The purpose of this blog is to provide analytical commentary on formal and informal labour organisations and their attempts to resist ever more brutal forms of exploitation in today’s neo-liberal, global capitalism.

Friday, 26 September 2014

The new faultline between networks and hierarchies in China: Where is class struggle?

As part of the Workshop on Chinese Labour in the Global Economy, Paul Mason, the Economics Editor of Channel4News, gave a highly stimulating and thought provoking public lecture at Nottingham University on 12 September 2014. The focus of his talk ‘Digital rebels, analogue slaves? China’s workforce in the 21st century’ was on the information technology (IT) revolution and its implications for workers’ unrest in China. Provocatively, his main claim was that the main conflict is no longer between capital and labour, but between networks and hierarchies (see also Mason, Comment is free, 14/09/2014). In this blog post, I will critically evaluate this claim.

Paul Mason’s argument is based on the understanding that capitalism has moved into a new stage as result of the IT revolution: the stage of the knowledge economy, also referred to as cognitive capitalism. In addition to the doubling of the global workforce, it is this IT revolution, which allegedly has fundamentally changed the dynamics of accumulation. Cognitive capitalism does not only use information as its raw material, new tool as well as commodity, it also results in new types of persons. These ‘networked’ individuals with multi-personalities are, in turn, regarded as the bearers of a new society.

China is viewed as being at the faultline of these new dynamics. On the one hand, working life within factories is extremely hierarchically organised, as is the wider political life in China. On the other, more and more Chinese workers have access to the internet, especially through mobile phones, allowing them to socialise in networks with flat hierarchies. And networking through various new tools of social media, in turn, played an important role in the large strike of 30000 workers at the Yue Yuen footwear factory in Dongguan, southern China. Hence, this new, major contradiction between networks and hierarchical organisations with Chinese workers at the forefront of new dynamics of struggle towards a networked society.

Paul Mason’s lecture reminded me of a talk I attended in Oslo in May 2014. The Norwegian colleague praised the knowledge economy in Norway, providing especially highly educated female workers with interesting, flexible and well paid employment opportunities, allowing them to combine family life with a successful professional career. What this colleague overlooked, however, is the fact that the Norwegian knowledge economy occupies only one part in a global production chain. While Norwegian knowledge workers may produce new advanced software for companies such as Apple or Samsung, for example, the final products of these companies are still being assembled in sweatshop factories in China and other cheap labour countries, characterised by conditions of super exploitation. Assessed in overall terms, these highly educated, flexible workers in the Norwegian knowledge economy as elsewhere are only a small fraction of the vast amount of workers, slaving away at the bottom of global production chains. The knowledge economy is not the dominant type of work.

Of course, social media does change the dynamics of workers’ resistance. It provides them with new opportunities of organising collectively. Nevertheless, the struggle as such clearly remains between capital and labour. The main power of workers continues to be the strike weapon. When workers collectively withdraw their labour, capital is under pressure. Speaking about the emergence of cognitive capitalism and a new networked society replacing class conflict ultimately only masks the continuation of super exploitation within the global economy. It may even disempower those Chinese workers, who are increasingly trying to find their collective voice in resisting exploitation.  

Prof. Andreas Bieler
Professor of Political Economy
University of Nottingham/UK
Personal website:

26 September 2014

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