries while he was working as county employee.

Probably most serious was the crisis involving California nurses, a battle which still continues at this writing. Unhappy with Stern’s overtures to the management of health provider Kaiser Permanente (again pointing to a deal at the expense of patient rights) and the usual top-down treatment of members, thousands of SEIU nurses rallied in Oakland at a rally in March 2008 demanding their de-certification from the union so they could form another one. This occurred, however, under the leadership of Sal Rosselli, previously a strong Stern supporter who had earlier praised the SEIU contract with Kaiser, but who by 2008 was calling for direct election of union officers instead of by convention delegates. Shortly after the Oakland rally, SEIU thugs attacked a Labor Notes conference in Detroit where a nurse from Rosselli’s faction was scheduled to speak, with one SEIUer dying of a heart attack during the melee. Through all this, Andy Stern was lobbying with employers to close hospitals in New York state, saying that responsible unions should embrace outsourcing, and attacking the California nurses for opposing “jointness” in health care. . In June 2009, anti-Stern reformers took over a Massachusetts SEIU local, and Stern laid off 75 organizers in a “reorganization”. In July 2009, as part of the California nursing battle, the SEIU colluded with Kaiser to remove shop stewards.

With fires burning on so many fronts, open civil war had erupted in March 2009 in UNITE HERE. Bruce Raynor of UNITE was effectively working to take a large part of the fused membership into the SEIU, having made a deal with Stern; he became an SEIU Executive Vice President while still drawing a salary from UNITE. The financial stakes were considerable: UNITE owns the Amalgamated Bank, with $5bn assets, and valuable New York City property. True to form, Stern and Raynor had made secret deals with companies to allow union organizing while waiving workers’ right to strike. In April 2009, the SEIU moved to break up UNITE HERE, and UNITE- controlled regional councils, under Raynor, voted to leave the union. Ultimately about one-fourth of the membership followed Raynor into the SEIU.

With this legacy, Andy Stern resigned as SEIU president in April 2010, and was succeeded by Mary Kay Henry, one of his own intimate circle, who promised a kinder, gentler SEIU and a healing process with rival unions.

At the end of such a dismal tale, it is necessary to step back from mere chronology and try to draw the political lessons. As indicated at the outset, at the tail end of the New Left experience in the U.S. ca. 1970 various vanguard groups made a “turn” to the working class. These groups were inspired in part by the militant wildcat strike wave that peaked in 1973 (the high points of which were the black-led strikes of DRUM and ELRUM in Detroit, the nationwide Teamster wildcat of 1970, the Lordstown (Ohio) wildcat of 1972, and the shutdown of the Dodge Main plant in Detroit by black militants who cut the power in summer 1973) and that was still showing signs of life as late as the UMW rank-and-file’s rejection of Jimmy Carter’s imposition of the Taft-Hartley law during the coalfield strike of 1977-78. At its peak, thousands of Trotskyists, Maoists and assorted Marxist- Leninists, not to mention independents, took blue-collar jobs in this turn, constituting the first left-wing “intervention” in the American working-class since the expulsion of conscious leftists from all but a few small unions by McCarthyism, the Cold War and the general rollback of the 1950’s. One could say a great deal—and a great deal was said at the time—about the artificiality of such an attempt. While many of those participating in this turn did in fact come off of college campuses (such as Stern, Raynor and Wilhelm), many among them were nonetheless of working-class background themselves. Few if any were aware at the time that decades of ebb and rollback were beginning, and given the labor market two decades later, the better-paying blue-collar jobs available in 1970 and still around in 1990 looked pretty good by comparison with many of the alternatives. All in all, in the former U.S. industrial heartland of the Midwest, little came of these efforts[27]. A fair number of these “industrializers” tired of blue-collar jobs and migrated into the middle levels of the trade union bureaucracies, where they became an important base of Sweeney’s attempted makeover of the AFL-CIO in 1995. (One Marxist- Leninist, Bill Fletcher of the Maoist Freedom Road group, was briefly a member of Sweeney’s inner circle.) Their opposition to traditional AFL-CIO involvement in Cold War foreign policy forced a major debate within some major unions over the U.S. intervention in Central America in the 1980’s. Many of them were swept up in Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns. To the extent they maintained their earlier political commitments, they increasingly wore two hats, simon-pure trade union militant by day and radical sect member by night.

For it was precisely ca. 1970 that the postwar boom was ending, and what was beginning was the biggest economic restructuring since the final supersession of craft production by intensified industrial production ca. 1900 and the mass production of consumer durables (1920’s, 1930’s). The “wildcat” perspective was nowhere in the wave of plant closings, downsizings, outsourcings, quality control, technical intensification of the labor process, concession bargaining, the de-industrialization of whole regions, and the flood of German and Japanese goods produced with newer factories and methods abroad[28]. The recessions of 1969-1970 and much more so of 1973-1975 wrong-footed the rank-and-file rebellion, and the management counter-offensive in the U.S. and Europe has generally held the upper hand ever since. In the older industrial countries such as the U.K. and the U.S. (not accidentally the dominant world financial centers), the much-touted shift to a “post-industrial” “service” economy seemingly covered over this rollback of the productive work force, so that today less than 10% of the U.K. work force remains engaged in industry and in the U.S. less than 20%. The U.K. had long ceded world financial pre-eminence to the U.S., but from the Thatcher era onward, it was the net capital flows into the City of London which kept Britain solvent; the U.S. shifted from being the world’s largest creditor to the world’s largest debtor ca. 1984. The U.S. balance-of-trade deficit has, since 1971, ceased to be negative only at the bottom of the post-1970 recessions, until the next debt-driven “consumer-led” recovery begins.

The deeper problem, of course, as argued in IN No. l,[29] was that capitalism on a world scale as of 1970 had reached the limits of its recomposition and recovery from the long crisis of 1914-1945 and had again run up against the barrier whereby capitalist accumulation of “value” grew in opposition to the expanded material reproduction of society. Capital was again manifesting its tendency to simultaneously expel living labor from the production process through higher productivity and on the other hand its absolute need of living labor to maintain itself as capital[30]. This expansion of absolute surplus-value production is the true basis, beneath appearances, of the proliferation since 1970 of the low-wage “low road” jobs of the type that Andy Stern’s SEIU set out to organize. This is the true basis of the proliferation of fast-food outlets, Starbucks, Wal-Mart, home care attendants, in short of the “great American jobs machine” that added 30 million jobs after the 1970’s, the majority of which no longer paid enough to support one worker, let alone reproduce a family. The single most important material “fact” of the past fifty years of capitalist accumulation in the U.S. is the disappearance of the single-paycheck working-class family.

Capital’s search for a new foundation for accumulation has hardly run its course. The shakeout that erupted to the surface in the fall of 2008 is only an acceleration of a forty-year process. World accumulation, in order to find a new expansive footing, must be restructured in a way similar to the restructuring whereby the U.S. replaced Britain as the hegemon, with the necessary “reshuffling of the deck” to reflect the new world distribution of cutting-edge production that can no longer accomodate New York as the unquestioned world financial center, the special status of the U.S. dollar, and the other institutions (IMF, World Bank, WTO) through which U.S. exercised supremacy after 1945. Such a reorganization necessarily passes through geopolitics, starting with NATO and the U.S. military presence in 110 countries. And these institutional considerations in turn come down to the dynamic between classes, just as they did in 1914-1945. Seen in this perspective, capital can carry out this restructuring only through the same violence and destruction through which it survived the previous “Thirty Years’ War” epoch of crisis. War and increasingly authoritarian regimes, ramped up by the “war on terror” and the ever-accelerating e-totalitarianism already in place, are the likely way stations to any new phase of capital accumulation.

We must now locate the class struggle, as sketched out above, in this larger process. Capital, as indicated, finally resolved its previous global impasse in 1945 by the founding of U.S. hegemony and that hegemony’s institutions on the ruins of World War II and by the defeat and containment of the working class everywhere, made possible by the channeling of class struggle by Socialist, Communist and Labour parties, not to mention the trade unions the latter controlled. The world capitalist class “thinks globally and acts globally”, whatever localist outlook mystified left opinion wishes to counterpose to it. The world working class must therefore do the same; if it is defeated, as it was defeated between 1914 and the end of World War II, world history will mark another “1945”, whatever the specific outcome, at the beginning of any new capitalist cycle[31]. Capitalists conducted World War II in full awareness of what had happened in 1917-1918, and are fully intent on preventing, with all the murderous means at their disposal[32], a repetition of that brief moment in which they seemed to lose control.

Seen in this perspective, as stated at the outset, there is nothing positive, for the class as a whole, to be achieved through the unions. We remember the murderous, lynch-mob repression that rained down on the IWW from 1917 to 1920 as an anticipation of what the American capitalists will attempt to do to any serious opposition when the chips are down, and today’s unions are, to put it mildly, nothing like the IWW and obviously not a serious opposition. Mainstream American unions dutifully lined up to serve on government-enforced labor-management boards in both imperialist world wars[33]. Closer to the present, one need only recall the meek, red-white-and-blue, we’re-all-in-this-together reaction of American unions in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the day when ordinary Americans first experienced what peoples around the world have experienced at the hands of U.S. imperialism a thousand times in the era of its hegemony. With such precedents, and with the U.S. increasingly bogged down in its rapidly-failing Middle East and South Asian policy from Turkey to Pakistan, by way of Palestine, Iran and Afghanistan, and provoking China over Korea and in the South China Sea, one can only imagine what American unions will do in the next serious (and/or fabricated) war scare.

But here we are a bit ahead of ourselves. Such an apocalyptic perspective (and in our view the historical juncture, particular when seen in tandem with the environmental crisis, is indeed apocalyptic) in 2010, somewhat resembles Schelling’s “night in which all cows are black”[34], a dumb totality in which all the specific realities (e.g. the rise and fall of Andy Stern and the fallout from it) of the present disappear. The process we point to, which we previously characterized as a “slow crash landing”[35], might drag on for years, perhaps decades, particularly given the absence, for the near to medium future, of any power or power bloc capable of challenging the U.S. for hegemony. The patient is terminally ill, but it would be foolish to pinpoint the date of demise, particularly because the process is fluid and will be determined by what the global working class does or does not do.

IN No. 1 outlined a possible program for an exit from “value production” by a successful world revolution[36]. Such a program, eminently debatable in its specifics, has concrete meaning only insofar as it emerges from the necessities of global reproduction and from the huge gap between such necessities and the worldwide retrogressionist assault on workers now underway. The issue is obviously to connect it meaningfully to the struggles, or their absence, of today.

The recent world panorama is mixed, at best. In the current issue of IN, we run articles on the recent strikes in China, ongoing strikes in Bangladesh, and the impressive TEKEL strike in Turkey of last spring. Hundreds of thousands of Greeks went into the streets in May to oppose the European Union’s super-austerity, and gave Yiannis Panagopoulos,

head of the General Confederation of Workers in Greece, the pelting of eggs and beating he so richly deserved[37]. However relatively quiet the U.S. may be for the moment, this is not the case on a world scale.

The struggles in the U.S. and Europe in the 1960’s and 1970’s combined many elements that obviously went beyond the workplace and the shop floor[38], and in fact often eclipsed what was happening on the shop floor. For the U.S. alone, in addition to the mounting wildcat strikes, we recall the different phases of the black movement, the antiwar and GI movements, the (mainly middle-class) youth and student movements, the Latino (Chicano and Puerto Rican) movements, the prison movement, the women’s movement and the gay movement. A situation had been created in which militancy in one sphere encouraged militancy in others, and ultimately broke down the boundaries between spheres altogether in an increasingly visible totality. The bare outlines of a similar totality, since the mid-1990’s, have been taking shape in the contemporary period.

What distinguishes our present from the 1960’s is that the revolts in that earlier period, in the U.S. and Europe[39], were in large part directed against institutions created by the moderate left as they emerged from World War II, whether the Keynesian/Social Democratic welfare state or the trade unions. What characterized the revolts of that period was an ever-greater “outflanking” of bureaucratic “reformist” institutions (political parties, unions) created by the postwar Keynesian settlement in the West. A paradigm might be the uproar in the UAW in 1973 when the union bureaucrats announced with great pomp a new contract inscribing a “four-day week”. Factory militants, already involved in large-scale absenteeism, responded: “The four-day week? We already have the four-day week!”

Today, when “reform” has become the war cry of the capitalists themselves, by which is meant “taking back” the “bloated” “entitlements” of “rent-seekers” (the Wall Street bankers and their bonuses, of course, never figure among the “rent-seekers”) in “painful adjustments” supposedly to make way for a recovery that never comes[40], struggles worldwide have necessarily taken on a new and mainly defensive character.[41] The ruling classes of Europe pursue salami tactics to pare down its welfare state, finding (like their American counterparts) the post-2008 meltdown a most useful wedge for doing so, even as they spent hundreds of billions to rescue their banks.

We cannot will into existence the next conjuncture in which a “contagion of struggle” reappears. A look at the years between the crash of 1929 and the first major U.S. strikes in 1934 shows great quiescence but also battles against foreclosures, rent parties, or the Bonus March on Washington in 1931[42]; in the general desolation, they were perhaps straws in the wind. And the great strikes of 1934 in San Francisco, Minneapolis, Toledo and throughout the Southern textile industry, right up to the steel strike and Flint auto sit-downs of 1936-37 did occur on the upswing from the depths of the Depression. (One further cannot discount the political dimension of hopes, misplaced as they may have been, generated by the launching of Roosevelt’s New Deal.)[43] The problem in the U.S. and Europe for nearly forty years is that there has been no upswing in which workers could recapture the high ground they occupied at the peak of the postwar boom.

Capitalism in 1934, not to mention in 2010, had already entered the epoch (ca. 1914) in which its true goal of expanding value runs counter, on a world scale, to the expanded material reproduction of society[44]. Seen on a world scale, the global economic crisis of today will be worse than that of the 1930’s, not to mention the accelerating environmental catastrophe[45] now underway, beyond comparison to anything in the 1930’s.

Let’s put it bluntly: for the class as a whole to advance, to even win back the ground lost over forty years, the apparatus of production must be taken away from the capitalists. “Reform” has been the war cry of the neo-liberal pro-market right for decades, echoing the fact that there is no possible reformism on the left. Much of the left-wing opposition in the U.S. labor movement[46], as it culminated in the Sweeney fiasco, has been involved in trying to interest the capitalists in a game from which they have walked away. Much of this left could think of nothing better to do, in fall 2008, than cheer the election of Barack Obama, who had been backed by more Wall Street money than his “conservative” opponent McCain, and who brought in, to administer the crisis, the likes of Tim Geithner, Larry Summers and Hilary Clinton, all veterans of multiple crimes against the working class[47].

Taking the apparatus of production away from the capitalists means social revolution, and a revolution moreover international from the beginning. It was argued[48] previously that the “real economy” on a world scale, and nowhere more than in the U.S., has been so distorted by capitalist accumulation over decades that only a program for social reconstruction can make clear how much of contemporary “reality” will have to be swept away to rebuild the world on the basis of “use-values”.

We hardly say this from some absolutist posture dismissive of contemporary struggles, small and large, that do not directly pose the question of “expropriating the expropriators”. As Marx put it in his letter to Ruge in 1843, “we merely tell the world why it struggles, and consciousness is something the world must acquire, even if it does not want to”[49]. We point to examples such as the Buenos Aires subway workers in 2003 who, confronted with a plan from management for 2000 layoffs, struck to demand a 6-hour day for all, and 2000 new hires to make the system work with the shorter shifts. They won.

Not all defensive struggles, probably not even most, can be turned around in this fashion. Most will lose, as most have lost (at least in the U.S.) over the past 35 or 40 years. Centered as we are in the U.S., at least for now, the task is to bring home to workers the kinds of struggles underway everywhere in the world, to internationalize the awareness of the class. But beyond the specifics of those struggles that erupt, win or lose, the main perspective must be to point to the world dynamic of capital and the need for workers on a world scale to either put an end to capital or suffer the (already quite visible) consequences. Capital is a meat grinder we are inside of. The tipping point in this process is as impossible to predict in advance as the bread riot that led to the French Revolution or the women’s day demonstration that led to the overthrow of the Russian tsar or, closer to us, the gesture of Rosa Parks that led to the Montgomery bus boycott.

A meaningful advance of workers’ struggles means bringing into existence class-wide organizations. Where those with such a perspective find themselves, by hook or by crook, in trade unions, the issue is to broaden struggles to include the unemployed wherever possible, on the model of (e.g.) the Buenos Aires subway workers. Such militants participate in unions, where circumstances require it, always with a perspective beyond unions and of their supersession into class-wide organizations[50]. The miserable ghettoization of different parts of the class in (declining) corporatist formations, bound hand and foot by labor law and decades of anti-worker legislation, that cannot even come to each others’ aid in meaningful solidarity, not to mention the abject refusal (with few notable exceptions)[51] to breach legality, has to end. This serene indifference to non-members, including unemployed workers who the day before yesterday were members, has to end. Many of these corporatist formations themselves, it seems all but forgotten, were built decades ago by workers willing to break the law.

In the U.S. in particular, where 88% of the work force is not in unions, where 20% of the work force is unemployed or underemployed and more become homeless every day, where there are almost as many proletarians or sub-proletarians in the prison system as in unions (and where, finally, a not insignificant number of union members are police and prison personnel[52]) the idea of “basing a revolutionary strategy on the unions”, of “capturing the unions” for revolution, ideas still propagated today by various and sundry Trotskyists, is a joke.

IN’s role is to bring into existence, in collaboration with like-minded others, the worldwide programmatically-armed current that can help turn the current defensive rollback into an offensive one, and help push that offensive past the point of no return.


[1] SIGA is a company specializing in the development of pharmaceutical agents to combat bio-warfare pathogens.

[2] On important holdovers from the IWW, battling top-down CIO methods from the start, see the essays in Staughton Lynd, ed. “We Are All Leaders”: The Alternative Unionism of the Early 1930’s. (1996).

[3] Following 3000 strikes in the year 1987 alone, with a further strike wave continuing until 1990 in many cases in fact demanding and forming unions, South Korea is something of an exception to this trend. By the early 1990’s, however, under the cover of still-fiery rhetoric, South Korea’s unions as well had settled (and had been beaten) into the more familiar acceptance of a capitalist framework. See for a brief account of this containment.

[4] With New York City on the verge of bankruptcy, its banker creditors seized control and total oversight of the city budget through an entity called “Big MAC” (Municipal Assistance Corporation). The city’s municipal unions sank tens of millions of their pension funds into Big MAC bonds while the bankers pushed through civil service 40,000 layoffs and slashed city services.

[5] See my article on this defeat at

[6] It should be pointed out that in addition to these better-known episodes of defeat was the year-in, year-out grinding down of working people, without a battle, without even an awareness that a war was in progress (Cf. Wallace Peterson The Silent Depression, 1994, for the basic statistics, albeit within a Keynesian framework.) Some of this has been compensated, until recently, by low-level state and local programs, now on the chopping block in the general crisis of state and urban finane.

[7] Stern’s SEIU, for example, contributed $85 million to the electoral campaign of Barack Obama.

[8] NAFTA was the North American Free Trade Agreement; CAFTA was the Central American Free Trade Agreement. On NAFTA, cf. below.

[9] According to some estimates, 80% of strikes in the past two decades have had health care as a main, if not the main issue.

