Notes and discussion points on Beverly Silver's "Forces of Labor"

Submitted by martin on 23 August, 2005 - 2:32

The notes and discussion points are classified under three headings:

  • Auto workers and textile workers (Silver's ch.2 and ch.3 to p.97)
  • Overall trends (Silver's ch.4 and ch.1)
  • The future (Silver's ch.3 from p.97 onwards, ch.5, and ch.1.

The notes were prepared for a Brisbane Workers' Liberty discussion series in August/ September 2005.
Click here for a review of "Forces of Labor" by Martin Thomas.

1. Auto workers and textile workers

a. Silver more or less assumes that auto workers' struggles belong to the past, except perhaps in China. Why? The motor vehicle industry is still expanding worldwide, it is still the single biggest manufacturing industry, and it remains sizeable even in the oldest industrial countries. In the USA at the end of the 1990s there were as many car workers as ever. In the UK the number of motor vehicle industry workers fell by 50% in the 1980s, but then increased by 25% in the 1990s. Including jobs in suppliers and so on, the industry employs 300,000 people. In Germany it employs 800,000. Silver's argument is that conditions turn worse for workers' struggle in the later stages of the global "product cycle" - but it's not clear exactly why. That car workers' struggles have declined since the mid-1980s is a fact; but the idea that this is a normal, paradigmatic, feature of the later stages of any product cycle may need more examining.

b. Silver argues that workers in poorer, ex-colonial countries will always win less, as their country becomes a leading site for new industries like the auto industry, than workers in metropolitan countries. Is this actually true in comparative terms, i.e. comparing what workers have won after their first big wave of organisation and struggle to what they had when unorganised? Look, for example, at what Korean workers won in their first big wave of organisation and struggle. To say that the workers' struggles can't completely outweigh the other mechanisms in capitalism which make for continuing and increased inequality between countries may be true, but isn't the same thing. Also, the idea that workers' struggles in metropolitan countries can win because their bosses have monopoly super-profits is dubious. By the time US auto workers were organising and struggling on a big scale in the 1930s, who had a windfall monopoly position in the auto industry? No-one.

c. Are there problems with taking the auto industry as the paradigm of 20th century workers' struggles? It is, and has long been, the biggest manufacturing industry, with the biggest factories; but it has never employed more than a small fraction of the whole working class; and, as Silver shows later, even manufacturing in total has never been the top sector for workers' struggles except in the 1870s and 1930s.

c. Silver contrasts textile workers with auto workers. Main contrasts: the "spatial fix" works much faster; textile workers have more militancy but less bargaining power. And, it seems, increasingly less as the global "product cycle" moves into its later stages. Is this valid?

2. Overall trends

a. Why do the late 1960s and the early 70s not show up as a high point in Silver's graphs? (Not even to a small extent - they appear as a period of continued very slow decline in levels of struggle).

b. Silver's initial argument about the inadequacy for capital of "spatial fixes" suggests a sort of "crude-Marxist" theory of working-class struggle - that, as capital expands and develops, in whatever way, it increases the working class, so that the level of working-class struggle will continuously increase. Actually, if you take out the 1990s, the overall trend from the 1870s to the 1980s is of the level of struggle tending to rise. But with lots of ups and downs; and, living in the early 2000s, and seeing the down-trend of the 1990s continuing, we cannot in fact "take out" the 1990s. So Silver wants to construct a theory which allows for cyclical "booms" and "slumps" in working-class struggle. She has three elements to this theory.
i. The idea of "fixes" - that bosses move to circumvent workers' struggles by "spatial", "technological", "product", and "financial" fixes.
ii. The idea of overall "regimes" which are "labour-friendly", allowing for "social compacts", or labour-hostile.
iii. The role of big wars in at first dampening and then spurring workers' struggles.

c. How do the first two elements fit together? (Badly, it seems to me. The "fix" theory has capital as a purely reactive element in society, moving only in response to workers' pushes. The "regime" theory, by contrast, sees the overall context as set exclusively by the supposed functional needs of capital, as if the working class were a largely passive element. In fact, even if the working class were entirely passive, capitalist policy would not be determined in this "functionalist" way).

