• Facing Reality – Strategies to Increase Power from Below in an Era of Neoliberal Globalisation

  • By Frances Fox Piven | 22 Oct 09 | Posted under: Transformative Strategies
  • Early in the rise of industrial capitalism in the mid-19th century, a set of ideas emerged and came to grip the imagination of the new working class that was being created by industrial capitalism. Those ideas reflected in part the new institutional arrangements that were being forged by urbanisation and industrialism under capitalism. But they also changed the course of industrial capitalism. They helped the working class to become a force that humanised industrial capitalism, although that force has so far not transformed capitalism.

    What were those ideas?

    First was the idea that the growing numbers of people who by changes in the economy had been forced into the mines and factories that were spreading across Europe and the Americas, could, and would in time, come to have power.

    Why would they have power?

    The power that they would both grasp and create was rooted in the very system that was oppressing them: the system of mass production. The factory system, by bringing people from the dispersed villages and farms into towns and cities would unify them, it would subject them to a common experience, bring them together physically in the same mass production locales, and expose them to the grinding routine of the assembly line, to the authoritarianism of the foreman and the boss. By unifying them and exposing them to the same conditions, the very institutions of industrial capitalism would change their political consciousness. It would shape these people from all of the dispersed villages, speaking different dialects or languages and they would realise who their common enemies were, and they would also gain a kind of understanding of vision, of socialisation, or socialism. Most importantly, in the kind of limited socialism that capitalist mass production itself created this new experience would show people that they had power. Because they would realise through their experience of the mines and the factories that they were playing a crucial role in the new system, that they could “shut it down”.

    And finally, there was the idea that as industrial capitalism grew, so would the power of these working people grow. Their numbers and their power would grow. As everybody knows, these ideas were best expressed in the Communist Manifesto. It was, of course, a polemical document. But it was also an analysis. And its impact I think was heady and inspirational. The idea that the new emerging industrial working class could have power, and that its power, its potential power at least, was a kind of inevitable result of the new system of production that was coming into being, that idea, that analysis reflected a reality but it also helped to build working-class power that ultimately did have an impact on institutional conditions, even if it was not the large impact that the leaders of the working class, and Marx and Engels themselves, hoped for. That idea fuelled the mass strikes, unions, the working-class parties, which did indeed have an impact on industrial capitalism as it developed.

    Well, that idea does not inspire any more. Now the industrial working class is shrinking, along with the unions, in the US, in the UK, and to some extent across Europe and certainly in Latin America. The parties that began as parties of the working class, the political parties, no longer seem to be class-based, they are catch-all parties, they stumble, and there is vast discouragement about the prospects for working-class power. Instead we are urged to vote for the parties that still call themselves Labour Parties, or Social Democratic Parties, because their leaders and candidates say they promise a more gentle administration of the austerities that are inevitable in the new era.

    The usual explanation of why this is so, of why the old promise has gone, evaporated, and why we are in this morass, is also a set of ideas. A set of ideas which to some extent reflect new institutional arrangements and also have a kind of momentum which promises to change, and has already changed, those institutional arrangements. And those new ideas go something like this: We are in a new era. We call it neoliberalism or neoliberal globalisation, meaning that the capitalist markets are now international. And that at the same time, domestic economies are restructuring, in ways that create the precariat, the precarious workforce, the insecure part-time contingent workforce, and that this new development is inevitable, that it is the result of a new institutional formation that is not exactly of anyone’s making, and that its consequences will be huge for the economic well-being of the working-class but especially for the power of the working class.

    I want to explain why this development has been paralysing the emergence of new ideas about neoliberalism and the institutional realities that they reflect and exaggerate – and explain why I do not think these realities should be as devastating as they seem to be. 

    Let me start at a kind of beginning. Historically, there are actually two main ideas about the power of working people.

    The first idea is the idea of democracy, of electoral representative democracy. It is the idea that if working people get the vote, and if there are periodic elections, they can have influence over state authorities. That is a very basic democratic idea, it is the way we understand democracy. There have in fact been elaborate institutional arrangements created to reflect this idea, institutional arrangements which have to do with how people are enfranchised and how votes are balloted and how elections are conducted, and the role of political parties, etc. This idea of electoral representative democracy is also very promising – and historically, it had a lot of influence on socialism – because of this idea that industrial capitalism would grow, and therefore the number of industrial workers would grow and confronting a common experience, they would develop solidarity, a kind of socialist outlook. And electoral representative arrangements could be a vehicle for power. But there was also a second idea that I think was very influential, and that was the theory of labour power. Labour power is manifested most essentially in the strike. Labour power was what the Manifesto was about. The idea of labour power associated the growth of the mass production industries with the growth of labour as a power force.