[10] See L. Goldner, The Remaking of the American Working Class,

[11] Stern also cited as influences the futurologists Alvin and Heidi Toffler as well as the Republican Congressman and right-wing ideologue Newt Gingrich. In his book, A Country That Works, Stern even criticized the “class-struggle mentality” of the U.S. labor movement.

[12] The material in the following section draws on the informative chapter on Stern in Robert Fitch’s otherwise deeply flawed Solidarity for Sale (2006), Steve Early’s Embedded in the Labor Movement (2009) and articles in the Detroit-based Labor Notes.

Fitch points out that Stern’s most important ideas on organization came from the Harvard Business Review.

[13] This of course was prior to the 2010 crisis of the very foundations of the European Union, which offered many new openings to introduce the “Anglo-American” model, or worse.

[14] Cf. the journalistic but fact-packed account of the sleaze surrounding the passage of NAFTA in John R. MacArthur, The Selling of “Free Trade”: NAFTA, Washington, and the Subversion of American Democracy (1995). Contemporary, historically-blind media hand-wringing about the murderous drug wars in Mexico (28,000 dead in the past three years) never mention NAFTA’s decimation of Mexican agriculture as “background.

[15] Change to Win (CTW) unions were, as indicated, the SEIU, the IBT (Teamsters) the UFCW (organizing grocery employees), UNITE (the result of the fusion of several textile worker unions), HERE (hotel and restaurant workers) and LIUNA, organizing laborers. Robert Fitch points out (op. cit.) that of the main CTW unions, three (SEIU, the IBT and LIUNA) had recent or ongoing histories of Mafia influence.

[16] Relative surplus value is Marx’s term for that extracted by intensification of the labor process through new technology; absolute surplus value comes from the lengthening of the working day. Relative surplus value had been preponderant in the post-World War II boom in the West; as that accumulation reached its limits, more and more absolute surplus value compensated for stagnating profits in the technology-intensive industries.

[17] Quoted in Steve Early, Embedded with Organized Labor (2009), p. 221.

[18] Fitch op. cit

[19] Ibid

[20] Early, op. cit. pp. 226-227.

[21] This merger was a swan song of an earlier period of American unions. The Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America was led by “labor statesman” Sidney Hillman for its first thirty years, and helped found the CIO. Amalgamated merged with the Textile Workers Union of America in 1976 to form the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union This merger then merged with the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (of David Dubinsky fame) in 1995 to create the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE).

[22] Cf. Robert Fitch, op. cit. Ch. 9 “UNITE’s Garment Gulag”. UNITE was involved in a number of scandals involved in non-enforcement of New York sweatshop contracts that on paper provided for decent wages and benefits, but actually often had worse conditions than many “unorganized” sweatshops. According to Fitch, a sweatshop thus became (for example, for the campus-based anti-sweatshop movement) a sweatshop not organized by UNITE.

[23] The material in the following paragraphs draws heavily on Steve Early, op. cit.

[24] Actually in some ways this was a departure, as the typical SEIU overture was for union recognition in exchange for no health plan.

[25] The material in the following section is from Labor Notes, different issues from 2005 to 2010.

[26] This union had been stripped of its bargaining rights for striking against the government over privatization and other issues.

[27] The great exception was the short-lived success of the International Socialists (IS) in helping to elect Ron Carey president of the Teamsters in 1991, helped in turn by the U.S. Department of Justice’s takeover of the union with the stated aim of eliminating Mafia influence. This complex tale should be told in another article, but a good start is Fitch’s material on Carey in Solidarity for Sale.

[28] For a portrait of this wrenching period for millions of American workers, using the example of Chicago, cf. David Ranney, Global Decisions, Local Collisions. Urban Life in the New World Order (2003), describing job loss, divorce, wife-beating, mortgage forclosures, homelessness, suicide and anomie in the wake of factory closings there.

[29] Cf. IN No. 1, “The Historical Moment Which Produced US”.

[30] K. Marx, Grundrisse, (English translation, 1973), p. 706. “Capital itself is the moving contradiction, (in) that it presses to reduce labor time to a minimum, while it posits labor time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth.”

[31] The only sure prediction is a formalization of the recognition of relative U.S. decline.

[32] The Allies bombed German and Italian working-class neighborhoods instead of factories in order to paralyze Axis war production. Cf. the writings of the historian Tim Mason, especially Nazism, fascism and the working class (1995) on the fear of working-class revolt in the Nazi regime.

[33] It should be pointed out that, during World War II, this class collaboration did not go unopposed, particularly after the AFL, the CIO and the CPUSA signed on to the wartime “no strike” pledge. Cf. Marty Glaberman, Wartime Strikes, Detroit, 1980.

[34] GFW Hegel criticized his contemporary Schelling for conceiving of reality as a totality—all to the good—but as a totality in which the developmental specificity of it different “moments” disappeared into an indeterminate (one might say, today, New Age) whole.

[35] IN No. 1 ….

[36] IN No. 1, “Historical Moment”.

[37] Panagopoulos had attempted to calm an angry crowd in front the the Greek Parliament, the latter surrounded by riot police. The shower of eggs began immediately, after which Panagopoulos was roughed up by the crowd and had to flee for protection behind police lines.

[38] The focus of vol. I of Marx’s Capital, “the immediate process of production”.

[39] We are not forgetting the struggles and revolts of that period in the Third World, but they in their great majority lacked a clear-cut proletarian character. That is, in many countries, no longer the case, as our coverage of some of those strikes shows.

[40] The paradigm for such vile propaganda, diverting attention from the huge U.S. disparities in wealth, beyond anything achieved in the 1920’s, is the Peter G. Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington DC, which for decades has banged away about the need to reduce Social Security and Medicare to solve the U.S. crisis. The Petersen Institute is a good example of the update of the “Goebbels principle” according to which if an outrageous lie is repeated often enough, it sinks into general consciousness.

[41] Cf. Lance Carter’s short article in IN No. 1 and the longer article in the current issue on the recent strikes in China. It is true that these strikes in China were offensive, but they must be seen in tandem with the many struggles, going back years, in the northeastern “rust bowl” against factory closings, managerial asset stripping and looting of pension funds in the older “state-owned enterprises” (SOEs). In China as well, after three decades of 10+% growth, wages have declined as a portion of GDP.

[42] Tens of thousands of World War I vets converged on Washington DC demanding Federal money owed them, and encamped for months; they were finally dispersed by army units under the command of Gens. Douglas MacArthur and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

[43] One can take the measure of the difference between even the 1930’ s and today by comparing the mass struggles of FDR’s first years in power with the relative silence of most left opposition during Obama’s first two years. Similarly, the electoral triumphs of the Popular Front in Spain and in France in 1936 set off, in the Spanish case, a revolutionary crisis and ,in the French, mass factory occupations. Forty-five years later, the respective elections of Felipe Gonzalez (Spanish Prime Minister 1982-1996) and Francois Mitterand (French President, 1981-1995) were followed in both countries by fifteen years of quiescence, punctuated by a few defensive, stopgap struggles. Between the two periods is a vast deflation, from hard experience, of the illusions of “the left in power”.

[44] Cf. “The Historical Moment Which Produced Us” in IN No l for an unpacking of this theoretical framework.

[45] Cf. John Garvey’s article on the BP oil spill in this issue. In addition to the incalculable damage to the Gulf of Mexico, 2010 has so far witnessed the hottest summer on record in many parts of the world, a huge ice island breaking off of Greenland’s glaciers, the Russian wheat crop seriously reduced by drought, and large-scale flooding in Pakistan and China.

[46] An opposition perhaps best articulated by the Detroit-based monthly Labor Notes.

[47] Geithner came straight from experience at the New York Fed and the IMF; Summers, as Bill Clinton’s Undersecretary of the Treasury, had read the riot act to the Asian powers during the 1997-98 Asian meltdown to force them to accept the IMF’s draconian bailout (in fact, a leveraged buyout by U.S. capital of Asian assets) and Hilary Clinton had been involved in such notable achievements of the 1990’s as the 1993 health care fiasco (keeping single payer off the radar), NAFTA and the abolition of welfare.

[48] See Insurgent Notes No. 1, “Historical Moment”.

[49] The full context of Marx’s remark is: “Hence, nothing prevents us from making criticism of politics, participation in politics, and therefore real struggles, the starting point of our criticism, and from identifying our criticism with them. In that case we do not confront the world in a doctrinaire way with a new principle: Here is the truth, kneel down before it! We develop new principles for the world out of the world’s own principles. We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fighting for, and consciousness is something that it has to acquire, even if it does not want to.”

[50] For an excellent example of how this has been done in the post-1970’s crisis period, cf. the interview with Scott McGuire “Class Struggle Beyond Unions”

[51] We note here the three-day strike of the New York City transit workers (TWU) in December 2005 in defiance of New York State’s infamous Taylor Law forbidding strikes by public employees.

[52] Cf. John Garvey, “Workers’ Progress? From Iron Mines to Iron Bars” in Insurgent Notes No. l. In Pennsylvania, the state AFL-CIO was prevented from issuing a statement of support for death row prisoner Mumia abu-Jamal by police and prison personnel organized in AFSCME; in California, AFSCME similarly opposed any punishment of its prison guard members who had forced prisoners into gladiator battles in the super-max for their own amusement. Most recently, California unions did not lift a finger when the subway cop who killed Oscar Grant in cold blood was convicted of “involuntary manslaughter”.

Not another disaster movie - John Garvey

John Garvey looks at the Deepwater Horizon disaster and the oil industry in general.

While the oil “spill” at the Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico (fifty miles off the Louisiana coast) that began with an explosion and fire on the Deepwater Horizon on April 20th has received a great deal of attention in the regular news media (some of it, by the way, quite serious and critical), it’s necessary to place the explosion and its aftermath in some larger contexts.

In early September of 2010, British Petroleum (BP) issued a report summarizing the results of its internal investigation. Not surprisingly, it focused attention on a series of small technical problems and human errors made just before and after the initial leak. In addition, it also attempted, in very subdued fashion (as befitting an objective investigation), to deflect responsibility for virtually all of those technical and human errors onto the shoulders of its corporate partners, Transocean and Halliburton, proving once again that there’s no honor among thieves.1

As many media commentators have already pointed out, the report should best be seen as BP’s initial test-run of its defense against allegations of “gross” negligence as compared to just ordinary regular negligence. Apparently, the cost difference of a legal finding in such a matter is a mere $15 billion. For the moment, I’ll leave it to the courts to sort out the legal issues—without implying that the courts will supply either justice or wisdom. I just have other fish to fry. I do, however, want to suggest that a preoccupation with degrees of negligence amongst the various parties or with the narrowly legal dimensions of the disaster is likely to divert attention from what are, ultimately, much more serious matters.

Disasters certainly have their attractions. Who hasn’t wanted to watch a fire down the street? But we usually prefer that they don’t last as long as this one. The best ones last only as long as a feature movie. You know the script–the day starts out as usual (coffee and a kiss good-bye); something odd happens; no one really notices; the odd things keep coming; all hell breaks loose; an odd couple, thrown together through even odder coincidences, realizes what’s happening; they know something that no one else knows; they frantically try to notify the authorities; the authorities are in denial or campaigning for re-election; the wife or child of one of the authorities gets caught in some of the bad stuff; the authorities eventually take notice; they recognize the odd-ball wisdom of the oddly associated couple; they agree to do what seems impossible; the first try doesn’t work; the even odder scientist recommends an adjustment; it’s done and the town/city/nation/world is saved. Whew! All in just less than two hours! (Let me confess—I like those movies as much as anyone. I also like a lot of other bad movies and some good movies). But this is no movie.

The prolonged flood of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, over the better part of four months, and the yet to be properly accounted for, long-term impact on the natural environment and the well-being of residents in the coastal communities suggest that we need to lengthen our attention spans a bit. The disaster should attract the deep attention of Americans, and especially American workers, to the devastation that is the result of oil (and by extension, gas and coal) production across the globe. What’s at stake is something much bigger than the possibility of our next vacation on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf disaster is a window into seeing how oil and other forms of energy production have devastated all too many natural environments and ruined the lives of all too many people across the planet.

For descriptions of the social and natural degradation associated with oil production in places as varied as Venezuela, Ecuador, Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, Azerbaijan and Russia, see Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil by Peter Maass. For a close-up examination of the devastation in the Niger Delta, see Curse of the Black Gold: 50 Years of Oil in the Niger Delta by Michael Watts, with photographs by Ed Kashi. (According to that book, an equivalent of the Exxon Valdez oil leak has been drowning Nigeria for each of the last fifty years). For a compelling fictional view of the ways in which oil is the pain and suffering that keep on oozing out in that area, see Helon Habila’s new Oil and Water. And for visual images of what long-term degradation looks like in Nigeria and Ecuador, see the following videos:

If we concentrate too much on surface appearances or are relieved by a too-soon happy ending, we become susceptible to: 1) the false assurances of advertising (which BP, with its cute yellow and green logo, has been exceedingly generous in funding—so much so that it may be responsible for the New York Times showing a profit this year); 2) news reports paid indirectly through advertising, and 3) somewhat paradoxically, the lures of a variety of conspiracy-oriented explanations of what lies beneath the surface. It is essential that we acquire sufficient understandings of scientific/technical issues in order to adequately assess what has happened and what its consequences might be. This essay is the product of an effort in self-education on some of those matters. I welcome all corrections of facts and flawed interpretations.

Simultaneously, we need to imagine ways in which the remarkable scientific/technical expertise that is primarily deployed for the purpose of production for production’s sake (in this case of oil, but, more generally, of just about everything that’s bought and sold) might be re-appropriated for the long-term reduction of unnecessary labor and the comprehensive production, preservation and thoughtful use of non-human resources. This imagination would, I think, be greatly enhanced by a new appreciation for the ways in which Karl Marx’s critique of political economy was informed by a delicate and sophisticated interpretation of the relationship between humans and nature as well as his prescient understanding of the terrible costs of the squandering of human lives, the products of human labor and nature’s treasures in societies dominated by capital.

Eleven Men Dead

Eleven men died on the Deepwater Horizon. They appear to have come from a rich cross-section of the population of the states bordering the Gulf.2 Even now, their names are probably not well known outside their families and the communities they lived in. In this miserable year of 2010, they joined the 29 coal miners killed in the Upper Big Branch disaster in Montcoal, West Virginia and the seven Chinese coal miners who are reported to die every day of the year and still others elsewhere in the count of victims sacrificed in the energy industry and the many thousands unnecessarily lost in the Haitian earthquake at the beginning of the year and the recent floods in Pakistan as a result of the inadequacy of the physical infra-structures in those lands.

This essay will not likely be read by any of the family members or friends of the eleven who died and it can hardly claim to serve as much of a memorial to their too short lives. But their deaths must not be forgotten. We are long overdue for a renewed commitment to the elemental affirmation of solidarity that “An injury to one is an injury to all.” Solidarity, however, cannot end at a workplace, a company, an industry or a border. When we embrace those who died in the Gulf, we must embrace all those many un-named others who have died and are dying, slowly or suddenly, all over the world. Furthermore, solidarity should not be seen as its own ultimate self-justification. Solidarity in the face of a social system that continues to produce maimed and dead workers cannot be content with shared anger at the pain and suffering. It needs to be complemented by a vision that points to a world where such casualties are not assumed to be all but inevitable. We need a solidarity that is deeply influenced by and respectful of the traditions of the last two centuries of workers’ struggles but, at the same time, is inspired by the practical need to abolish the conditions that gave rise to such solidarity in the first place. Ultimately, we need solidarity for what we want and not just solidarity against what we are damaged by.

The Gulf of Mexico

Most Americans who took geography in middle school and social studies in high school know that the Gulf of Mexico is the third great shoreline of the United States—along with the Atlantic and Pacific coasts (let’s leave out Alaska for now). The US coast that stretches from the Florida Keys north to the Florida Panhandle, then west along Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana and finally south along Texas (until it meets the Mexican border) totals almost 1700 miles. The Mexican coast, which curves like a semi-circle towards Cuba, adds almost 1400 miles. The Gulf’s southern boundary is formed by the island of Cuba.

Thirty four American rivers (including the Mississippi and Rio Grande) eventually drain into the Gulf; a number of Mexican rivers (including the Grijalva and Usumacinta) do as well. Water flows back and forth from the Gulf and the Atlantic Ocean through two relatively narrow bodies of water—the Florida Straits and the Yucatan Channel. All told, the Gulf includes approximately 615,000 square miles and 660 quadrillion gallons of water, although the water is shallow along the coast lines–leading to a large number of barrier islands and marshes—as in the Mississippi Delta. (As we’ll see below, that’s a lot of water to use to hide some oil. But hiding is not disappearing).

The Mississippi Delta is one of a handful of similar environs in the world—along with the Niger, Mekong, Nile and others not as well known. Deltas are complex mixes of land and water that seem to have something of the character and shape of tangled knitting yarn or the apparently haphazard structure of an uncut forest. It’s easy to imagine that, in an unspoiled delta, someone unfamiliar with the local territory would be lost in no time at all. That complex environment serves the purpose of holding the deltas together so that they can, in turn, serve as the productive breeding grounds of a remarkably diverse array of plants and fishes. They are simultaneously fragile and strong.

The Gulf is one of the world’s warmest bodies of water. Its distinctive ecology makes it extraordinarily bountiful—Gulf fisheries yield more fish, shrimp and shellfish each year than the south and mid-Atlantic, Chesapeake Bay and New England areas combined. And, obviously enough, a great deal of oil and gas is trapped below its floor. As a result, the two major economic activities conducted in the Gulf waters are oil drilling and fishing. For the better part of sixty years, most of the local people hoped and prayed they could have: “Both, thank you.”

What Have They Done to the Gulf?

Long before the devastation wrecked by the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, the Gulf was under siege—from river drainage, from dumping of all sorts and from the ongoing and sometimes long-forgotten after-effects of oil exploration. Anne McClintock has eloquently captured the state of the Gulf:

The Gulf also bears the brunt of agricultural pollution from the heartland: runoff and waste from Midwest cornfields, sewage plants, golf courses, factories, nitrogen from fertilizer drain down the Mississippi into the Gulf every year. And through those damaged and vanishing marshes, massive watery superhighways have been cut, canals and passageways for the barges and huge ships on their way to the Gulf. Every straight line in the marshes is man made and a road to destruction. Every straight line has been forcibly dredged for flood control and shipping, the river and marshes forcibly reengineered by levees and canals to stop flooding, thereby fatally closing off the silt and fresh water that the marshes need to sustain themselves, and rendering them vulnerable to the yearly slow violence of the hurricanes.3

As a result of the drainage from the Midwest heartland, it’s reported that 1.5 million tons of nitrogen are dumped into the Gulf every year. The nitrogen dumping results in the accelerated growth of phytoplankton (microscopic single-celled plants which live near the surface of the water because they need sunlight). They, like all of us, die and fall to the bottom. Then they are digested by bacteria (maybe the same ones that are digesting the dispersed oil) which consume lots of oxygen. When there is less oxygen, there is less support for marine life. As a result of this on-going deluge, a dead zone (technically, a hypoxic zone) has spread across the Gulf from Galveston in Texas to Venice in Louisiana. The dead zone now consumes 8,000 square miles—a sea area as big as Lake Ontario—one of the Great Lakes. It’s the second biggest dead zone in the world’s waters; the biggest one is in the Baltic Sea in northern Europe.