d. Does the idea of the "financial fix" even make any sense at all? Capitalists cannot live just by lending money to each other, any more than they can live just by inviting each other out to lunch.

e. In the end Silver seems to give most weight to the "successive-regimes" theory. "World labour unrest in the 20th century…. has been embedded in a pendulum swing between crises of profitability and crises of social legitimacy" (p.178). But are high-profit and high-social-legitimacy actually opposite poles for capital? And if so, which is supposed to be the more advantageous regime for working-class struggle?

f. This "pendulum" theory is tied to Silver's notion of two types of working-class struggle, "Marx-type" and "Polyani-type". The idea is that "Polyani-type" struggles wax and wane cyclically as the working class first reacts against unsoftened market pressures, then wins some softening, then faces renewed market pressures as the softening becomes too expensive for capital. And in the end (see above) Silver implicitly sees "Polyani-type" struggles as the dominant element, one which shapes an overall "pendulum-swing" pattern. But is the dichotomy between the two types of struggle valid?

g. Isn't there a false underlying assumption, one that Silver shares with many other Marxists? The profit-norm assumption: that capital has an inherent normal profit rate, above which it is booming, reformist, and willing to accept "social compacts", and below which it is in crisis, counter-attacking, and confrontational? The short answer is that the large recovery in profit rates in many capitalist economies since the early 1990s has not made capital less confrontational at all.

h. Marx plainly cannot have had a "crude-Marxist" view of how working-class struggle would develop. He lived in England, where a huge semi-revolutionary workers' movement - including in its course brief phases of mass unionism, and a general strike - had subsided after 1848 to be replaced by a period of narrow, small-minority, craft unionism and Liberal political domination of the working class which would end only some years after his death; and nowhere else in the world, in his lifetime, was there really a mass workers' movement. How did Marx differ from "crude-Marxism" on this?

i. What elements are missing from Silver's account? (Suggestions: Politics. Stalinism. Victories and defeats, and the ability of big defeats to "set the terms" for a generation after. Privatisation. The complex impact of increased capitalist competition on class struggle.)

3. The future

a. Silver's discussion of future strategic industries is shaped by considerations of the different "bargaining powers" of workers in those industries. But isn't "bargaining power" a more complex and multi-dimensional thing than she allows for?

(Three examples.

i. Construction workers have no power to halt capital in general. Capital can always go on a few months or even a few years longer without new buildings. Generally workers on one site have no power to stop work on another site except through consciously-decided solidarity action. But - at least at certain times in a job - they can have huge bargaining power against a boss who would rather pay out a bit extra than face penalty clauses.

ii. Workers in a fast-food chain equally have no power to halt the whole economy. But if workers in a fast-food chain - or even a strategic minority of them, for example workers in the distribution warehouse - can shut down the chain, they have quicker-fire bargaining power than construction workers. The boss loses income immediately; loses perishable stock; and risks a permanent loss of market share if he does not resolve the dispute quickly.

iii. Workers in an ISP would appear to have huge bargaining power, since if they shut the ISP down they can disrupt vast amounts of business within, not days, but hours. In fact they have relatively little, because a couple of managers can keep the servers functioning on a basic level for weeks.)

b. Consider the concept of "bargaining power" with regard to the Gate Gourmet workers at Heathrow.

c. With a more multi-dimensional concept of workers' economic power in different industries, how do we assess the industries Silver mentions:
- Semi-conductors (and micro-electronics in general);
- Producer services (cleaning, computer services, maintenance - or catering, as with Gate Gourmet);
- Education;
- Personal services. (Fast food. But also retail, health…)
- Transportation?

d. What about other rising industries which she doesn't mention?
- Telecom
- Finance

e. Is the general proposition that service workers have less bargaining power than manufacturing or transport workers true? Or, rather, what element of truth is there in it?

f. What overall assessment should we make of Silver's work? What new information and ideas do we get from her research? What theory about the trends of working-class struggle should we work with, if not the "crude-Marxist" one ("ever onwards and upwards"), not Silver's "pendulum" one, and not the Thatcherite/ "post-Marxist" one ("the working class is finished, and all we can hope is that some NGOs will civilise capitalism a little")?

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