Labor, the State, and Class Struggle

By Wood, Ellen Meiksins | Monthly Review, July-August 1997 | Go to article overview

Labor, the State, and Class Struggle


Wood, Ellen Meiksins, Monthly Review


After a long period of sustained attack by governments of various stripes, a steady deterioration of working and living standards, and declines in membership and militancy, there are encouraging signs that organized labor is moving again. This may come as a surprise to many, not least on the left, who have long since written off the labor movement as an oppositional force; and it may begin to challenge some of the most widespread assumptions about the nature and direction of contemporary capitalism, assumptions often shared by activists and intellectuals on the left as well as the right.

Although it is, of course, too early to make big claims about this trend, it does seem to be a good moment to take a close look not only at these new signs of activism but also at the nature of labor today and at the environment in which the labor movement now has to navigate. It is a good moment to challenge some of the assumptions about labor that have become the common sense of our historical moment - assumptions about various social, economic and technological changes that supposedly make labor organization and class politics impossible and/or irrelevant in today's "global" economy.

With this special issue, we hope to open a discussion, inside and outside the pages of MR, about the conditions and prospects of the labor movement. What I want to do in this introduction is to situate that discussion in the context of some more general considerations about the structural conditions affecting class struggle today. I want to consider, in very broad terms, the ways in which today's "global" and "flexible" capitalism affects the prospects of working class politics, the kind of politics that takes class struggle beyond the workplace to the centers of class and state power.

Questions Facing the Labor Movement

When the editors of this special issue wrote to potential contributors, we suggested that articles might be distributed among four broad themes:

1. a survey of the new activism: e.g., the French and Canadian protest strikes; recent apparently progressive trends in the AFL-CIO (and the South Korean general strike which broke out soon after we'd written our letter).

2. analysis of the structure of the working class: the changing composition of the working class, what has changed and what hasn't in the age of "flexible" capitalism - racial and gender divisions, occupational structures, new patterns of work (e.g., part-time and contractual jobs), new patterns of unemployment and underemployment, etc.

3. The political economy of labor, how it is situated in today's economy: the myths and realities of globalization, the real extent of internationalized production; the real extent and effects of new technologies; the extent and effects of capital mobility.

4. organizational and political prospects: e.g., what are the organizational implications of racial and gender division? What limits do current economic conditions impose on organized labor and what new possibilities do they open up? Does "global" capitalism demand international organization, and/or does it make national and local struggles more important than ever?

In relation to each of these questions, we wanted to look closely and critically at conventional wisdom. We wanted to see just how much the trends that everybody seems to take for granted are or are not supported by the evidence. Of course, we've only been able to scratch the surface, but we hope we've at least succeeded in opening up questions about the conventional wisdom and in generating further discussion. A critical engagement with some of the dominant assumptions about labor in the age of "globalization" and "flexibility" has both political and theoretical implications and should be no less useful to academics than to labor activists.

With all this in mind, in March of this year Monthly Review organized a roundtable for labor activists. The object was to provide an occasion and a space for people on the left in the labor movement to discuss issues of common interest, at this critical historical moment. …

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