Progressive Capitalism, Crisis, and Class Struggle: Lessons from Japan's Production Control and Democracy Movements, 1945-47

By Burkett, Paul; Hart-Landsberg, Martin | Capital & Class, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Progressive Capitalism, Crisis, and Class Struggle: Lessons from Japan's Production Control and Democracy Movements, 1945-47


Burkett, Paul, Hart-Landsberg, Martin, Capital & Class


The apparent global triumph of neoliberal capitalism in the 1980s has been followed by renewed economic instability and anti-capitalist protest. While financial crises savage both economic basket cases (Russia, Mexico) and erstwhile economic 'miracle' countries (Japan and East Asia), new worker-community movements have sprung up to resist the marketization of economic and social life. From the Chiapas rebellion in Mexico, to the December 1995 public-sector explosion in France, to the mass actions against the WTO (Seattle, Fall 1999) and the IMF/World Bank (Washington DC, Spring 2000)--just to name a few--workers and communities are increasingly contesting the priority of capitalist profitability and competitiveness. The eruption of these struggles signals that the resistance to capitalist globalization is itself becoming globalized, thereby raising the question 'What next?'

Yet often the best answers progressive economists can come up with involve relatively minor reforms of the system such as transaction taxes in international financial markets; greater openness and formal democracy in the decision-making procedures of the WTO, IMF, and World Bank; or--at the very most--a one-time write-off of Third World debts. For the most part, such programmatic proposals seem designed to make capitalism more equitable, stable, and efficient. That popular disquiet with capitalist institutions might itself contain a potential movement toward alternative, non-capitalist forms of socio-economic organization is rarely considered. In short, the widespread failure of left economists to formulate policy alternatives that directly challenge wage-labor relations and the dominance of 'market forces' (or even to seriously consider the connections between these two core features of capitalism) seems to complement their inability or unwillingness to develop political-economic visions directly informed by popular anti-capitalist struggles. How is this political-intellectual conjuncture to be explained?

We believe a primary cause of this failure is the prior embrace by many center-left and left economists of 'progressive competitiveness' thinking. Responding to the growing power of neoliberalism and the increasingly conservative political climate of the 1970S and 1980s, many left-of-center economists made a fateful decision to begin framing political-economic analyses and policy alternatives in more 'market friendly' terms. The idea was to fight neoliberalism by demonstrating that pro-worker policies could not only be more equitable and socially efficient, but also enhance the competitiveness of a country's enterprises in the global marketplace.

As usefully recounted by George DeMartino (1996), this intervention of left-wing thinkers into 'competitiveness policy' debates had three key features. First, unlike previous 'industrial policy' thinking, with its emphasis on the need to protect workers from market forces, the new progressive competitiveness paradigm argued that labor's work and living conditions could be improved through greater success in the market (even when such success required some prior insulation of firms and their workers from direct market pressures, in order to nurture productive capabilities requiring longer time periods for their development). Second, the industrial policy image of uneasy truce or compromise between capital, labor and the state (countervailing power) was replaced with a vision of direct collaboration between capital and labor as the basis for the development of competitive productive capabilities. Third, in formulating alternatives to neoliberal policies, progressive competitiveness thinkers drew inspiration fro m the purported successes of particular kinds of capitalism in developing more labor-friendly investment and production regimes that were also more competitive than free-market, anti-worker regimes internationally.

In this search for capitalist regimes generating improvements in worker conditions through labor-management cooperation and competitive market successes, many progressive economists were profoundly influenced (and inspired) by the succession of postwar economic 'miracles' in East Asia: first in Japan; then in South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong; and most recently in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. …

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