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.

Monday, 6 January 2020

Globalization and Labour in the 21st century: Reflections on Verity Burgmann.

Verity Burgmann has produced an excellent, broad coverage of different instances of resistance by labour movements from around the world in her book Globalization and Labour in the Twenty-First Century (Routledge, 2016). It includes accounts of occupied factories in Argentina, opposition to privatisation of oil facilities in Iraq, as well as anti-austerity struggles in Greece amongst many others. It covers private industries as well as public sectors and explores the potential of new social media for resistance. In this blog post, I will provide some critical reflections on this major account of labour movements' potential role in the 21st century.  

Burgmann’s positive assessment of labour movements’ resistance to capitalist exploitation around the world is driven by an autonomist Marxist perspective, privileging the agency of workers over capital as well as structural constraints. ‘Autonomism reverses the relationship between capital and labour that emerges in economic determinist Marxism, explicitly refusing to emphasize the dominance of capital and its accumulative logic as the unilateral force shaping the world’ (P.18). Instead of capital’s innovative dynamic, it is labour’s refusal to work which forces capital to establish new production relations. In short, it is the power of labour, which underpins capitalist development with capital being constantly on the defensive.

Transnational production depends on the smooth flow of good across borders in order to fulfil the tight schedule of just in time production systems. Hence, German employers in the 1990s ‘were more dependent than ever on stable relations with labour at the plant level and more vulnerable to overt industrial strife’ (P.36). Transnational organisation of production, rather than being a source of structural power for capital, becomes a weakness. Another example is the situation of precarious workers. Burgmann points out how this group of workers, often perceived to be the weakest of the weak, have found a new voice in collective struggle. They ‘are often fighting against their circumstances by establishing new unions, sometimes of an anarcho-syndicalist bent’ (P.165).

This is an important message, providing hope where there is often resignation. And yet, there are a number of questions I would like to raise.

First, I am sceptical about the key assumptions of autonomist Marxism, emphasising the power of labour. Of course, the power of capital is often unduly asserted, making resistance appear meaningless and thus undermining working class efforts. Yet, to argue that workers are really driving capitalist development overlooks a number of key structuring conditions, which often limit labour’s agency. As capitalists have to reproduce themselves through the market in the fight for market share with other capitalists, they are forced to innovate constantly, which makes capitalism such a dynamic system. Nevertheless, capitalism is also crisis prone as more goods are produced than workers are actually able to consume. Hence this constant pressure of outward expansion in the search for new markets and cheaper labour. Of course, workers’ agency does play a role in shaping the form this outward expansion takes, but they never struggle ‘in conditions of their own choosing’.

Perhaps autonomist Marxism’s optimism is misleading? Celebrating resistance is important, but successful struggles need a clear assessment of the overall balance of forces. Acknowledging the structuring conditions of capitalism does not have to imply falling into a structuralist trap with action perceived to be futile (Bieler and Morton 2018: 36-50).

Second, there is an undue focus on production in my view, overlooking the sphere of social reproduction. At times Burgmann acknowledges how struggles go across both spheres, such as in Chapter 8 where she discusses the protection of the public or in Chapter 9 in her assessment of anti-austerity struggles in Europe. Here she does argue that ‘assessments of labour movement resistance to austerity in Europe broadly agree that the labour movement needs now to be understood as including more informal groups as well as trade unions’ (P.230). At the very end of the book, she however retreats again into a productivist analysis. ‘The red-green sustainability project on which the future of the planet rests might ultimately depend on working-class power at the point of production, on the withdrawal of labour from continuing complicity in capitalism’s environmental irresponsibility’ (P.242). An engagement with feminist Social Reproduction Theory would tell us here that the withdrawal of labour not only in production, but also equally in struggles in the sphere of social reproduction such as health care or the care of the elderly is important in the resistance against capitalist exploitation.

Third, the emphasis on production also implies that the labour movement is often too narrowly defined as the agency of trade unions. Burgmann does criticise the role of established trade unions such as in Greece, but then reverts to the role played by new, more radical trade unions as the main progressive actors. Other social movements hardly feature in her assessment. Broader alliances are identified as important when it comes to the Fight for $15 at McDonald’s in the US (P.45) and the BlackLivesMatter movement is mentioned in this context (P.49). Nevertheless, these other groups are not further explored and they are not regarded as potential leaders of struggles against exploitation. As a result, experiences of resistance by other types of movement, especially also from the Global South such as the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) in Brazil, are not taken into account.

These critical points for reflection should not, however, make us overlook the significant contributions of Burgmann’s volume. The detailed overview of working class strategies of resistance across different countries and sectors provides a wealth of empirical information. I may be sceptical about the autonomist Marxist, production based, workers and trade union focused perspective, but this does not devalue the overall significance of the book. A must-read for anyone reflecting on labour’s potential to shape the 21st century. I highly recommend this book for reading.

Andreas Bieler

Professor of Political Economy
University of Nottingham/UK
Personal website:

6 January 2020

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