Beverly J Silver, Forces of Labor: Workers’ Movements and Globalization since 1870

WORKING-CLASS MOVEMENTS in many countries have experienced serious setbacks and defeats since the mid-1970s. Most remain on the defensive, though the international wave of resistance to neo-liberalism has led to significant mass strikes and protests in Western Europe and Latin America. For some, labour’s retreat and the real and alleged changes in global capitalism subsumed under the term “globalization” justify bidding farewell to workers’ movements as a force for social change or even to class itself. Although few readers of this journal are likely to agree, important questions remain about the future of labour movements.

Beverly Silver’s Forces of Labor aims to engage with current debates in labour studies by examining labour unrest internationally since the late 1800s. Silver, a proponent of the world systems theory approach associated with the Fernand Braudel Centre and its Review, uses a world-historical theoretical perspective and empirical data to move beyond the focus on the late 20th century of most writing about labour and globalization.

Forces of Labor clearly lays out a theoretical framework that distinguishes different sources of workers’ power and characterizes labour power as a fictitious commodity. Drawing on Marx, Silver highlights the contradictory character of capitalist development as creating both human suffering and working-class power as it passes through phases in which periodic processes of restructuring reorganize capital and labour. Through Polanyi, she observes “a pendulum-like motion” (17) between eras during which the commodification of labour is heightened and those in which people mobilize to reduce it. On this basis, she argues that working classes are always being remade. She notes two kinds of labour unrest: “Marx-type” — “the struggles of newly emerging working classes that are successively made and strengthened” (20) by capitalism — and “Polanyi-type” reactions to the extension of market relations (Marx’s analysis of which she does not discuss). Silver also observes that groups of workers as well as employers and states are involved in creating exclusionary boundaries within working classes.

Methodologically, Forces of Labor takes as a premise that workers in different places are linked by the global division of labour and the international state system. Consequently, it emphasizes the interrelatedness of “cases” around the globe and through time, and the structural pressures of the world system. Silver argues that the main research strategies for dealing with this kind of complex analysis, encompassing comparison (which traces similarities and differences between cases to an overarching totality, such as Immanuel Wallerstein’s modern world-system) and cross-national comparison, are both inadequate. Instead, she limits complexity by working on only two levels of analysis, capitalist structures and collective action, and by studying only episodes of intense labour unrest.

The World Labour Group database is a key source for this book. As explained in the introductory chapter and a useful appendix, it has been compiled by combing The Times (London) and the New York Times from 1870 to 1996 for reports of labour unrest around the world. Its purpose is limited and specific: to register changing levels of struggle and identify waves of unrest. The data for Argentina, China, Egypt, Germany, Italy, South Africa, and the US was checked against statistics and working-class history literature to test its reliability, with favourable results.

Forces of Labor’s three central chapters examine labour movements and, respectively, capital mobility, product cycles, and world politics. The chapter on capital mobility is a study of the 20th century’s leading industry, automobile production. It demonstrates how capitalists have responded to worker militancy by reorganizing production and shifting to new regions in search of higher profits and labour control. The result has been the relocation of unrest, not its elimination. The following chapter examines how capital accumulation moves between industries. Here Silver recasts the concept of product cycles to include the role of worker resistance as well as capitalist profitability. The auto industry is compared with the earlier global lead industry, textiles, and reasons for the greater workplace and market bargaining power of auto workers are proposed. The transportation sector is also introduced for purposes of comparison. The chapter concludes by surveying four contenders for the title of leading industry of the 21st century to predict where future waves of labour unrest may erupt, noting the importance of the Chinese working class. The book shifts into a different vein in the next chapter, whose scope is broader than the others: the relationship between international politics and workers’ movements from the late 1800s to recent years. The narrative follows the swing of a Polanyian pendulum: from increased commodification of labour through resistance, revolt, and revolution after World War I and World War II to the global capitalist offensive in response to challenges to US hegemony and the end of the post-World War II boom.

The book closes with a brief chapter, “Contemporary Dynamics in World-Historical Perspectives.” Silver argues that the preceding analysis shows that neither a “race to the bottom” nor changing labour processes are the roots of crisis in global workers’ movements. It is wrong to see this crisis as permanent, as new workers’ movements will likely transcend it. The picture is not exactly rosy, though: global capitalism will continue to reproduce North-South inequalities, many service-sector workers have weak structural bargaining power, and it is uncertain if the Polanyian pendulum will swing back.

The great merit of Forces of Labour is its attempt to analyze workers’ movements and high points of struggle on a world scale across over a century, within the totality of global capitalism. This sets it above much of what has been written about labour and globalization. The ambitious project reveals a number of patterns, yields some insights, and touches on other issues in suggestive ways (some, such as the subordination of national states to the Gold Standard in the 1920s, cry out for a more profound analysis that would strengthen the treatment of contemporary capitalism, which is disappointingly thin).

Any such study must necessarily be made at a high level of abstraction, and the most striking limits of the book arise from problems in the way its abstractions are constructed. A stark example is the claim that “more controlled and limited warfare as well as a more labor-friendly [sic] international environment” (174) explains the decline of labour unrest and radicalism in the second half of the 20th century. What of the impact of fascism, Stalinism, World War II, the Cold War and the Long Boom on working classes, the Stalinization of the Communist International, and the strategic impasse of social democracy, Communism and “Third World” national liberation movements after the mid-1970s? Politics and its social roots get short shrift. The book also suffers from questionable theoretical notions. These include “partial decommodification” of labour power (in fact, a specific form of its social regulation), the exclusion of struggles against capitalists in the sphere of consumption from the definition of labour unrest, and a weak concept of boundary-drawing between workers (rather than forms of oppression and privilege) that at one point leads to the implication that immigration controls and protectionism are in the interests of workers in the North. (178) As a result, Forces of Labor is an interesting but limited contribution to labour studies.

David Camfield
University of Manitoba