Let’s take a detour to what has been and is being promoted as an alternative energy strategy—the conversion of corn to ethanol. Ethanol now composes 10% of gasoline at many pumps. Sounds good—grow corn under God’s sunlight and turn it into fuel. God would be pleased—if he was given a proper briefing about the matter. Unfortunately, things are not as simple as God would like. Any increase in corn production results in an increase in the increased use of fertilizers. An increase in the use of fertilizers produces an increase in nitrogen drainage—which increases the size of the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

But that’s not all. One report I read said that there were 10,000 miles of oil canals through the marshes of the Mississippi Delta. It’s bad enough that the construction of the canals destroyed marsh land but the resulting straight-line channels allow saltwater from the Gulf to flow into the marshes thereby allowing the saltwater to poison the plant life in the marshes.

It may be that some of what’s now wrong is the result of what appeared to be right. The Mississippi River used to flood every few years. People who lived along the river understandably enough wanted to figure out a way to avoid being flooded–so they built a massive system of levees to keep the river at bay. And, in spite of the massive failure of the levees in New Orleans five years ago, the system mostly prevents flooding. But, at the same time, it prevents the deposit of soil sediment carried down the river which leads to the disintegration of the marshes. The soil which would have sustained the marshes is, instead, dumped directly into the Gulf. Since 1932, Louisiana has lost approximately 1,900 square miles of land mass–almost equal to the state of Delaware.

And what’s left after oil exploration and production? There are more than 27,000 abandoned oil wells (out of about 50,000 that were ever drilled) and more than 1,000 unused production platforms in the Gulf. Approximately 3,500 of the abandoned wells have been considered temporary cases and have never been permanently sealed. But some of the temporarily abandoned wells have been abandoned since the 1950s. (Just recently, the US Interior Department ordered that those temporarily abandoned wells be permanently sealed).

The result of all this is an industrial netherworld—eerily reminiscent of the abandoned factories littering once productive cities and towns in the Midwest and Northeast parts of the country. But it’s scarier:

….since the 1950s, decades of greed and deregulation have turned the Gulf into the United States’ largest industrial wasteland. The Gulf is an immense, watery mausoleum to the hedonistic high times of the military-industrial petro-era. If a gigantic hand emptied the Gulf like a basin of water, we would see a drowned version of industrial New Jersey: seeping oil-rigs, dumped military ordinance, unexploded bombs, thousands of miles of pipelines, a giant watery wrecking-yard, cluttered with the debris of a century of industrial waste. Miles from anywhere, the spires of an oil rig rise from the marshes, like a church to a demonic god.

Perhaps the only good thing that can be said about the recent spill is that it has brought to the surface some of the long-term degradation that has occurred in the Gulf.

Global Oil Production

“It is almost impossible for someone who is not in the industry to begin to understand the magnitude of the industry and what we do.4

One of the reasons why it might be so hard to understand the magnitude of the petroleum industry is that an awful lot of the oil industry is rather invisible to those of us who don’t live near where it’s produced or refined (and where its ravages are most evident). Peter Maass, in Crude World, comments that: “In a technological sleight of hand, oil can be extracted from the deserts of Arabia, processed to eliminate water and natural gas, sent through pipelines to a terminal on the gulf, loaded onto a supertanker and shipped to a port thousands of miles away, then run through a refinery and poured into a tanker truck that delivers it to a suburban gas station, where it is pumped into an SUV—all without anyone actually glimpsing the stuff” (p. 14-15).

Oil production is profoundly dependent on a combination of complex machines and sophisticated technology. It is not nearly as dependent on actual workers. By way of illustration, in Saudi Arabia (the country with the largest proven reserves and the current leader in oil output), out of a population of 20 million, only 50,000 work in the oil industry and there are typically only 500 new hires per year. The oil workforce includes many foreigners and they, along with their Saudi counterparts, live in separate compounds that look more like American suburbs than the Arabian desert—in recognition of this somewhat bizarre reality, they call themselves Aramcons.

In the Gulf of Mexico, the off shore oil industry employs about 150,000 people although most of them are not out on the water—in large part, because drilling and production don’t really require much human labor. At the time of the Deepwater Horizon explosion, there were only 126 people on the rig, most of whom worked for Transocean.

According to petroleum industry reports from Market Research, in the United States, there are about 5,000 exploration and production companies with annual revenues of approximately $250 billion; 150 refineries operated by about 90 companies with annual revenues of $700 billion, and 5,700 wholesale distribution companies with annual revenues of $750 billion. But the wealth and power of the US-based industry is not reflected in its control of the raw resource. North American oil companies only control approximately 3.5% of producible oil equivalent (oil and natural gas) reserves.

Offshore Oil Production

In April 2010, world production of all liquid fuels was 86.62 million barrels a day but, perhaps surprisingly, offshore deepwater production was only just over 5 million barrels a day—about 6% of global oil production. However, offshore production is expected to be 40% of world production by the end of this decade—as they drill deeper and farther off shore.

Off shore drilling is now underway in countries across the globe (including Brazil, Great Britain, Norway, Tunisia, Egypt, India, Indonesia and Vietnam). In the US, offshore drilling is concentrated in the western and central Gulf (it is prohibited off the Florida coast) and, in a very limited way, off California; 90% of the production comes from the Gulf. In 2009, Gulf oil production was 1.6 million barrels per day—or 31% of all domestic oil production; natural gas production was 11% of all domestic gas production.

Off shore drilling takes place in two quite different marine environments—shallow and deep water. Immediately offshore, the water is relatively shallow (less than 700 feet); however, it eventually drops off fairly dramatically to a depth of as much as three miles—so the deepwater wells are also the ones farthest from land. For thirty years, the drilling took place in shallow waters but the development of new drilling technologies launched the era of deep water drilling in 1979. Deepwater oil production surpassed shallow water production in 2001. In 2009, 80% of offshore oil production and 45% of natural gas production came from deepwater.

States have jurisdiction over oil drilling that takes place within three and a half miles of their shorelines but, for curious reasons (having to do in part with the fact that Texas was admitted to the Union as an independent nation), Texas and Florida control access for more than ten miles from their shores. The United States claims the right to all resources within 200 miles of its coast and the federal government controls oil exploration by selling leases through a bidding process. (There’s a finely worded agreement that splits the difference in the Gulf in those areas that could be claimed by both Mexico and the US). In 2009, the federal government earned at least $6 billion (and maybe as much as $10 billion) from offshore oil leases; since 1953, the government has collected $200 billion in various kinds of payments.

Over the past 45 years, 17.5 billion barrels of oil have been produced from off shore wells across the globe, but only just over a half million barrels have been spilled—30.3 barrels per 1 million barrels produced. And all but two of the largest marine spills of petroleum occurred at the ocean surface—as the result of war sabotage and tanker accidents. Only one serious spill previously took place in the Gulf—the Ixtoc I spill in June of 1979 on a well being drilled for Petroleos Mexicanos (PEMEX) by Transocean. (This summary of spills is based on the expert testimony of Ted Patzek, Professor and Chair of the Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering Department at the University of Texas in Austin before the Energy and Environment Subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce Committee of the House of Representatives on June 9th. So far as I can tell, Patzek is quite critical of many of the industry’s practices and I don’t think he was trying to make things look good. Perhaps I am wrong). Lest I be misunderstood, these facts, regarding the relatively small number of “spills,” obscure something of terrible importance—the most significant devastation of the seas and lands where oil drilling occurs is not from the infrequent spectacular disaster but rather from the routine, day in/day out operations of the industry.

The small number of “spills” is in spite of the fact that drilling has been fairly intense. More than 50,000 wells have been drilled in federal waters since 1947. A total of 331 wells were drilled in federal waters of the Gulf in 2009. The Gulf has 7,000 active leases; 64% are in deepwater (greater than 1,000 feet). But, in March of this year, there were only 25 wells in deep water, as compared to over 3500 in depths less than 1,000 feet. Nearly 4,000 wells have been drilled in depths greater than 1,000 feet and 700 in depths greater than 5,000 feet. This suggests a very low rate of finding oil. One source suggested that two-thirds of all drilled wells were never put into production because of a finding that there was not enough oil to make it profitable. (See Caesar below).

Exploration, production and transportation are conducted with an extraordinarily complex array of equipment and machinery. One of the hallmarks of the industry’s leaders is a more or less endless race to build bigger, drill deeper and claim world records along the way. It’s not yet clear if BP will claim the record for the biggest spill. Some of the nature of this strange state of affairs is reflected in the names given to the projects and drill sites in the Gulf—including Atlantis, Mad Dog, Thunder Horse (previously Crazy Horse), and Blind Faith.

In 1996, Royal Dutch Shell installed Bullwinkle, all 1,736 feet of it, standing in 1,350 feet of water, in the Gulf.[5] Bullwinkle was taller than what was then the world’s tallest building, Chicago’s Sears Tower, but only 262 feet was above the water. The newest drills, even newer than the Deepwater Horizon, are being designed to operate in 12,000 feet of water and to drill 40,000 feet below the sea floor. Their size matches their reach. By way of example, Transocean’s new Discoverer Clear Leader is classified as a 6th generation deepwater rig—part of what the company calls its ultra-deepwater fleet. It was built in Okpo, South Korea in 2009. It has a length of 835 feet and a breadth of 125 feet. Its derrick is 225 feet tall with an 80 foot base. It can house up to 200 workers.

Another rig, named Perdido, is operated by Shell. It was put into service in 2008. It’s not a ship; it floats in the water and is anchored to the sea floor by giant cables. It is 550 feet long and 118 feet wide. According to one gushing report, it’s nearly as tall as the Eiffel Tower and weighs as much as 10,000 cars. It was built in Finland (at a cost of $3 billion) and towed to Texas. You can see what it looks like and how it was put into place in this video clip:

Perdido is designed to pump oil from 35 wells stretched across 30 miles. The rig is lighter than others because the process that separates the oil from water, grease and various heavy metals takes place on the sea floor, instead of on the rig, and the oil is pumped directly into a pipeline system that leads to an on-shore refinery. Another example of the invisibility of oil production!

In case you were wondering, all of the equipment in deep water is installed, maintained and repaired by remote controlled submersibles—controlled by people at computer terminals on the rig or on land. Human beings cannot work at the depths of the wells.

In most cases, oil rigs are not owned by the exploration companies; instead they’re leased from companies like Transocean. In the case of the Deepwater Horizon, the rig was leased to a BP-led consortium that also included Texas-based Anadarko and a wholly owned US subsidiary of Mitsui in Japan. A tangled web indeed!

I haven’t mentioned it yet but there is something else that almost everyone knows about the Gulf of Mexico—it has hurricanes. Not surprisingly, hurricanes pose a serious threat to the drilling structures. In 2005, hundreds of platforms and pipelines were destroyed by hurricanes Rita and Katrina.

In spite of the advanced technological wizardry and the incredible power of the machines involved, control over work remains the same as in the sweat shop—the boss orders you to do what he wants. And, not surprisingly, that results in injuries and death, even without a disaster:

Before we leave the Gulf oil scene, let’s note three important realities. First, according to one insider report, oil companies stopped investing in staff and in oil drilling technologies during various down periods in oil process. As a result, they rely on multiple contractors (such as Transocean and Halliburton) to provide the technical expertise that they lack. This, according to many reports in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon explosion, results in a situation where no one is in charge and no one is responsible (more about that topic below). Second, the increasing computerization of the oil exploration and production processes in the deepwater environment has shifted the responsibility for decisions away from people on the ground (I meant to say water) who might have genuine knowledge about local conditions to people reading data produced by software, written by still other people with little knowledge of the actual geology or physics of the sea floor. Third, the expansion of offshore oil production was prompted, not surprisingly, by high oil prices. But the construction of the offshore rigs and the exploratory work takes time and money and, once again not so surprisingly, the timing is not always right—just when the well is ready to start producing, the price of oil could drop. What’s a poor oil company to do? Most of the time, it will keep on producing. Since time is money, when you want to make more money, you want to spend less time–which is what BP wanted to do in April of 2010!

The Spill, The Cleanup and The Aftermath

The Spill

I won’t rehearse the well-reported details of the events leading up to the explosion.5

Suffice it to say that it was apparently clear to more than a few of those on board the rig that things were not being done the way they should have been and that behind all of the bad decisions was–MONEY. The Deepwater Horizon was an expensive piece of equipment and it was taking a long time to get the drilling of the well completed. The well was more than forty days behind schedule by April and each day that went by apparently cost BP between $800,000 and $1 million. There was a good deal of pressure to get things done and numerous warnings were ignored. The most illuminating account of what led up to the explosion and what the explosion was like has been authored by Ed Caesar in a special report for The Sunday Times in London on September 12th. Let me mention a few of what I thought were important revelations in his article:

Although I believe that this has been reported previously and many readers may know about it, the surviving workers were kept on a nearby service boat and were forbidden to use phones or radios. They didn’t arrive on land until twenty-eight hours after they were pulled out of the water. Then they were “strongly encouraged” to sign a document which reads: “I was not a witness to the incident requiring the evacuation and have no first-hand or personal knowledge regarding the incident. I was not injured as a result of the incident or evacuation (quoted in Caesar).” Apparently even those individuals who were in the hospital were encouraged to sign. It appears clear that BP was not prepared for the technical consequences of a blowout, the human consequences of an explosion or the environmental consequences of a massive spill (see below) but it was very well prepared for the financial, legal and public relations consequences of all of the above.

Caesar focused attention on the story of Jason Anderson, one of the eleven dead. Anderson had the second highest Transocean position on the well and he had become increasingly worried about what might happen. He had confided in his father (a veteran oil worker) and his wife. Just before he returned to the rig for the last time, he and his wife re-wrote their wills and talked about decisions regarding their children’s future. He told his father, “If they keep this up, they will kill every one of us.”

This heart-breaking story invites a question—a big one: Why did workers who knew that so much was wrong and that they were in great danger keep going back to work? I’ll return to that in the last section.

The Cleanup

The cleanup consisted of five principal activities—

1.Skimming (or scooping up) and burning of oil, especially near the spill site;

2.Spraying of dispersants to break up the oil—meaning that smaller particles would drop to the sea floor where ever-ready microbes were invited to an imaginary feast;

3. Spreading of containment booms along the shorelines to capture oil coming in with the tides;
cleaning up the beaches, and

4.Covering up as much as possible.

The least objectionable of the cleanup activities were the skimming and burning. In those cases, the oil being collected or burned off was no longer in the water. On the other hand, the use of dispersants could very well turn out to the making of a prolonged assault against the environment and all its inhabitants. BP sprayed enormous quantities (at least 1.8 million gallons) of what many consider to be poisonous dispersants (Corexit 9500 and 9527). Initially, the spraying was done fairly far off shore by plane but there are now reports from Mississippi that in August, BP furtively deployed private contractors in small boats, specifically contractors from out-of-state that were not involved in the very public containment boom effort, named the Vessels of Opportunity (VOO) program, to spray close to the land. Indeed, it appears that local residents working on the cleanup were being used to find oil that was then sprayed, rather than to skim that oil.6 This suggests that BP, with the close cooperation and support of the Coast Guard, was doing everything possible to make things look far better than they really were.

But the price of this sinister magic act is going to be steep. Corexit, manufactured by Nalco (a company that provides high technology chemicals and services for the oil industry), is nasty stuff—so much so that, in the days immediately after the explosion, the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) ruled that it should only be used in “extremely rare” situations. But the Coast Guard routinely approved BP’s requests to spray. Anne McClintock summarized what Corexit does:

The main ingredient in Corexit is 2-Butoxyethenol, which is toxic to blood, kidneys, liver and the central nervous system. Corexit is mutagenic for bacteria, huge amounts of which live in the Gulf of Mexico. Corexit ruptures red blood cells and accumulates as it moves up the food chain. The EPA, reluctant at first to release data, eventually conceded that Corexit is lethal for 50% of any group of test animals that comes in contact with it. Even the Department of Transportation classifies Corexit as “Class 6.1: Poisonous Material” for transportation purposes. The risks of Corexit to humans, the fragile marsh ecosystems and marine life are potentially staggering. Riki Ott, a marine toxicologist and tireless community activist, has testified meeting people all over the Gulf who are showing symptoms: “headaches, dizziness, sore throats, burning eyes, rashes and blisters that go so deep, they are leaving scars.” Dispersants have never been used in such quantities before, or at such depths in the ocean, or on open marshland. Dispersants are so dangerous because they accumulate up the food chain. Fiddler crabs absorb the toxins in their muscles and are then eaten by birds. Coyotes and feral pigs eat the bird corpses. Pelicans absorb the toxins from fish and even lightly oiled pelicans ingest the oil through their constant preening. Larger marine life like tuna, dolphins and whales carry the greatest lethal loads. Stories have been told by fishermen finding vast, floating graveyards of birds, dolphins and whale corpses near the Macondo well site, which, they say, are secretly disposed of at night.7

BP did employ a small army of cleaners—including some prison labor in Alabama (for which it received federal subsidies for providing work-release opportunities). However, the beach cleanup has been described as a Keystone Kops routine. In late June, Julia Reed wrote:

Last week was supposed to be the week the president finally got out in front of the oil spill. It was supposed to be the week when he stopped trying to figure out whose ass to kick and just get on with it. But here we are on Day 64 of the oil spill and still there is no sense that someone—anyone—is in charge. That has been the case on the ground from day one. The shore cleanup that BP contracted and subcontracted out is a tragic joke. Teams of untrained, barely employable (sic) folks are bused into Grand Isle from nearby parishes to “patrol” the beach for tar balls. They put a handful of tar balls into enormous clear plastic bags and mostly take breaks beneath the docks and in the air-conditioned food tents, since it is stultifyingly hot. They are not trained to tell the difference between a tar ball and a jellyfish; worse, they are inadvertently trampling sensitive bird breeding grounds. After they leave, another crew comes and rounds up the bags and trucks them off (again over sensitive marshland and breeding grounds); last week came word that the majority of these bags containing hazardous oil waste were being dumped next to a Houma Indian reservation. These workers are not allowed to speak to reporters, which brings us to one of the countless appalling aspects of the spill response. BP has been effectively banning press coverage with our own government’s collusion. A photographer from the New Orleans Times-Picayune was banned by the FAA from flying over the spill to take pictures.8

An NBC reporter, cited in the same account, suggested that the cleanup was the “equivalent of trying to clean the Superdome with a toothbrush.”

It seems clear that cleaning up the spill was never quite the goal. That goal might better be described as clearing up the spill—in other words, making it go away, even if it didn’t really go away–for both short-term publicity purposes and long-term legal ones.

The Aftermath

In the weeks and months after the explosion and especially after the drill was plugged, there was a great deal of conflicting testimony about the extent of damage to the waters and to the living creatures who inhabit the water or depend on its products for food. A very confident report issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on August 4th proclaimed that the majority of the oil had been burned, skimmed, dispersed, recovered or evaporated. That rosy picture has been challenged by a number of independent scientists, including oceanographer and veteran Gulf researcher, Samantha Joye of the University of Georgia. In the middle of August, based on work tracking oil plumes below the surface, Joye and a colleague published a memo which asserted that three-fourths of the oil (or at least three million gallons) was still in the ecosystem. In mid-September, Joye reported on her more recent research in areas of up to 80 miles from the well. She found evidence of oil in both shallow and deep waters.9

According to a New York Times editorial on September 20th, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration appeared ready to concede that its earlier estimate might have been premature and announced that it would conduct a new systematic study to measure the oil and to assess its impact. It would, of course, be better by far if the damage turns out to be less rather than more but such a result should not provide any reassurance that this spill was not one more very serious assault against the Gulf. Indeed, even as I finished this essay, I came across a TV report from Louisiana that many thousands of dead fish had been found in Bayou Chaland in Plaquemines Parish. In all likelihood, the oil spill will slowly disappear from the news reports but its left-overs will not disappear from the Gulf.

