Workers and globalisation

Print edition : August 29, 2003

Globalisation and Labour: The New Great Transformation by Ronaldo Munck; Madhyam Books, Delhi, 2003; pages xiii + 216, Rs.250.

GLOBALISATION is usually considered to be sponsored and promoted by transnational corporations (TNCs) with capital, especially finance capital, as its chief agent and new technology as its primary carrier. Viewing the phenomenon in this manner is necessary to counter the notion that it is some kind of impersonal force spreading across the globe through its own internal propulsion. However, it is still a partial view. For, if globalisation is the contemporary manifestation of capitalism, it cannot be confined to capital and its agents. While capital plays a crucial role in the capitalist order (like land under feudalism), the defining feature of capitalism is a certain kind of relationship between capital and labour. It is because of this relational aspect that capitalism becomes a social order, much more than a mere organisational arrangement or even an economic system. If so, it follows that labour - concretely workers - too have a role in globalisation.

What is it? A popular view is that the role of workers is to oppose globalisation. And a great deal of energy is currently expended in that direction. Surely, there are aspects of globalisation that should be opposed, and who but workers will or can oppose them? But is an oppositional posture alone adequate to deal with the complexities of globalisation? Is the call to the workers of the world to unite a constituent aspect of any authentic globalisation? And if it is, can the role of workers in the contemporary capital-dominated globalisation be merely that of a countervailing power?

These are the issues that Ronaldo Munck, Professor of Political Sociology and Director of the Globalisation and Social Exclusion Unit at the University of Liverpool, raises in this volume. It is one of the rare studies that specifically concentrate on the role of workers and the trade union movement in the context of contemporary globalisation.

The thesis of the book may be presented as follows:

Though capitalism does not respect national boundaries, in its historical evolutionary process it has been closely linked with nation states. Initially, nation states were the defenders, if not the sponsors, of capitalism. But the inner propensity of capitalism to transcend national boundaries led to a period of capitalist internationalism. Capitalist internationalism received new impetus from its opposition to communist or socialist internationalism of the Cold War era. Capitalism has entered a phase of new internationalism or transnationalism after the collapse of the socialist regimes in the 1980s and early 1990s and now manifests itself as global capitalism.

The reaction of workers and that of workers' organisations too have followed a similar pattern. Initially workers tried to deal with the conditions in the workplace, the factory, and resorted to a variety of methods, including machine sabotage. Many of these were spontaneous reactions. Then came a stage of broad-based and more organised attempts - through strikes and rallies, for instance - to get the rights of workers established legally. With the state thus drawn into the matter, understandably, trade union activities began to be national. The call to the workers of the world to unite was a recognition of the transnational character of capitalism and an emphasis on the need for workers to rise above their nationalistic loyalties - quite significant in an age of colonial domination of many parts of the world by capitalist nations - and to become a human community at the global level.

That there was a genuine attempt to make the workers' movement truly international from the very early stages can be seen from the history of the Internationals. Karl Marx himself was responsible for much of the international ethos of the First International. It brought together diverse social categories of labour and different political ideologies, quite a remarkable achievement in the mid-19th century. True, the ethos could not be sustained for long and by the 1870s, labour movements of Europe became steadily nationalistic. In 1889, the Second International again revived the spirit and kept it alive until the outbreak of the First World War. With the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1917 under the leadership of Lenin, the Third International again attempted to bring in the international orientation. However, the formation of the Red International Labour Unions led to a major realignment of labour policies across the globe with one section following the revolutionary ideology of the communists and others holding on to different forms of social democracy.

The question to be considered at the dawn of the 21st century is how to recapture the truly transnational spirit of workers' movements in the context of the aggressive capitalist globalisation. Munck suggests that it is important to recognise that a major implication of contemporary globalisation is the rapid informalisation of workers throughout the world, including the advanced capitalist countries. An aspect of this informalisation is what is often claimed to be a `flexibilisation' of work associated with the new information economy and which certainly confers some advantages to the new knowledge workers. However, the flexibilisation and informalisation that result from organisational practices such as subcontracting and franchising only increase a sense of insecurity in the majority of workers.

Another factor relating to and, in a sense contributing to, informalisation is the feminisation of the labour force, again, particularly in the North. By the mid-1980s more and more women across the world were getting into paid employment, and the tendency has continued to grow. And "with many more women continuously in the labour force or finding it easier to move in and out of it, or combining labour force and other work, more women are remaining in the labour force until a later age" (page 74).

