Globalization and the End of the Labor Aristocracy, Part 1

This is part one of a four-part article, first published in the March/April 2017 special “Costs of Empire” issue of Dollars & Sense magazine. Subsequent parts will appear on Triple Crisis over the next three weeks.

Economist and Triple Crisis contributor Jayati Ghosh argues that imperialism has not disappeared, but changed shape. The direct military conquest and control of economic territory by the great powers has given way (at least some of the time) to control through multilateral agreements and international institutions. Economic territory may still mean the seizure of land, mines, or oil fields—but it also may mean privatization of public assets and services, or the extension of intellectual property rights to new realms. Where the “labor aristocracy” of the imperialist countries once shared in the bounty of empire, the new incarnation of empire as “globalization” has helped grind away the incomes and status they once enjoyed.

Jayati Ghosh

Twenty-first century imperialism has changed its form. In the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, it was explicitly related to colonial control; in the second half of the 20th century it relied on a combination of geopolitical and economic control deriving also from the clear dominance of the United States as the global hegemon and leader of the capitalist world dealing with the potential threat from the Communist world. It now relies more and more on an international legal and regulatory architecture—fortified by various multilateral and bilateral agreements—to establish the power of capital over labor. This has involved a “grand bargain,” no less potent for being implicit, between different segments of capital. Capitalist firms in the developing world gained some market access (typically intermediated by multinational capital) and, in return, large capital in highly developed countries got much greater protection and monopoly power, through tighter enforcement of intellectual property rights and greater investment protections.

These measures dramatically increased the bargaining power of capital relative to labor, globally and in every country. In the high-income countries, this eliminated the “labor aristocracy” first theorized by the German Marxist theorist Karl Kautsky in the early 20th century. The concept of the labor aristocracy derived from the idea that the developed capitalist countries, or the “core” of global capitalism, could extract superprofits from impoverished workers in the less developed “periphery.” These surpluses could be used to reward workers in the core, relative to those in the periphery, and thereby achieve greater social and political stability in the core countries. This enabled northern capitalism to look like a win-win economic system for capital and labor (in the United States, labor relations between the late 1940s and the 1970s, for example, were widely termed a “capital-labor accord”). Today, the increased bargaining power of capital and the elimination of the labor aristocracy has delegitimated the capitalist system in the rich countries of the global North.

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The Global Industrial Working Class

Immanuel Ness is a professor of political science at Brooklyn College the City University of New York and the author of Southern Insurgency: The Coming of the Global Working Class (Pluto Press, 2015). In November 2016, he talked with D&S co-editor Alejandro Reuss about the present and future of the world’s industrial working class. News of its death, Ness argues, is greatly exaggerated—in fact, the global industrial proletariat is bigger than ever—and he expects larger and more political struggles to come. (The audio version of the interview, previously posted on Triple Crisis, is available here.) Read the rest of this entry »

Economics without Scarcity

Sara Hsu

Economists have often been characterized as a dry, calculating bunch, focusing on the allocation of scarce resources with carefully drawn supply and demand curves.  The reason for this is that economics has, in Neoclassical theory and particularly within the writings of Lionel Robbins, emphasized choices and competition under conditions of scarcity.  Mainstream economic theory, rooted in Neoclassical thought, has continued in this vein, with a focus on market efficiency as the rule.  So, why do I have a problem with it?

Mainstream theory embodies decades of debate and rigorous application, but its focus on choice under scarcity has centered the study of economics on products, not people.  The assumption that people are there to either consume or produce products moves away from any requirements for basic human well-being, as emphasized by Amartya Sen in his own criticism of Neoclassical economics, supposes that consumers and producers always want to buy or sell more goods, and fails to focus on aspects of nature (such as forests or coral reefs) as more than resources, such as entities with a right to exist without subjugation to the human race.

These assumptions are flawed and not universally held.

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From G20 to Labour20

Erinç Yeldan

The G20 Summit has met, convened, and dispersed for the next year after a massive show in the tourist heart of Turkey, Antalya.  The meetings had convened under the shadow of massive social exclusion and terror overrunning the global political economy. the G20 communiqué that had been released on November 15 was little more than a simple wish-list for a stable and participatory global economy—the main motto of Turkey’s presidency over 2015.

But to billions of working families across the globe, there was more than the standard wish-list of the G20 communiqué: the Labour20 (L20). The L20 was founded by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and the OECD’s Trade Union Advisory Committee (TUAC) and was convened with the call coming from Turkish hosts, the Confederation of Turkish Trade Unions (Türk-Iş), Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey (DISK), and Confederation of Turkish Right Trade Unions (Hak-Iş).

