Reflections on an Emancipatory Labour Internationalism and International Labour Studies
[P]roletarian revolutions, like
those of the nineteenth century, constantly criticize themselves, constantly
interrupt themselves in their own course, return to the apparently accomplished,
in order to begin anew; they deride with cruel thoroughness the half-measures,
weaknesses, and paltriness of their first attempts, seem to throw down their
opponents only so the latter may draw new strength from the earth and rise
before them again more gigantic than ever, recoil constantly from the indefinite
colossalness of their own goals — until a situation is created which makes
all turning back impossible, and the conditions themselves call out:
Hic Rhodus, hic salta! [Here is Rhodes, jump here!]
Introduction: if things are so bad, why are
they so good?
We find ourselves at the beginning of a dramatic revival of left international
labour studies (ILS). I know of at least four Europe-based conferences on
the theme in 2003, so there must have been another four internationally. I
have recently reviewed a half-dozen such books or papers (Waterman 2003a)
and could have surely found and dealt with another half-dozen. Although I
managed, during this exercise, to snatch a little enthusiasm from the jaws
of criticism, the exercise was, as a whole, a sobering one. The same is true
of several of the conferences I attended. Whilst I do not wish to exaggerate
the extent to which a new kind of labour internationalism is developing, it
does seem to me that it is well ahead of those on the left trying to make
sense of it.
Perhaps this was also the case of socialists in the period before 1848.
Globalisation, in any case, seems to be today playing the role of Industrialisation
at the time of the Communist Manifesto. Indeed, even if some argue
that globalisation is merely The Highest Stage of Capitalism, we still need
to come to terms with informatisation – which Castells (1996-8) argues is
not so much a revolution within capitalism but an epochal change, to be compared
with the invention of the alphabet some thousands of years ago. If this change
is so radical, we may have to consider whether, this time, a new emancipatory
theory and strategy is not being provoked and developed precisely at this
level, within this new space.
Now, of course, it is the privilege of the reviewer to dump on others,
from a great height, this height preserving him/herself from similar treatment.
Or even from revealing an explicit subject position. So I do feel an obligation
to set out, more positively, my present state of mind on labour internationalism
and international labour studies. And then to move, in Gramsci’s terms, from
pessimism of the intellect to optimism of the will.
I have been recently moving my attention away from Prague, Geneva,
Washington and Brussels – where we find the fixed places of traditional institutionalised
union internationalism (TIUI). Where I have been moving to has
been toward those movable feasts, those inchoate events and processes, the
Global Justice and Solidarity Movement (GJ&SM) and the World Social Forum
(WSF). These are phenomena that are increasingly mobile socio-geographically,
on both the horizontal and vertical axes. And these - admitedly slippery -
phenomena also exist, to a significant and rising extent, in that infinitely
placeless place, cyberspace.
Last year I had the chastening experience, at a university in the Deep
South of the UK, of presenting a PowerPoint production on the WSF to an assembly
of mostly-young, mostly-Marxist, international political economists. They
seemed more pre-occupied with the ‘structure-agency’ problem than was healthy
for young Marxists. Their general (not universal) scorn for the Forum was
only matched by their ignorance of this, and by their insistence that the
Forum was a ‘conference’. They were equally sure than nothing so ethereal
or indeterminate as this new ‘movement of movements’, could weigh in against
those heavy dancers of international relations: State, Capital, Class and
Empire. I had tried, twice, to state that, yes, the WSF could be considered,
in part, a ‘conference’ - or at least a series of seminars - but that it was
also several other things. To no avail. Their Marxism, apparently, did not
permit them to believe that something could be two things simultaneously;
or an eminently and especially intentionally disputable terrain. Far
less could they have imagined that it might be an internally contradictory
phenomenon (Harvey 1996), requiring for its full comprehension a theory coming,
like Marx’s in the 19th century, out of the new movement itself
(Santos 2003a). Oh, and no one seemed to recognise that a PowerPoint production
could not be evaluated as if it were an academic paper...
