By now the prospect of reading another ‘globalization’ book has lost its lustre. The lines of argument are all too familiar. The state, or at least its power to control economic matters, is disappearing as predatory corporations cross borders at will (usually heading South) aided by multilateral agreements and institutions dragging the world’s working classes into a ‘race to the bottom’. Not quite, says the other side of the debate. There may indeed be a race to the bottom, but the corporations need the state for social damage control, to step up repression of resistance, to negotiate further ‘liberalization’ and to pump tax dollars into corporate coffers as well as, indirectly, the stock and bond markets of the world. In any case, most mobile capital moves around within the North. What both sides usually agree on is that in either scenario, the organized working class gets weaker. The only question being: is this weakening of labour permanent and irreversible, or is there a role for the international working class in the fight to control or end capitalist globalization? Anyway, isn’t globalization, to paraphrase Henry Kissinger, just another word for us dominance?
In Forces of Labour, Beverly Silver looks at globalization from a different and original perspective. First of all, it is a longer perspective than most, spanning from 1870 to the mid-1990s. Second, her emphasis is on working-class activity rather than corporate misdeeds or imf austerity; i.e., on resistance rather than victimization. Third, she challenges the race-to-the-bottom thesis typical of much globalization analysis. She does this not by denying the downward pressure on working-class incomes and conditions produced by capital mobility, but by arguing that as capital moves it does what it has always done: it creates a working class in its new location, exploits it to the hilt, and almost invariably faces the resistance of that new class. The picture that emerges from Forces of Labour is one of a moveable class struggle that both pushes and is pulled by capital’s outward trajectory from Europe, North America and Japan to select parts of the Third World, and finally, perhaps, to China, the latest site of rapid accumulation.
What is unique about this work is its focus on working-class activity in its industrial, spatial and temporal aspects. As Silver puts it, ‘this book attempts to create a narrative of working-class formation in which events unfold in dynamic time-space’. Examining product cycles and various business strategies for maximizing or recovering profit rates—what she calls ‘fixes’—Silver looks at the rise and decline of labour unrest in relation to the locations of different industries over time. Strikes tend to increase as the industry enters its mature phase, roughly the 1870s through the 1930s for textiles and the 1930s through the early 1970s for automobiles, and decline when production becomes standardized. It is in the standardization phase that the industry is likely to begin the trek to lower-wage sites. These new sites of lower-cost production can be within the same country, but typically they rest on the continuing and worsening uneven development that divides North from South.
Silver argues that as capital subjects a largely agricultural and rural population to urbanization, discipline and exploitation, labour—the ‘fictitious commodity’—rebels at being treated like one. She distinguishes between two types of resistance. The first, a ‘Polanyi shift’ based in worker experience in the market, is a pendulum-like swing into resistance which is then mollified by a social compact through government social legislation which, in turn, faces a crisis of profitability and legitimacy. The second she labels a Marx-type shift in which the class develops permanent organizations of resistance: unions and parties. They are not exclusive of one another and often lay the basis of successful resistance, which modifies to some extent the race-to-the-bottom tendency. Silver also has an interesting discussion of how, in forming its resistance, working classes and their various sections ‘draw boundaries’. These may be exclusive, as with us craft unions when they formed in the late nineteenth century, or inclusive, as in the case of both Brazil and South Africa, where union links with working-class and poor communities were an essential part of the fight for democracy.
She takes it as axiomatic that each epoch of capitalist development has a paradigmatic industry. For the nineteenth century it was textiles, for the twentieth, automobiles. Both of these industries show the ‘innovation, maturity, standardization’ product cycle described above. Silver’s discussion of the twenty-first century is necessarily more speculative, looking at producer services, education as an industry and the manufacturing of information technology. In addition, Silver has an important discussion on the role and strategic place of the transportation industry in the production process itself. Particularly in the age of lean production, with its extensive and often international outsourcing of manufacturing combined with Just-In-Time inventories and parts delivery, transportation becomes a key element in the development of working-class militancy. What is missing—oddly, in the era of globalization—is an examination of telecommunications as a site of resistance.
For Silver, the major ‘push’ factor driving industry to the South is increased militancy in the original sites in the North. The time-space unfolding of this exit and entry of capital is measured by the level of strike activity, first in the old sites, particularly Europe and North America, and later in the newer sites of the South, as capital eventually moves on to even cheaper locations. As industries mature, intensified pressure on the workforce brings forth increased militancy and organization. This, in turn, pushes these industries to lower-wage nations where a new class formation begins and the cycle of maturity and resistance is repeated—as it was in South Africa and Brazil, then in South Korea (where the capital involved was mostly indigenous), and now in China, the latest location not only of semi-conductor production but of textiles and automobiles as well.
Silver, of course, is not saying what neoclassical economists like to say, namely that all this investment will turn these developing nations into prosperous economies. On the contrary, she makes the point that ‘spatial fixes relocated the social contradictions of mass production (including strong working classes), but they have not relocated the wealth through which high-wage countries historically accommodated those same contradictions’. The North–South income gap has in fact grown, which in turn encourages more spatial fixes and more dislocation between the two hemispheres.