Truth and Consequences

Although Ed Caesar’s article from the Sunday Times that I referred to above is very informative, at the end it comes up short on at least one important matter. He argues that the oil spill was “completely avoidable.” By that he means that it is evident that careless maintenance of equipment, cutting corners on various recommended steps to ensure the integrity of the well and ignoring the advice of people who knew what was going on—in a volatile marine and geological environment–all came together to result in a disaster. At one level, of course, he’s right–this disaster could have been avoided. But, and this is a big but, the accumulation of disasters is part and parcel of the contemporary world scene. One or another accident might be avoided but the logic that produces disasters is inescapable.

In an essay intended to introduce the writings of Amadeo Bordiga, an Italian communist, on the disastrous consequences of capitalist production, on the Antagonism web site, the authors commented that, “Capitalism produces disasters almost as fast as it produces commodities.” They suggested that it’s useful to think about disasters as “massacres that take place without deliberate planning.” And then they go on:

The massacres here are unplanned only in the sense that no date was set in advance, or orders given to shoot. In this sense disasters are different from wars. Yet the possibility of catastrophe is planned for whenever unnecessary risks are taken in the planning of new buildings, industrial processes or machines, or when environmental or biological processes are left to take their course without intervention that could prevent them or minimize their impact. Disasters come in different forms. There are slow-motion disasters, an accumulation of deaths in ones and twos that add up to mass carnage. …. Then there are sudden accidents resulting in mass casualties caused by technical failures of machines or buildings, such as train or plane crashes. Finally there are natural disasters featuring environmental factors such as floods and droughts, but often with social causes.

Although the emphasis in the lines above was on disasters resulting in human deaths, I believe the analysis is easily enough re-worked to make sense of the oil spill. It was a sudden accident that took place in the context of a slow motion disaster that resulted in human deaths and a likely environmental disaster. To the extent that the oil spill in the Gulf is followed, more or less rapidly, by a return to production as usual, it is all but certain that the slow death of the Gulf will proceed on schedule—unless and until there’s another accident which becomes a disaster.

Bordiga points to essential characteristics of capitalist production that result in a tendency towards disaster; they are the embrace of supposed expertise linked to the specialization of labor and the capitalization of science. Both seem relevant to the Gulf spill. Bordiga, who had been trained as an engineer, acknowledged that some design problems could be solved through modeling in the laboratory. But not all! Thus:

The geological problem is not one for the smoking saloon or the test tank. It is one of lengthy human experience based on the proofs of historical building. Human and social experience. For all modern engineering, in so far as it makes things which are not pocket-sized or cars, constructing things fixed to the Earth’s crust, the key problem is the land/building relationship (for a simple house, the foundations). There are no perennially valid formulae but instead many skillful applications to choose from after gaining hard-learnt experience. Taking a big salary and smoking in front of the computer is not sufficient. This experience ripens over the centuries: whoever believes in progress and in the jest that last season’s latest discovery contains the wisdom of all time, may get a big salary, but causes disasters, statistics for which, and they alone, show progress. … At the bottom of these reckless projects [he was talking about dams in Italy], dictated and imposed by the hunger for profit, by an economic law to which all the navies, the surveyor and chief engineer must all bow, for which reason it is foolish remedy to uncover the guilty party at an inquest, lies the most idiotic of modern cults, the cult of specialization. Not only is it inhuman to hunt down the scapegoat, but also vain, since one has allowed this stupid productive society to arise, made of separate sections. No one is guilty because, if someone takes off the blindfold for a moment, he can say that he gave advice requested by the next section, that he was the expert, the specialist, the competent person.10

Marx Once Again

On a number of occasions in Capital, Marx described various interactions among humans and between humans and nature as having the character of a metabolism. In this instance, he is discussing the labor process:

The labor process, as we have just presented it in its simple and abstract elements, is purposeful activity aimed at the production of use values. It is an appropriation of what exists in nature for the requirements of man. It is the universal condition for the metabolic interaction [Stoffwechsel] between man and nature, the everlasting nature-imposed condition of human existence, and it is therefore independent of every form of that existence, or rather it is common to all forms of society in which human beings live (Volume I, 290).

At the same time, Marx makes clear that the labor process is not the same in all situations. Specifically, when the labor process becomes a process by which a capitalist consumes labor power, the “worker works under the control of the capitalist to whom his labor belongs” and the product is the property of the capitalist:

… the product is the property of the capitalist and not that of the worker, its immediate producer. Suppose that a capitalist pays for a day’s worth of labour-power; then the right to use that power for a day belongs to him, just as much as the right to use any other commodity, such as a horse he had hired for a day. The use of a commodity belongs to its purchaser, and the seller of labour-power, by giving his labour, does no more, in reality than part with the use-value he has sold. From the instant he steps into the workshop, the use-value of his labour-power, and therefore also its use, which is labour, belongs to the capitalist. By the purchase of labour-power, the capitalist incorporates labour, as a living agent of fermentation, into the lifeless constituents of the product, which also belongs to him. From his point of view, the labour process is nothing more than the consumption of the commodity purchased, i.e. of labour-power; but he can consume this labour-power only by adding the means of production to it. The labour process is a process between things that the capitalist has purchased, things which belong to him. Thus the product of this process belongs to him just as much as the wine which is the product of fermentation going on in his cellar (291-292).

Marx had previously explained that the means of production included the instruments of labor (tools and machines) and the objects of labor (materials either spontaneously provided by nature or natural materials processed through previous labor). He wrote: “An instrument of labour is a thing, or complex of things, which the worker interposes between himself and the object of his labour and which serves as a conductor, directing his activity onto that object. He makes use of the mechanical, physical and chemical properties of some substances in order to set them to work on other substances as instruments of his power, and in accordance with his purposes” (285).

A page before, in a famous passage, Marx had celebrated the uniqueness of human labor:

A spider conducts operations which resemble those of the weaver, and a bee would put many a human architect to shame by the construction of its honeycomb cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of the bees is that the architect builds the cell in his mind before he constructs it in wax. At the end of every labour process, a result emerges which had already been conceived by the worker at the beginning, hence already existed ideally. Man not only effects a change of form in the materials of nature; he also realizes [verwirklicht] his own purpose in those materials.

But then he changes his tone:

And this is a purpose he is conscious of, it determines the mode of his activity with the rigidity of a law, and he must subordinate his will to it. This subordination is no mere momentary act. Apart from the exertion of the working organs, a purposeful will is required for the entire duration of the work. This means close attention. The less he is attracted by the nature of the work and the way in which it has to be accomplished, and the less, therefore, he enjoys it as the free play of his own physical and mental powers, the closer his attention is forced to be (284).

In a few sentences, we have gone from the wonder of an architect’s imagination to the need to pay close attention to something you hate to do. The move is from the possibilities of free creation to the realities of wage slavery.

Human labor, subordinated to capital, is alienated—as is the science used by capital in its relentless pursuit of surplus value through production. In a footnote in Volume III, Marx observed:

Science, generally speaking, costs the capitalist nothing, a fact that by no means prevents him from exploiting it. ‘Alien’ science is incorporated by capital just as ‘alien’ labour is. But ‘capitalist’ appropriation and ‘personal’ appropriation, whether of science or material wealth, are totally different things. Dr. Ure himself deplores the gross ignorance of mechanical science which exists among his beloved machinery-exploiting manufacturers, and Liebig can tell us about the astounding ignorance of chemistry displayed by English chemical manufacturers (508-509).11

Ignorance aside, commodity production promotes and is sustained by a dramatic increase in circulation which, in turn, transforms the ways in which human beings stand in relation to each other and to nature. “…the circuit made by one commodity in the course of its metamorphoses is inextricably entwined with the circuit of other commodities (Volume I, 207). Marx further comments:

… the exchange of commodities breaks through all of the individual and local limitations of the direct exchange of products, and develops the metabolic process of human labour. On the other hand, there develops a whole network of social connections of natural origin, entirely beyond the control of the human agents (207).

In Volume III, Marx approvingly cites the findings of von Liebig, who described a “rift” in that metabolism:

…large landed property reduces the agricultural population to an ever decreasing minimum and confronts it with an ever growing industrial population crammed together in large towns; in this way it produces conditions that provoke an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself. The result of this is a squandering of the vitality of the soil, which is carried by trade far beyond the bounds of a single country (949).

Many years earlier, in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, Marx had written:

Man lives from nature, i.e., nature is his body, and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die. To say that man’s physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for man is part of nature.

But Marx had a complex understanding of nature:

With the exception of the extractive industries, such as mining, hunting, fishing (and agriculture, but only in so far as it starts by breaking up virgin soil), where the material for labour is provided directly by nature, all branches of industry deal with raw material, i.e., an object of labour which has already been filtered through labour, which is itself already a product of labour. An example is seed in agriculture. Animals and plants which are accustomed to consider as products of nature, may be, in their present form, not only products of, say, last year’s labour but the result of a gradual transformation continued through many generations under human control, and through the agency of human labour (Volume I, 287-288).

Thus, while society is in nature, nature is also in society.

Finally, Marx was, among other things, genuinely attentive to the need to preserve what had been passed down:

From the standpoint of a higher socio-economic formation, the private property of particular individuals will appear just as absurd as the private property of one man in other men. Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations, as boni patres familias [good heads of the household] (Volume III, 911).

The advances made possible through the application of science and technology have brought us to the brink. As was first suggested more than a hundred years ago, the choice is between socialism and barbarism. The Gulf disaster, and the on-going disasters elsewhere, hint at how the barbaric alternative will announce itself. We remain in need of some new examples for how the socialist alternative might be advanced instead. And we need them sooner rather than later.

Although capitalism is obviously characterized by the accumulation of extraordinary wealth by a relative handful, that is not the essence of the beast. The fact of the matter is that the majority of shares in BP might very well be held on behalf of the pensions of millions of English workers—who wouldn’t want to hurt a feather on the wing of a pelican in the Gulf, let alone make life miserable for the people who live around the Gulf. But capitalism goes on just the same—no matter if the owner is a Rockefeller with a top hat (or more currently, a Bill Gates or Warren Buffet with their humanitarian commitments) or many un-named millions of workers, turned into unwitting accomplices in the reproduction of their own misery.

What people are willing to put up with depends on circumstances. In the US, almost forty years of a slow wearing down of wages, benefits and working conditions have increasingly resulted in workers being willing to put up with almost anything—even the possibility or likelihood of death. When Jason Anderson and his wife re-wrote their wills, they weren’t doing something very different from what many millions of people in this country do every day—they hope for the best while they prepare for the worst. I don’t think that we’re going to convince very many workers, even those who are going out to rigs as dangerous as the Deepwater Horizon, that they should change their minds. In general, we don’t change our minds because someone convinces us that we’re wrong. The fact of the matter is that most of us are never wrong! Instead, we change our minds when the worlds we live in change. But it doesn’t happen automatically. The world of the people who live around the Gulf of Mexico has changed (probably for a long time). What they make of those changes remains to be seen.

Ultimately, it’s not a problem of the mind; it’s a problem of the will. Whose will is it that keeps us going the way we are? The will of capital, albeit a capital that’s been refurbished for our modern times. That will cloaks itself in the garb of progress, science and technology. At the same time, it justifies itself by the invocation, in the developed countries and those (like China) on the fast track to development, of an apparently all but incontrovertible need to maintain “our way of life.” That way of life threatens to fairly quickly become a threat to the possibility of life in any form that we would want to be part of.

But this is no argument that the real cause of environmental degradation lies with the individuals who drive cars or chill their homes. There is a great deal of what we have become accustomed to that will have to be reconsidered and there is a great deal to be gained by individuals and various communities experimenting with new ways of living now that could serve as potentially valuable models for what we might decide to do. But the root cause of the degradation lies with the on-going transformation of human labor power into a hostile power that increasingly dominates all aspects of human life.

Auto industry strikes in China - Lance Carter

Lance Carter gives an account and analysis of the hugely successful wildcat strike wave at mostly Japanese-owned auto factories in China, 2010.

Between May and July of this year a series of high-profile strikes in foreign-owned auto parts plants spread throughout China’s coastal regions. Strikes in China are nothing new, but the recent strike wave was remarkable in at least three respects: the amount of concessions granted to workers; the degree of publicity it initially received in the Chinese media; and the prospects for showcase union reform that it has helped push onto the agenda. Although the strikes were directed primarily at unfair wages, there were some attempts to address the more political question of union representation. Workers that I spoke with who had participated in strikes at Honda factories had clearly been politicized by the events and were well aware of strikes occurring throughout China’s auto industry.

The first and only strike to make headlines in the Chinese press began on May 17th and lasted until June 4th. It took place at Honda’s Nanhai factory in Foshan, Guangdong. The strike was kicked off by two workers from the factory’s assembly division. Well aware of their central position within the production line, these two young workers were quickly joined by the rest of the assembly division and were able to suspend production throughout almost the entire factory.1 Their actions sparked over two weeks of protest which at its height gained the support of some 1,900 workers. The strike eventually stopped production at four Honda assembly plants and went on to inspire at least eleven large-scale strikes in other foreign-owned auto factories.2 Was this strike wave the result of mere spontaneity? Why were the strikes so ubiquitous in the auto industry? And why did they take place in mostly Japanese-owned (or Japanese-invested) factories?

Although the Nanhai Honda strike was uniformly presented as the spark that ignited the fire, according to a report from the Hong Kong Liaison Office of the ITUC/GUF,3 the Nanhai strike was actually a culmination of industrial unrest in related enterprises which began a year earlier in June of 2009.4 Such information is important in showing that much about the Nanhai strike was only slightly unique to the auto industry and was more than just a reaction to the spontaneous decision of two young workers. The strike wave should first be understood within the context of increasing social unrest nationwide since the early 1990s. Between 1993 and the years 2004 and 2005, the Ministry of Public Security recorded an increase from 8,700 incidents of social unrest nationwide to 74,000 and 87,000 incidents respectively.5 Because of the negative implications of such statistics, the Ministry of Public Security stopped publishing them after 2006. In addition, the recent strike wave was concentrated within the Pearl River Delta (the heart of Chinese industry) which has seen a peak of labor unrest since 2003. Although the Pearl River Delta is known for its high percentage of labor disputes handled through legal means, the region is certainly not without its share of protests and strikes. In Shenzhen city alone there were sixty cases of strikes recorded as early as 1993, and 110 cases of specifically large-scale strikes for the year 1999.6 In the larger Guangdong region, one report documented 182 cases of strikes involving over 400 people between 1994 and 1995.7

While the recent strikes are clearly not without precedent, the amount of attention and support from the media went well beyond established protocol. The Nanhai strike began receiving coverage in the Chinese press within the first week of its appearance. Because Nanhai is a transmissions plant, the strike caused production to come to a halt at three assembly plants in Guangzhou on the 25th and one in Wuhan on the 27th. Following the suspension of production at these other Honda factories the Western media began to take notice. The Ministry of Propaganda then issued instructions to pull coverage of the strike on May 28th.8 In spite of this, the local Guangdong media continued to cover the strike up until its conclusion. On May 31st, after 200 thugs affiliated with the local trade union physically assaulted a group of workers, the Nanhai strike turned into a national incident. Letters from the trade union, sympathetic academics, and the striking workers themselves were all published in the mainland press. Meanwhile, all this was transpiring within a climate of outrage over the treatment of workers at Foxconn Technology (a Taiwanese-owned electronics manufacturer with operations in Shenzhen). The Chinese media thus played a key role in presenting the Nanhai strike as not only erupting without precedent but more importantly as a heroic struggle by migrant workers for just compensation and respect. The fact that this was allowed to take place at all reflects a tacit approval by the Central Government in favor of the worker’s demands. In short, it was not so much the Nanhai Honda strike itself but the degree of publicity and support the strike received in the Chinese media that made it truly remarkable.

This is important to note because it was precisely this publicity that lent confidence to other workers in the auto industry and throughout the country at large. Honda’s decision to raise the wages of Nanhai employees by ¥500 per month (around a 33% increase) and the publication of this information in various Guangdong newspapers established a standard by which other Honda workers could measure their own grievances. The proximity of auto parts factories in the Pearl River Delta allows for word of mouth to function as a rudimentary form of communication between enterprises. As a result, copycat strikes erupted throughout the industry. Although the Chinese press was ordered to stop reporting subsequent strikes, Hong Kong and Western media were able to provide information on these strikes for the various Chinese internet forums which sprang up in response to the struggle. In this way, labor unrest was able to spread to at least eleven other factories in the auto industry.

I went down to the Pearl River Delta toward the end of July, after the last reported strike had ended. In addition to meeting with workers and various labor NGOs, I was able to spend a day walking around the industrial district of Xiaolan. Xiaolan is the manufacturing town in Zhongshan where the Honda Lock workers went on strike. Gated factory complexes, many employing over 10,000 workers, ran endlessly along the industrial district’s main strip. About a third of the vehicles I saw on the road were shipping trucks. And I was told that workers who are not native to Xiaolan—and therefore have no residence permit—make up sixty percent of the population.

From June 9th to June 18th, Honda Lock workers in Xiaolan went on strike in defiance of management. Like Nanhai Honda, Honda Lock was one of the few strikes where workers demanded the reelection of union officials. Unlike the Nanhai strike however, management decided to take a hard-line stance and workers were forced to retreat from many of their original demands. After six days of struggle and three days of waiting,9 workers at Honda Lock finally settled for a meager ¥200 pay increase and an ¥80 housing subsidy per month. This puts Honda Lock on a par with only the Toyota Gosei strike in Tianjin in the minimal amount of concessions won. The strike was described to me rather candidly by one worker as “a failure.” Demands for union reelections were never seriously addressed, as they were at Nanhai. Instead, workers were told that “the company has no authority over such matters.” This seems incredibly two-faced being that Honda Lock is a joint venture with thirty percent ownership held by the Xiaolan government! On the other hand, that is precisely why the strike had so much difficulty succeeding.

Such attempts to voice more overt political demands are in need of some clarification. As far as we know, calls to restructure enterprise-level unions were put forth at Nanhai Honda, Honda Lock, and Denso. However, this was misinterpreted by many foreign journalists as calls for fully independent unions. There is an important distinction here. The only legal union in China is the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU). Though nominally an independent union, in reality the ACFTU acts as a quasi-governmental organization. Enterprise-level unions are very often chaired by CCP cadre and (or) management. However, the right of workers to reelect enterprise union officials is protected under Chinese labor law. As Anita Chan pointed out in her article on the strikes, there is a significant difference between demanding a restructuring of the factory union and the right to establish a union independent of the ACFTU.10 Workers who expressed this demand therefore were acting within the purview of their legal rights. Unfortunately, such demands constitute much less of a political challenge than what was presented in the foreign press.

Another area in need of clarification is the question of why the strike wave was largely confined to Japanese-owned enterprises. Though some commentators speculated that this was related to some lingering resentment toward the Japanese,11 in actuality the strikes had nothing to do with nationalism. A better explanation is that auto industry workers simply became more aware of their bargaining power as a result of the victory at Nanhai. This then emboldened workers affiliated with Honda to push for similar demands.