The National-Industrial Marxists at that event would certainly consider
that my socio-geographical and conceptual journey also means an abandonment
of Historical Materialism (it’s also a journal), and of actually non-existing
socialism; that it means entering the misty regions of postmodernism, of global-civil-society-babble,
and the merely virtual regions of cyber-internationalism (Escobar 2003). Be
all this as it may, my journey has not actually meant an abandonment
of the traditional institutionalised union internationalisms (TIUIs). Indeed,
these are increasingly present within the new agoras and beginning to be influenced
by such (International Transportworkers Federation 2002, Nilsson 2003, Waterman
2003b). My own movement has been, rather, a recognition that if labour internationalism
is to be reinvented for the 21st century, well, these are
the places of movement and spaces of sociality it has to increasingly inhabit:
Hic Rhodos, hic salta!
In so far as this is clearly an injunction as
well as a recognition, it has radical implications for international labour
studies – an academic area currently mushrooming, but still fixated on the
bricks-and-mortar sites and increasingly empty rituals of what calls itself
‘social partnership’ (but which a minimal realism requires us to call ‘capitalist
In reflecting on such matters, I want to consider, in turn, the necessity
Emancipating labour internationalism from its national-industrial-colonial,
and even anti-colonial, past
Emancipating inter/national labour studies, in
Emancipating at least Marxist labour studies from the notion
that Marxism combines ‘science, critique, vision and recipe for revolution’.
1. Emancipating labour internationalism
The secular trinity of 19th-century
socialism was Labour-Internationalism-Emancipation.
As early-industrial capitalism developed into
a national-industrial-colonial capitalism (NICC), the internationalism of
labour became literally inter-national, and simultaneously lost its
emancipatory aspiration and capacity (or vice versa). Internationalism, it
now appears, was not simply a relationship between workers in distant places,
it was a value without which labour and unions were imprisoned within the
Now, the dramatic – and labour-devastating –
development of a globalised-networked-informatised capitalism (GNC) is raising
the necessity and possibility of a new kind of labour internationalism, capable
not only of defence against neo-liberal globalisation but also of an emancipatory
challenge to capitalism as such. This implies self-liberation from the traditional
(understanding of the) working-class, the trade-union form and
socialist ideology. (I am taking the liberty of assuming here that
the party, or at least The Party, is over). Such an emancipation
can be assisted by a recognition of the work and workers produced by a GNC.
This work is increasingly outside industry, it can be home-based, distributed
worldwide, fractured, temporary, part-time, individualised.
Workers are increasingly becoming what is called
‘a-typical’. Decreasingly are they industrial, male, lifetime, nine-to-five,
or unionised. The extreme case reveals a more general tendency. In India,
with a labour force of 390 million (c.f. the 157 million members, internationally,
of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions), labour is 93 percent
‘a-typical’, and four percent unionised. The three or four percent are divided
up into a myriad of mostly enterprise or local unions and national confederations,
including the mutually competing – and shrinking - ones of national-industrial-anticolonial
Socialisms and Communisms. The ‘international relations’ of even the Communist
unions are heavily marked by identification with the state-defined-nation,
with dead ideologies, no-longer-existing socialist states, and by notions
of ‘non-interference in the internal affairs of other unions’. Which means
that they also tend to believe they have some kind of national sovereignty
over the 93 percent of working people they do not or cannot even hope to organise.
They even oppose ‘foreign interference’ in the internal affairs of the Chinese
state-capitalist unions! Fortunately, the a-typical workers of India and the
world are increasingly involved in equally a-typical international solidarity
networks. (Edelman 2002, Harris-White and Gooptu 2000, Waterman 2003b)
Politically, today, the emancipation of labour
internationalism requires an intimate articulation of labour with the GJ&SM
(a.k.a. 'anti-globalisation', 'anti-corporate' or 'anti-capitalist'), and
serious address to processes, discontents, social actors, movements and alternatives
previously considered marginal or irrelevant (for a national expression of
this, see Clawson 2003). Actually, it requires all these things for minimal
defence, never mind effective assertion. In order to liberate itself from
its NIC past, an emancipatory labour internationalism will also need to re-discover
utopia (Panitch and Leys 1999). ‘Utopia’ means both ‘good place’ and ‘nowhere’.
Utopia is simultaneously place and process, making it attractive to
those who believe, like the feminists of the 1970s, more in pre-figurative
politics, less that there is ‘one solution, revolution!’ (slogan of
Britain’s Socialist Workers Party).
