Review of Beverly Silver's "Forces of Labor"

Submitted by AWL on 29 August, 2005 - 2:23

Review by Martin Thomas of Beverly J Silver, Forces of Labor: Workers' Movements and Globalization since 1870, Cambridge University Press.

Beverly Silver's Forces of Labor squarely addresses a question central to real socialist politics today, yet not tackled systematically in any other extended study to date: what are the long-term trends of working-class combativity, what are the reasons for the worldwide dip in struggle since the 1980s, and where should we look for revival?

Official strike statistics exist continuously over a long period for only one country in the world (the UK), and anyway their counting is often seriously incomplete and inconsistent between countries. To get substantial long-term statistics, therefore, Silver and her co-researchers turned to the major newspapers of the hegemonic powers.

They tabulated every mention of labour unrest in the London Times and the New York Times between 1870 and 1996, discounting London Times reports on British disputes and New York Times reports on US disputes. By counting "mentions" rather than disputes, they gave greater weighting to bigger or longer struggles. They tested their findings against official strike statistics where they exist, and found that the newspaper count gave a workable measure.

The broad long-term trend is for a slow increase in labour unrest. However, three anomalies stand out.

The first, unsurprisingly, is that labour unrest dipped sharply during the two world wars, and then rose to all-time highs after them.

The second, oddly, is that Silver's figures show no peak at all around the late 1960s and the early 1970s. That period appears as one of fairly high but slowly declining militancy.

This is a puzzle. Silver's comment seems inadequate. "If we disaggregate the date by country, there are indeed waves [i.e. peaks] where and when we would expect them, e.g. France in 1968, Italy in 1969-70. The fact that it does not show up in the aggregate time series is probably due to several factors. First, the explosions were not simultaneous in all European countries, thus, they tend to average each other out in the aggregate time series.

"Second, the wave, while intense, was relatively short-lived. Thirdly, much of the social unrest of the period... was not classifiable as labour unrest".

The third anomaly is a sharp downturn in struggle, in metropolitan countries from the early 1980s, in ex-colonial countries from the end of the 1980s.

In 2005, we know that downturn has continued and worsened since 1996, the end of Silver's database. Developments which around 1996 plausibly seemed to point to a general revival - the French strikes of 1995, the South Korean strikes of 1996, the shifts in the US trade union movement around that time, Seattle in 1998 - have not done so.

Working-class struggle has far from vanished, but the current dip in the graph is without precedent except for a smaller dip in the 1890s - or, perhaps, outside Silver's time frame, the long slump in British working-class activity between the defeat of the Chartists in 1848 and the rise of New Unionism in 1888-9.

Silver starts her book by refuting the idea that geographical restructuring can abolish working-class struggle. A chapter on the car industry shows that industry bosses have been "relocating" from the start - Detroit was chosen as a site because it was an "open shop" city - but their "relocations" have consistently been followed by a "relocation" of working-class struggle.

"The epicentre of auto worker militancy [shifts] from North America in the 1930s and 1940s to northwestern (and then southern) Europe in the 1960s and 1970s and to a group of rapidly industrialising [ex-colonial] countries in the 1980s and 1990s".

Silver plausibly predicts new surges of worker militancy in China in the coming years. But if that were the whole story, then the global trend of workers' struggles would be unambiguously upwards, with at most short setbacks, as industries and thus strong working-class concentrations spread across the world.

Silver introduces three main ideas to explain why the actual pattern is more complicated.

First, she argues that in the later stages of the "product cycle" - the evolution of an industry from cutting-edge, high-tech sector concentrated in a few richer countries to global routine staple - workers' position tends to be weaker because the bosses have less windfall pioneers' profit from which to make concessions, and competition is sharper.

Second, she invokes several other "fixes" with which bosses can respond to worker militancy other than the "spatial fix" (moving to another country or region). The critical one, for her, is the "financial fix", i.e. capital moving out of production altogether and into financial manipulations.

Third, she distinguishes between two distinct types of worker struggle: "Marx-type", driven by workers feeling strong, and "Polyani-type", driven by workers feeling weak and threatened by market pressures. In the course of the book, she tacitly drifts towards seeing the "Polyani type" as primary, so that "world labour unrest in the 20th century has been embedded in a pendulum swing between crises of profitability [in which established capitalist concessions to workers prove too expensive] and crises of social legitimacy [in which capitalist measures to recover profits provoke "Polyani-type" struggles]".

To my mind, none of these three arguments holds together. Whatever the reason for US carmakers, for example, giving concessions to US car workers in the 1930s, it was not that they were making big windfall profits. The car industry was already decades old, highly competitive, and facing a slump. Contrariwise, the relative gains won by Korean car workers in the 1980s were not smaller than those won by US carworkers in the 1930s.

The "financial fix"? Capitalists cannot live just by lending money to each other, any more than they can live just by taking each other out to lunch. And who says that finance workers can't strike?

The "pendulum" theory would imply either that today we should have a big rise of "Polyani-type" struggles (in response to sharp market pressures), or that the bosses should be easing off (because, in many countries, profits are well up on what they were in the 1970s and early 1980s). Neither has happened.

Silver's approach is skewed by her theoretical framework. She is avowedly "Third-Worldist", emphasising "Third World" versus "First World" as a struggle as or more important for progress than workers versus capital.

Taking a cue from Italian operaista theory, she tends to present all capital's moves ("fixes") as defensive reflex responses to worker militancy. Simultaneously and incongruously, following a different cue from French regulationist theory, she presents workers' struggles as iron-cased by successive capitalist "regimes", shaped by the functional needs of capital. For her 1945-70s was a period of a global "labour-friendly" regime ("social compact" or "developmentalist") in which workers' struggles may have been large but had little subversive dynamic.

With one eye, so to speak, she sees the working class as the only active force (but being such more or less irrespective of politics) and capital only having defensive reflex responses. With the other eye, she sees worker struggles as reflex responses whose import is decided not by their own dynamic but by the capitalist-designed "regime" in which they are embedded.

Consequently, and also because of Silver's own Stalinistic sympathies, the effects of Stalinism in shaping workers' organisations, limiting the import of workers' struggles, and dragging much worker organisation down with it when it collapsed, are missing from the story.

So are politics generally, apart from a chapter largely given over to the effect of world wars on workers' struggle. But how is the long ebb of the British working-class movement from 1848 until 1888-9 to be explained, if not by reference to politics and to the tremendous force of inertia that certain "shaping" or "generational" victories and defeats can have?

Silver also gives insufficient weight to technical and organisational restructuring of capital. I don't think the word "privatisation" even appears in the book. She nowhere discusses the effects of the large reduction in the size (measured by number of workers) of manufacturing workplaces in recent decades.

While she mentions the increased intensity of global capitalist competition since the 1970s, I don't think she gives it enough weight as a factor operating in combination with the drastic technical-organisational restructurings of capital in the same period.

But this is a study with a vastly greater weight of empirical research behind it, a much longer historical view, and much more searching in argument, than the other books of recent years covering something like the same issue: Ellen Wood's collection Rising from the Ashes? (Monthly Review Press, 1998) and Leo Panitch's and Colin Leys's Working Classes, Global Realities (Merlin, 2001).

Both Wood and Panitch-Leys contain many valuable articles. Their general political and theoretical standpoint is much more congenial to ours than Silver's. But Silver's is the book that presents the greatest challenge, and the most material for thought.