A second possible explanation is that strikes occurring in Japanese factories received unbalanced coverage in the media and, in reality, were proportionally somewhat less than they appeared to be. Journalists have better access to information from Japanese firms than they do from either Chinese firms or the local Communist Party. In addition, many newspapers would be more interested in Chinese labor unrest within the formidable Japanese auto industry than within some other sector. It is thus possible that the strike wave was much bigger than what was reported. This point is supported by the findings of the ITUC/GUF report as well as the numerous hints of unrest taking place outside the auto industry that were scattered throughout Western newspapers. Though it seems safe to say that the majority of disputes did occur in Japanese-owned auto parts plants, the strike wave was by no means exclusive to this grouping.

Finally, Japanese lean production techniques certainly played a role in the ability of workers to force demands on management.12 Lean production is a cost-cutting strategy based primarily on just-in-time delivery of parts and the subcontracting of low-tiered workers. An assembly worker I spoke with from the Nanhai Honda factory was very conscious of not only the importance of factory interns in saving labor costs to the company but also the pivotal role of his assembly division within production. “The whole factory looked to us for leadership; cause when we stop, they stop,” he recalled. Though workers seemed unaware that lean production techniques are a trade mark of the Japanese auto industry, some obviously understand that certain ways of organizing production are more vulnerable to disruption than others. This knowledge no doubt strengthened workers’ confidence in their own bargaining power and may be another reason why so many Japanese auto parts factories were targeted.

On the whole, the strike wave of May, June, and July was an overwhelming success. Despite minimal concessions awarded to Honda Lock and Toyota Gosei, all other factories for which there is information won considerable pay increases. Not only that but pay increases increasingly rose from the ¥500 won at Nanhai Honda, to the ¥800-¥900 won at Denso, to the high of ¥980-¥1420 awarded to Atsumitec workers. Although demands to restructure factory unions largely fell on deaf ears, workers from Nanhai Honda went ahead with reelections of their union chairman on September 1st.13 In addition, the strikes seem to have given those in favor of union reform the upper hand in Guangdong province.14 While the latter may mean little to rank-and-file workers, it is a testament to the threat autonomous worker’s struggles—particularly those within the auto industry—present to the stability of the “communist” regime.

Honda and the Auto Industry in China

Honda moved production to China in 1992. It began as a joint venture in cooperation with the state-owned enterprise Dongfeng Motor. Though initially involved in making motorcycle parts, Honda eventually turned its focus to auto parts production and assembly. As part of China’s attempt to protect domestic industries, the government requires foreign firms investing in the auto assembly sector to establish 50-50 joint ventures with Chinese firms. This however does not apply to firms involved in component parts production.15 Over time, this led to a situation where Honda shifted a huge percentage of its auto parts production to China and to Guangdong province in particular. Though now promoted as a profit maximizing strategy, Honda today has the highest percentage of core parts coming from locally sourced suppliers—many of them Honda subsidiaries—of any foreign automobile enterprise operating in China.16 Having so many factories concentrated in one region needless to say makes Honda more vulnerable to large-scale industrial unrest. This may be another reason why strikes in Honda factories were so pervasive.

A second area of vulnerability which workers were able to take advantage of is the technical division of labor between factories. As witnessed at Nanhai Honda, Fengfu Honda, Denso, and NHK Spring (all component parts factories) the downing of tools brought production to a halt at affiliated assembly plants. Because of the way the Japanese auto industry is structured, component parts are supplied directly to assembly factories on a regular, if not daily, basis. There are no storage warehouses for parts to sit in and lay idle. Such techniques are known as “just-in-time” delivery systems (JIT). They were pioneered by Toyota in the 1980s. Though saving on production costs, they are also highly vulnerable to disruption at the point of supply and shipping. During the strike wave, Chinese workers learned quickly how disruptions of this kind attract media attention and enhance their bargaining power.

Both the local sourcing of component parts and JIT delivery systems are integral to the Japanese auto industry’s strategy of increasing output while keeping down labor costs. These are known as “lean production techniques.” As mentioned earlier, an important aspect of lean production is the subcontracting of workers from lower tiers of production. This means separating the workforce into essentially two groups—skilled and well paid core workers on the one hand and unskilled, underpaid, and temporary base laborers on the other. In China, this strategy was broadly adopted within the auto industry during the late 1980s and early 1990s.17 Although designed to improve flexibility without laying off elderly workers, this subcontracting system creates a hierarchy of labor which is incredibly effective at undermining worker’s solidarity. During the Nanhai strike, Honda management made repeated attempts to divide interns from formal workers by appealing to the acute grievances of the interns. At one point students from the interns’ schools were even sent to the factory to convince interns, who constituted one third of the workforce, to settle for management’s offer.18 Fortunately, at Nanhai such attempts were unsuccessful.

According to some analysts, a tiered labor system within the Japanese auto industry in China is becoming increasingly harder to maintain.19 In order to sustain current rates of productivity, firms are being forced to cut into the relative security of core workers, pushing them into the lower tiers and deskilling them in the process. While this obviously lessens the bargaining power of labor within the market, it also helps to dismantle workforce hierarchies and therefore should increase worker solidarity. This trend may have been in evidence at Honda Lock where workers were primarily unskilled. On the one hand, Honda Lock was very effective in taking a hard-line position against employees seen as replaceable. On the other hand, workers showed a fair degree of solidarity and were infuriated by management’s repeated attempts to hire strike breakers and force workers to chose between a pitiful ¥100 wage increase or being fired.

Although the central concern of the strikes was to secure higher wages and bonuses, Chinese autoworkers—and assembly workers in particular—are generally paid a reasonable wage. Working conditions in auto assembly plants are also decent, though this is less true of component parts factories. In recent years however autoworker salaries have slightly decreased while wages in other manufacturing sectors have increased.20 This seems to suggest that the strike wave had more to do with maintaining respectable wages relative to other industries than to material want in an absolute sense. With that being said, it is important to note that only one of the factories that went on strike was an assembly plant,21 all other factories were component parts suppliers and affiliates. This would suggest that grievances among workers from auto parts factories—where work is likely to be less skilled, less well paid, and conditions less satisfactory—are generally greater than those of workers from assembly plants.

While Honda and Toyota suffered tremendous profit losses thanks to the strikes, in this instance Chinese autoworker demands for increased wages inadvertently converged with the aims of the central government. The CCP’s 12th Fifth Year Plan (2011-2015), scheduled to be passed this fall, recognizes the importance of raising wages as a share of GDP. If China’s economy continues to grow at current levels of investment, her production capacity will eventually outstrip global demand. Thus, it is necessary for China to move from an export driven economy to a more balanced model based on greater domestic consumption. Wages will play a key role in helping to increase this consumption. Following the resolution of the Nanhai strike, both the Shenzhen government and the Beijing Municipal Government announced they were raising local minimum wage by ten percent and twenty percent respectively.22 Since January of this year, over half of China’s provinces have declared similar increases in the minimum wage. Thus, while workers were in no way manipulated by the CCP to go on strike, their calls for partaking in a greater share of the wealth were no doubt met with sympathy by certain factions within the government.

The Chinese economy is fueled by the sweat of cheap migrant labor. These laborers are generally born and raised in the countryside where income from agriculture can barely support a family. As a result, they move to the cities to look for work. However, as formal residents of the countryside they cannot enjoy the social welfare benefits awarded to urban residents. They are thus effectively an underclass and are often treated as such by people from the city. Migrant workers in China currently number over 210 million.23 Statistics from 2005 indicate that migrant labor comprised 57.5 percent of the Chinese industrial sector and 37 percent of the service sector for that year.24In the Pearl River Delta however this percentage is much higher.

Migrants in the Pearl River Delta divide into roughly three categories. Around ten percent are actually urban workers, often former employees of the State Owned Enterprises. These migrants tend to be older, skilled workers and have usually received a decent education. The other ninety percent of migrant workers are from the countryside—thirty percent being farmers and sixty percent being former students. It is often suggested that because migrant workers from the countryside own farmland and plan to return to it in the future they are less likely to get involved in serious and protracted labor disputes in the cities. While this generalization may be true of older migrant workers who know how to farm, it is certainly not the case with former students from the countryside. Young workers, fresh out of high school and vocational college, form the majority of migrants in the Pearl River Delta. These workers not only lack the skills to engage in agriculture, but are often unable to be supported by the family farm. In addition, they see a farmer’s life as a considerable step backward in light of the education they have received. Former student workers thus form a peculiar group whose long-term interests are bound to the city yet who are unable to obtain the social benefits of urban residents.25 It was precisely this group of workers that showed its teeth so ferociously during the strike wave.

During my visit to the Pearl River Delta I had the chance to sit down with a migrant worker who had participated in negotiations at Honda Lock. Originally working in the paint division, the man had resigned from his position at Honda on the second day of negotiations out of fear for the safety of his family. As his kids ran around just a few feet away, he told me the story of how the strike proceeded and the brief role he played in negotiations.

In many ways Mr. Chen26 is not typical of the majority of workers at Honda Lock. Though he grew up in the Hunan countryside, Mr. Chen had been working in the Pearl River Delta since 1992. He was older than most of his coworkers, having already married and had kids. Prior to quitting his job, he had been employed in the paint division at Honda Lock. As a skilled worker, Mr. Chen enjoyed considerable respect within the factory. He received decent pay and was well treated. Because of the respect shown him, when the strike broke out he was chosen to represent his division in negotiations. This however caused problems for him almost immediately, as he now became identified as a “leader.” His phone was tapped and management tried on several occasions to either intimidate him or buy him off. Fed up with negotiations and fearing for his safety, Mr. Chen resigned from of his position at Honda and moved his wife and kids to a different town.

A few days after quitting his job, Mr. Chen was contacted by a stranger pretending to be an old childhood friend. Speaking in Hunanese dialect, the stranger insisted on meeting up for a beer. Although Mr. Chen refused, the man later approached him on the street and forced him to a restaurant where a lawyer representing Honda Lock was waiting. As Mr. Chen related the story, over dinner he was offered five years pay and a promotion if he would return to Honda and convince workers to settle for a ¥100 pay increase. He refused.

Mr. Chen’s involvement with the strike was fairly short-lived. He told me he had originally struck because he thought wages were unfair. However, he became frustrated during negotiations when management refused to budge from their low offer and many workers were demanding wages higher than what he thought the company could reasonably afford. Mr. Chen mentioned that after receiving word of the strike at Nanhai, he got together with others to calculate worker’s wages as a percentage of company income. The Honda Lock workers were later able to use this information as a reference when they began negotiations with management.

My conversation with Mr. Chen also shed some light on the structure of “workers representative councils” and their role within negotiations. Because all strikes in China are essentially wildcat strikes, firms operating in China have developed certain procedures to take when confronted with the need to bargain collectively with workers. At Honda Lock, management requested each of the eleven divisions to write down their demands and elect a representative to present them. Mr. Chen had been a worker in the paint division and was chosen as one such representative. Prior to the first round of negotiations, the eleven representatives were told they had thirty minutes to discuss worker’s demands, narrow them down to a short list, and present the list back to each division for approval. After all demands were approved, the eleven-member “workers representative council” was invited to begin talks with management.

One thing that stands out immediately is the degree to which management was directing the process of negotiations. Although the structure of the “workers council” was fairly democratic and seems to have adequately represented worker’s demands, neither the organization nor the procedure was the result of workers’ self-initiative. Much of Mr. Chen’s description was verified by a different worker I spoke with as being true of the situation at Nanhai Honda as well. This would suggest that it might take some time before Chinese workers grasp the liberating potential of a radical labor movement self-organized from below.27

A Workers Movement in China?

The right to strike was removed from the Chinese constitution in 1982 in response to the example set by the Solidarity movement in Poland. Today, eight-teen years later, the same fear still resonates within the government. Though the recent strike wave may have received the sympathy of some circles within the CCP, this is almost certainly because political demands were kept within the established legal framework. The desire to prevent a radical workers movement from developing in China is one of the main concerns behind keeping GDP growth above the eight percent per year mark. It is also behind the growing drive towards union reform.

Over the past few years, the ACFTU has begun shifting its focus from enterprise-level negotiation and arbitration to industry-wide negotiations.28 The recent strike wave has only helped this process further along and it is pushing other changes onto the agenda as well. Proposals to make enterprise unions less financially dependent on employers have been heard coming from several quarters. In addition, there has been discussion of strengthening democratic management of enterprises and in Guangdong even reinstating legal protections for striking workers.29 While this may represent an important break through in reforming the ACFTU, in the long run it will lead only to co-optation and the further stabilization of capital. A true labor movement will be built on the trial and error of the worker’s themselves or it will not be built at all. Let us hope that the recent strikes have served as a process of politicization that will help sow the seeds of a future workers movement.


Nanhai Honda

Nanhai transmissions factory in Foshan, Guangdong.
strike from May 17th to June 4th.
stopped production at four Honda assembly plants:
1 at Zengcheng (Guangzhou), 2 at Huangpu (Guangzhou) on May 25th, 1 at Wuhan on May 27th.30
total of 2,000 workers employed; peak of 1,900 on strike;31 665 workers (1/3rd) are interns.32
strike caused by two Hunanese workers who walked off the job.33
demanded salaries be raised by ¥800 (about 75%), additional year-end bonuses, an agreement that workers would not be punished and would be compensated financially for the strike, plus a restructuring of the factory union.34
received ¥500 (about 33%), plus regular cash bonuses and other demands.35

Fengfu Honda

Fengfu exhaust systems factory in Foshan, Guangdong.
strike from June 7th to evening of June 9th.
stopped production at two Honda assembly plants:
1 at Zengcheng (Guangzhou), 1 at Huangpu (Guangzhou) on June 9th.36
total of around 500 workers employed;37 between 250-300 on strike.38

Honda Lock

Xiaolan lock factory in Zhongshan, Guangdong.
strike from June 9th to June 18th.
total of around 1,500 workers employed;39 peak of 1,700 on strike (discrepancy in statistics);40 unskilled, low education, 1/2 women, no dormitories.
strike caused by security guards assaulting workers either for planning industrial unrest41 or for wearing name tag improperly.42
demanded salaries be raised from ¥930 to ¥1600 (¥900 to ¥1700 or 89%43), this was lowered on May 15th to ¥1200 and housing subsidy of ¥400-500;44 double pay for overtime; punishment for security guards who had assaulted workers; restructuring of the factory union; and agreement that workers would not be punished.45
received ¥200 pay increase and ¥80 housing subsidies.46

Honda IV

Wuhan Auto Parts Alliance in Wuhan, Hubei
strike from June 17th to June47
240 workers on strike.48
demanded pay increase of ¥800.49

Nihon Plast

partially owned by Honda and Nissan (supplies steering wheels and airbags)
strike from June 17th to June
500 workers on strike50

Toyota Gosei I

Toyota Gosei Starlight Rubber and Plastic Co. (compact car door components and other parts) factory in the Xiqing Economic Development Zone, Tianjin
strike from June 15th to evening of June 15th.51
total of around 800 or 82752 workers employed53 (discrepancy in statistics); 1,000 workers on strike (discrepancy in statistics).54
did not stop production at other plants
demanded salaries be restored to 2009 levels after dropping 50% in early 2010.55

Toyota Gosei II

Toyota Gosei in Dongli Development Zone, Tianjin
strike from June 17th to June 19th.56
total of 1,300 workers employed;57 1,700 workers on strike (discrepancy in statistics).58
demanded salaries be raised from an average of ¥1500 to ¥1800 (about 20%).59
received ¥200 pay increase (about 13%).60

Japan’s Denso

Denso Corporation in Nansha Guangzhou, Guangdong (supplies fuel injection equipment to Toyota and Honda)61
strike from June 21st to June 24th.62
total of 1,100 workers employees;63 300-600 workers on strike;64
stopped production at a GAC Toyota factory in Nansha on June 22nd65
demanded salaries be raised from ¥1,100-¥1,300 to ¥1,800-¥1,900;66 a restructuring of the factory union; dormitory air conditioners; and an agreement that workers would not be punished for the strike.67
received ¥800-¥900 pay increase68

Japan’s NHK Spring

NHK-UNI Spring Co. in Huangpu Guangzhou, Guangdong (supplies suspension springs and stabilizers for Honda, Toyota, Nissan)69
strike from June 22nd to evening of June 24th.70
stopped production at two Guangqi Honda factories and one Nissan factory:
1 at Zengcheng (Guangzhou), 1 at Huangpu (Guangzhou)71; 1 Nissan at Guangzhou (half production)72
demanded salaries be increased from ¥1200 to ¥1700; and year-end bonuses be increased ¥1200 to ¥6800.73

Honda V

Honda Assembly plant
strike from June 30th to July 1st.74

Atsumitec Auto Parts

Atsumitec Auto Parts in Nanhai Foshan, Guangdong (supplies gear sticks to Dongfeng Honda and Guangqi Honda)
strike from July 12th to 21st75
total of 200 workers employed;76 170-180 workers on strike77
demanded salaries be raised from ¥1070 to ¥1570;78 an apology from management for its conduct during a confrontation with workers; and an agreement not to lay-off workers for two years.79
caused by management’s firing of 90 workers80 or by managements announcement of changes in worker’s shifts, cutting overtime hours and increasing the work load.81
received a pay increase from ¥980 to ¥1420 (45%), plus two month bonus if plant runs at a profit, and ¥250 monthly living allowance.82
(switches and ignitions keys for Honda, Ford, BMW)
strike from July 21st to evening of July 21st83
total of 700-800 workers employed, 400-500 workers on strike84 demanded salaries be raised from ¥1270 to ¥1770 (40%)85


Tailoring to needs - garment worker struggles in Bangladesh

A general overview and analysis of developments in the garment worker struggles we have been covering for the past few years.

The class struggle in Bangladesh is fought at a consistently high level and concentrated in the ready made garment (RMG) sector, the country's dominant industry(1). Mainly unmediated by trade unions, struggles frequently assume an explosive character. In Part 1 we give some idea of the content and extent of these struggles - followed in Part 2 by some historical background.

Part 1

Chronology of some high points of class struggle since 2006
The events listed below are only a small selection from incidents occurring on a regular basis in the garment sector. For a large selection of articles covering disturbances over the past four years, see; . See also a 15 min. video;

Strikes are generally sparked by either middle-management/supervisor brutality or non-payment of wage arrears. Workers walk out and march to picket out neighbouring factories. Roads are often blocked and barricaded. Cops and paramilitary forces are used against workers and things often turn violent; security forces are indiscriminate in their methods and as they invade workers' slum areas adjacent to industrial zones this can draw in the wider community; strikers' demonstrations often become mass riots attacking factories and vehicles. So workers' protests have a tendency and potential to overspill into a larger class confrontation.

Women do participate in street protests. But despite a predominantly female workforce, evidence of the remaining deeply patriarchical traditions of Bangladesh and their divisions of labour can be seen in news footage of garment worker riots; violence has been the almost exclusive act of males. (A few recent examples suggest this may, however, now be beginning to change.)

