Moon of Alabama Brecht quote
January 15, 2007

Labor

Is Stephen Roach correct here or is this just an illusion?

Pro-Labor Politics

Courtesy of globalization, in conjunction with diminished unionized bargaining power and technology-led labor displacement, workers in the high-wage developed economies are being squeezed as never before.
[...]

All this frames the time-honored tug-of-war between capital and labor in a very different context.  With the labor shares of national income at historical lows for the major economies of the industrial world and the shares accruing to the owners of capital at equally high extremes, the stage is set for a pro-labor shift in the pendulum of economic power [..].  Yet the outcome points to more of a political backlash than a worker backlash.  Lacking the wherewithal for collective action, workers in the industrial world have little or no choice other than to put pressure on their elected representatives to take actions on their behalf.

Recent political developments in the US, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Japan, and Australia are especially intriguing in this regard.  In all these cases, the pendulum of political power is now in the process of shifting to the Left.  Lacking in bargaining power in increasingly globalized labor markets, it shouldn’t be surprising that workers are now exercising political power in the polling booth.  No, the increase in the minimum wage is not going to break the back of US cost control [..].  However, I suspect there is a good chance this action could well qualify as the proverbial canary in the coal mine -- the beginning of what could be an important and enduring increase in labor’s slice of the pie in the rich countries of the industrial world.

I don't have not much trust in any political power of workers. I also do not see a significant swing of the pendulum to the Left. Especially not in systems where the financing of political campaigns depends on large donors.

Unionization is still the preferable way for workers to achieve a fair share of the cake they are baking. That of course is the reason why it is fought so much by the capital side.

Posted by b on January 15, 2007 at 15:35 UTC | Permalink

Comments

American workers have been so brainwashed to think that unions are their enemies they won't be rejoining unions any time soon. I am speaking from personal experience here.
American television once had a special show on German workers. They dwelt on the fact that the Germans got four weeks' paid vacation every year, yet never mentioned the word 'union'.
No change will come in the American mindset as long as the working stiff considers himself a potential Donald Trump-in-waiting or (a wonderful quote) a 'temporarily distressed millionaire' rather than a worker entitled to decent pay for decent work.
The policies of the last quarter century have undone all the good that was done in the previous half-century; and the partnership between unions and management set in the Second World War would not be possible to recreate now.

Posted by: | Jan 15 2007 17:00 utc | 1

My view is that once capital has gotten possession of the whole world it finds itself with the fact that in order to continue accummulation it is necessary that someone will absorb the products of capital, that is objects and services. Until now capital has fled from "rich" countries towards those that have a very low labor cost but their benefit consisted in producing cheaply abroad and selling the selfsame product dearly at home. On the other hand capital is necessary to promote innovation but perhaps we are running out of imagination and few new products are invented. That is a problematic assumption but through the observation of the goods available for consumption I feel they seem to become more and more trivial. In this I have a high level of prejudice. We are told constantly that profits are higher and higher, but that is only absolutely true not relatively, that is the profit related to the total capital that has been invested may be smaller and smaller which is the reason I believe that capitalists want to pay lower or no taxes. The profits are decreasing in relation to the original and additional investments. Therefore the only way left for capital to dispose of the goods and services it produces is to make them available to everybody. A "surge" in labor power will in my view be no more that the realization that we have intervened everywhere, controlled everyone, invaded all the temporal spaces and all the spatial times and we have nowhere to go except bringing everybody into a shopping binge and that requires provision of funds, that is increase in wages and so on. Wealth is nothing but perception and weapons.

Posted by: jlcg | Jan 15 2007 17:16 utc | 2

International labor movements have not yet re-invented themselves in a coherent way for information workers, or workers in services.

In order for unions to really work, they must shift their main focus to providing benefits for information workers, not just manufacturing workers.

Even in China, the manufacturing powerhouse of the world, the economy is shifting rapidly to services.

Posted by: Chris Marlowe | Jan 15 2007 18:11 utc | 3

Not all hooey - there has been a mild swing to the left (what left, one may ask?) after a previous move to the right; but the opposite exists as well (eg. Holland.) Do these movements benefit workers (outside of S America)? Moot. Look at the US and the recent Democrat win. Etc. Each country is different, impossible to generalise ...In Spain, false flag terrorism that the Spanish saw through got rid of Aznar, labor issues / taxes were not a mainspring.

