The Right to Democracy and the State in Moments of Crisis: Lessons from the History of Radical Unionism

Friday, July 18, 2014: 10:40 AM
Room: Booth 46
Oral Presentation
Robert MACPHERSON , Sociology, University of California Irvine, Irvine, CA
For the last four years square occupation movements have formed the core of a revolutionary wave calling for radical forms of directly democratic organization. It remains an open question to what degree these rights to democratization can be accommodated by states and the larger structures of global capitalism – if at all. Solving this puzzle requires comparative and historical investigations of the syndicalist unions which are the most long-standing example of a directly democratic mass social movement organization on par with the square occupations. Toward that end, I take a world-historical perspective that allows a comparison of syndicalist attempts at extending democratic rights across two time periods: the early 20th  century crisis of British hegemony and the syndicalist resurgence in the current crisis of the Eurozone. The focus is on examining how syndicalist-state interaction differed from the more hierarchical worker organizations putting forward much narrower sets of rights claims. Studying the manner in which crisis-torn states of each period deferred, coopted or adopted the democratization claims of the syndicalists reveals the trajectories of state-movement interaction to be conditioned by processes of global capitalism and the specifics of local structures of dependency and exploitation. Existing social movement theories of democratic movements are shown to be both enriched and reconfigured in light of this long-term perspective. In addition, this study reveals how the movement’s rights claims to economic democracy (both inside and outside the workplace) underwent a transition from largely implicit to explicit human rights frames, thus facilitating connection with non-labor democratic movements. Finally, tracing state-movement interaction in unstable economic contexts bears on questions of the meaning and realization of economic rights; the crucial test of such rights claims in periods of crisis becomes the degree to which workers and other stakeholders have democratic input on policy and thus avoid “cost shifting.”