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The Future of Work

Consider the Changing Climate

Juliet Schor

Juliet Schor is a professor of sociology at Boston College. She known worldwide for her research on the interrelated issues of work, leisure, and consumption. Her books on these themes include The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, The Overspent American: Upscaling, Downshifting, and the New Consumer, and Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth (retitled True Wealth for its paperback edition).

Over the last year or two I’ve noticed that conversations about the future of work are now mostly about machines—how smart ones will do fantastic things to make our lives better, or how they’ll make human labor redundant and create a jobless dystopia. My training in economics has led me to be skeptical of both sides in this debate. After all, during the Industrial Revolution extraordinary labor-saving technological change had both good (cheaper products) and bad (pollution) effects. It also resulted in a tremendous increase in hours of work. The lesson from this historical episode, and plenty of others, is that technology doesn’t determine incomes, distribution, employment, or quality of life. It’s one factor in a much larger context.

Today, that context must include consideration of climate change, which has been almost totally missing from discussions about the future of work. The most obvious reason climate change matters is that it promises to be extremely disruptive. Even if the global community can pull off the equivalent of a Hail Mary pass and limit warming to two degrees Celsius, plenty of climate chaos is still in store. At this point, a future of four degrees of warming is more likely, given current national pledges for emissions reductions and considerable uncertainty about them.

This implies catastrophic sea level rise, drought, plummeting agricultural yields, frequent extreme weather, and human migrations on a large scale. These will lead to some predictable changes in the world of work: more need for first responders, health professionals, civil engineers, and aid workers, among other occupations. Climate chaos will also have large macroeconomic effects, reducing investment, consumption, and employment. A just-published study in Nature found that more than a fifth of GDP will be lost by the end of this century, much more than previous models have predicted. Another increasingly likely scenario is the bursting of the carbon bubble, once reserves already priced into fossil fuel company valuations are recognized to be unburnable and these companies’ assets collapse. Climate mayhem leads to economic mayhem. The operative word for the future of work would be shrinkage.

But this apocalyptic future is not our only option. Acting forcefully on emissions today could dramatically increase the likelihood of not only containing warming, but also making work more sustainable, satisfying, and productive. To see how, we need to consider the connection between working hours and carbon emissions, a key link that has been absent from all climate models and the climate change conversation.

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Giving Water Workers their Due

Jayati Ghosh

It is hardly necessary to state how essential water is for our survival and quality of existence, for economic activity, and so on. Indeed, this has now become a policy issue of some import. It is not just that drinking water and sanitation are recognized to be absolutely critical areas of public intervention. There is much talk about the importance of managing water systems and ensuring sustainable patterns of use. There are concerns about over-exploitation, pollution, degradation and even destruction of water sources.

There is also greater recognition of the growing importance of the distributive politics around water: cross-border tangles over the sharing of river water; the choices to be made on industrial versus agricultural versus personal use; within personal consumption, allocation between necessary and luxury consumption of water; related concerns around the ability of local elites and other powerful players to access more water in their own particular locations; and so on. These distributive conflicts have become so prominent that several analysts have argued that remaining decades of the 21st century will be characterized by “water wars” rather than the “energy wars” we have become more familiar with.

Yet in all this heightened awareness and public discussion about water issues, there is typically a deafening silence on one key aspect: the water workers who ensure the treatment, delivery and conservation of water across societies, and the conditions that they must work in. Indeed, it would not be wrong to say that this work is effectively invisible to public policy (and indeed to the public at large). This lack of recognition of the significance of water work has huge implications not only for the workers themselves, but much more significantly for the safety and ease of access to water for people as well as for economic uses, and indeed for the sustainable use of water in different areas.

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September 22, 2015 | Posted in: Uncategorized | Comments Closed

Equality, Solidarity, and Sustainability, Part 3

In this third part of a four-part interview, regular Triple Crisis contributor Jayati Ghosh summarizes some major themes in her work and thought, including the prospects for the transformation and revival of socialist movements, the transfiguration of the world capitalist economy and the reproduction of structures like the core-periphery division and landlord domination, new challenges of international labor solidarity and environmental sustainability, and the way forward towards egalitarian societies. (Parts 1 and 2 of the series are available here and here.)