In the past 20 years, in Europe, imho, workers have been disadvantaged:

a, proximate) because bosses became lackeys for shareholders, rather than people who shared a stake, with the workers, in making their enterprise viable, lasting, profitable for those involved

b, ideological) because Gvmts., (who directly or otherwise employ large numbers) adopted a ‘market’ mantra, went for ‘privatization’ and ‘outsourcing’, their rationale being efficiency and ‘economy’ and the lowering of taxes. (Not realized - though many local counter examples do exist.) They either became infeodated to ‘big biz’ through material or ideological corruption, or imagined it was clever to shoot themselves in the foot, relinquish control, and join the real movers and shakers, thereby throwing workers into opaque, difficult, insecure situations. Posturing Technocrats helped this process along.

c, systemic) because of growing competition generally - need for rise in productivity, etc. Peak oil per capita (energy drives the economy and without it you scrabble in the dust or mud) is long past - it dates from 79 or 80. (Jerome will know.) A stranglehold that is tough to overcome for the West, and implies that world wide, the poor must become poorer if the rich are to remain rich (short version). It is, in fact, why ‘globalisation’ in its modern version of slave labor far away caught on, putting pressure on local workers, etc.

d, one outcome) Unions lost their footing; they did not understand theses forces and themselves became part of the current conventional power play, allied with the bosses through fear of loss of their own position, influence, finances, and trying to save what could be saved. Playing both sides. Workers are not fools. Where I worked until recently, there were TWO Unions, in competition with each other! Result: both unions became tools of management and could not obtain new adherents.

So workers have turned to national politics, and in France for example, have voted the extremes: the far left and the far right, as both hold promise for them. In that way, the vote is split. Very good for the PTB.

Posted by: Noirette | Jan 15 2007 18:16 utc | 4

In America, corporations and gov't are merely quid-pro-quo whorehouses sold to the highest bidder. When the gov't needs illegal wire-taps, Verizon and Sprint allow them secret rooms to listen in on calls. When Haliburton (and KBR) need more revenue, the gov't hands out no-bid contracts. When the gov't dislikes literature, Amazon and Wikipedia ban the book "America Deceived". We The People have had our gov't sold out from beneath us.
Final link (before Google Books caves to pressure and drops the title):
[link deleted - b.]

Posted by: Small Biz | Jan 16 2007 1:20 utc | 5

This autumns election in Sweden where the right bloc won a slight majority might actually be a turning point where politics start moving to the left. See, the thing is the right won by running on the left, by stating that they would deliver on the same promises the left was failing to live up to. (That, and they got much more favourable media coverage.)

So if the left now does what they are supposed to and moves left to keep some political space between the alternatives the result should be that by the next election the whole political spectrum has moved to the left.

Posted by: a swedish kind of death | Jan 16 2007 2:22 utc | 6

small biz,
if you really believe your book is important and want it read (rather then making money) I suggest making a pdf of it. And perhaps market it more with want content it actually holds, then who does not want it published. You might also want to consider making comments where you do not try to sell your book.

As it is you come across as a somewhat desperate book-salesman.

Posted by: a swedish kind of death | Jan 16 2007 2:28 utc | 7

Roach: "Needless to say, any such shift from a pro-capital to a pro-labor climate could prove to be a very challenging outcome for world financial markets."

Well, at least Mr. Roach understands what side of the class war he is on.

Posted by: Peter Principle | Jan 16 2007 16:55 utc | 8

small biz

Step Right Up

Posted by: | Jan 16 2007 17:16 utc | 9

"See, the thing is the right won by running on the left, by stating that they would deliver on the same promises the left was failing to live up to. (That, and they got much more favourable media coverage.)"

Sounds like a Neocon ploy to me. Isn't that what the Republicans promised in 2000. Pretty hard to do anything about the "favourable media" ...They're in on it.

Posted by: pb | Jan 16 2007 17:19 utc | 10

A good one by William Pfaff : Alienation and Modern Capitalism

Marx’s was an illusion, of course, seductive but ultimately destructive, eventually used to justify totalitarian violence to bring about the universal revolution, after which, for reasons unexplained, men would behave like angels.

His perception of the reality of industrial society nonetheless was right. He inspired the most powerful and lasting reform movements of modern Europe, with effect today on the social policies of the West European states at the core of the European Union. These reforms are now under pressure.
...
The limitations and inflexibilities of both French statism and Rhineland co-determination are recognized today, even by their defenders, and both are under attack in a European Union where the market, privatization, and “liberal” values prevail at the European Commission and among a majority of the governments of the new 25-nation union.

None of this has solved the phenomenon of worker alienation in modern society (not in “capitalism” – the plight of the worker under both Soviet and Chinese “socialism” was many times worse, as everyone knows). No doubt it is insoluble, being a characteristic of mass production.

But who says alienation is limited to workers? It is an issue in modern culture and politics. If we are serious about the matter, it is an element in existence, and not just modern existence.

However globalized market capitalism now is posing the problem in an unprecedented and politically important way. In 1996, in the 20th anniversary edition of his book, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, Daniel Bell wrote that the Wall Street of mergers and takeovers already posed grave new problems of law, morality, and the accountability of business executives.

The primitive capitalism of female and child labor in the “Satanic mills” of 19th century Britain was defended by its creators and theorists as the product of inevitable and unchallengeable forces -- regrettable as the result might seem to the tender-hearted.

The social struggles in late 19th and early 20th century Europe and America, Marxist revolutionary upheaval in Russia, plus two world wars and the Cold War, left a wounded West with a certain social equilibrium, and a regime of social justice.
The success of this practical accommodation of conflicting social and economic interests, involving much good will and pragmatic compromise, produced the modern mixed economy and modern democracy in Europe and North America, and in a limited number of other places.