May-June 2006; the Dhaka explosion
At certain times the generally high level of struggle reaches a peak. In late May and through June of 2006, there was an explosion of fierce class conflict in the Bangladesh garment industry. To illustrate the scale of events: around 4000 factories in Dhaka went on wildcat strike, 16 factories were burnt down by strikers and hundreds more ransacked and looted, pitched battles were fought with cops and private security forces in workplaces and workers' neighbourhoods, main roads were blocked. Casualties include 3 workers shot dead, thousands injured, several thousand jailed. The Government eventually felt compelled to bring in the Army to restore 'order'. With hundreds of thousands participating, it was a working class revolt that spread beyond the workplace and generalised to involve the wider working class community.

The revolt began on Saturday 20th May in Sripur in the Gazipour district of Dhaka. 1,000 garment workers gathered at FS Sweater Factory, refusing to work until 3 arrested fellow workers were released from custody. The factory bosses locked the striking workers in the factory, cutting the power and water supplies. Eventually, the sweltering heat proved too much and by 11 am the workers fought their way out, then gathered on the Dhaka-Mymensingh highway. Now joined by locals, they barricaded the highway for 6 hours and fought pitched battles with the cops. One person was killed and 70 others, including cops and journalists, were injured. The revolt then rapidly

"spread to more factories as more workers were picketed out and the industrial areas of Dhaka were shut down by a generalised strike. Workers took the revolt from the industrial suburbs, where factories were now being looted, into the capital city itself, destroying cars and attacking commercial buildings. Mass demonstrations demanded an end to repression, release of arrested workers, higher minimum wages, weekly time off, overtime pay for extra work, public holidays, payment of wages due etc."

Years of accumulating resentments boiled over into a month of mass unrest with repeated clashes and attacks on bosses' property.

Although trade unionism is legal, garment bosses have consistently refused to recognise or tolerate trade unions. But in the absence of normal union mechanisms, previously marginal union-type groups (with little or no real influence on workers' struggles) were quickly drafted in as negotiators on behalf of workers. A new minimum wage was agreed (along with other improvements), but it was inadequate, soon made irrelevant by inflation and only patchily implemented.

For a detailed article on the events see;

The fire next time
The recurring use of arson by workers must be put in context;

"Health & Safety regulation are routinely ignored by management and are hardly enforced by government (many politicians have business interests in the industry); factory fires break out on a bi-monthly basis. Most are smaller incidents with regular injuries but fewer deaths, but over 240 workers have died in major fires since 1990. [...]

Many garment workers will have experience of fires in the workplace, many will have sustained injuries, lost friends and workmates to them - and all know that this is due purely to bosses' greed and negligence. The fairly regular use of fire by garment workers in their struggles against their employers must be understood within this context. Garment workers have often burned down factories in retaliation for non-payment of wages, lockouts or management brutality.(1) Many garment workers are malnutritious due to low income, living hand to mouth. Arson is a readily available means of hurting the bosses and depriving them of something when they refuse to pay; and there is certainly a poetic justice in the fact that those forced to live with a constant fear of fire at work can also utilise it as a weapon against their exploiters."

Jan 2007; A state in a "State of Emergency"
After months of conflict between the two main parties - the Bangladesh National Party (NBP) and the Awami League (AL) - as they squabbled over the details of rules and procedures for the General Election, a military-led caretaker government was put in place in January 2007. It's likely this move was encouraged or even proposed by foreign diplomatic pressure;

"Events leading up to the emergency are widely seen as having been orchestrated by the military, which acted after the UN threatened it with the loss of its lucrative and prestigious peacekeeping duties if flawed elections went ahead.
The day after the emergency was declared, former central bank governor Fakhruddin Ahmed was installed as head of a new caretaker government.
" (, May 6 2007)

Over 100,000 were arrested in mass arrests during "anti-corruption purges" targetting the business and political communities. Strikes and demonstrations were banned, but by May garment and other workers had ignored the ban and again begun to assert themselves against the bosses with wildcat strikes, street protests and clashes with police. (See; and

Sept 2008; the "Ghost Panic"
The calorific intake of ready made garment(RMG) workers is deficient, causing stunted physical development. With income reduced by static wages and rising costs of basic foods, malnutrition has become so widespread that in 2008 some workers were reported to be hallucinating in a delirious state during long shifts. A wave of mass hysteria is said to have spread through RMG factories where workers reported ghost attacks - hallucinatory experiences based on the symbolism of the prevailing religious and cultural beliefs and superstitions. Psychologists labelled the 'ghost panic' as 'collective obsessive behaviour' or 'mass sociogenic illness' and attributed it to stress, overwork and malnutrition.

The so-called 'ghost panic' in factories first surfaced after a section of workers vandalised Diganto Sweater's factory in Gazipur, following rumours of the deaths of a few workers as a result of 'ghost attack' in a toilet of the factory. Production in the factory remained suspended for four days as workers went on a rampage, damaged factory property and blocked the roads for hours.
In May this year, vandalism triggered by ghost phobia forced a factory in the Chittagong Export Processing Zone to suspend production for two days. At least 10 other garment factories have come under attack in the last two months in Gazipur alone after the spread of almost identical news or rumours that workers fainted in factory toilets and some of them even died.
The latest incident occurred at Pandora Sweater Factory on the Joydevpur road intersection on September 5, three days after workers vandalised Diganta Sweater and clashed with law enforcers in the same area.
Five workers of Diganta Sweater claimed that they saw 'witches' before they fainted inside factory's toilet. They were taken to a nearby clinic where physicians found that none of them had sustained any injury.
'They fainted because of weakness. I found that their blood pressure and heart beat was too low,' said Abdur Rahman, chairman of Sheba Diagnostic Hospital. He said that all the patients were cured after initial medical treatment. The hospital and some 80 other clinics have become used to get patients with such symptoms in Gazipur which has a concentration of apparel factories.
He said his hospital treated, on an average, 100 garment factory workers suffering from anxiety-related illness every month. 'Poor garment workers suffer mainly from malnutrition and anxiety, which make them weak and vulnerable to nervous breakdown,' said Rahman.
He said the stories of ghosts were either fabricated or hallucinatory. (New Age, Sep 13 08)

In at least one factory a religious exorcism rite has been performed.

One explanation of the 'ghost panic' may lie in the fact that so many reports place the 'sighting' of the apparition in the factory toilets. In the present climate of intense class conflict a worker is surrounded by openly hostile forces in the factory - and only protected by the solidarity and presence of fellow workers. Exhausted and malnutritious, they feel the threatening presence around them even when alone in the toilet - leading to paranoid hallucinations. Also, the toilet is where many actual attacks on workers by factory management and security staff have occurred, so the feelings of vulnerability and paranoia are not without reason.

While RMG workers' working and living conditions are undoubtedly bad enough to destroy workers' health, it is hard to gauge the wider truth of these strange events - what may have been true in some factories may have then spread as a running joke among workers (and been swallowed whole by gullible media and doctors always on the lookout for a new phenomena to categorise); an ironic excuse from striking workers smashing up bosses' workplaces - 'It's not our fault - you've driven us mad!'.

For further information; (Surprisingly, considering its positive discussion of the class struggles of garment workers, this article - containing phrases such as "...half starving wage slaves worked to exhaustion - yet still bravely maintaining a high level of autonomous class struggle outside of any union control..." was taken from libcom website and, to the surprise of the author, quickly published in a national Bangladeshi newspaper (The Bangladesh Today) and on the front page of its website.)

Jun 2009; 50,000 on the streets and 50 factories burning
In late June a dispute over pay and sackings in the suburb of Ashulia led to police shooting dead a garment worker. Trouble quickly spread to other Dhaka factories;

"On the outskirts of Dhaka, the capital city, in the industrial zone; workers' rioting and demonstrations yesterday escalated to new heights. As thousands of workers gathered in the morning, at 10am a group set off towards the nearby Dhaka Export Processing Zone where many garment factories are located. Police blocked their way and fierce fighting began - in the pitched battle police use of teargas and rubber bullets left 100 workers injured.

Other workers soon joined the protesters and informed them that work was continuing as normal at the Hamim Group factory complex. Twenty thousand workers began to march towards the complex. As the numbers of protesters in the area swelled to 50,000 the security forces were simply overwhelmed; the Dhaka District Superintendent of Police said; "An additional 400 policemen stood guard in front of the major factories. We tried our best to disperse the crowd, but they were too many and too fierce.”

[...] The workers split into smaller groups and stormed the complex at around 10.15am. They sprinkled the buildings with petrol; a sweater factory, three garment factories, two washing factories, two fabric storehouses ... over 8,000 machines, a huge quantity of readymade garments, fabrics, three buses, two pickup vans, two microbuses and one motorbike were all reduced to ashes.

The crowd was thinking strategically. Once the buildings were ablaze some workers returned to the highway and blockaded the road; consequently, the fire services were unable to reach the blaze for several hours until 3.30pm - by which time the buildings were burnt to the ground.

Meanwhile, groups drawn from some of the other 50,000 workers and participants (undoubtably other sympathetic non-garment workers and slum dwellers would have been drawn in) roamed the area and attacked and vandalised another 50 factories and 20 vehicles. Thick black smoke could be seen across the city."

July 2010; Rage over the wage
At the time of writing, a new minimum wage has finally been set after long tripartite negotiations of government, bosses and (largely self-appointed) labour leaders;

"Dhaka, capital city - last Friday morning (30th July), the day after the wage announcement ; in the Gulshan, Banani, Kakali, Mahakhali and Tejgaon areas of the city thousands of workers streamed onto the streets and began blockading the main highways with burning tyres. Police responded with teargas, truncheon charges and water cannon (the water is mixed with an indelible dye to aid catching demonstrators). But, heavily outnumbered, the cops could not contain the workers and the protests spread outwards. Making the link between their class status and the contrasting concentrations of wealth in the city landscape, workers were quite specific in their targets; as well as attacking garment factories, 200 businesses were targetted. In an unusual development that shocked many, the wealthy Gulshan Avenue neighbourhood - close to the diplomatic zone and embassy area of Baridhara - was invaded by 5,000 workers who smashed up offices, banks and shops. Media and TV offices were also attacked. "Gulshan police chief said the protesters had targetted the area's high-end shops."

In the following days clashes continued; thousands of workers fought police, blocked roads, attacked and looted factories and forced hundreds of others to suspend operations, attacked hundreds of businesses, shopping centres and banks. Police arrested workers and raided offices and homes of those union leaders who refused to accept the deal. (The majority of labour leaders accepted the deal; see further comments on trade unions in Part 2.)

"The continued labour unrest and disruption in the garment industry - alongside infrastructural problems of energy supply shortages that regularly interrupt maximum productivity - are worrying both foreign buyers and local suppliers. [It has rarely been mentioned that the new wage structure only applies to the 'woven' sector - but not to the RMG knitwear sector.] The narrow national economic dependency on a single export industry's ability to deliver competitive rock-bottom prices and reliable fast delivery times means garment workers still have considerable weaknesses to exploit in the class struggle. The government and employers may finally - after years of hinting at it whenever labour unrest reaches a certain peak - begin to allow full trade union representation in the sector. But the majority of labour leaders, having now been courted to play the role of giving legitimacy to the miserable settlement, may have lost more than they've gained. The state and bosses could easily again break their promises on union recognition - and, as they continue their struggles, the most militant workers will not look kindly on the unions' class collaboration and meek acceptance of the poor wage offer." (Op. cit.)

After several days of disturbances, a massive deployment of security forces in the industrial belts along with sweeping raids and arrests have, for the moment, quietened the unrest. But, with little resolved, the antagonism is set to continue.

* * *
Part 2

Some historical background of Bangladesh and the garment industry
The region of Bengal is known to have been a trading centre with active trade routes and shipping ports for over 2000 years. It produced both high quality raw cotton, cloth and clothing for hundreds of years; from the 16th century on, the European aristocracy came to prize Dhaka muslin as the finest textile in the world. With the decline of the Mughal empire British imperialism beat off its rivals and the East India Company established its rule in the 1750s. Policies were imposed that favoured the emerging British textile industry; by a protectionist system of tariffs Bengal was forced to only supply cheap raw materials and leave finished articles to be produced in the "dark satanic mills" of early British capitalism. This economic restructuring, being imposed upon communities of relatively prosperous artisan producers, brought impoverishment and forced relocation from agriculturally desirable areas to previously uninhabited flood-prone areas.

In 1947 India won independence from the British Empire. In response to religious and ethnic tensions Muslims were given a separate nation-state homeland of Pakistan. This was comprised of two distinct territories, West and East Pakistan, separated by a thousand miles of Indian territory.

The two regions had quite different cultures, languages and traditions and these were reproduced within the new state boundaries. West Pakistan's political and economic structures were dominated by merchant and bureaucratic classes developed under British rule to service, supply and administrate the colonial regime. The West therefore became the political and economic centre of Pakistan, while the East remained a predominantly agricultural producing area. The Islamic cultures of the the two regions were also quite different; in the East the older pre-Islamic Bengali culture - though still strictly patriarchal - cushioned against the harsher interpretations of Islamic code.

"In many ways, the impetus for an independent Bangladesh was a logical byproduct of the 'decade of development' inaugurated under the regime of Ayub Khan and cited as a model of capitalist success by the international planning community. Development policy in the Pakistan era identified economic growth with the creation of an industrial base. To finance this, the government followed a deliberate policy of fostering economic disparity, by diverting the surplus generated in the agricultural sector into the hands of a small class of entrepeneurs based in West Pakistan. The rationale for this strategy was summed up in a succint fashion by one of the US advisors to the Pakistan Planning Commission: 'Great inequalities were necessary to create industry and industrialists ... the concentration of income in industry facilitates the savings which finance development.'"(2)

These imbalances created growing resentment in the East, which eventually led to the very bloody War of Independence in 1971. Led by a leftist faction in the Eastern section of the Army, a decisive intervention by Indian troops secured victory for the East and led to the establishing of the nation-state of Bangladesh.

From the very beginning, the "pro-Islam" segments of Bangladeshi society and of the army had sympathies for Pakistan and opposed the independence of Bangladesh in the name of Islamic unity. The Jamaat-e-Islami (the main Islamicist party) leadership was at the forefront of mass atrocities on behalf of the Pakistan army on the eve of Bangladeshi independence. (It is only now, almost 40 years later, that war-crime trials are beginning.(3))

Assumed identities can be varied and complex in Bangladesh - and most stem from one's defined relationship to the 1971 Independence War. The lines drawn through Bangladeshi society by that war are still deep divisions today. For some, the national victory is seen as a victory for the Bengali culture embracing diversity and tolerance - in the face of the continued threat from Muslim fundamentalists who resent the split from their fellow Pakistani Muslims. Depending on emphasis, there are various ethnic, national and religious identities composed of different measures of cultural Bengali, national Bangladeshi and/or religious Muslim combinations or oppositions. (The other smaller religious and pre-national indigenous/tribal self-identities do not concern us here.) These oppositions embody contending views as to what kind of society Bangladesh should be and are contested at various levels, both politically and culturally.

The internal exile of the left and ideological proxy wars
During the War of Independence there was a left wing element within the army and politics. After the coups of the mid 70s and the resulting repression, the Bangladeshi left was forced to disperse - of those remaining active, many went into NGOs or cultural propaganda work. A few tiny Trotskyist and Stalinist groups now remain, mainly student-based with little connection to the working class. Some parties also have their allied 'union' groups - but these 'unions', despite aspirations, rarely, if ever, function as workplace representatives.

The NGOs promote micro-credit loan schemes for small business activities, partly as a means of encouraging independence from large landowners in rural areas and for greater economic and social independence for women. Funding is provided to teach and implement small-scale improved farming techniques, co-operative or individual household workshops and subsequent distribution networks etc. They also sometimes act as a type of proxy trade union by offering legal and welfare advice in cities. They have often used traditional cultural drama and folksong forms in village meetings to spread their liberal ideology of cultural tolerance and entrepeneurial micro-capitalist activity.

On the other side of the ideological battleground are the Saudi Arabian-financed Muslim NGO groups who campaign for fundamentalist values and a traditional submissive role for the poor and women in particular (some have also been linked to terrorist activities).

The more than three million Bangladeshi urban female garment workers with a relative economic independence are, for the fundamentalists, particularly unacceptable evidence of the corrupting influence of modern society. For these reasons they have sometimes physically attacked NGOs, unions and the projects they sponsor.

This ideological divide manifests across various political and cultural issues. The most recent election winners, the Awami League (AL), are considered a more liberal and secular party (by Bangladeshi standards, though historically just as involved in corruption) than their Bangladeshi National Party (BNP) opposition, who have a recent history of electoral alliances with fundamentalist groups (though the AL have themselves on occasion flirted with religious alliances).

After Independence, various Aid and Planning agencies appeared in Bangladesh; from the West, via the IMF, came subsidies for landowners to move into mono-culture and cash crops for Western markets. This took land away from tenant farmers who farmed for subsistence or for local markets only. With more modern imported farming techniques applied - which were also ecologically destructive and created dependency on Western-supplied fertilisers, non-reproducing seeds etc(4) - rural unemployment grew. This was a new form of enclosures against the peasantry, similar to those European countries had suffered in earlier centuries.

* * *

Emergence of the RMG industry and the female worker
At the same time as these changes in the rural agricultural economy and its gender relations were occurring, the Western economies were also influencing urban industrial development. The Multi Fibre Arrangement (MFA) was introduced in 1974 as a means of controlling the increasing imports to the West from developing countries in Asia and South America. Quotas were allotted to various countries, but the poorest countries - including Bangladesh - were excluded from quota limits. This led to "quota hopping" whereby quota-free countries became attractive to entrepeneurs from quota-restricted nations. The combination of low start-up costs and a quota-free environment - as well as government incentives - encouraged local and foreign investment in the Ready Made Garment (RMG) industry.

The industry grew rapidly from the 1970s as exports expanded across the global market; the RMG sector now contributes around 80% of the country's $18 billion export earnings and employs about 40 per cent of the country's industrial workforce; around 3.5 million people, 85% of them women. Most are young, officially from 14 years upwards (but younger children often work as unofficial 'helpers' for minimal wages). The majority are young women, with a working lifespan of perhaps 20 years, after which their productivity is said to decline - for reasons such as failing eyesight and other physical degenerations, often linked to the malnutrition widespread among garment workers.

Thousands of young women heading for the garment factories were a new and, for some, shocking sight on the city streets. In the early days of the industry the clerics preached sermons outside the factories against this new female 'transgression' and distributed cassette tapes of the sermons. Wild rumours spread of the consequences of allowing men and women to occupy the same workplace. In fact the factories were ideally suited to utilising female labour under existing gender relations; secluded from public view and with behaviour strictly monitored (and often segregated) to maximise productivity and allay fears, the concerns of male relatives of female workers were largely overcome (helped by the added income) and the industry quickly expanded. For married couples this also often changed work roles in the home; men were obliged to, for the first time, take a share of domestic chores to keep the home functioning.

