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Towards Labour Centred Development

by Andreas Bieler on November 22, 2016
Marxism Reading Group

In 2014, Ben Selwyn published the book The Global Development Crisis, in which he critically engages with market-led and state-led developmental models alike. Importantly, he puts forward the novel concept of labour centred development. In this blog post, I will discuss the main contributions of this remarkable book and explore further the possibilities of labour centred development.

Challenging state-led development

selwynIn this highly accessible book, Selwyn makes three major contributions. First, he asserts that it is the sphere of the capitalist social relations of production, in which exploitation takes place and where the majority of the population, workers having to sell their labour power, is subordinated to the minority, capital that owns the means of production. Hence, even if the most brutal forms of exploitation such as child labour were abolished, workers are still being exploited in that the wage they are being paid is always less than the value of the goods they produce, generated through their sale in the market. The notion of a ‘fair wage for a fair day’s work’ makes simply no sense.

Second, there is general agreement on the left that liberal, market-led developmental models not only do not work, but they are also highly exploitative for workers. In order to ensure a free market, liberals advocate that it has to be easy for employers to hire and fire workers and that production should not be hindered by trade unions, ‘onerous’ health and safety regulations or legally established minimum wages. State-led developmental models are, however, frequently identified as progressive alternatives, ensuring potential developmental catch-up, which is assumed to benefit workers in the end too. As Selwyn, by contrast, makes clear in impressive conceptual and empirical clarity, state-led development has generally been based on the extreme exploitation of labour. Contemporary statist political economists’ (SPE):

admiration for and advocacy of constructing strong, bureaucratically autonomous states that are able to rationally and effectively generate and allocate resources cannot hide the fact that these states are involved in overseeing and reproducing highly exploitative labour regimes where workers are regarded as fuel for the accumulation of capital. Contemporary SPE therefore … should not be viewed as representing a progressive strategy for development.

Whether List or Gerschenkron, both emphasised the important role of the state in late development combined with the assumption that ‘workers needed to be manipulated and disciplined by the state, and subject to a labour regime designed to generate rapid productivity increases for capital’. The widely praised state-led development models in Asia including examples such as South Korea or today China are clearly characteristic of these types of labour repression and super-exploitation of workers. In short, state-led development is not a progressive alternative.

Third, it is the very notion of ‘labour centred development’, which opens up progressive possibilities of thinking about development in novel ways. Whether development is pushed by capital in the market-led developmental model or whether development is pushed by the state in the state-led developmental model, it is workers who are suffering. Hence, in order to obtain development favourable to labour, this can only be the result of successful class struggle. As Selwyn asserts, ‘the extent of labour-centred development depends on the changing balance of class power’. It is collective action by workers, which will ultimately determine the extent of labour’s developmental potential.

The need to go beyond the workplace

As impressive as Selwyn’s book is, there are a number of shortcomings in my view. First, Selwyn is aware of the fragmented nature of the working class and argues that the labouring classes need to be broadly understood including also informal workers. ‘The term “labour classes” includes urban/industrial workers (“the working class” in traditional Marxian terminology), the “new middle class” of white-collar workers and informal workers that populate the ever-expanding “planet of slums”. The definition extends to some workers in the rural sphere who are sometimes classified as “peasants” (in particular the poorer peasants)’. And yet, this is still to some extent a rather narrow definition focusing on the work process, overlooking the sphere of social reproduction, so essential to the reproduction of capitalism.

readingcapitalpoliticallyIt is Harry Cleaver’s notion of ‘social factory’, which allows us to go beyond Selwyn’s definition of labour. Focusing on the ‘social factory’, i.e. the workplace as well as the wider sphere of social reproduction, Cleaver was able to take into account all the other forms of unwaged activities including child rearing, education, which are necessary for the reproduction of capital, but take place outside the workplace. Class and class struggle, as a result take a very different and much broader meaning. ‘The identification of the leading role of the unwaged in the struggles of the 1960s in Italy, and the extension of the concept to the peasantry, provided a theoretical framework within which the struggles of American and European students and housewives, the unemployed, ethnic and racial minorities, and Third World peasants could all be grasped as moments of an international cycle of working-class struggle’. In short, a new definition of ‘worker’ beyond the direct employee/employer relationship is necessary in order to incorporate the whole ‘social factory’ of capitalism.

Equally, in today’s time of environmental crisis, struggles over the destruction of the environment also need to be incorporated into analyses of class struggle. Nothing threatens labour centred development more than the continuation of capitalism’s relentless exploitation of nature, the very biosphere of human existence. Selwyn is silent in his book on the struggles over new nuclear energy power stations, the exploitation of tar sands or a shift towards fracking. Again, the book still exhibits too close a focus on the traditional work relations between employers and workers, which overlooks the much broader dynamics of class struggle.

Moreover, Selwyn focuses almost exclusively on capitalism and, thereby, neglects the possibilities of resistance emerging from non-capitalist spaces. Drawing on the work of the Rethinking Marxism group in his article The survival of non-capitalism, Chris Hesketh points out that ‘the overwhelming focus on capitalism can lead quickly to a problem: the assumption of cultural life, and all sites of socio-political activity are portrayed as being overwhelmed by, subsumed into, the dynamics of capitalism’. While non-capitalist space is simply understood as a passive object awaiting to be subsumed in the further expansion of capitalism, the possibilities of resistance, of labour centred development in Selwyn’s understanding, are not captured. As Kiado Crus, a local activist in Oaxaca/Mexico points out, ‘in Oaxaca we have thousands of hectares of communal land … This implies thousands of hectares of resistance’. In short, when looking for possibilities of labour centred development emerging in processes of class struggle, resistance from non-capitalist space needs to be taken into account as much as resistance from within the capitalist social relations of production.

Finally, although the concept of labour centred development holds great potential, the actual examples provided by Selwyn are slightly disappointing. Grape growers in Brazil, the MST or occupied factories in Argentina, these are all examples which have already been extensively covered including by Selwyn himself. There is little new here in the book.

Nevertheless, these criticisms should not make us overlook the significance of Selwyn’s contribution to thinking about development. Rather than providing concrete examples of labour centred development, the book is a call to us to carry out further research in theory and practical activities to contribute to a labour centred development. The task remains clear. In the words of Selwyn, ‘the struggle against exploitation takes myriad forms and has many outcomes. The challenge of a labour-centred development is to conceptually connect these struggles and their potential outcomes to a vision of human development free from exploitation’.

Andreas Bieler
Andreas Bieler is Professor of Political Economy at the University of Nottingham and Co-Director of the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice (CSSGJ).

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