Today, the two-decade decline in status of workers, and the reduction in the overall share in the wealth of society possessed by ordinary people, have been important steps backward from that equilibrium. This is a far more significant development than most political figures seem to recognize. The stability of modern America and Europe is not set in concrete.


Posted by: b | Jan 16 2007 19:28 utc | 11

"The stability of modern America and Europe is not set in concrete."

It all boils down to 'Oliver Twist': I WANT MORE!!!

And, You gotta have rules and regulations to keep him from getting it.

Some how, "We the People" must get that power back.

Posted by: pb | Jan 17 2007 0:45 utc | 12

Sounds like a Neocon ploy to me. Isn't that what the Republicans promised in 2000.

Could be expect that the promises in question are mostly left-wing stuff.

Just yesterday the labor market minister - from the main right wing party - rebuffed the corporations associations advances and instead defended the labor unions right to blocade a company that does not want to enter collective negotiations with the unions. I think some group in a smoke filled room has decided that they are tired of playing eternal (or almost eternal) opposition and decided that power (and salaries) was worth it. Or at least that it was it looks like today.

Now the next step will be the socialdemocrats choosing their new leader and see what route she will take. If they go to the left, then the shift has been made.

Politics actually do shift left sometimes too...

Posted by: a swedish kind of death | Jan 17 2007 16:07 utc | 13

It seems that Pfaff may have been reading the inimitable Petras (Who Rules America?) recently as a background to his article. Though I don't completely agree with some of Petras' later conclusions -- and the end of the article in general needs more fleshing out -- it, along with the work of William Domoff (Who Rules America) remain essential reading to any critic or crusader for social change in America, and indeed the world.

Both of these works graphically but non-ideologically limn out the structural formations of power in the US. They are excellent antidotes to the moribund -- and ultimately self-defeating --faith-based personality driven theory politics (I hate Bush, but I like KerryHowardRussHillaryObamaWhomever) hewn to despite all evidence by the Kos crowd and other political neophytes.*

It never ceases to amaze me that politically "active" "middle-class" willfully chooses to remain ignorant about their adversaries: the structural formation and distribution of wealth and influence in their own society. They have infinite energy to crusade, but no energy to study who they are really crusading against. It is personified by the ultimate American myth: I too could be wealthy like them, but I would see the world differently. Well, no you can't. To become wealthy like them means thinking and acting in the pathological pursuit of wealth and power like them. It means clawing your way up the ever-growing mountain of violence and destruction to its unsteady summit.

The good fight, the fight for peace and social justice, ultimately requires both conscience and knowledge.

Politics can turn towards the left -- but only when the left becomes aware of both who they are fighting and what they are struggling for.


_____________
* A more balanced historical view of social change was beautifully expressed by none other than C. L. R. James in his 1938 classic "The Black Jacobins - Toussaint L'Oveture and the San Domingo Revolution:"

The writing of history becomes ever more difficult. The power of God or the weakness of man, Christianity or the divine right of kings to govern wrong, can easily be made responsible for the downfall of states and the birth of new societies. Such elementary conceptions lend themselves willingly to narrative treatment and from Tacitus to Macaulay, from Thucidides to Green, the traditionally famous historians have been more artist than scientist: they wrote so well because they saw so little. To-day by a natural reaction we tend to a personification of the social forces, great men being merely or nearly instruments in the hands of economic destiny. As so often the truth does not lie in between. Great men make history, but only such history as it is possible for them to make. Their freedom of achievement is limited by the necessities of their environment. To portray the limits of those necessities and the realisation, complete or partial, of all possibilities, that is the true business of the historian.

Or as Michael Parenti would say -- and Howard Zinn concur -- history written by the rich becomes inevitably a history of the rich, colored by their goals, sentiments, and interests. To write a history of the people it is necessary to view the world through the eyes of the common people and their concerns, while also understanding the machinations of the wealthy and their concerns.

Posted by: Bob M. | Jan 17 2007 17:42 utc | 14

Thanks for the links to Roach and especially to Domoff.

There are many macro-economists forecasting some sort of reversion to the historical split between labor and capital in which labor retains around 2/3 of productivity gains eg. Woody Brock once the impact of the doubling in labor supply works its way through the industrial economies. Others say the outsized share of gains to capital is here to stay in a Brave New World of more efficient financial markets and global trade. And of course others that say we're all going down very soon anyway when the oil runs out.

To become wealthy like them means thinking and acting in the pathological pursuit of wealth and power like them. It means clawing your way up the ever-growing mountain of violence and destruction to its unsteady summit.

Actually, there are many counter-examples to this; so it may not be a fruitful generalisation.

Posted by: PeeDee | Jan 17 2007 21:35 utc | 15

PeeDee,

Nice succint synopsis of the three prevalent viewpoints.

Actually, there are many counter-examples to this; so it may not be a fruitful generalisation.

Small wealth, yes; great Masters of the Universe capital, very few and far between -- enough to be the exception that proves the rule.

Posted by: Bob M. | Jan 17 2007 23:23 utc | 16

The comments to this entry are closed.