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Class struggle in times of crisis: conceptualising agency of resistance.

By Andreas Bieler.

While movements of resistance against neo-liberal globalization have increasingly become subject of analysis, there is little agreement on how to conceptualize such agency. In my recent article Class struggle in times of crisis: conceptualising agency of resistance, published in the on-line, open access academic journal Spectrum: Journal of Global Studies, I argue that a historical materialist analysis is necessary to capture the historical specificity of capitalism (see also Analysing exploitation and resistance). Nevertheless, a focus on class struggle does not imply a reductionist, economic determinist account.

Organising informal labour

Robert Cox already argued in 1981 that workers in globalisation have become fragmented along two lines. In addition to the division between national labour working in production sectors organised within a country and transnational labour working in transnational production sectors, he identified the division between established labour, workers on permanent contracts in the core of the economy, and non-established labour in the periphery of the labour market on insecure or with contract. As part of the transnationalisation of production, we have not only experienced a centralisation of command in the global economy, but also a fragmentation with many aspects of the transnational production process being outsourced and sub-contracted to other companies. Together with a huge population influx into urban areas particularly in the Global South, this has led to an increasing casualisation and informalisation of the economy, in which permanent, full-time employment contracts have to a large extent become a feature of the past. This has always been the case in developing countries, but, informalisation or precariatisation more and more also affects developed countries in the North (Standing 2011), Trade unions find it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to organise the informal economy. Hence the need to think about novel types of organisations.

Analysing the social factory

When reflecting on the increasing number of struggles of the late 1960s and 1970s, Harry Cleaver (2000) asserts that the social reproduction of workers does not only include work in the factory, but equally all the work at home and in the wider community. Hence, analysis of class struggles has to include struggles beyond the factory. Analysing what he called the ‘social factory’ allowed Cleaver to take into account all the other forms of unwaged activities including child rearing, education, which are necessary for the reproduction of capital, but take place outside the workplace.

Trade unions as member organisations, if they want to organise the whole ‘social factory’, therefore, need to reach beyond the workplace. The Argentine Workers’ Central Union (CTA), for example, organises workers. Nevertheless social movements such as environmental groups and individuals, even if they are not workers in a traditional understanding, can also affiliate. Equally, the attempts by the British union Unite to organise the wider community through its community membership scheme is an attempt to go beyond the work place and organise the whole social factory.

Class struggle in the sphere of social reproduction

Another attempt to include struggles outside the workplace into class analysis is made by Kees van der Pijl. He argues that neo-liberal capitalism is characterised by the fact that capitalist discipline has now also been further extended within the entire process of social reproduction, involving the exploitation of the social and natural substratum. In response to the commodification of social services and the intensified destruction of the biosphere as well as the disruption of traditional life, a whole range of new, progressive but also nationalist right-wing social movements have emerged to defend the environment and sphere of social reproduction (van der Pijl 1998: 46-8). This has to be analysed as class struggle as much as exploitation and resistance to it in the workplace. In other words, the struggle of social movements against neo-liberal globalisation, for example, can also be conceptualised as class struggle.

The European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) on Water as a Human Right, a broad alliance of user groups as well as trade unions including the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU), represents a good example. The initiative collected almost 1.9 million signatures between May 2012 and September 2013. The demands of the ECI are threefold: ‘(1) For the EU to recognise the UN right to water and sanitation into EU law; (2) not to liberalise water services in the EU; and (3) to contribute to achieving access to water and sanitation for all across the world’. On the one hand, there is the interest of trade unions in keeping water provision in public hands, as working conditions are generally better in the public than the private sector. On the other, user groups are supportive of universal access to affordable clean water. It is this inclusion of issues beyond the work place, the right to access to clean water, which has allowed these trade unions to link up with other social movements and, thereby, broaden the social basis for resistance and form bonds of solidarity.

Analysing exploitation from the perspective of women in the Global South

Chandra Talpade Mohanty from a ‘revised race-and-gender-conscious historical materialism’ 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. ‘Any analysis of the effects of globalization needs to centralize the experiences and struggles of these particular communities of women and girls’ (Mohanty 2003: 235). It is from this perspective that capitalist exploitation of workers can be understood in its gendered and racial dimension and the way capitalism uses related discourses to fragment the working class. Equally, it is especially women, who are most affected by current cuts to public sector jobs and services in industrialised countries, partly because the workforce in the public sector is predominantly female, partly because women are more likely to have caring responsibilities or be lone parents. Hence, when analysing exploitation and resistance in times of austerity, analysis can be grounded in the experience of women in industrialised countries.

When thinking in terms of resistance by the most exploited women in the global economy, SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association) in India, registered as a trade union, but organising predominantly female homeworkers, is one of the most successful examples of organising. Through initiatives such as its green livelihoods strategy, SEWA has protected the livelihood of many of its 1.3 million female members. SEWA also provides an excellent example of how these novel forms of organisation can be integrated in formal global labour institutions. In 2006, it was accepted as affiliate by the International Trade Union Confederation.

To conclude, it is in processes of class struggle in the current global crises that alternative ways forward can be forged by social class forces, encompassing traditional workers and trade unions as their representatives as well as new social movements and their concerns around issues related to race, gender and the environment.

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

Published inInternational Political Economy

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