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From Class Struggle to Popular Liberation: A Rejoinder

by Jörg Nowak on July 11, 2019

It is inspiring to see such a wide variety of comments to my new book,  Mass Strikes and Social Movements in Brazil and India. I will try to address them in a way that synthesises the problems and challenges of the field of labour studies and working-class politics as such. I believe some of the limits that the book shares with the contributions to the debate go back to the contemporary boundaries of the politics of popular liberation.

Using the term “popular liberation”, I am already suggesting the terrain on which such a debate should take place. I think that popular liberation is the task given to us today in the face of a global onward march of right-wing authoritarianism, and an essential aspect of popular liberation will be the subordination of the economy under the needs of the popular masses. Working class politics – the idea of which Manjusha Nair wants to preserve but rethink – will be progressive insofar as it does not restrict itself to serve certain sectoral groups of workers, but to the extent that it links up and forms part of larger projects of popular liberation. How this line is drawn empirically can often be difficult to determine, especially in situations when such a project of popular liberation is absent or very much in the defensive. Nonetheless, there will be necessarily a tension between working class politics and wider politics of popular liberation, and only in an ideal situation will the two converge completely.

This is not the least the case – according to a quite orthodox Marxist – because the contradiction between capital and labour never occurs in its pure state; it will always be overdetermined by other social relations, religious and national divisions, and political schisms. Thus, the tendentially universalising social relation of class will also be interspersed with other universal or local social relations. A working class politics with a broader view towards popular liberation will be able to take this into account and to provide room for those “other aspects” – which are not “other aspects” separated from the issue of class, but are always the forms in which class appears and shows its effects.

Thus the difficulty to determine if we should insist on the existence of non-class issues that get mixed up with class issues, as I do in my book, or if we should follow Fahmi Panimbang’s proposal to include different variants of social struggle into the definition of working class struggle – since all sections of society are integrated into the logic of capital. I think that we are again here faced with the necessity to balance the tension between working class politics and broader popular liberation politics. Recent studies about South Africa have reconstructed how the anti-apartheid movement was torn between socialist anti-capitalism and broader popular politics – the socialist pole already anticipating that not targeting the power of capital might lead to a situation we are facing today in South Africa: a formal democracy, corruption, and screaming inequality. To define all social relations as being part of “class” runs the danger of overlooking specific problems, forms of oppression and needs, and defining certain relations as non-class relations might lead to the false idea that they would be unrelated to class. I think a productive way to deal with those impasses is to understand that the universalising drive of capitalist relations tends to leave its imprint on all forms of societies, but always in an incomplete way – capitalist social relations only “combine” or “encounter” with pre-existing social relations that do continue to exist once combined with capitalism. In this way, class and non-class relations are intertwined – in this form, class is impregnated with non-class issues, and non-class relations will always be interdependent in one way or another with class relations. How these interdependencies (for me a more precise term than intersections) play out, cannot be determined with a general formula, but is subject to a conjunctural analysis of the concrete situation.

Coming back to the question on how to analyse strikes and working-class organisation, I think that Maurizio Atzeni has provided a very concise formulation, saying that the struggles analysed in my book “put into question the centrality of the workplace and the post second world war social democratic model of trade unions”. The situation is open, and this openness comes with dangers, i.e. right-wing authoritarianism filling the void, but also with considerable opportunities. Yes, there are many new forms of union organising sprawling around the world, especially in the area of precarious and informal work, as Ronaldo Munck and Edward Webster point out. But I am a bit sceptical if unions in general became “standard bearers of the left project”, as Munck describes it. The social movement unionism of the 1970s and 1980s has been a landmark for all future struggles of popular liberation and will continue to be so – but we also have to analyse in which way today’s situation is different from this epoch and why none of the different variants of social movement unionism came not even close to initiate a transition to socialism. One of those reasons – apart from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 – has been the strong influence of European social democracy at least on the working class movements in South Africa and Brazil and, subsequently, a rather classical corporatist focus on certain segments of the working class, the core workforce in public services and large industries. Some of these corporatist trends could be reversed, i.e. today the segment of unionised workers with the quickest growth in Brazil are agricultural workers, but the political legacies behind corporatism still weigh strong.

It is as this point that I want to address the divisions between different groups of workers, brought up in the comments by Thomas Barnes and Maurizio Atzeni. Both cases of strikes in India that I analyse in the book ended with a larger gap between permanent and contract workers, and this was for sure not a coincidence. The current strategy of employers in the Indian car industry clearly opts for establishing a labour aristocracy with union representation plus a larger group of precarious workers. Barnes claims that these differences in power and interests between workers need to be theorised more explicitly. I have provided some space to Richard Hyman’s analysis of segmentation of workers and its effects on trade unions in the book, and to the way informality/precarity becomes established across different sections of the global workforce. But I think the more interesting issue – and this is why I see the Maruti struggle as a defeat in the workplace but a partial victory on the political level – is how workers who were dismissed by Maruti after an uprising in the factory founded an association that connects struggling workers across various workplaces, thereby aiming to overcome divisions between informal and formal workers and between different trade union federations. Contexts of informal work might require specific strategies of mobilisation but due to the fact that there is no clear-cut barrier between formal and informal work but rather many shades of precariousness and informality I find it difficult to ascribe certain interests and strategies to different groups of workers per se. For example, workers in large Brazilian construction sites are 95 per cent in formal employment but nonetheless are confronted with many features usually ascribed to informality: their work is dangerous, wages are often paid with delay, they are isolated from the outside world in compound areas, are subjected to repressive guards at work and after work, and often have no proper housing. Their strength during the strike wave from 2011 and 2014 was based on the fact that lots of construction projects had been started due to a state investment program and there was more demand than supply for construction workers. But this lack of supply of workers was a temporary phenomenon that ended in 2014. For sure the size of the workplaces – the average number of strikers in one workplace in Brazilian construction in 2011 was 10,000 – played a role, and Atzeni makes a valid point underlining that it might be specific groups of workers that can make use of strikes. In this vein, a distinction between strategies of workers in small, medium and big workplaces would make sense, and I acknowledge that the strike is just one form of workplace resistance, and maybe not even the most important one. The reason for me to look at strikes was due to the frequent use of this form in the wake of the global economic crisis, and the novel forms these actions of workers seemed to exhibit. Since informality and precariousness come with a lot of subcontracting and splitting up of workplaces, the relevance of small workplaces and self-employed workers will rather grow than diminish. On the other hand, the strike of 400,000 mainly self-employed truck drivers in Brazil in May 2018 demonstrates that the size of the workplace will not determine if the strike will be a form of struggle with relevance.

Webster mentions the “unsolved enigma” in my book that we saw much popular struggle after the global economic crisis since 2008 but not much clear direction or larger models of transformation within those struggles – in other words, the lack of a collective dream. I do not think that the aspiration of workers to enjoy wealth created by them will firmly place them into neoliberal consumerism as Nair provocatively concludes. As long as neoliberalism excludes them from this wealth and as long as conditions of work regularly lead to serious health problems of workers already in their late 20s, the immanent tension between the promises of consumerism versus low wages and a distressing worklife remains strong. But the power of dreams goes beyond a more equal distribution of goods, land, houses, space, health, time and education. It is precisely in the imaginaries of the ‘just community’ that distribution is not conceived of as separate from the larger political order. But surely Nair is right in pointing out that working class politics has to recreate the thread that binds questions of distribution together with the idea of political community.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 746345.

Jörg Nowak
Jörg Nowak is a Marie Curie Research Fellow at the School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham. He currently works on strikes and social movements in Brazil and India, Chinese overseas investments, Labour Geography and Althusserian Marxism.

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