These quantitative and qualitative changes have important implications for global workers' movements. First, they must give up their past preoccupation with workers in the organised sectors and become adequately inclusive of workers of all categories. Incorporating workers of the informal sector will call for major changes in the organisational patterns and strategies of workers' movements. Secondly, the concerns of workers' movements will also have to change. From treating workers as a homogeneous category, the intrinsic differences that arise from the human attributes of workers - and this is clearly brought into focus by the gender issue - must be recognised and respected. Once it is granted that heterogeneities are to be accommodated, other changes will come in too, concessions to cultural differences, for instance. Briefly, there will have to be a shift of emphasis - in thinking and in action - from homogeneity to multivalency.

This is no easy task, though, for it is a paradigm shift from worker as worker to worker in the household, worker at workplace and worker in community. It is a move away from an earlier singularity to an emerging complexity. For, globalisation is not merely an extension of the spatial dimension. It is the recognition of a variety of interconnected features. It is now common to say that globalisation must be viewed not only from above, but also from below, or that the global and the local must be taken into account together: ("Think globally, act locally".) But such binary perceptions are not adequate either to understand or to deal with the emerging processes. According to Munck, "the current phase of globalisation is precisely the intermingling of all these `levels' [as also features - added by the reviewer] in a multiplex and `hybrid' form of interconnectedness" (page 169). That is a little too bombastic but conveys something of the differences that need to be appreciated.

Perhaps, what is attempted to be communicated can be captured more readily if its operational aspects are spelt out. It means, for instance, that on many critical issues workers' movements will have to work closely with other agencies - feminists, environmentalists, human rights activists, consumer protection groups. Not that the right thing is to go along with any or all of such agencies uncritically. Many environmentalists are just conservationists; human rights are often championed by die-hard individualists who refuse to recognise the societal dimension of human beings. But environmental problems are global today and human rights must become global. As those interacting with nature and other human beings in the process of production, workers are in a position to know what is genuine and what is not in these issues. They must, therefore, enter into the agenda of workers' movements.

The author posits a "social movement trade unionism" that will not only champion the cause of workers as workers but also incorporate common social issues such as health, education, transport and environment. He points out: "The `new' capitalism is more flexible, more decentred, than the centralised bureaucratic capitalist order of the late 1950s. The `new' working class is less male, less manufacturing based, than it was. The trade unions that express workers' collective interests cover far less of the workforce than they did once and it is a truism to say that they suffer from an `identity crisis'. In all three aspects we find a different dispensation than in 1950.

Above all, there is a greater understanding that social identity is both complex and fluid. Workers are also citizens and consumers; they are also divided by gender and ethnicity, for example. Fluidity is also a natural condition and we should not expect consciousness to be fixed. This thumbnail sketch necessarily points towards a possible new mode of internationalism in keeping with the `postmodern' globalised era in which we live" (page 159).

That new mode of internationalism will have to be consciously striven for because it is easy for workers' movements to slide back into the illusory security of a nationalistic ethos. The workers of the North have become attached to the variety of social security measures offered by their governments. Workers of the South have, in the past half century, become equally attached to the protective security that their governments provided through their nationalistic development programmes. A world without borders, advantageous to workers everywhere, can come only by abandoning the temporary securities of the past. The workers of the North, for instance, must join hands with their comrades in the South in fighting for greater international mobility of workers. Workers in the South must accept the necessity of "social clauses" globally, including in their own countries.

The second of these statements in the abstract may appear to be threatening from the point of view of the South. It must be conceded that in international negotiations the representatives of the North can use the "social clauses" to protect their interest and this must be guarded against. But, consider a concrete case such as the use of child labour. Should workers in the South oppose eradication of child labour on the ground that it is simply a pressure tactic from the North, or actively strive for it because the tender age of children should be protected everywhere, including in poor countries? Decisions on matters like this are not going to be easy, but a welcome aspect of contemporary globalisation is that such issues will have to be faced everywhere in the world.

In sum, the role of workers in the context of contemporary globalisation is not to declare to be totally against it. Rather, they must make use of the opportunity of the growing awareness of the need for and possibilities of a world without boundaries to bring about an alternative global social system of production based on the political economy of labour and the moral imperatives of universal human rights and welfare. That, indeed, will be a great transformation.

Madhyam Books deserves thanks for making available to readers in India this book brought out originally by Zed Books, London.

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