Geopolitical Turmoil and the Fate of the Labor Movement in the 21st Century: 10 Years after Forces of Labor

Wednesday, July 16, 2014: 8:30 AM
Room: Booth 41
Oral Presentation
Beverly SILVER , Sociology, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD
My paper revisits the conceptual framework elaborated in Forces of Labor as a tool for understanding the roots of (and prospects for) the recent global upsurge of labor unrest. This upsurge has taken a variety of forms from strikes by factory workers in China and fast food workers in the United States to protests against austerity in the European Union and by unemployed and precariously employed workers in various parts of the world.  I deploy a theoretical perspective that sees historical capitalism as a system characterized by ceaseless change--"all that is solid melts into air"--and therefore as a system that is recurrently making, unmaking and remaking working classes on a world scale. The paper traces how various capitalist "fixes"--spatial, technological, product and financial--reshaped working classes locally and globally in recent decades; strengthening/weakening labor; creating challenges and opportunities. The paper develops several arguments that can be found in embryonic form in Forces of Labor. One, the combination of technological and financial fixes has been destroying livelihoods faster than it has been creating new livelihoods, leading to a generalized crisis of subsistence for workers, and a crisis of legitimacy for capitalism. Two, the profitability of the financial fix results almost entirely from the redistribution of income from labor to capital. Redistribution was key to resolving the 1970s crisis of capitalist profitability, but at the cost of an intensifying crisis of legitimacy. Three, financialization, crisis of legitimacy and hegemonic decline go hand-in-hand. We are at the end of the neoliberal era and of the era of US world hegemony. Thus, the geopolitical terrain is critical for understanding 'what is to be done', including the prospects for labor solidarity across borders and status divides in the very unequal world bequeathed to us by centuries of world capitalist development.