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Workers’ Protests and Global Capitalism in Brazil and India

by Manjusha Nair on June 13, 2019

Jörg Nowak’s book Mass Strikes and Social Movements in Brazil and India has the front cover of a “European style” house surrounded by a garden with pink flowers, and I  pondered about its relevance to a study of workers’ strikes in Brazil and India. The book begins with the description of a similar decorative picture on the wall of a modest house of two automobile workers in an industrial city near Pune in India. Jörg draws attention to the dreams and desires of workers that are often forgotten and misconstrued by embedding them in a pre-given understanding of workers’ consciousness as collective and radical. In place of the romantic notions attached to workers’ resistance, Jörg wants to rather sport a rather ‘reckless’ recognition of workers’ acts of resistance. In his own words, “Reckless’ means in this context analysis and reckless criticism, a turn away from declarations that workers are ‘heroic’ and better than others, somehow of a natural goodwill, a bit naïve and simple, but also clever in their own way.” Jörg intends to challenge what he terms as these mythical notions of good intentions that are pervasive in left-oriented labour history and labour studies. Instead, he attempts to undertake a thorough analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the workers’ strikes and subjectivity, towards the end of formulating strategies to counter the oppressive and irrational dimensions of twenty-first-century capitalism.

To accomplish the above, Jörg undertakes huge comparisons of mass strikes in Brazil and India and across regions and sectors. It is an incorporated comparison, drawing on Philip McMichael’s critical intervention, where workers’ protest is not a product of the global conjunctures of neoliberal imperialism, but constitute the counter processes within globalization. This understanding of the mutual embeddedness of the local and the global processes is much needed and relevant in the analysis of labour politics, particularly to think about its possibilities and constraints in the Global South. 

The findings of Jörg’s in-depth study of mass strikes in the automobile and construction sector do suggest a convergence in global processes. In both Brazil and India, the strikes emerged, making similar demands of inclusion, wage rises and democratic representation. They had a contested relationship with dominant trade unions. In India, the left-wing parties have co-opted and colluded with capital and their trade unions were only tangentially concerned with global capitalism in the automobile sector.  In Brazil, trade unions were integrated into state institutions during the Lula governments, and they became major stakeholders in neo-developmental agendas such as construction projects.  The workers found solidarity alliances, nevertheless, and were successful and suppressed as labour movements.  In both countries, however, the period of labour unrest was followed by a turn to right-wing governments-through electoral victory and parliamentary coup. Thus these strikes followed a different trajectory than the strikes in the 1980s that led to a coherent political project leading to democratisation in the nations where they occurred. In sum, Jörg argues that while the strikes resisted the challenges of right-wing mobilisation, they were unable to create a larger narrative and ideological framework, to engage mass mobilisation outside the industrial sector.

There were variations within countries and across regions, highlighting the spatiality of protests. The high level of conflict in the Gurgaon automobile sector in India saw more mobilisations, solidarity movements, and lasting alliances. The Maruti Suzuki Workers Union that was formed as part of the strikes initiated the creation of a coalition of other Maruti workers, and later founded a Workers’ Solidarity Centre in Gurgaon belt to coordinate the struggles in the Gurgaon industrial region. In Pune, with a less confrontational tradition of labour movements, the VKKS union was entrenched in a larger federation and it had little ties with other social movement organizations. In Brazil, in comparison, the strikes in the construction industry had a sectoral identification, and the migrations of workers from one site to the other helped these cross-regional connections. The diversities in the organisation of the industries, rationalisation of production, and labour regimes created different varieties of labour politics in India and Brazil.

The main contention in the book about freeing mass strikes from the Eurocentric analysis of the workplace, and extending it to neighbourhoods and informal networks, I believe, is not new. This is especially so, in the context of India where my expertise lies. The historical-sociological scholarship on labour politics has documented the urban-rural connections, community ties, and wider solidarity networks, drawing on anti-colonial and postcolonial struggles that have interwoven working class histories and movements in India (Chandavarkar 1998, Joshi 2003, Nair 2016). On the other hand, Jörg, against his own stated intentions against the Eurocentric view, seemed to be looking for, or explaining the absence of working-class solidarities and alliances nationally and internationally in these instances of mass strikes. My own feeling is that the very idea of working-class politics is impregnated with the hopes of alternative modes of collectivity and solidarity and increasingly so in the context of capitalist production on a global scale. Maybe embracing the (European) idea of working-class critically is a more constructive and useful way to think about the future of labour politics than dismantling it completely.

The concluding chapter has a rigorous analysis of how these strikes were different from the mass strikes of the 1980s. Jörg argues that while the strike movements in the 1980s were against capitalism, they were waged in the context of national dictatorships that provided them with dynamism.  In the 2010s, in the context of global capitalism and the inclusion of India and Brazil in the global economy, the workers rather wanted to participate in the wealth created by these nations. Returning to the discussion of the workers’ desires for European style houses, James Ferguson commented on how the aspiration for a “European” house was a powerful claim to a chance for transforming the conditions of life – a place-in-the-world, and a standard of living in contemporary Africa (Ferguson, 2006, page 19). From Jörg’s book, it does seem that neoliberal capitalism succeeded in making the workers neoliberal subjects by shaping their aspirations and dreams in contemporary India and Brazil.

Chandavarkar, Rajnarayan. Imperial Power and Popular Politics: Class, Resistance and the State in India, 1850-1950. Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Ferguson, James. Global shadows: Africa in the neoliberal world order. Duke University Press, 2006.

Joshi, Chitra. Lost Worlds: Indian labour and its forgotten histories. Orient Blackswan, 2003.

Nair, Manjusha. Undervalued Dissent: Informal Workers’ Politics in India. SUNY Press, 2016.

Manjusha Nair
Manjusha Nair is Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, George Mason University. Before this, she taught at the National University of Singapore. She is the author of Undervalued Dissent: Informal Workers’ Politics in India (SUNY Press, 2016). Her research has been at the intersection of political sociology and development, with a comparative and historical focus on land and labour politics in India, China, South Africa and Ethiopia. She can be contacted at Robinson Hall B311, Fairfax, Virginia 22030, Phone: +1 703-993-1441, Fax: +1 703-993-1446, Email: mnair4@gmu.edu.

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