[DEBATE] : Workers of the world, disunited?
grinker at mweb.co.za
Thu Nov 15 19:04:38 GMT 2007
Workers of the world, disunited?
Globalisation has not set Asian workers inexorably against Western workers.
In fact, we have a truly global working class for the first time ever.
In the run-up to a debate next week at Londons Institute of Contemporary
Arts (ICA), Daniel Ben-Ami argues that workers in long-developed economies
in Europe, America and Japan have much in common with the new working class
emerging in Asia and elsewhere.
A spectre is haunting Europe - the spectre of communism. (1)
When Karl Marx wrote the opening lines to the Communist Manifesto back in
1848 it seemed a new force had emerged in Europe. As a wave of democratic
revolutions hit the continent, in what became known as the springtime of
nations, Marx argued that a new class had emerged which had no stake in
existing society. Unlike the rising capitalist class it did not own the
means of production. And unlike the feudal peasantry it was not tied to the
land. It was distinguished by its vested interest in overthrowing the
existing order and changing the world for the better.
A lot has changed in the nearly 160 years since the Manifesto was written.
For a start hardly anyone seriously believes that the spectre of communism
is on the horizon. Even those sympathetic to the working class tend not to
see it as a force that is likely to transform society in the short or medium
term. A series of historic defeats means that the working class is no longer
the significant political force it once was. Its sense of being able to
transform society is diminished - for the time being (2).
The other big change since 1848 is that the working class has gone global.
In particular China and India, with their massive populations, are in the
middle of a fundamental transformation from predominantly rural to mainly
urban societies. In objective terms this means that an enormous new working
class is emerging. Hundreds of millions of people in the two countries meet
the criteria for what constitutes the working class: they are free to sell
their labour power and free of any other means of subsistence. Their numbers
look certain to grow much larger still as the two Asian demographic giants
To take a balanced view, it is important to reject the caricature that Marx
was a Eurocentric thinker. After all his call at the end of the Communist
Manifesto was: Proletarians of all countries, unite! He did not restrict
his vision to European workers. But it is also necessary to recognise that,
at the time he was writing, the working class was overwhelmingly a European
phenomenon. Since Europe was the first region to industrialise and urbanise
it was also the place where the working class first emerged. Today, at least
in objective structural terms, the working class is global.
North vs South?
However, contemporary discussion assumes that there is a fundamental
conflict of interest between workers in the developed world and those in
developing countries. The working class may be global but - so the argument
goes - the interests of those in the North and South conflict. Cheap labour
from the giant working class of Asia is said to be undermining living
standards in the West. Criticism of foreign workers, sometimes implicit
often explicit, takes several related forms. Sometimes it manifests itself
as hostility towards migrants. But more often, particularly in America, it
takes the form of anxiety about cheap imports and hostility to outsourcing
jobs abroad. The rising economic power of Asia is seen as a fundamental
threat to workers in the developed world.
Often the terminology is confusing. The working class in the West - that is
the bulk of the population - is frequently labeled as a middle class in
the discussion. In America, there is a substantial debate about how the
middle class is being squeezed by the rise of Asia with its cheap labour
force (3). So Robyn Meredith, an American journalist based in Hong Kong,
argues in her recent book: For the American and European middle class, this
is the terrifying dark side of globalization. With more than a billion
workers suddenly thrown into the worlds labor pool, many unlucky Westerners
will lose their jobs, and many will see their standards of living fall
unless they take action to make themselves better contenders in the
worldwide labor markets. (4)
Whatever the terminology the argument is usually the same. With the end of
the Cold War in the late 1980s it is argued that up to two billion more
people entered the global economy. With the demise of the Eastern bloc the
old barriers between East and West broke down. As a result a global labour
force has emerged. This in turn, it is argued, allowed multinational firms
to engage in what is sometimes called global labour arbitrage (5).
Companies can go anywhere in the world to find the cheapest labour.
New technology is said to exacerbate this process. Rather than move migrant
workers to the West or simply import from abroad, it is possible for firms
to outsource many of their operations. Perhaps the best-known example is of
Indian call centres answering calls from Western consumers. Sometimes the
call centre is owned by Western firms and in other cases it is outsourced to
Indian companies. But either way it is often argued that Western jobs - and
sometimes those of poorer countries, too - are being threatened or perhaps
eliminated completely by Asian workers. As Larry Summers, a former American
treasury secretary, has argued in the Financial Times: As the great
corporate engines of efficiency succeed by using cutting-edge technology
with low-cost labour, ordinary, middle-class workers and their employers
whether they live in the American Midwest, the Ruhr valley, Latin America or
eastern Europe are left out. (6)
Several policy conclusions are drawn from this discussion. Often they are
promoted individually, but sometimes they are part of a package. It is
argued that immigration controls should be tightened. Protectionist measures
are often advocated to curb the imports of Asian goods. And often it is
argued that the educational system needs to be reformed to give workers the
skills to better resist Asian competition. What all these have in common is
that they give the incorrect impression that Asian workers threaten Western
living standards (7). To the extent that prosperity in the developed world
is under threat, it is not Asian workers who are to blame. On the contrary,
Western leaders are constantly urging their populations to curb their living
standards - even though they may not say so explicitly. For example,
policies designed to encourage people to use their cars less or curb energy
use are, in all but name, austerity measures.
In fact, the economic rise of Asia has helped raise Western living
standards. Ever more Asian workers are producing ever more goods more
productively. The industrialisation of Asia has meant that, among other
things, goods from clothes to electronics are much cheaper than they would
otherwise be. As a result living standards in the West have risen in real
terms. Such goods would be cheaper still if it was not for protectionist
barriers against Asian imports.
More fundamentally, it is still the case that the working class in the West
and that in Asia have a commonality of interests. It remains true that they
lack a stake in existing society. Their livelihoods depend on being able to
sell their labour power to their employers. There is no inherent clash
between Western and Asian workers. They may speak different languages and
eat different foods, but they still share a common material interest. >From a
humanist perspective, what could potentially unite them is more important
that what divides them.
Of course it does not follow that the world is on the verge of a new
revolutionary upsurge. But todays problems have to do with the contemporary
climate of low expectations rather than any fundamental schism between
different sets of workers. The emergence of a global working class is
probably the best feature of globalisation.
Daniel Ben-Ami will be taking part in a discussion on the theme of the new
global working class alongside Jonathan Fenby, Guy de Jonquières, Nigel
Harris and Robyn Meredith at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London at
7pm on Tuesday 20 November.
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