Academic journal article Capital & Class

Left Agency and Class Action: The Paradox of Workplace Radicalism

Academic journal article Capital & Class

Left Agency and Class Action: The Paradox of Workplace Radicalism

Article excerpt


In the current context of worldwide capitalist crisis, the issue of worker response or 'agency' comes ever more sharply into focus. The fragility revealed at the heart of capitalist relations of production, along with capital's viciously anti-working class response, raises once more the fundamental question of social transformation; and within that the role of the working class, the force identified within classical Marxism as the central agent of such transformation.

The issue of agency has not been neglected even in less turbulent times: attention to workplace-based trade union activity has been a consistent thread in labour history and industrial relations since their inception, and despite the decline of classical 'industrial sociology', the onset and development of labour process studies has to some degree maintained interest in and analysis of worker response. The growing literature on the decline of trade unionism since the early 1980s in Britain and elsewhere has focused not only on 'environmental' factors, but to the response to these constraints, itself a mixture of ideology and institutionalism, 'spontaneity' and organisation (Charlwood, 2004). More recently, the rise of the organising model as a response to ongoing trade union decline has brought the 'agency' side of the equation still more to the forefront.

Specific issues surrounding the question of agency, such as worker mobilisation (Kelly, 1998; Gall, 2005; Atzeni, 2009), trade union effectiveness (Waddington and Whitston, 1997; Waddington, 2006), trade union propensity (Verma et al., 2002; TUC, 2003) and the role of committed rank-and-file activists in building and sustaining union growth (Heery et al., 1999; Findlay and McKinley, 2003; Gall, 2007) have also been extensively surveyed. Indeed, Kelly's 'mobilisation thesis' has sparked a plethora of literature relatively uncritical of its central thesis: that workplace resistance can be understood as a response to the perception of injustice as structured and orchestrated by workplace leaders. Against this somewhat stageist and moralistic approach, Atzeni (2010) counters the structural and 'spontaneous' dynamics of actually existing worker resistance.

The aspect of agency, then, has not been neglected, neither in the current literature or in the classic accounts of workplace organisation and activity that dominated the literature in the 1950s-70s heyday of industrial 'sociology'. Since that time, other classics of workplace ethnography, such as the justly respected Cultures of Solidarity (Fantasia, 1988), have made a valued appearance, alongside research that emphasises the key role of 'workplace leaders' and participative or 'direct' workplace-based union democracy (Fosh and Cohen, 1990; Cohen, 2006).

However, one comparatively neglected aspect of the study of agency in the trade union field is the role of conscious socialists, or indeed revolutionaries, in the workplace. Following on the increased emphasis on organising (a term that goes well beyond the traditional 'recruitment' in its energetic and agency-based connotations), a number of critiques have noted the comparative absence of an examination of consciously political agency within workplace trade union dynamics.

One critique and evaluation of Fairbrother's 'trade union renewal thesis' (e.g. Fairbrother, 2000) argues, for example, that 'a major weakness in Fairbrother's work is that it is devoid of a political dynamic, that is a form of agency ... he fails to make any generalisation about the role or importance of ... political groupings' (Gall, 1998: 154-5). In a study of the Communist Party's Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions (see below), McIlroy and Campbell (1999) argue that 'our comprehension of how trade union consciousness is developed and organisation constructed through politically configured exertions of human agency ... [is] depleted and distorted'. Darlington (2002) hones in on 'the . …

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