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Peter Waterman © 2003


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Reflections on an Emancipatory Labour Internationalism and International Labour Studies [1]

[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!] [2]

(Marx 1852)

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 partnership’).

            In reflecting on such matters, I want to consider, in turn, the necessity of

  • Emancipating labour internationalism from its national-industrial-colonial, and even anti-colonial, past

  • Emancipating inter/national labour studies, in terms of
    -- process
    -- space
    -- method

  • 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 capitalist state-nation.

    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)

    A. Process

    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 2003).

    B. Space

    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. But

    ·      This has been successively true of the press, of the camera, of radio, of cinema and video,

    ·      Cyberspace operates on revolutionary communicational principles that

    o     surpass the one-to-one, or one-to-many, technologies of previous media and

    o      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 (Santos 2003b).

    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.

    [1] This paper is for Jane Wills, a fellow labour researcher, with whom I co-edited a collection on international labour (Waterman and Wills 2001). Jane also invited me to present the keynote to a workshop on labour and geography, September 2003. This paper is a by-product of  her invitation. Thanks Jane.

    [2] Also translated as ‘Here is the rose, dance here!’ There is a confusing story about the use of this Latin phrase by Hegel and Marx. No doubt they were being dialectical. The origin is, anyway, an Aesopian fable in which a boastful man is talking about the enormous leap he once took in Rhodes.  Marx talks about the capacity for  reinventing emancipatory strategy, the impossibility of returning to the past, a new situation, necessary conditions. 




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