For Ralph Miliband, socialism was more than an intellectual and theoretical preoccupation.footnote He was intensely concerned with socialism as a practical political project, and with the key element of that project, working-class power. I would be less than respectful of Miliband’s lifelong commitment if I did not acknowledge that, conceived in this way, the socialist project is foundering. The symptoms are obvious. Unions, the bedrock of working-class power, are on the defensive, and in most advanced capitalist countries have begun to lose members.footnote1 Left parties are in disarray, and losing elections. Welfare-state protections are under assault in campaigns to make the labour market more ‘flexible’, with the consequence that coverage is being narrowed, and expenditures are falling, particularly for the crucial programmes that reach the active labour force.footnote2 And economic inequalities are growing. In Britain, where the richest 1 per cent of the population owns 18 per cent of the nation’s wealth, fully half the population now lives in households that receive means-tested benefits.footnote3 And in the United States, where wages have been falling steadily, especially for the less skilled, and real poverty is increasing sharply, the richest 1 per cent now owns nearly 40 per cent of wealth.footnote4

These dismal trends help account for another important development. In all the countries of advanced capitalism, there is a profound discouragement not only about the economic well-being of the working class, but about the possibility of working-class power, now or in the forseeable future. After a century that witnessed the gradual if uneven expansion of unions, of Left parties, and of social-democratic policies, a century dominated for the Left by a heady belief in labour as the agency of progressive change, the working class seems not to have any future at all. Instead we hope that somehow workers can muster the political muscle just to resist incursions on past gains being pressed by a capitalist class on the move. Even the Left parliamentary opposition is reduced to arguing not that it holds the key to a better future, but that it can offer a more intelligent, more efficient, perhaps gentler, administration of the new and inevitable austerities.

Why this impasse? The explanation is a commonplace, quick to spring to the lips of intellectuals and workers alike. The key fact of our historical moment is said to be the globalization of national economies which, together with ‘post-Fordist’ domestic restructuring, has had shattering consequences for the economic well-being of the working class, and especially for the power of the working class. I don’t think this explanation is entirely wrong but it is deployed so sweepingly as to be misleading. And right or wrong, the explanation itself has become a political force, helping to create the institutional realities it purportedly merely describes.

There are important variations in how economic globalization is characterized. When the argument emerged some two decades ago, the emphasis was on the decentralization of production from older industrial hubs to low-wage countries on the periphery of advanced capitalism. Somewhat later the emphasis shifted from actual plant relocation to the expansion of trade, and the enlarging share of national markets commanded by imports and exports, a development facilitated by new communication and transportation technologies. Either way, whether plants were actually relocated or whether goods made elsewhere claimed an increasing share of national markets, the consequences were to pit the organized and better paid workers of the developed north against vulnerable workers everywhere. Enlarging circuits of migration that brought workers from the south and then from Eastern Europe to the metropole had similar consequences.footnote5 And finally, in its most recent variant, the argument about economic globalism is about the vastly accelerated movement of financial capital, pinioning not only workers but entire economies to the wall, and rendering national governments helpless to intervene as, in the words of a Barron’s columnist, ‘capital market vigilantes [roam] the globe in search of high returns at relatively low risk.’footnote6

Whatever the emphasis, all of these arguments lead to a common, and chilling, conclusion. Labour power is, after all, rooted in the fundamental interdependence of capital and labour. The exercise of that power always involves the threat by workers, explicit or not, that they will withhold their contributions to cooperative economic endeavours. Of course, other conditions complicate and obstruct the realization of working-class power—and socialist possibility. For one thing, the possibilities of power have to be recognized; ideology or consciousness is important in this sense because it may obscure or reveal to working people the relations which might yield them power. Workers typically have to be organized before they can threaten to disrupt economic activity that depends on their collective contributions.

So much seems to me obvious. But there is another important point that bears directly on globalization. The exercise of labour power throughout the history of capitalist markets has always depended on the limited ability of capital to exit or threaten to exit from ongoing economic relationships. Economic globalization, together with domestic restructuring and downsizing made possible by technological change, seems to open unlimited options for capital exit, whether through the relocation of production, or accelerated trade, or through worker replacement, or through capital mobility. And it is simply in the nature of the human condition that workers, tied as they are to place and kin, constrained by their human fear of change, are unlikely to match these options, ever.

This understanding underlies, I think, the widespread discouragement about worker power and socialist possibility, however defined. Still, I am not entirely convinced, and I will here raise two very large questions. First, if the real significance of globalization is the opportunities it creates for capital exit, just how new is this? And second, if capital exit is not new, does globalization nevertheless provide such vastly increased exit opportunities relative to the size of the economies of the advanced capitalist nations as to overshadow earlier experience?