Between Marx and Polanyi: new labour mobilisations in the Italian crisis.

Author:Caruso, Loris
Position:Karl Marx and - Report


The crisis of class conflict in western countries is one of the key political events of the last thirty years. Class conflict has been innervating modern politics since the second half of the 18th century, up until the 1970s (Bartolini 2000). It is largely on this basis that the distinctions between right and left have been built, that politics has become mass politics, and that modern ideologies have received their basic features. Therefore the weakening of class cleavage is one of the key factors that makes these dimensions of politics lose visibility and strength.

The class conflict that innervated the political struggle in the 18th and 19th century is that of the subordinate classes against the ruling elites, and this is the part of the conflict that is in crisis. On the other hand, there is also the conflict of the ruling classes against the subordinate classes. As Gallino recently wrote (2011), this second line of the conflict is particularly active today: the ability of the elite to reduce the wages, legal guarantees and political and symbolic power of the lower classes has grown significantly since the 1970s. This process has been described as a rematch of capital over labour (Harvey 2010), as capital managed to position in its favour the balance of power that in the first three post-war decades had shifted in favour of work.

The crisis of the bottom-up line of class conflict is due to various phenomena. The first is what in the literature of the 1960s and 1970s was called a 'gentrified worker'. The growth in workers' income, their entry into the market of mass consumption, their exposure to mass media, the reduction of fatigue in factory work, the increase of qualitative work, the political achievements of labour--all these factors reduce, from those decades onwards, the material and symbolic gap between classes (Goldthorpe et al. 1968-69). The younger workforce, working in companies with advanced technologies and labour relations, begins to change the self-representation of workers' labour, which acquires an instrumental dimension and is perceived as a means to achieve functional purposes unrelated to work. At the same time, from the 1970s on, it develops an erosion in the two essential areas of workers' solidarity: the large factory, which was the centre of solidarity within the work process, and the working-class neighbourhood, which was the centre of everyday solidarity, mostly with a communitarian origin, and which had the highest importance in the construction of the sense of separateness that substantiated the identity of the workers' movement (Hobsbawm 1984). The deconstruction of these two places is not simply the result of the 'natural' evolution of technological and urban systems. Instead, it also has a political nature, consisting in the intention to weaken the solidarities on which the labour movement has built its ability to take collective action. Outsourcing, lean production, the automation of production, the transition from the big integrated factory to the so-called network-factory and to the world factory, were also forms of momentum in the class conflict.

In the same years, the integration of the European socialist parties also took place in the sphere of government. This phenomenon favours the gradual programmatic moderation of these parties and their abandonment of the political investment on class cleavage, leading to the current separation between the sphere of representation and the demands coming from the workers.

Globalisation of production and finance is considered to be another decisive factor in the crisis of labour movements, as evidenced by such phenomena as the decline in strikes and other forms of militancy (Shalev 1992), the decline in trade union membership (Western 1995), the lowering of wages, and the growth of precarious employment--phenomena that Silver (2003) links to the mechanism of the 'race to the bottom'. That is, the mobility of capital and production increases international competition among workers, dividing unionised workers and non-unionised workers, weakening their bargaining power and resulting in a race to the bottom in wages and guarantees. The key element of this process is the limitation of the regulatory power of the states in the face of international mobile capital, which is free to move in and out of the most convenient places, pitting them against each other in terms of wages, legal guarantees and levels of taxation, and reducing their ability (and willingness) to protect workers' living standards and rights. The replacement of the integrated factory with 'global value chains' based on subcontracting networks also disorganised and fragmented the working class, leading workers in an attitude that Hyman (1992) has called the 'politics of resentment', an anger oriented not towards the elites, but towards their peers or to the marginal sections of society, what leads to the delegitimisation of trade unions and left-wing politics, perceived as powerless in the face of current changes.

Wright (2000) traces the bargaining strength of labour in two types of power: structural power and associative power. The structural power, in turn, is composed of a bargaining power tied to the market and by a power bound to the workplace. The first increases with the rigidity of the labour market, the skills of workers, high levels of employment and of non-wage sources of income. The second comes from the placement of workers in a prime industrial sector and the degree of integration of production processes, which increases the effects of strikes. The associative power depends on the formation of collective organisations of workers; that is, trade unions and political movements and parties.

Globalisation erodes structural power, because it places on the world market a large 'industrial reserve army'. The post-Fordist transformations of production, with the vertical disintegration of the production process, weakened the bargaining power linked to the workplace. Neoliberal policies have led to a significant reduction of non-waged sources of income (welfare). These three phenomena affect associative power, making it more difficult to build collective workers action, just as, as is the case since the early 1980s, neoliberal policies pursued a decrease in the political weight of unions, largely de-institutionalising labour policies, stripping unions of their capacity to intervene in the definition of these policies through neo-corporative paths and collective bargaining. Finally, global competition among workers promotes protection requirements based on alternative identities to those of class, such as ethnic and communitarian.

Not all interpretations of the relationship between globalisation and labour movements converge, however, to decree their irreversible crisis. This crisis has been announced many times. When Fordism arrived, the weakening of the role of skilled workers, the ability of capital to tap into new sources of culturally diverse workforces and the development of technologies fragmenting and alienating labour were all seen as factors in the decline of the labour movement. Furthermore, manufacturing jobs have always been characterised by a high heterogeneity and plurality of professionals, contract types, tasks, technologies and processes (Musso 2011). The image of a naturally compact working class was built only ex-post, as a consequence of the affirmation of trade unions and leftwing mass parties.

The effects of the 'race to the bottom' may be impaired, it is argued, by the fact that global production will help to create a world working class, subject to similar conditions of work and life (Robinson & Harris 2000). Production by multinational companies on a global scale makes possible, theoretically, the defence of common interests between workers of the same company. Second, the cultural fragmentation of workers in the world would not be greater than that of the 20th century between the workers of the same nation. The current spread of global culture, especially due to the influence of the media and the diffusion of communication technology, would make cultural distances even smaller than under the old intra-national differences (Evans 2010). If one of the arguments with which the crisis of labour conflicts is declared is the reduction of state power, it is argued that the nation-state has been a useful means for improving the life condition of workers only in limited moments of contemporary history, and always as a result of the emergence of sharp conflicts. State policies on employment and economy are also reaching high levels of international homogeneity, and this makes it possible to identify the political demands of work concerted at a supranational level. With regard to structural power, just-in-time production can increase the vulnerability of capital to possible interruptions of the flow of production, and the mobility of productive capital is limited to relatively few products and services, while many of these are still strongly tied to the place (Evans 2010). It also points out that globally, the number of employed persons has never been as high as today (3 billion), as well as the number of workers enrolled in unions participating in international trade union federations, which is 150 million (Munck 2010).

According to Silver, in the history of industrial capitalism, the working class has been cyclically constructed, deconstructed and reconstructed. At the core of this process is an oscillatory mechanism. The expansion of production tends to strengthen workers and leads capital and states to make concessions to the demands of labour movements. These concessions lead to a profit crisis of capital. The resulting efforts to raise capital profits by breaking the earlier social pacts and by a greater commodification of labour, in turn, determine a crisis of legitimacy of capitalism (which can also be guided to...

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