Disorganised capital, disorganised labour?

Submitted by martin on 2 September, 2003 - 1:53

Discussion notes on the working class in "globalised" capitalism

Disorganised capital, disorganised labour?

The labour movement in the richer countries has been weakened over the last 25 years. Why? What are the implications?

A group of us are discussing these issues by way of a critical reading of "The End Of Organised Capitalism", by Scott Lash and John Urry. I'll present my personal conclusions.
Lash and Urry distance themselves from all theories of "farewell to the working class" and disavow any blanket pessimism. Thus a discussion of their analysis is more complex than a straightforward argument about whether the working class is disappearing, or whether resistance and struggle has been quenched forever.

What Lash and Urry do claim is that "disorganised capitalism" bring an organic, structural "decline in working-class capacities". The working class continues, struggles continue, but their ability to define their own independent aims and apply coherent, continuous effort to reshape society diminishes.

The essentials of their argument:

1. In recent decades industry has been relocated to smaller towns and to outer suburbs at the expense of big cities. Big corporations organise production in a larger number of smaller plants rather than fewer, bigger ones. Regional clusters of particular industries have diminished in favour of a more uniform, variegated distribution. Settled, concentrated, cohesive, stay-put working-class communities have been dispersed as population moves to smaller towns and outer suburbs. These trends have operated in the USA since the 1940s, in Britain since the 1960s; in France, Germany and Sweden, since the early 1970s.

2. Politics becomes micro-politics. Electoral politics has become more volatile, less solidly class-aligned. Political activism increasingly goes through a multitude of small pressure groups and campaigns, with no clear coordination, rather than organised mass parties.

3. Trade union organisation becomes fragmented. National-level collective bargaining over wages and conditions, sometimes facilitated or mediated by the state, is replaced by a patchwork of more local bargaining, company-level, plant-level, local, or even individual.

4. The previous era of "organised capitalism" (from the late 19th century through to the late 20th century) saw the rise of a "service class". By this term, Lash and Urry do not mean "service workers" in general, but the professional and managerial strata. The capacity of this "service class" to cause social change has increased and is increasing. It is the prime driver for "disorganisation", and the prime force behind the rise of "post-modern culture". (Lash and Urry's political conclusion is that the only way forward for the working class is through an alliance with the "radical democratic" elements of the "service class").

My conclusions:

1. Lash and Urry greatly overstate the virtues of the old concentrated, stay-put working-class community. That was characteristically a conservative environment. In some places, in recent decades, it was conserving radical traditions of a certain sort. But in general mobility, transience, flux, footlooseness are more conducive to working-class radicalism.

2. Their whole vision of structurally-diminished working-class capacities is skewed by an unstated prejudgment about how a capable working-class movement should operate, namely, in the stolid, tightly-coordinated, even regimented way characteristic of Social-Democratic and Stalinist labour movements.

3. Their acceptance of Social-Democratic and Stalinist politics as the norm of a capable working class means that they understate the political element in recent decades. An old working-class political culture has died, particularly after 1989-91; a new one is not yet born. In the interregnum, micro-politics.

4. Somewhat smaller workplaces are no necessary bar to effective working-class organisation and struggle. Meanwhile, the development of tightly-woven just-in-time production and supply chains heightens the strategic power of numerous sections of the working class.

5. The trends documented by Lash and Urry exist in the richer countries, but not in those poorer countries where industry is now expanding fast. They have large factories in big cities with the workers living relatively close by. They also have growing trade union movements. Maybe the logic of capitalist development is that, in due course, those industrial and residential structures will change towards the pattern of the richer countries. In the meantime there will be many struggles, which can react back on the richer countries.

6. Lash and Urry's theoretical construction of a "service class" with substantial autonomy from both capital and labour does not hold up. Developments which they attribute to the rising influence of the "service class" are actually generated by defeats of labour by capital, compounded by simultaneous radical restructuring of capital and implosion of the old dominant working-class political culture.

7. The priority for the left is the building-up of a new working-class political culture. That is not an easy task. But short of that, it is difficult for trade-union revival to go beyond certain limits. The high levels of trade unionism in the richer countries in the 1960s and 70s were an anomaly. Until World War 2 the common calculation of socialists was that in a capitalist society it was pretty near impossible to raise unionisation levels above 25%. In every country, some large political radicalisation of the working class was a precondition for (and came before) mass trade unionism.

8. The residential dispersal of the working class noted by Lash and Urry, or at least some elements of it, pose a problem here. There are now large working-class residential areas (outer suburbs, small towns) where the population is not at all transient and mobile, but not particularly cohesive either, and where the left and the labour movement has no presence. Most factory workers live in that sort of area. The left tends not to look beyond the sections of the working class found in inner suburbs - more mobile and transient, most often service workers.

9. Another major obstacle to revival fits in with the developments documented by Lash and Urry but is not explicitly noted by them. That is the rebirth of a labour aristocracy in many countries. Differentials of income and living conditions have widened not only between the very rich and the poor, but also within the working class. Today the trade union movement and the left are increasingly hunkered down within certain better-off sections of the working class. We need to break out of that limitation.