    Both of these ideas mattered in the history of industrial capitalism. Labour mattered. There was a history of the expansion of the political rights of ordinary people, of labour rights, of social protection, of the welfare state. And in that history, each kind of power affected the other. It was often very important that working people had electoral power, some electoral power, because they could use their votes, their political parties to protect their ability to deploy their labour power, their strike power, their power to shut it down.

    The conventional view, the idea that has paralysed us, that has been advanced by the neoliberal propaganda machine, the conventional view of globalisation is that it undermines both kinds of power, the electoral representative power and the kind of institutional arrangements which made ordinary people something of an influence on state authorities. It is undermined by neoliberal globalisation.

    What forms does this take? First, national authority is compromised by the rise of supra-national organisations. In order for voters to have power they need to have power over the state authorities they elect. But if those state authorities themselves are stripped of power by, for example, the rise of supra-national organisations, or their power is compromised by the rise of such organisations, then the power of the French working class is compromised by the rise of the European Union and the World Trade Organisation, and the International Monetary Fund, etc.

    But working-class power is even more compromised in this conventional view, in this new set of ideas that has trounced the old ideas about working-class power. It is even more compromised by the rise of multinational capital, multinational corporations which operate very much like business has operated in the United States since the end of the 19th century because our governmental system in the United States is a federal system. Under the federal system many of the services, tax policies, infrastructure policies that business, big business cares about are initiated and implemented on the state level, on the sub-national level. If that is so but business operates coast-to-coast on a national scale, then business can hold state governments hostage, can say: if you do not give me the tax breaks I want, if you do not build a four-lane highway up to my back door, I am going to locate in another state. That has been true in the United States, and it has been devastating for democratic power, for at least a century. The argument is that now that is true on a world level, that multinational corporations can hold national governments hostage to the promise of investing or disinvesting, and pick and choose where they will go, on condition that they get the package of policies they want.

    At the same time, there is another development that has undermined the old idea of democratic power, the power of ordinary people through the vote, through the parties, through elections: the creeping privatisation which in the United States is especially important because privatisation of government services, this new terrain of plunder by entrepreneurs, weakens our most important unions in the public sector. Probably the biggest union supporters of the Democratic Party – which is not an anti-capitalist party, but is the best we have when it comes to political parties – are the teachers’ unions – they are public sector unions – but only as long as the schools are public. And the effort to privatise public education has as one of its hidden goals the breaking of the teachers’ unions.

    Privatisation is also consequential because it is a new area for investment, for profit-making, for plunder. Look at the way we have used the limited public programmes for health to feed the big private providers in health in a way that is not subject to any kind of regulation.

    One way in which the ideas about globalisation are so devastating to the idea of labour power has to do with the way in which neoliberal globalisation weakens the promises of democracy.

    The other way is that the ideas, and some of the realities, but not all of them, are devastating to the old idea that labour power is the power to shut it down, because globalisation means shifting mass production industries to Asia, the global South. And with that shift of investment comes intensified goods competition, with the consequence that workers, unionised workers often, in the developed world, are constantly being whipsawed against workers in the global South. So, intensified competition means pressure, and the fear of exit.

    So the idea is, and a lot of union people have said this to me, including union intellectuals, that we cannot strike under these conditions. You cannot strike, you cannot talk about striking. You cannot talk about the essential exercise of labour power which is the power to shut it down.

    So this new set of ideas is crippling, it’s paralysing. But is that the whole truth? There is clearly some truth in these ideas. However, I do not think it tells it all. I think that implicit in the idea of labour power, in the idea that you can shut it down, is that there is democratic power if people have the vote. This is the more general theoretical perspective on why some people can dominate other people. And in particular, implicit in these two power ideas, is a bigger idea about why people whom we ordinarily consider powerless, helpless, inevitably subordinate, people who have nothing of conventional power resources, like money, control over jobs, control over armies, or gangs of thugs, people who have no resources, people like serfs, the urban poor, workers, sometimes do exercise power.