Yet even as capitalist development changes gender relations in this way it does so partly by utilising the existing gender divisions. In the early days of the industry men were employed, many recruited from among the traditional tailoring artisans. But their general indiscipline and consequent low productivity meant that garment bosses began to employ increasing numbers of women; factory bosses explain this preference as due to Bangladeshi women being more docile in temperament than men(5). This is only a reflection of the gender roles and cultural conditioning of the wider society, and in the fact that women have few other economic choices, so are more likely to stick at the job. As a female garment worker explained;

'You see, as women, one of our wings is broken. We don't have the nerve that a man has, because we know we have a broken wing. A man can sleep anywhere, he can just lie down on the street and go to sleep. A woman cannot do that. She has to think about her body, about her security. So the garment factory owner prefers to hire women because men are smarter about their opportunities, you train them and they move on. Even when he compares a small boy and an older girl, he will think, "She's only a girl, she can't wander too far away."' (6)

Challenging purdah tradition
As inheritance traditionally passes through the male line, women's reproductive powers have been jealously guarded as a protection of family assets. Under Islamic rules of purdah (literally 'curtain' or 'veil') women in town and country were expected to stay in the home unless accompanied by a male guardian in public (as is still common in countries such as Saudi Arabia). Traditional village morality determined that women were rarely allowed to work outside the home, so they were limited to gardening and handicrafts such as making fishing nets, spinning and basket making. As unemployment grew and agricultural wages entered a long term decline after Independence, women began - out of both economic necessity and desire for greater independence - to challenge these restrictions. (The country's series of 1970s post-independence disasters - floods, famine and bloody political coups - also considereably dislocated traditional gender roles and forced more self-reliance on many women due to their loss of male protection and support.) Some began working outside, initially quite discretely where possible; others were encouraged to set up village craft or agricultural co-operatives by Aid agencies; some moved away to the towns seeking work - many into factory work in the garment industry and a life in the teeming city slums.

The fact that women make up at least 85% of the garment workforce reflects some dramatic recent social changes. From the 1960s the dowry system shifted its balance of power - whereas the groom's family had traditionally paid a dowry, among wealthy families it now became an obligation for the bride's family to do so. This shift gradually filtered down to become the norm among all classes. For poor families this meant female children became an added burden - not only were their earning capacities limited, now each required a dowry and marriage became a net drain on family wealth. (These are added reasons for the migration of many young women from village to city garment factory; by sending money home, they can transform their economic role from a burden to a family asset.)

The practice of a woman giving a "dowry" or gift to a man at marriage is said to have had its origins in the system of streedhan (woman's share of parental wealth given to her at the time of her marriage). As a woman had no right to inherit a share of the ancestral property, streedhan was seen as a way by which the family ensured that she had access to some of its wealth. There is no clear proof as to when this practice was first started in India.

What began as gifts of land to a woman as her inheritance in an essentially agricultural economy today has degenerated into gifts of gold, clothes, consumer durables, and large sums of cash, which has sometimes entailed the impoverishment and heavy indebtedness of poor families. The dowry is often used by the receiving family for business purposes, family members' education, or the dowry to be given for the husband's sisters. The transaction of dowry often does not end with the actual wedding ceremony, as the family is expected to continue to give gifts.

Women can be easily divorced and abandoned in Bangladesh, left destitute with their children. The garment factories became a lifeline both for abandoned women and those young females who sought to avoid being at the mercy of male dependency and many of the patriarchal limitations that go with it. They were also an opportunity for poor families to add to their income.

* * *

Trade Unions admit "no control" ... but desperately seek it
The struggles against the extremes of exploitation in the RMG industry have a long history and their combativity and violent nature are unsurprising, considering that the Bangladeshi garment workers are estimated to earn the lowest industrial wages in the world. The class struggle and the forms it takes has developed largely autonomously in the industry, with little institutional mediation. This has contributed to the intensity and explosive character of garment workers' struggles; as a possible solution to the unrest there have been repeated calls to institute full trade unionism in the factories. When disturbances reach a certain peak new promises are made to allow trade union activity, but as unrest subsides most factory bosses maintain their refusal to concede to allowing union representation.

"The trade unions have always been denied any effective role in the garment sector and so have little influence over the workforce or abilities as mediators of labour relations;
Dozens of trade unions in the readymade garment (RMG) sector are hardly in any position to resolve recurrent labour unrests, as they have no control over workers at factory level due to inactivity of most workers' unions, observed trade union leaders.
According to some leaders, at present there are more than 28 registered trade unions and more than 13 unregistered trade unions in the RMG sector.
Of the 200 registered workers' union units at factory level, only 15 or so are active, the trade union leaders claimed.
As a result, the central trade union leaders do not have any proper means of intervention in the wake of any labour unrest, although the leaders are meant to play a major role in resolving labour unrest.
During the recent incidents of unrest, garment workers attacked many factories, but the trade union leaders could not communicate with the workers due to the absence of active workers' union units.
"We know we have a lot of responsibilities in the wake of any unrest in the industrial sector. But, sometimes we feel helpless as we have no control over the workers," said Amirul Haque Amin, secretary general of the National Garment Workers Federation (NGWF). (Daily Star, Sep 14 08)"

The stubborness of employers to deny for so long trade union rights seems an overall strategic weakness; the granting of basic employment rights and an acceptable minimum wage would presumably give greater stability to the sector and the increased costs be offset by a reduction in stoppages. Introduction of official trade union negotiating procedures would also be likely - as it is designed to do - to some degree at least, take initiative away from self-organising workers and their often spontaneous wildcat actions and put it in the hands of union bureaucrats who would tend to dissipate and fragment the present high level of class struggle by channeling it into long drawn out official procedures.

The outsourcing of particular tasks by larger factories to smaller ones is common, such as button holing and other finishing. (Textiles are a flexible 'limp' material, so mechanisation possibilities of many productive aspects have been limited.) The various supply lines of the industry that make up the diverse parts of the division of labour in RMG production range from fly-by-night operations quickly set up with a few machines and a small workforce to hi-tech factories employing thousands. Therefore, at the lower levels of the supply chain - where low operating costs, casual employment and fast delivery of orders are crucial to turning a profit - conforming to health & safety regulations and other legal and financial obligations that trade union recognition would bring appears unattractive to garment bosses. Yet the granting of the recently refused Taka 5,000 (£48/€58/$71) minimum wage increase would add relatively little to production costs, which could easily be absorbed by larger producers, buyers, retailers and consumers;

"Media reports on the garment situation analysis indicate that minimum wage rate for garment workers will hardly hinder the profit margin for the apparel export. The pay rise means 1.0-3.0% increase in garments products. The pay increase constitutes highest 9.2% of total garment export during 2009-10 financial year, when average profit margin was 8.0-10% of export value. According to World Bank economic report, RMG exports nearly doubled in last five years from $6.4bn. to $12.5bn. in financial year 2010." ( - Aug 10 2010)

Yet international buyers for global retail chains exert continual pressure for low prices and in recent statements have expressed no willingness to absorb the cost of wage rises, but only to help factories 'increase productivity'.

Another reason for the long reluctance of successive governments to encourage trade unions and to enforce workplace regulations is that many politicians are investors in the garment trade. In recent statements by the Labour Minister the government now appears to believe - despite continued reluctance of employers - that trade unions are a desirable mechanism for mediating and controlling labour unrest. The issue is whether unions can tame the prevailing mode of struggle of workers and replace its intensity and spontaneity with the formalities of long drawn out bureaucratic and legal procedures. The working class must be dispossessed of its present direct control of its own struggles and domesticated into accepting the alienation of its class power, its passing to a union bureacracy - otherwise unions will be an irrelevancy for capitalism.

"If the union reform is implemented, will it work? Certainly the institutionalising of certain health and safety measures (deaths in factory fires are common, as are many occupational illnesses) as well as legal powers to enforce a living wage that is actually regularly paid would be popular among workers. But this depends on the garment bosses and the state showing a willingness to both grant reforms and then actually enforce them - which has never been the case so far. Promises have repeatedly been broken on these issues - and if there are no concessions on offer to win through union negotiation on behalf of workers, then unions will remain as largely irrelevant as they are today. (Another factor is that unions have often been as corrupt as most other political institutions in Bangladesh and have often been merely instruments of the political goals of one of the main political parties.) The unions have to try to establish credibility and take representative control of a workforce that has, over the past 25 years, shown itself consistently capable of a high level of self-organisation and solidarity. It is possible that the well-established current forms of mass struggle - regular wildcat strikes that then picket out neighbouring factories, roadblocks, riots and attacks on bosses' property - will prove hard to overcome."

The labour leaders who accepted the recent minimum wage deal have quickly begun to show their true colours;
"the majority appear to not even be garment workers themselves. They are reported as having been cherry-picked by the government for the negotiations. But some workers' reps were happy to give the settlement the appearance of legitimacy and to accept the offer on the workers' behalf;

Nazma Akter, president of Sammilito Garment Sramik Federation, a platform of 40,000 garment workers, welcomed the announced minimum wage at Tk 3,000 for the entry-level workers. (Daily Star, Aug 1st 2010)

Akter, a former garment worker who has gained a foothold on the career ladder of NGOs and international lobbying has previously been happy to collaborate with garment bosses and publicly lie to deny any workplace abuse of garment workers(1). The National Garment Workers Federation(2) also accepted the offer. Both Federations have condemned violent protests by garment workers and the NGWF have, absurdly, denied worker involvement.

Yet it is reported that, as thousands of garment workers rejected the minimum wage, fought the police and state repression - and in the midst of raids on union offices and arrests of union leaders who refused to condone the miserable wage offer - the NGWF leader is happy to publicly accept the wage deal, to condemn workers' violence and (like a good union bureaucrat) to call for the arrest of workers who actively oppose the deal. The stupid claim that workers aren't involved is a lie, as proved by numerous daily media and police reports of worker unrest and arrests;

Emerging from a tripartite meeting, held at Bangladesh Garments Manufacturing and Exporters’ Association building late in the evening, National Garments Workers’ Federation convenor Amirul Huq Amin said they did not differ with the new wage structure. [...]
‘The workers are not involved in the on-going violence in the apparel industry,’ Amirul Huq told reporters after the meeting He called for identifying and punishing those involved in the recent incidents of violence."

The NGWF has had past contact with Western anarcho-syndicalists and, more recently, the US Industrial Workers of the World. It has also worked closely with Western NGOs and charities (eg, War On Want). Despite its reputation as a more grass-roots garment workers group it is now clearly jockeying for position with rival bodies to try to 'own' the role of representation of garment labour by impressing the state with what a good cop it can be. Attempting to give validity to a starvation wage settlement and calling for state repression against militant workers and rival unions is a sign of the strength of their ambition.

Charities for liberal and regulated forms of exploitation
NGOs lobby for factories to conform to "compliance" guidelines setting minimum standards for pay and conditions and seek co-operation with Western retailers on these issues. Western multinationals are keen to protect their corporate image by trying to avoid public association with '3rd World sweatshops'. But much compliance is a fiction, aided by employers keeping model compliant workplace areas - that don't represent typical working conditions - solely for compliance officer inspections; two sets of books are often kept showing wage payments higher than really paid; workers are forewarned of inspections and told how to behave, health & safety equipment is temporarily improved etc.

Western NGO's and charities highlight the terrible wages, working conditions and slum housing of garment workers. But they primarily portray them in emotive humanitarian terms as passive victims who only acquire some agency to act in their own interests through the intervention of Western NGO schemes and their lobbying for legal reforms. So the militant class struggles of garment workers are rarely mentioned for what they are - class conflict - but only as tragic and regrettable consequences of an insufficiently regulated industry and 'unethical' consumerism. This ignores the double-edged character of garment workers; while they suffer from extreme exploitation as wage slaves, they are are far from simply passive victims.

The neo-Dickensian "dark, satanic mills" - its relevance for us?
The emergence of such class conflict is a symptom of shifting relations and functions in the global marketplace. The restructuring of Western economies - partly in response to the high levels of class struggle in the 1960s and 70s - moved much manufacturing to the '3rd World' to take advantage of its cheaper labour costs. As the ruling class used unemployment, outsourcing and relocation to change and outmaneouvre the traditional industrial proletariat of the West it created a new industrial proletariat in the East. The Bangladeshi working class is both archaic and modern. Archaic in the sense that its conditions of life often resemble those described by such as Engels in his "The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844" - terrible insanitary overcrowded slum housing, malnutrition and adulterated food, brutality and extreme overwork in the factory, strong resistance by bosses to trade unions and factory legislation, the state using military repression against strikes and demonstrations etc. But modern insofar as it functions as the recently proletarianised labour power of an export-orientated outsourcing economy (of finished goods, rather than the colonial-era export economy of raw materials) that has been used as a replacement for much Western manufacturing.

"This generation of garment workers is much more literate and politically aware than their predecessors," said Alam [a political scientist]. "They have grown up in the slums not the villages and know that they need to be united and to demonstrate in the streets to realise their aims." (Guardian - 30 June 2010)

The garment workers were combative since the early days of the industry - but the younger generation of today is more assertive. Unlike their parents, who were mostly migrants from rural villages, many of today's young city-bred workers are more literate and more aware of the contradiction between their supposed legal rights within bourgeois democracy and the reality of their situation; this emergent working class has progressively formed a culture of solidarity within itself, as a mode of existence, that counterposes its own class power to its exploiters. It is entirely normal for whole factories to quickly stop work and picket out neighbouring workplaces when conflicts arise. The conflicts sometimes generalise beyond the workplace when the nearby residential slum areas - home to many garment workers and dependents - are also drawn into the conflicts.

Information is lacking in how RMG workers organise their strikes and agitations; perhaps partly because the workers must deal with repression and blacklisting by organising some things secretly - but also presumably because the high-pressure intensity of exploitation in factory conditions mean it takes little for resentments to ignite and spread. So this description (in a business magazine representing the major multinationals operating in Asia), of a wave of strikes during 2005 in Japanese-owned factories in China's Dalian Special Economic Zone, seems to be just as applicable to events in Bangladesh:

"Although the workers apparently do not have leaders, they develop an organizing strategy without a head. Because the workers have widely shared interests and a sense of shared suffering, they react to subtle signs. Workers explained that, when they are dissatisfied, it just takes a handful standing up and shouting 'Strike!' for all the workers on the line to rise up as if in ovation and stop working."

Is there any great revolutionary potential within these struggles? The more 'classic' traditional conditions of the newly emerged industrial proletarians in the export economies of Bangladesh, China, Vietnam, Cambodia and elsewhere - with often weak mediating institutions and traditions (unions, workplace rights legislation etc) - suggests that the workng class will continue to fight fiercely against the extremes of exploitation they face there. If one had to say where the conditions for development of such a radical potential seemed most favourable, it would seem to be in this region. But such developments would take the form of expanding local and international organisational solidarity - not of leftist groups seeking to dominate by assuming leadership of workers' struggles, but as a development of the existing self-organisation of workers themselves.

Leftist and unionist attempts at recuperation and control through their bureaucratic representation of struggles will be one obstacle workers everywhere must confront. But while the state resistance to radicalisation will be in the form of blunt repression when necessary, wage pressure and workers struggles in the East will presumably also continue to bring some level of concessions we've known in the West under social democracy (factory legislation, minimum wage, union recognition, social security benefits etc). Even with the decline in that 'social wage' in the West, it will probably be a long time (if ever) before any socio-economic equilibrium meeting point would be reached. So the 'global nature of the working class' is more wishful than actual right now - the often neo-Dickensian Eastern conditions don't generate struggles readily applicable or inspiring to Western conditions.(7)

But, for some Asian countries, this function within the global economy has possibly its economic limits; for Bangladesh to develop further economically it would need to develop a substantial internal consumer economy - but this requires paying considerably higher wages, which then may threaten its competitive edge in the global clothing market. (China appears better placed to overcome this contradiction, given the massive size of its potential internal market and its global investment strategy(8).) The continued divisions within the Bangladeshi ruling class - originating in the conflicting loyalties taken in the 1971 War of Independence - mean that the political elite remain, so far, too fractured to easily implement any long-term economic development strategies beyond the stand-alone RMG industry.

The consequences of restructuring industry to the East has left the Western working class still largely searching for new cohesive forms of struggle suitable to confront this restructuring. But after 25 years of, largely, retreats in the West, these struggles of the East do remind us that today the class struggle can still be made an undisguised central focus in society; and that the 'social question' of relative class power can still be contested by a militant self-organised class struggle.


1) We don't have space here to discuss other non-RMG struggles occurring among, eg, jute, mining and transport workers (see; - nor the Phulbari August 2006 anti-mining movement, significant for it's sheer scale and combativity, almost a local insurrection where 30,000 protesters seized control of a town against a proposed open-cast mine project (see; and
2) Naila Kabeer - Subordination and Struggle: Women in Bangladesh; New Left Review 168, 1988.
US advisor's quote cited in Richard Nations, 'Pakistan: Class and Colony, NLR 68, pp. 3-26.

The geopolitical dimension of internal feuds within the Bangladesh army is related to the India-Pakistan rivalry in South Asia. From the very beginning, the "pro-Islam" segments of Bangladeshi society and the army had sympathies for Pakistan and opposed the independence of Bangladesh in 1971. The JI [Jamaat-e-Islami Islamicist party] leadership was at the forefront of mass atrocities on behalf of the Pakistan army on the eve of Bangladeshi independence. When the secular Hasina returned to power in January, she implemented a bold initiative to seek war crimes prosecutions with UN assistance of the JI figures who spearheaded the killings in 1971.
(Asia Times, 3 Mar 09)

4) See article here;
5) An RMG boss explains;

"Why women? Because men smoke, drink, talk a lot, disturb everybody ... they are very vociferous, demand holidays, they have tough friends ... We want as little talk as possible on the machines ... That is something women are prepared to do.
Men in groups will immediately start agitating for more pay ... Women listen better and they don't talk back. Men won't take instructions or accept authority easily. Women are cheaper because they have fewer choices - in terms of physical location of work and in terms of their physical ability to do different kinds of work." (Naila Kabeer - The Power to Choose - Bangladeshi Women and Labour Market Decisions in London and Dhaka; Verso, London, 2000.)

6) Naila Kabeer - The Power to Choose ... op. cit.
7) But bear in mind that migrant workers are Bangladesh's second largest export (mainly across Asia and the Gulf states) and foreign currency earner after RMG products. So knowledge and forms of struggles at home will to some extent be spread by these channels; see, for example - .
8) Some observers are claiming that rising labour costs due to strikes in China are an opportunity for smaller RMG-producing countries in Asia to increase their market share (the same observers also sometime lament that foreign buyers are wary of the Bangladeshi industry's reliability due to continual labour unrest). But China is rapidly expanding its economic empire, which may eventually move it away from RMG exports, or at least lead it to outsource to where labour is even cheaper;

"Why would the Chinese government push some of its labor- and energy-intensive industries to move to special economic zones in Africa, even as the U.S. Congress bans the U.S. Agency for International Development from financing any activities that could relocate the jobs of Americans overseas? Because Chinese planners want industrialists at home to move up the value chain. Polluting industries such as leather tanneries and metal smelters are no longer tolerated in many Chinese cities. And as the world economy recovers from the recent economic recession, wages and benefits will resume rising in China's coastal belt, as they had been before the crisis. Some factories will move further inland, but others will go offshore, closer to both the sources of and the markets for raw materials.

The early stages of industrialization might bring pollution, low wages, and long workdays, especially if the Chinese zones are successful. But like China's resource-backed loans, the planned economic zones promise to provide African countries with some things they very much want: employment opportunities, new technologies, and badly needed infrastructure. This is an opportunity for African states to ride into the global economy on China's shirttails rather than remain natural-resource suppliers to the world." (D. Brautigam - Jan 2010; )

Source; originally written for & published by Insurgent Notes no. 2, October 2010 -

The struggles have a long history and their combativity and violent nature are unsurprising, considering that the Bangladeshi garment workers earn the lowest industrial wages in the world. The class struggle has developed largely autonomously in the industry, with little institutional mediation.
Red Marriott

Lessons from the Tekel strikes: class solidarity and ethnic (in)difference

Kadir Ateş and Toros Korkmaz analyse the Tekel tobacco plant strikes in Turkey between 2009 and 2010.

