National Political Trajectories and the Changing Power of Labor in the Global South

Wednesday, 13 July 2016: 14:15
Location: Hörsaal 32 (Main Building)
Oral Presentation
Peter EVANS, University of California, Berkeley, Dept of Sociology, USA
A Polanyian strategy can help us build on recent theorizing of labor’s comparative political success at the national level.  Cheol-sung Lee’s focus on the construction of political networks connecting labor militants with both communities and political parties seems on target.  But, the effects of political networks are unstable, as Lee documents in detail in the Korean case and as recent decades in South Africa and Brazil confirm.  How can we build on Lee’s network-based model to get a more satisfying theory of differences and changes overtime in labor’s clout among a range of similarly situated middle-income countries in the global South?

            The construction of networks and the robustness of their effects depend on the extent to which the labor movement is seen as serving a “breadth and variety of the interests” in addition to its own (Polanyi, 2001[1944]:163), that is, on the extent to which other sectors and classes see labor’s struggles as furthering their own aspirations. When middle class aspirations for political voice are blocked by authoritarian regimes, labor may be perceived as a champion of general interests.   But, the parameters that allow labor rather than some other group to take this role have not been explicated.  Nor do we understand what prevents a simple escalation of repression from undercutting labor’s success.  Finally, the perils of success itself must be considered.  Michels and the Thermidor still lurk. 

            We may still lack satisfying theories of labor’s successful engagement in national political trajectories, but this does not excuse us from exploring the possible lessons of labor’s comparative fortunes in recent years.  Complementing CS Lee’s analysis of network effects with a Polanyian analysis of perceived service to the commonweal is one way to move forward.