    Historically, there are those instances where serfs have had leverage over landowners, where the urban poor have made princes cringe, where workers have made their bosses give in. That kind of power and the power implicit in the argument about the labour power to shut it down, the power implicit in democratic ideas, derives, I think, from the patterns of cooperation, of interdependence, that constitute our society. These are patterns of cooperation which involve serfs, which involve the urban poor who have to cooperate at least by being quiescent, and which involve workers. Everybody plays a role in the normal operation of the big institutions which constitute a cooperative society.

    Those patterns of cooperation are intricate and sweeping. There are many institutional systems of cooperation, including families, churches, educational systems, but some institutional systems are more important than others.

    Economic institutions are very important, as well as political institutions which determine the central axes which bind the state to populations. And the power contestations that are made possible by economic and political systems of cooperation, those power relations can be very critical in transforming societies. And they involve everybody, or almost everybody, because people are bound together in these economic and political activities, to which they make contributions. And because they are, they can disrupt those systems. Students can disrupt universities. Workers can disrupt production. Peasants in the highlands of Bolivia can disrupt entire communities by blockading roads. So, both electoral representative democracy and ideas about worker power are particular expressions of the larger idea that interdependent relations create interdependent power. And this that interdependent power which, unlike guns and money, includes the bottom of society, increases with centralisation and specialisation.

    It follows, to me, that globalisation – whether neoliberal or not – increases the potential for power from below. The very arrangements that allow capital to exit, to move to low-cost, low-wage areas, also create new and fragile interdependencies. So everybody moans about outsourcing, poor people somewhere else are being given the jobs of producing key parts of our cars or our railway carriages. But those very arrangements also create new and very fragile and complicated interdependencies, outsourcing is two-sided. It may loosen the relations of investors with domestic workers, and weaken the power of domestic workers, but it binds investors to many other contributors, most of them subalterns. In very far-flung chains of production, and the more so when the system of production is just-in-time production, moreover, those chains of production in turn depend on complex systems of transportation. And here is what I in a way like best: they also depend on electronic systems of communication which are acutely vulnerable to the withdrawal of cooperation.

    In the old days of Fordist systems of production, people who were interested in labour power used to puzzle over the question of which workers – in a complex system, a complex factory or industry with a complex division of labour – were the logistical workers so that if you could organise them, they could shut it down.

    John Womack spent decades trying to understand which workers in Vera Cruz (he was a Mexican expert) were the logistical workers.

    Now, maybe, the idea of logistical workers is writ large, maybe lots of workers in a very complex and fragile system, division of labour and system of cooperation, are logistical workers, potentially logistical workers.

    There are problems, though. And those problems have to do with the fact that the power potential, created by any new system of institutional relations, the power potential at the bottom in particular, is not automatically expressed. A lot of strategic work has to be done to realise that power. For one thing, people who are subordinated, who are culturally suffocated, have to come to recognise that they are important, that they are making contributions. So people have to recognise that elites depend on them. They have to coordinate their actions, they have to solve the organising problem, and that is what organisers have been most preoccupied with.

    The atomisation, which in a way always has been true of large groups of workers, has to be overcome, people have to act in concert. The inhibiting influence of other institutions and other relationships has to be overcome, because people do not just have relations with investors or employers, or even with state authorities. They also have relations with the church which has been so important in the rise of the right in the United States. They have family relations, they are sometimes embedded in organisations, right-wing crazy organisations. 

    They also have to be able to endure the suspension of relationships that is the necessary consequence of withdrawing cooperation in interdependent relations. You are not only hurting the boss; you are also not going to receive a wage. And moreover, if you do that, you may risk the ending of that cooperating relationship. But the hardest thing of all is to activate this potential power that arises from cooperation, and now from new systems of complicated and fragile cooperation. But to do that you have to break rules. This has been one of the biggest inhibitions on popular action. You have to defy the rules that are set in place by state authorities themselves, influenced by other sources of power, by wealth, by force, etc. Think of how the old working class had to break the rules which prohibited unionisation as conspiracies. They had to break the rules against strikes. In the United States and in England, strikes violated the common-law tradition of master-servant law. Those are strategic problems that always have to be overcome to activate power from below. There are also strategic problems that employers, the employing class, the bosses, the multinationals, had to overcome to take advantage of the new networks of global production and trade. They were quicker to do it.