2. Emancipating labour studies
An emancipatory international labour studies (EILS) requires reflection
on certain elements related to this scenario. I will limit myself to one reflection
on process, another on space, a third on method. (For a complementary view
of such matters see Castree, Ward and Coe 2003, for a contrasting one Munck 2003)
Although part of the new wave of ILS allows for
and/or shows evidence of a dialogue with union leaders or labour activists,
I do not think we can say that left ILS is in general furthering systematic
dialogue between all the relevant parties. By this I mean that it does not
systematically reveal, express or feed into such. What it may do is to further
dialogue with one such party (the TIUIs) and, by so doing, ignore, marginalise
or dismiss the others.
Perhaps what I am saying here is that whilst
we may be witnessing a revival of left international labour studies,
we need to see the birth of an emancipatory one.
In so far as ‘emancipation’ applies as much to
process as to outcome, then an EILS would require systematic dialogue between
academics, union leaders, union members, pro-labour NGOs and such other significant
worker and citizen identities and movements as may have been mentioned above.
This means that open and open-ended dialogue must be an essential part of
an ELI and an EILS.
There are obstacles to this on both – on all
– sides of such a ‘multilogue’, including the territorial claims of
union officers, working-class anti-intellectualism, popular suspicion or scepticism
of visting firemen, or women, and pressures on young academics to doff their
caps to the latest discourse, or theorist. But in so far as this piece
is addressed in the first place to fellow academics, it will do no harm to
emphasise not so much academic elitism (easy-peasy!) but the manner in which
such elitism coincides or combines with Marxist theory and vanguardist practice
Graeber’s is a thoughtful appreciation of the
anarchist intellectual and political tradition and its presence within the
GJ&SM. It was presented at an academic seminar but published
on a website of the Indy Media Centre – itself a major, de-centred but international/ist,
multi-media website of the new global movement.
Now, it is clear that any website, and English-language
text, even in people-friendly academic language, and of reasonable length,
is going to be inaccessible (as we are ritually reminded by left cyberphobes
and cybernoughts) to indigenous women bidi-makers in rural Andhra Pradesh.
This has been successively true of the press, of the camera, of radio, of
cinema and video,
Cyberspace operates on revolutionary communicational principles
the one-to-one, or one-to-many, technologies of previous media and
surpass the local parameters of traditional many-to-many networking/communication:
‘chat’ is now itself part of the cyber-lexicon.
Whilst most (inter)national labour websites have limited, if any, space for
serious discussion, other parts of cyberspace have demonstrated a capacity
to break through at least some of the traditional divides. (Walch 1999)
Highly significant for such a multilogue are
those spaces that are simultaneously places. The World Social Forum, no longer
a single event but a type of such – from the local to the global – is marked
by the primacy of ‘proposition’ over ‘opposition’. This means by a focus on
alternatives to neo-liberal corporate-dominated globalisation, an openness
to civil-social actors, and a dialogical intent (Sen et. al. Forthcoming).
Although, up to now, the Forum form has been
dominated by The Panel (a ‘ten-to-many’ form of communication?), the possibility
for a multiplicity of even such panels has made Social Forums places increasingly
attractive to to the TIUIs themselves, to labour-oriented ‘transnational advocacy
networks’, and to those pro-labour individuals or groupuscules falling
(more often jumping around, shouting and waving things) outside these places.
Place, space, voice and style of dialogue matter.
Whilst there is nothing in the Forum form to prevent, for example,
academic specialists from lecturing to an audience, or competitively boring
the pants off each other, the possibility for wider impact and political influence
encourages them to express themselves in formats accessible and attractive
to activists. It is, for example, with and from the Forum that new ideas are
developing concerning popular knowledge-production and the simultaneous and
common self-education of activists, leaders and presumably academics
Whilst labour and socialist intellectuals have
certainly had a hand in the repeated Calls of Social Movements emanating from
such Forums (The Call 2002), this has so far been largely a place at which
the various international(ist) labour parties (in the non-party sense) speak
to each other rather than with each other. But one can imagine
a time at which those academics interested in an ELS would consider their
presence at a global or regional Social Forum as more worthwhile – for both
input and output - than even an academic or union event at which the other
party is a full participant.
Click here to continue to Part Two of this article.