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Analysing exploitation and resistance: the centrality of class struggle.

By Andreas Bieler 

In my recent article ‘Transnational Labour Solidarity in (the) Crisis’, published in the Global Labour Journal and freely downloadable here, I assert three key claims: (1) the importance of a historical materialist approach to analyse exploitation and resistance; (2) the significance of understanding the structuring conditions of global capitalism; and (3) the centrality of class struggle defined broadly. In this post, I will provide an overview of the main claims.

The importance of a historical materialist approach

When analyzing exploitation and resistance during the current economic crisis, it is essential to comprehend the historical specificity of capitalism. While mainstream academic approaches take the separation of the political and the economic, state and market as their unquestioned starting-point of investigation, a historical materialist approach through its focus on the social relations of production is able to acknowledge that this apparent separation is historically specific to capitalism.

Unlike in feudalism, for example, exploitation is not based on direct political enforcement. Rather, as a result of the social relations of production being organized around wage labour and the private ownership of the means of production, exploitation is indirectly imposed. Nobody is forced to work for a particular employer. However, unless one owns the necessary means of one’s own re-production, which hardly anyone does in capitalism, one is left with no other option than to sell one’s labour power. As Marx made clear, it is, therefore, the hidden abode of production, where exploitation takes place. In short, in order to understand the historical specificity of capitalism and comprehend the dynamics underlying exploitation, a historical materialist approach is essential.

The structuring conditions of global capitalism

Class agency is important in determining the future course of humanity. Nevertheless, while people do make their own history, they do not do so in the circumstances of their own choosing. It is, therefore, essential to conceptualise the structuring conditions of global capitalism. In the article, I identify three key dynamics: (1) competitiveness and the focus on ever larger amounts of profit; (2) the structural tendency towards crisis; and (3) the outward expansive dynamic around uneven and combined development.

Organised around wage labour and the private ownership of the means of production, capitalist social relations of production are enormously dynamic, since both labour and capital have to reproduce themselves through the market. While workers compete with each other to sell their labour ‘freely’, capitalists are in constant competition with each other over profitability and market share. Hence, capitalism is characterized by a constant drive towards further innovation in order to outcompete one’s competitors. While capitalism is very dynamic, however, it is also crisis prone, a second structural dynamic. The more goods are produced the more profits are generated, looking for further profitable investment opportunities, the more difficult it becomes to bring together excess labour and excess capital in a fruitful way. A ‘crisis of overaccumulation’ (David Harvey) ensues. Third, one way of overcoming crisis is outward expansion. Nevertheless, the way non-capitalist spaces become incorporated in this outward expansion is around dynamics of uneven and combined development. Uneven in that new, peripheral areas are unlikely to catch up with the development levels of core areas and combined in that further accumulation in the core depends on exploitation in the periphery, while capitalist development in the periphery is conditioned by development in the core. These three structuring conditions of global capitalism, expressed differently in different parts of the world at different times, need to be taken into account when assessing class agency of resistance.

The centrality of class struggle

A focus on class struggle in the analysis of exploitation and resistance does not mean that identities such as gender or ethnicity do not play a role. However, neither gender nor racism is structurally essential features of capitalism. Capitalist accumulation could continue perfectly well even if we had complete gender and ethnic equality. Hence, when analyzing class struggle in a broad way, it is essential to incorporate an analysis of how ethnic and gender discourses are often incorporated by capital in class struggle in order to fragment the working class.

In order to do this, class struggle needs to be understood broadly beyond a focus on struggles at the workplace and the employee/employer relationship. In the article, I put forward four different ways with examples of how a broader analysis of class struggle could be conceptualized. This includes (1) Robert Cox’s focus on the differences between established and non-established labour, (2) Harry Cleaver’s emphasis on the importance of analyzing the whole ‘social factory’ of capitalist reproduction including, for example, unpaid work at home, (3) Kees van der Pijl’s focus on the extension of exploitation into the sphere of social reproduction during the current neo-liberal phase of capitalism, as well as (4) the ‘revised race-and-gender-conscious historical materialism’ of Chandra Talpade Mohanty, who argues that analysis of capitalist exploitation needs to be grounded in the experience of the most exploited workers in the global economy, i.e. female workers, often working from home, in developing countries.

In sum, class struggle is the moment when agency meets structure, when labour meets the structuring conditions of the capitalist social relations of production. Class struggle is the process in which labour identities are formed and transformed. It is the moment when structuring conditions are being confirmed or changed. Hence, it is through the prism of class struggle that we can best analyse labour’s responses to global restructuring. Whether different labour movements engage in relations of transnational solidarity is not pre-determined by the structuring conditions of the capitalist social relations of production, but ultimately depends on the outcome of class struggle.

Andreas Bieler is Professor of Political Economy and Fellow of the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice

This article first appeared on the blog Trade Unions and Global Restructuring 

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