Our aim here is to analyze in brief the recent Tekel worker struggles in Turkey at the level of national economy. The Tekel strikes which began on 15 December 2009 and ended on 26 May 2010 was the result of an ongoing privatization process which had been in effect since 1980.1 In 1999, through “an IMF restructuring program, privatization continued at a more accelerated pace and came to a peak through the application of Article 4/C, of Law No. 657 enacted by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).”2 What started out as demands by the Tekel workers grew into strikes as the AKP government rejected any concessions. In taking such a firm stance as the government had, the strikes multiplied in their participation as well as intensity, which culminated into forming a brief tent commune in the middle of Ankara, the capital of Turkey. Police and other security forces were eventually dispatched to quell the striking workers, whose violent confrontation led a few of the workers to question the nature of the police in a class society.3 These strikes were important in the sense that contrary to the prevailing Huntingtonian paradigm, which asserts that the dominant conflict in contemporary society is based upon cultural and religious divisions, such a paradigm is inefficient in explaining one of the largest strikes in modern Turkish labor history. In Turkey, where the working class is deeply divided4 along such lines, the Tekel workers managed to overcome these internal divisions when confronted with unfavorable changes in the existing material conditions.
Tekel, which translates to “monopoly” in Turkish, has its origins as a Franco-German company specializing in tobacco production.5 After the 1923 Izmir Economic Congress, which established corporatism as the newly-formed economic policy of the Republic of Turkey, the new Republican ruling class nationalized many private foreign companies. In February of 1925,6 Tekel along with other companies, passed under state-control. The factories are scattered throughout the country, particularly along the Black Sea cities of Samsun and Tokat, which are majority Sunni Turk and in the southeastern cities of Bitlis, Malatya, and Adıyaman, where both Sunni and Alevi Turks as well as Sunni and Alevi Kurds are present. In 1999, under orders from the IMF, the Turkish agricultural industry was to be subjected to deregulation.7 With the rise of the neoliberal AK Party in November 2002, the pace of globalization increased dramatically in Turkey, and by December of 2003, “[s]everal Tekel plants were sold to MEY, a national consortium for $292 million.8 In the following years since, the company was resold to several other international holding companies such as the Texas Pacific Group ($900 million)9 and as of February 2008, British American Tobacco ($1.72 billion).”10 BAT managed to acquire “six factories, which employed 15,313 workers. Only one out of the five factories was to remain operational, the rest were closed down, displacing some 12,000 workers.”11
On 14 December 2009, the Tekel workers struck in reaction to Article 4/C of Law No. 657, a labor law which was previously applied to professionals who worked in the public sector on a contractual basis, was extended to public employees whose workplaces were being privatized. This offer was proposed as an alternative to the Tekel workers who had otherwise quit or found work elsewhere. However, 4/C included included several conditions, which the workers had to accept, such as:
Ceding the right to organize.
Accepting a sharp decline in wages
The elimination of severance pay and health benefits.
Workers would be allowed to work for 10 months without any guarantee of job security and alotted two sick days within this time period.
Workers would be forbidden to work a second job during these 10 months.
Employers would have the power to dimiss their employees at any time.12
The results of BAT’s purchase of Tekel in combination with the newly-enforced 4/C resulted in confrontation between the workers and a government they once firmly supported. For many of Tekel workers, the dismissive response from the current Prime Minister Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan was met with greater hostility and to an extent disappointment. As Fuat Karlıkaya, a worker from a Tekel plantation in Tokat explained, “the majority of my work friends voted for AKP. Now they are very regretful. Remember, many of my friends who wear the headscarf are participating in the strike.”13 AKP, many of whose members were formerly part of the now-defunct Islamist Welfare Party (Refah Partisi), which was the ruling party in 1996-97 until the military had threatened to oust them from power, attracts many working class votes through its use of religious rhetoric and promotion of conservative values. As the protests escalated in January of 2010, it became apparent that AKP was not interested in brokering any favorable terms to the workers. As Erdoğan notoriously said in response to the growing unrest: “[The workers] just sit there doing nothing.”14
Following orders from the ruling government, the police used a variety of brutal methods to break the mounting resistance of workers, such as tear gas, pepper spray, water cannons, clubs and mass arrests. In one instance, “workers escaping tear gas were forced into a nearby lake, where the police subjected them to water cannons in the middle of winter.”15 This however, did not deter the workers from responding in kind. Part of what made the Tekel strike particularly notable was strength and extent of the resistance. News reports of workers conducting hunger strikes or what they called “death fasts” were widespread and the establishment of a tent commune on Sakarya Street where the workers gathered lasted for about 40 days.16 Free of the “meddlesome trade union bureaucrats, workers were able to discuss amongst themselves and sympathizers began to rethink their initial perceptions about socialism.”17 In one instance, the Tekel workers living in the commune were “joined by an additional 30,000 workers who spontaneously showed up to express their solidarity.”18 Yet after more deliberations by the government, one of the last radical acts which occured during the strike was the occupation of the Istanbul branch office of Türk-İş, the largest labor union confederation. In May, approximately 200 workers stormed the union’s office and hung slogans outside of the building Istanbul office of Türk-İş, the largest labor union confederation, and “hung slogans outside of the building in support of the 40 hunger-striking workers.”19
The results of the strikes resulted in little material gains however, as the work period was extended from 10 to 11 months and their salaries increased by about 80 Lira.20 The most significant victory by the workers was the application of Article 4/C to the Constitutional Court, the highest judicial authority in Turkey. Today, the struggles have formally ended, yet the outcome of this court trial could trigger further protests if the demands of the workers are not satisfied.
In our estimation however these gains were greatly outweighed by the overcoming of pronvincialism, racism and religious bigotry which had been (and still is) present among the working class in Turkey. Ramazan Ercan, one such worker who had taken part in the protest, remarked that differences between easterners and westerners in Turkey diminished. “A worker from Samsun said that ‘I had a different opinion of Easterners. And I said that I also had a different opinion about those from Samsun. The state does such a thing that everybody becomes an enemy of each other. When you get to know each other, you understand that our fate is the same.”21 Or, as Mustafa Alacalıoğlu, another worker put it: “There are no differences between Kurds, Alevis, Sunnis and Turks. We have no party.”22

Book review: Kevin Anderson, Marx at the margins - John Garvey

John Garvey's review of Anderson's 2010 book, Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies

Kevin Anderson’s Marx at the Margins is a very good and very important book. I hope to do it at least partial justice. But the book needs to be read; reading a review will not suffice to appreciate or understand its depth and breadth. The book is finely written and Anderson goes to considerable lengths to provide readers with background information to be able to make sense of what might be otherwise obscure matters.

Anderson’s argument is based on a careful and comprehensive reading of the writings of Marx (and, to the extent necessary, Engels) on:

1. The history, economics and politics of societies and nations outside Western Europe (but including Ireland),
2. Movements of national liberation, as in Ireland, Poland and India, and
3. The relationship between ‘race’ and class in countries such as England and the United States.

Anderson draws upon his extensive knowledge of the full body of Marx’s writings, including those that have still not been published in any language. (In an Appendix, he provides an especially illuminating account of the publishing history of Marx’s works, including the Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe (MEGA), the just over twenty year old international effort to collect, edit and publish all of Marx’s writings in a manner undistorted by narrow political interests. The total number of planned volumes for MEGA is 114; just over fifty had been published as of the date of this book’s publication).

Anderson convincingly demonstrates that few of the commonplace observations about the limitations of Marx’s ideas when it comes to matters other than the exploitation of labor by capital or the accusations that Marx was guilty of Euro-centrism (as articulated by critics such as Edward Said) can withstand careful scrutiny. His core argument about the eventual subtlety, sophistication and universality of Marx’s work, involving numerous historical periods and political situations, is built upon a fairly straightforward claim—that Marx changed his mind over the course of almost forty years of committed intellectual and practical work. He acknowledges that, in their early writings (including The Communist Manifesto), Marx and Engels emphasized the ways in which capitalist development battered down all ancient customs that stood in the way of progress—while, at the same time, they denounced the pain and suffering that such development inflicted on all who came in its way. Furthermore, and worse, they subscribed too easily to the common prejudices of their time when it came to matters such as the nature of the Slavic, Indian and Jewish peoples.

While Anderson always provides contexts within which to judge what the two revolutionaries wrote (such as the profoundly reactionary character of the Russian state and its domination of the Slavic peoples), he makes no attempt to obscure matters. He includes the following examples:

At the conclusion of the Tribune article, Marx managed to do something that would attract the ire of Edward Said a hundred and twenty-five years later; he quoted Goethe—specifically, a stanza from West-Eastern Divan, a poem about Timur, who conquered Delhi in 1398. The stanza reads:

Should this torture then torment us
Since it brings us greater pleasure?
Were not through the rule of Timur
Souls devoured without measure?

Said seized upon Marx’s quoting of Goethe as proof positive that Marx shared all of the traditional condescending views of the Orient and that, ‘in article after article he returned with increasing conviction to the idea that even in destroying Asia, Britain was making possible there a real social revolution’ (17). Anderson methodically takes apart Said’s claim by pointing out that the literary critic had failed to notice the ways in which Marx had used the same Goethe stanza to sarcastically highlight the self-satisfaction of various ruling classes in the crimes they perpetuated against the European working classes—including an 1855 newspaper article on the economic crisis in England, his 1861-63 economic manuscripts, and in volume I of Capital (17-20). In addition, Anderson argues that Said simply had either not read or not understood Marx’s later writings on India (even as early as later that same summer of 1853) where he increasingly emphasized his disgust with British rule, his sympathies for Indian independence and his support for Indian revolts.

As Marx studied varied societies more intensively, he came to reconsider some of his earlier views on countries such as India, Russia and China.1 Four aspects of his evolving views are especially important—

1. The survival of communal forms in late 19th Century societies (societies as varied as the Indian, the Russian and the Native American) suggested that it might not be necessary for all countries to be dragged through the squandering of human life that capitalist development required in order to arrive at a higher stage of social organization 2;

2. there was no single path that the various countries of the world had been on prior to capitalist development—there were, of course, similarities but it was essential to appreciate the differences;

3. There is no single path that countries will follow even after their encounter with capitalist realities;

4. There is a complex, and reciprocal, relationship between the development of revolutionary possibilities in the advanced and “backward” countries.

Marx was increasingly interested in understanding the ways in which movements of opposition to colonialism might make a direct contribution to the renewal of revolutionary movements in the capitalist metropolises and the ways in which the workers’ movements might advance the cause of freedom from national oppression.

Anderson eventually concludes that, in spite of the continued survival of indigenous communal forms in Africa, Asia and Latin America today, these survivals can probably no longer represent an alternative way forward:

… none of these are on the scale of the scale of Russian or Indian communal forms during Marx’s day. Nonetheless, vestiges of these communal forms sometimes follow peasants into the cities and in any case, important anticapitalist movements have developed recently in places like Mexico and Bolivia, based upon these indigenous communal forms. On the whole, however, even these areas have been penetrated by capital to a far greater degree than was true of the Russian or Indian village of the 1880s. Marx’s multilinear approach toward Russia, India, and other noncapitalist lands is more relevant today at a general theoretical or methodological level, however. (245)

At the heart of this methodology is an insistence on specific concrete analyses. In 1890, Paul Lafargue, Marx’s son-in-law, wrote about his memories of Marx. He commented directly on his manner of thinking and working:

He saw not only the surface, but what lay beneath it. He examined all the constituent parts in their mutual action and reaction; he isolated each of these parts and traced the history of its development. Then he went o n from the thing to its surroundings and observed the reaction of one upon the other. He traced the origin of the object, the changes, evolutions and revolutions it went through, and proceeded finally to its remotest effects. He did not see a thing singly, in itself and for itself, separate from its surroundings; he saw a highly complicated world in continual motion.3

Much of the writing Anderson examines was produced during the very years when Marx was formulating the most theoretically abstract elements of his critique of political economy (reflected in the Grundrisse and the three volumes of Capital), when he was also an active journalist (Anderson notes that Marx’s journalism accounts for five full volumes in the Collected Works, MECW) and when he was a leading political thinker/activist, on issues such as Polish rebellions against foreign domination and the American Civil War, within the emerging First International.4

Anderson provides what I thought were fascinating glimpses into Marx’s daily life; he was not the only agitator in the family. Perhaps my favorite passage in the entire book is the following account of the Marx family’s participation in a London demonstration on October 24, 1869 demanding amnesty for Irish prisoners, written by Marx’s daughter Jenny:

In London the event of the week has been a Fenian demonstration got up for the purpose of praying the government for the release of the Irish prisoners. As Tussy [Eleanor/another daughter] has returned from Ireland a stauncher Irishman than ever, she did not rest until she had persuaded Moor [Marx], Mama and me to go with her to Hyde Park, the place appointed for the meeting. This Park, the biggest one in London, was one mass of men, women and children, even the trees up to their highest branches had their inhabitants. The number of persons present were by the papers estimated at somewhere about 70 thousand, but as these papers are English, this figure is no doubt too low. There were processionists carrying red, green, and white banners with all sorts of devices, such as “Keep your powder dry!,” “Disobedience to tyrants is a duty to God!” And hoisted higher than the flags were a profusion of red Jacobin caps, the bearers of which sang the Marseillaise—sights and sounds that must have greatly interfered with the enjoyment of the portwine at the clubs. (134-135)

If, one day, some film maker finally gets around to making a biopic about Marx, I sure hope that he or she finds a way to picture Marx and the family amidst those demonstrators—maybe even capturing Marx’s unrecorded complaints about how bad the speakers were (even though he probably couldn’t hear them). It appears that Marx was glad that he had gone and that he had, characteristically, noticed something important. Two days later, he spoke to the General Council about the demonstration and said, “The main feature of the demonstration had been ignored, it was that at least part of the English working class had lost their prejudice against the Irish” (135).

Each dimension of Marx’s life and work penetrated the others. In November of 1864, Marx had written about the origins of the International:

In September the Parisian workers sent a delegation to the London workers to demonstrate support for Poland. On that occasion, an International Workers’ Committee was formed. The matter is not without importance because … in London the same people are at the head who organized the gigantic reception for [Italian revolutionary Giuseppe] Garibaldi and, by their monster meeting with [British Liberal leader John] Bright in St. James’s Hall, prevented war with the United States. (67)

The English working class had been forthright in opposing any English intervention on the side of the Confederacy in the US Civil War—even though the Northern blockade of shipping of cotton from the South was leading to a collapse in the English textile industry, thereby resulting in the losses of many jobs—a solidarity that Marx celebrated. Hard as it is to imagine these days, those English workers were prepared to support the cause of abolition even though such support resulted in their own immiseration. A far cry from the sad spectacle of the 1980s when American anti-apartheid organizers insisted that their efforts to disinvest from the South African economy would not adversely affect the pensions of American workers—indeed, they insisted that they would be opposed to any disinvestment that adversely affected those pensions. It was a long climb down from the heights of the 19th Century.

In his “Inaugural Address” to the International, Marx argued that the callous hypocrisy and complicity of the ruling classes in the suppression of the Chechens (yes, they were being oppressed by Russia then too) and the Poles and their all but open support for the Confederate States in the Civil War ‘have taught the working classes the duty to master themselves the mysteries of international politics. … The fight for such a foreign policy forms part of the general struggle for the emancipation of the working classes’ (67).

At times, the International, under Marx’s clear influence, functioned as if it was the foreign affairs ministry of the global proletariat. In December of 1864, the General Council of the International wrote to Abraham Lincoln to congratulate him on his re-election. The address was delivered to Charles Francis Adams, the American minister to Britain. Anderson quotes the following extended excerpt:

We congratulate the American people upon your re-election by a large majority. If resistance to the Slave Power was the reserved watchword of your first election, the triumphant warcry of your re-election is, Death to Slavery. From the commencement of the Titanic-American strife the working men of Europe felt instinctively that the star-spangled banner carried the destiny of their class. … The working classes of Europe understood at once, even before the fanatic partisanship of the upper classes for the Confederate gentry had given its dismal warning, that the slave-holders’ rebellion was to sound the tocsin for a general holy crusade of property against labor, and that for the men of labor, with their hopes for the future, even their past conquests were at stake in that tremendous conflict on the other side of the Atlantic. Everywhere they bore therefore patiently the hardships imposed on them by the cotton crisis, opposed enthusiastic ally the pro-slavery intervention, importunities of their betters—and, political power of the North, allowed slavery to defile their own republic; while before the Negro, mastered and sold without his concurrence, they boasted it the highest prerogative of the white-skinned laborer to sell himself and choose his own master; they were unable to attain the true freedom of labor or support their European brethren in their struggle for emancipation, but this barrier has been swept off by the red sea of civil war. The working men of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Anti-Slavery War will do for the working classes. (110)

While the American minster declined to meet with a delegation from the International, he did transmit the letter to Lincoln. And Lincoln responded:

Nations do not exist for themselves alone, but to promote the welfare and happiness of mankind by benevolent intercourse and example. It is in this relation that the United States regard their cause in the present conflict with slave-maintaining insurgents as the cause of human nature, and they derive new encouragement to persevere from the testimony of the workingmen of Europe that the national attitude is favored with their enlightened approval and earnest sympathies [emphasis added]. (111)

In the letter to Lincoln, Marx had highlighted the debasement of white American workers by their support for slavery and white supremacy and the key role that abolition would play in opening up the landscape for broader struggles. When it came to the relation of the English workers to Ireland and the Irish workers among them, he had the same approach:

I have become more and more convinced—and the thing now is to drum this conviction into the English working class—that they will never do anything decisive here in England before they separate their attitude towards Ireland quite definitely from that of the ruling classes, and not only make common cause with the Irish, but even take the initiative in dissolving the Union established in 1801, and substituting a free federal relationship for it. … Every movement in England itself is crippled by the dissension with the Irish, who form a very important section of the working class in England itself. Letter to Kugelmann, 1869. (145)

But approval and support did not require the abandonment of enlightenment. Two years earlier, Marx had been sharply critical of a bombing outside a London jail holding Irish prisoners. The bomb had exploded in the wrong place and killed a dozen residents in a nearby neighborhood. Marx immediately wrote to Engels:

The latest Fenian exploit in Clerkenwell is a great folly. The London masses, which have shown much sympathy for Ireland, will be enraged by it, and driven into the arms of the government party. One cannot expect the London proletarians to let themselves be blown up for the sake of Fenian emissaries. Secret, melodramatic conspiracies of this kind are, in general, more or less doomed to failure. (130)

Marx had indeed figured many things out and far too much of what he thought and wrote was never available soon enough to revolutionaries in the years since his death—whether we’re talking about the early philosophic manuscripts, the break-through notes of the Grundrisse, the multiple editions of Capital, or the ethnological notebooks of his last years. Much of what we had not seen is now recovered and Anderson has provided an indispensable re-introduction to the great revolutionary. There is much more to write about and think through but my hope is that this review provokes many to read the book and to become part of conversations about its relevance to pressing issues of this day, such as the form, content and meaning of political Islam (in all its various shades) and the continued inability of far too many leftists to understand that simple defiance of the United States (in the manner of Hugo Chavez or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) does not have anything to do with the establishment of an emancipated society anywhere.5 Marx’s vision and his dreams were, over the course of his life, increasingly universal ones. They need to be brought to life once again.