    The propaganda machines that have been created by business in the form of think tanks, publications, and special TV stations have been full of a kind of neo-market ideology. The idea that an economy that spans national borders really means the market writ large so that the old market laws which have always been crippling to labour, ideologically, are even harder to defy – that is propaganda. The airwaves, the politicians, everybody has been full of it. Employers have been quick to use the reality of exit to exaggerate exit as part of their campaign to bust the old unions created in the Fordist era. And they have also been very quick not only to use government to get rid of, to deregulate the old labour regulations and labour rights. They actually occupied government in the United States. Labour has been much slower, as havelabour leaders. They are too bureaucratic, too comfortable, their old ways of doing things worked, or partly worked, though never wonderfully, they are timid, they are old, fearful of the risks of new strategies which involve breaking rules.

    In the United States, it is not that labour has not recognised that they are in big trouble, as they lose members and density. They do know that. There have been shifts in leadership, but not dramatic ones. And what those new leaders have tried to do, they have tried to revive, is to put more energy into old strategies, the old repertoire. That includes organising the unorganised, many of the precariat, including immigrants. There have been efforts to organise part-time workers, to find allies in the community, which really means something like organising those of the precariat who are not in the regular workforce.

    Mostly what they have tried to do in the United States is use their ability to influence electoral politics to compensate for their inability to use old-fashioned labour power, strike power.

    And enormous amounts of brain power, union treasuries, person power have been poured into electoral campaigns in the hope of electing candidates who will improve labour rights, and especially the composition of the National Labour Relations Board that has been eviscerated, turned into an employer-favouring board by decades of conservative rule.

    But these are old strategies. It is not that they are useless, it is that they are weak strategies, because they are unfolding in the context of de-industrialisation, the extra leverage that employers have as a result of globalisation, the tremendous political machine that business created over the last thirty years to dominate government. These are powerful counter-influences.

    I think working people, maybe not labour unions, need new strategies. I think there are glimmerings. New strategies that take advantage of the new sources of power resulting from neoliberal globalisation and lean production. There are glimmerings of new strategies; it is not just the old stuff. In the preoccupation of some unions, particularly SEIU [Service Employees International Union] in the United States, an effort to try to increase sectoral density of unions by smashing the old union jurisdictional arrangements so that a particular union in a labour action commands a larger number of workers in a particular sector – that is one approach. Another approach is what is called “corporate strategies”, efforts to actually diagnose who those investors are vulnerable to.

    We do a big chart. We know they are vulnerable to workers to some extent, but that may not be enough and we may not have organised those workers yet. But they are also vulnerable to some business allies, to investors, to big customers. We want to know all those vulnerabilities and figure out how we can get leverage by tapping those other vulnerabilities. There is a problem in this kind of strategy, I think, because it is not workers that are exercising leverage on the targets. If it is customers or other investors, will it be workers who make the gains as a result?

    There is much more exploration of cross-border labour campaigns. And there is also an older strategy trying to form global unions. Therefore, I propose that strategy and the examination of working people’s political power strategies could be and I think should be the focus of an academic agenda.We academics could help with that. These strategies are, after all, hypotheses of world-wide and American academics. They are complicated hypotheses, they are sets of hypotheses about conflict, who can do what to whom in contention. They are complicated in part because it is not just a question of whether workers can organise and by organising whether they can exercise leverage on a target. It is also a question about counter-strategies. It is a dance, and there are different parties to the dance, with three partners at least: working people, employers, and state authorities.

    There is a lot to be looked at, a lot of data would be relevant. Data is important. The empirical world is important to illuminate our categories. Our model could be the Manifesto, but the Communist Manifesto was really too general for the purposes that we need to put to strategic work today. We want to face off against neoliberal propaganda. And that means that we have to do academic work about why the precariat or other workers who are not quite so precarious, but probably will be, why they have power, why the unfolding, the growth of international markets without opposition or resistance, without spinning off concessions to working people of any consequence – why this is not inevitable. We need to study – in a way that the Manifesto did not, could not – how people can be organised in the face of the more dispersed character of contemporary sites of labour. We need new forms of organisation. The big national and international unions, hierarchically organised, are probably not the right forms. We need to learn more about how Twitter was used to organise the Iranian protesters. We need to talk about looser, more network-like forms of organisation which the Global Justice Movement has used. We need to learn more about, to explain how, people with diverse languages, diverse traditions can be brought together, because they always were brought together. That is what the history of labour is about, it is about bringing people from diverse locales with diverse languages or dialects, diverse ideas, together.

    But the promise of power is a heady promise. And it does unite people, despite the barriers of language and tradition, and despite diverse terms of employment. That is what our history is about, and we ought to continue to make history.

Related articles