Labour and the state in China's passive revolution.

Author:Gray, Kevin


The ongoing capitalist restoration in China has drawn millions of Chinese workers into the networks of global production. Few scholars would deny in principle that the emergence of a working-class movement in China would have a profound impact on the nature of the contemporary global division of labour. In general, however, workers, their organisations and their spheres of action have historically been for the most part overwhelmingly nationally bounded. Their actions are only considered to be 'internationally significant' when they somehow succeed in transgressing national boundaries: when, for example, national unions engage with international institutions, or when workers succeed in forging solidaristic relationships with workers in other countries. Certainly, much valuable research has been carried out along these lines of inquiry, and this has greatly contributed to our understanding of the dynamic relationship between labour as an active social agent and the potential for transformations within the global political economy. Yet the examination of the strategies of the highest echelons of labour bureaucracies, or of those elements of organised labour best positioned to transcend national boundaries, risks neglecting the wider transformative role of labour movements. There has been little progress in terms of empirical examination and theorisation of the actual role workers' struggles have played in the ongoing transformation of the global capitalist system. The challenges are all the greater when it comes to examining labour in China, where it is quite difficult to empirically identify an independent labour movement so to speak, and where the barriers to the emergence of a working-class consciousness are manifold. Beyond academia also, China's official corporatist union structure is largely shunned by the international labour community as a tool of the state. From this perspective, we can quite understand the neglect of the potential transformative agency of China's working class. To some extent, this is an outcome of an analytical approach that seeks evidence of a 'class-in-itself' with an identifiable organisational labour movement structure.

This article seeks to offer an alternative approach to analysing the dynamics between labour and global capitalism by adopting Antonio Gramsci's concept of 'passive revolution'. The utility of the concept of passive revolution is demonstrated first by a critical examination of recent attempts to analyse the world-historical relationship between workers' struggles and global capitalist development. In particular, Beverly Silver's theorisation of the relationship between labour and the spatial and temporal dimensions of global capitalist restructuring is critiqued for its failure to systematically analyse the role of the state in mediating between global capital and global labour. It thereby charts an overly deterministic relationship between the objective processes of global capitalist industrialisation and the responses of workers. It is necessary, therefore, to focus on the dynamic nature of state-society relations, and specifically, on the role of labour within those relations. Analysis of the Chinese case shows that whilst in recent years China has witnessed a significant degree of spontaneous and unorganised labour unrest, the state has been highly active in seeking to forestall the emergence of a politically conscious organised labour movement. However, in carrying out a 'revolution from above', the state has also facilitated developments that may potentially undermine Chinas present mode of insertion into global production networks as 'workshop of the world', and the role of China as a 'spatial fix' for global capital. However, the point here is not simply that the state plays an important role in intervening between global capital and global labour. Rather, this 'revolution from above', as an attempt to forestall the disruptive emergence of new labour subjectivities, should be understood within the framework and the specificity of the international states system. As the analysis will show, labour struggles, class formation and the role of the state in these processes are conditioned both by geopolitical rivalry and by the demonstrative effects of earlier cases of successful industrialisation, as well as by examples of resultant labour struggles.

Labour and global capitalist restructuring

Global restructuring since the 1970s has led to something of a resurgence of interest in the agency of workers and their role in the global political economy. Writers from a variety of academic disciplines have argued that contemporary trends associated with 'neoliberal globalisation' have created the conditions for a greater transformative and even emancipatory role for labour. (1) Such conditions are said to include the increased transnationalisation of production, the global 'race to the bottom' in wages and working conditions, the retreat of the state from macroeconomic demand management, the decline of social corporatist institutional arrangements, and the end of Cold War-era barriers to international labour solidarity. Together, these trends have been taken as evidence that organised labour's relatively privileged role within the Fordist system of socioeconomic and political organisation has now become a thing of the past. Instead, the deepening international division of labour and processes of 'globalisation' in general are creating the conditions for a genuinely global labour movement.

Certainly, there is much evidence to suggest that a global emancipatory role for labour may now be a distinct historical possibility. But at the same time, the hindsight of 19th and 20th century labour history should lead us to exercise caution with conjectures regarding the relationship between the broad structural processes commonly referred to as 'globalisation' and the responses of social actors such as labour. Marx and Engels were early proponents of the view that capitalist industrialisation would necessarily bring about the revolutionary association of workers, and thereby undermine the 'very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products' (Marx and Engels 1967: 93-94). Thus, the emancipatory agency of labour was understood to be determined by the level of development of capitalist social relations. The historical record, however, and most notably the nationalist orientation of European labour movements following the outbreak of the First World War, and the incorporation of labour into Fordist modes of regulation following the Second World War, served to problematise the optimistic but excessively deterministic connotations of Marx and Engels's early comments on the relationship between workers' organisations and capitalist industrialisation.

In their later work, Marx and Engels became more concerned with apparent barriers to the development of workers' revolutionary consciousness. As Richard Hyman (1971) argued, there was a transition from the optimism of the early Marx and Engels towards the pessimism of their later work, and of later Marxist thinkers such as Lenin, Trotsky and Gramsci. These rapidly changing views on the revolutionary potential of workers and trade unions no doubt owed much to the vicissitudes of the working-class struggle itself. This susceptibility to immediate external context in theorising labour is by no means limited to classical Marxism, but can also be extended to post-war industrial relations theory, new social movement theory, and the more recent literature on labour and globalisation, all of which differ markedly in how they define the basic nature of trade unionism under contemporary capitalism.

This crude and largely unintentional correlation of waves of 'optimism' and 'pessimism' with actual world-historical patterns of labour unrest points to the need for a more temporally and spatially sensitive theorisation of the relationship between the role of workers' agency and global capitalist development. One relatively recent attempt to do this has been made by Beverley Silver (2003), who has examined global patterns of labour unrest through a timeframe that extends back to the late 19th century, and shows how labour struggles have both produced and are an expression of the uneven nature of global capitalist development. The argument is based upon the Marxist premise that capitalist industrialisation necessarily gives rise to class consciousness and labour militancy. However, Silver views the consequences of this relationship not in terms of revolutionary transformation but in terms of crises of profitability to which capital responds by adopting spatial, product, technological and/or financial fixes. The 'spatial fix' refers to a situation in which production is relocated away from labour union strongholds to regions or countries where workers are, for whatever reason, politically weak (Silver 2003: 39-40). As such, it has particular relevance for understanding the consequences of the expansion of production into the global South. Through an analysis of newspaper reports dating back to the 1870s, Silver traces a pattern of labour unrest and ensuing relocation of manufacturing in the car industry that originates with the emergence of Fordist production in the USA in the 1930s. Faced with increasing labour militancy, which itself resulted from the growing structural power accruing to workers in Fordist mass production, US car manufacturers responded by relocating production to non-union stronghold areas of the USA and, following the Second World War, to Western Europe. In the 1950s and 1960s, this led to the emergence of militant labour struggles in Europe, and the response of car-makers was once again to relocate production elsewhere, this time to the newly industrialising countries of Brazil, South Africa and South Korea. True to the established pattern, this again led to the emergence of militant labour movements...

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