Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Grave Diggers are Assembling

“Southern Insurgency – the Coming of the Global Working Class,” by Immanuel Ness, 2016

This academic and repetitive book still has a valuable point to make.  It is filled with charts that show the flow of capital to the ‘third’ world, now named the ‘global south;’ more charts indicating the rise in the numbers of the working class in the global south; and more charts comparing labor wages in various countries to the detriment of the global south.  80% of the world’s working class is outside the ‘northern’ areas of the U.S., Europe and Japan, and is now concentrated in places like China, India, South Africa and Brazil.  These facts, along with the majority of the world’s people living in cities, indicate both its increased weight and the new geographical locus of class struggle.  The working class is now the largest in history.  The grave-diggers are assembling. 

Yue Yuen Shoe Workers Strike in China - 2014
Ness points out that migration – from countryside to city, from one part of a country to another, from country to country, from the ‘global south’ to the ‘global north’ – has been built into capital since the beginning.  Engels documented this in his “Making of the English Working Class,” describing how the land was enclosed by landlords, forcing farmers to leave rural England and Ireland for the ‘satanic mines & mills’ of English capital.  Capital still wants this free flow of investment and labor in order to undermine wages and working conditions.  It still goes where labor and commodities are cheapest, and that means finding desperate landless migrants looking for work.  Ness’s charts help prove it. 

The real news is that revolutionaries will be looking to the millions of workers in this region of the globe to begin the overturning of world capital, as capital runs out of places to hide.  According to Ness, the ‘north’ has been eviscerated by the loss of productive jobs and the substitution of a low-wage service economy of temps or an office economy dealing with paper - and hence will be somewhat late to the races.  

In the process of describing developments outside of the central capitalist countries, Ness makes short work of the ‘post-industrial’ society nonsense of people like Daniel Bell, showing that material goods are now flowing from locations that bourgeois sociologists have never visited, in conditions reminiscent of the beginnings of capitalism in Britain. One labor historian visiting the present mines in South Africa had this to say:

“underground workers …perform heavy manual work, often doubled up, under the threat of rock falls and machinery accidents.  Making matters worse, the air underground is ‘artificial’ and full of dust and chemicals.  TB is widespread and illness is common… often working 12 hour days or more….often slave more hours than the 1920s workers I studied, and they probably work harder.” 

These black immigrant miners get paid between $400-$500 a month digging up minerals like platinum, which is more valuable than gold, especially to the tech economy. 

The best parts of the book are detailed case studies of auto workers rebelling against Suzuki in India’s Haryana province; shoe workers who make Nike and Adidas going on strike in China’s Guangdong province; miners taking on the pit bosses in South Africa’s North West region.  The latter led to the bloody Marikana massacre in 2012 - the biggest massacre of workers since Soweto. The book’s thesis is that most of these labor struggles are outside the standard union environment – they are wildcats, factory occupations, workers’ assemblies run by rank-and-file groups that also involve mass demonstrations or street-fighting. This allows them to become more radical and effective.  Ness thinks the standard corporatist model of trade unionism imported from the West stifles struggle and is inadequate to the desperate situations these workers find themselves in. 

Ness’s evidence points out the weakness in NGO/government/AFL-CIO advice to bring “American Unionism” to developing capitalist countries, much as it was a Trojan horse strategy in Europe and in the former Soviet bloc.  Given AFL-CIO unions have mostly endorsed the pro-market Hillary Clinton, that weakness is still present in the union movement even here in the U.S.

Most cruel is the situation in India since 2009, where the bourgeois government, the police, the courts, the established political parties and unions all lined up repeatedly against the mass auto workers’ strikes that started at Suzuki Maruti.  The actions resulted in killings, jailings, firings and the banning of rank-and-file unions – and yet workers continue to defy the authorities  The issue of migrants is present here too, as poor peasants from all over India are brought in by the auto companies to work for cheap alongside the ‘full time’ employees, who form a minority of the auto workforce.  This is also true in the South African situation, where the official COSATU / NUM unions only want to represent a fraction of the miners – the ‘full timers.’  These are ‘two tier’ situations with a vengeance.   Ness contends that the Indian working class is being forced to organize outside the approved unions and political parties because of their support for market-driven solutions.  What Ness doesn’t mention is that many of the workers brought in from Haryana and other places are lower-caste, and so doubly ignored and mistreated. 

Of most interest is the case study in China, which saw a wave of strikes centering around the 2014 strike against the Taiwanese shoe firm Yue Yuen which makes athletic shoes for the U.S. market.  Ness carefully parses how the Chinese trade union ACFTU, which all Chinese workers must belong to, was ineffective yet helpful sometimes, and how the Chinese government was both repressive and helpful at other times. This reflects the dual character of the Chinese economy and the hesitant attitude of its state.  The strike was against the non-payment of ‘social security’ benefits, which in China encompass much more than retirement benefits - for lodging, health care – and also against conditions in the dormitories, safety issues and unequal payment of wages.  The strikes were initiated by older ‘lead’ workers who had been working for years, and joined by younger workers who understood that it involved their future too.  At one point, almost 70,000 workers from different factories were out. Benefits were won and Yue Yuen was ordered by the government to extend them to their other factories in China.  China had the least violent response to the strikes in this book, which is significant. 

Ness also points out that China's 'one child' policy, which is unknown in even overcrowded capitalist countries, allows the 'reserve army of labor' to be less, and thus gives more leverage to the Chinese working class - large as it is.

South African police shoot platinum miners - 2012
The South African situation, especially the Marikana massacre at the Lomin mine, is the most politically sad.  It puts in relief the political bankruptcy of the ANC and its union affiliates, COSATU and the NUM.  NUM snipers fired upon strikers! The former head of the NUM, Cyril Ramaphosa, and presently a shareholder and director of the Lomin mine, opposed the strike.  He was later elected to a national position on the ANC slate with Jacob Zuma.  Police had ordered mortuary vehicles 8 hours before the shootings, which left 34 miners dead and 78 wounded, so the shootings were premeditated.  Yet a 22% raise was won in the end, and workers affiliated with the independent ACMU union instead of the NUM.

Democratic rights were gained for the black majority when apartheid was destroyed through a black revolution.  But in the process the social and economic struggle was abandoned by the leadership of these same ultimately reformist forces, and so capital continued its rule in a different manner.  A black mask was put on the profit system, much as Obama’s election did the same for the U.S.  These recent labor struggles are showing the cracks in the façade of South African and international ‘liberal’ capital, which endeavors to exploit the migrant, black working class to its utmost, all the while crowing about ‘diversity’ and praising Nelson Mandela.  

Ness writes the book from a Marxist perspective, yet keeps on mentioning the IWW even when the references don’t fit, so he’s perhaps an anarcho-syndicalist.  He has also written a glowing tribute to a pro-Stalin book, so his politics are murky.  Ness never mentions a socialist solution but does diplomatically write: “The books suggests that the working class and peasants can only achieve a modicum of institutional and structural power and dignity inside the modern capitalist state.’ 

A modicum at best.

Other books about these topics reviewed below:  Annihilation of Caste,” Embedded with Organized Labor,” “The Rise of China,” “Reviving the Strike,’ “Save Our Unions,” “Africa & the New Colonialism,”  The God Market,” “The Servant Economy,” “Tropic of Chaos,” “Famished Road,” “The Race for What’s Left,” “Rebel Cities,” “The Fall of Bo Xilai.”  Use blog search box, upper left.

And I bought it at May Day Books!
Red Frog
February 24, 2016

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