Thursday, February 14, 2019

Global class (2016)

Book Review from the October 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

‘Southern Insurgency: The Coming of the Global Working Class’, by Immanuel Ness (Pluto Press, 2016)

The author teaches political science at the City University of New York. He has also been a union organizer and an activist in various projects in defense of workers’ rights. He has shown particular concern with the plight of migrant workers.

Theories of the ‘post-industrial society’ are based on the perception that industry is declining and the industrial working class shrinking or even disappearing. Ness points out that this is an illusion. Manufacturing and mining remain of vital importance to the global economy and employ more workers than ever before. However, they are no longer concentrated in the ‘Global North’ – North America, Europe and Japan – as they were in the twentieth century. They have moved to developing regions in the ‘Global South’ such as industrial zones in the three countries chosen by the author for his case studies – India, China and South Africa.

The statistics that Ness marshals in support of this thesis are indeed striking. The share of the Global South in gross fixed capital formation increased from 14 percent in 1990 to 31 percent in 2010, while its share of industrial employment in formal sectors of the economy rose from 50 percent to 80 percent over the same period. The corresponding shift in the geographical distribution of wealth is less dramatic because much of the industry in the South is owned by capitalists in the North who repatriate the profits.

Repeated use of the term ‘Global South’ in this connection may be misleading, inasmuch as the new industry is not spread throughout what used to be called the ‘underdeveloped’ or ‘developing’ countries. It is heavily concentrated in just a few countries and in just a few areas within those countries. Most of Africa, for example, is still pre-industrial. Clearly we need a terminology more differentiated than binary divisions like developed/developing or North/South.

The main interest of the book lies in its descriptions and analyses of workers’ struggles in three regions – the Gurgaon industrial belt near New Delhi, the Pearl River Delta in southern China, and the mining belt in the northwestern part of South Africa. The three cases differ considerably in terms of political context, union organization (or its absence) and market conditions, although there are some significant common features – notably, the sharp divide between relatively secure and well paid ‘permanent’ workers and insecure and poorly paid ‘temporary’ or contract workers (often migrants).

Of the three groups studied it is Chinese workers who have made the greatest gains in recent years. This is despite the fact that – in contrast to India and South Africa – they are prevented from forming independent trade unions and can organize themselves only within the workplace. The crucial factor seems to be an emerging labor shortage – an inadvertent result of the one-child policy. Employers in India, where labour is in abundant supply, have responded to labour unrest by firing and replacing entire workforces. In China this is not a feasible option.

The account of the miserable pay and harsh working conditions of platinum miners in South Africa, whose protests led to the massacre of striking workers at Marikana in 2012, reveals how little ‘black’ working people have gained from the abolition of apartheid. ‘Black’ politicians, union bureaucrats and police are no less ruthless than their ‘white’ predecessors in manipulating and repressing ‘black’ workers in the service of (still mostly ‘white’) capital.

Ness appears not to have a definite political affiliation, but his theoretical framework (in particular, his concept of ‘imperialism’) shows signs of Leninist influence.

He has illusions regarding the position of workers in China under Mao, claiming that the working class enjoyed social benefits and job security. In fact, the division between permanent workers, who did possess such benefits, and temporary workers, who did not, was already well established at that time.

The author’s writing style could do with improvement and the tables contain some errors. Nevertheless, the book has a lot to offer and is well worth reading, for it does at least attempt to grasp the evolution of capitalist society and the working class as global phenomena.

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