Jayati Ghosh

Challenges of Solidarity and Sustainability

D&S: The ways that capitalism has linked together economies all over the world—trade in goods, international investment, international migration—directly pose the need for labor internationalism. Is it possible to develop the necessary kinds of labor solidarity when that means reaching across divides, say, between native and immigrant, or the workers of one country and with those of another country half a world away?

JG: It is obviously necessary for such bonds to be forged—it is even essential, because global forces cannot be fought only within nation states. But clearly such bonds are getting harder to forge. However, that is not only because of the material reality of physical differences and geographical distances. It is also—and possibly more crucially—because of changing perceptions of community, identity, oneness, and difference among various social groups. So workers from different countries see themselves as competing against one another in the struggle to keep their jobs and prevent their wages from falling.

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After Horror, Change?

John Miller, Guest Blogger

John Miller is a professor of economics at Wheaton College (Norton, Mass.). This post appeared originally in the September/October issue of Triple Crisis’s sister publication Dollars & Sense , as Miller’s regular “Up Against the Wall Street Journal” column.

After Horror, Change? Taking Stock of Conditions in Bangladesh’s Garment Factories

On April 24, 2013, the Rana Plaza factory building, just outside of Bangladesh’s capital city of Dhaka, collapsed—killing 1,138 workers and inflicting serious long-term injuries on at least 1,000 others.

While the collapse of Rana Plaza was in one sense an accident, the policies that led to it surely were not. Bangladesh’s garment industry grew to be the world’s second largest exporter, behind only China’s, by endangering and exploiting workers. Bangladesh’s 5,000 garment factories paid rock-bottom wages, much lower than those in China, and just half of those in Vietnam. One foreign buyer told The Economist magazine, “There are no rules whatsoever that can not be bent.” Cost-saving measures included the widespread use of retail buildings as factories—including at Rana Plaza—adding weight that sometimes exceeded the load-bearing capacity of the structures.

As Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, testified before Congress, “the danger to workers in Bangladesh has been apparent for many years.” The first documented mass-fatality incident in the country’s export garment sector occurred in December 1990. In addition to those killed at Rana Plaza, more than 600 garment workers have died in factory fires in Bangladesh since 2005. After Rana Plaza, however, Bangladesh finally reached a crossroads. The policies that had led to the stunning growth of its garment industry had so tarnished the “Made in Bangladesh” label that they were no longer sustainable.

But just how much change has taken place since Rana Plaza? That was the focus of an International Conference at Harvard this June, bringing together government officials from Bangladesh and the United States, representatives of the Bangladesh garment industry, the international brands, women’s groups, trade unions, the International Labor Organization (ILO), and monitoring groups working in Bangladesh.

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The Tragedy of the Soma Mine-Workers

The Tragedy of the Soma Mine-Workers: A Crime of Peripheral Capitalism Unleashed.

Erinç Yeldan

One of the greatest work-crimes in mining industry occurred in Soma, a little mining village in Western Turkey. At noon-time on Tuesday, May 13, according to witnesses, an electrical fault triggered a transformer to explode causing a large fire in the mine, releasing carbon monoxide and gaseous fumes. (The official cause of the “accident” was still unknown, at this writing, after nearly 30 hours.) Around 800 miners were trapped 2 km underground and 4 km from the exit. At this point, the death toll has already reached 245, with reports of another 100 workers remaining in the mine, yet unreached.

Turkey has possibly the worst safety record in terms of mining accidents and explosions in Europe and the third worst in the world. Since the right-wing Justice and Development Party (AKP) assumed power in 2002, and up to 2011, a 40% increase in work-related accidents has been reported. The death toll from these accidents reached more than 11,000.

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"Structural Reforms" and Unemployment

Philip Arestis and Malcolm Sawyer

There is little doubt that the “fiscal compact,” which has replaced the Stability and Growth Pact of the Economic and Monetary Union, reinforces an already-established neoliberal perspective on macroeconomic policy—with the emphasis on balanced budgets and an “independent” central bank only concerned with price stability (the latter to be achieved through interest-rate manipulation).

The perspectives on labour and product markets were not so clear-cut initially, but recent developments have seen a distinct shift in the neoliberal direction. There had long been calls from institutions such as the European Central Bank (ECB) for “structural reforms,” “liberalisation,” etc., alongside fiscal consolidation. Now, the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance imposes, for any country subject to an “excessive deficit procedure,” that it “shall put in place a budgetary and economic partnership programme including a detailed description of the structural reforms which must be put in place and implemented to ensure an effective and durable correction of its excessive deficit” (emphasis added).

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