Workers of the world, disunited?

Globalisation has not set Asian workers inexorably against Western workers. In fact, we have a truly global working class for the first time ever.

Daniel Ben-Ami

Topics World

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In the run-up to a debate next week at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), Daniel Ben-Ami argues that workers in long-developed economies in Europe, America and Japan have much in common with the new working class emerging in Asia and elsewhere.

‘A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism.’ (1)

When Karl Marx wrote the opening lines to the Communist Manifesto back in 1848 it seemed a new force had emerged in Europe. As a wave of democratic revolutions hit the continent, in what became known as the ‘springtime of nations’, Marx argued that a new class had emerged which had no stake in existing society. Unlike the rising capitalist class it did not own the means of production. And unlike the feudal peasantry it was not tied to the land. It was distinguished by its vested interest in overthrowing the existing order and changing the world for the better.

A lot has changed in the nearly 160 years since the Manifesto was written. For a start hardly anyone seriously believes that the spectre of communism is on the horizon. Even those sympathetic to the working class tend not to see it as a force that is likely to transform society in the short or medium term. A series of historic defeats means that the working class is no longer the significant political force it once was. Its sense of being able to transform society is diminished – for the time being (2).

The other big change since 1848 is that the working class has gone global. In particular China and India, with their massive populations, are in the middle of a fundamental transformation from predominantly rural to mainly urban societies. In objective terms this means that an enormous new working class is emerging. Hundreds of millions of people in the two countries meet the criteria for what constitutes the working class: they are free to sell their labour power and free of any other means of subsistence. Their numbers look certain to grow much larger still as the two Asian demographic giants urbanise further.

To take a balanced view, it is important to reject the caricature that Marx was a Eurocentric thinker. After all his call at the end of the Communist Manifesto was: ‘Proletarians of all countries, unite!’ He did not restrict his vision to European workers. But it is also necessary to recognise that, at the time he was writing, the working class was overwhelmingly a European phenomenon. Since Europe was the first region to industrialise and urbanise it was also the place where the working class first emerged. Today, at least in objective structural terms, the working class is global.

North vs South?

However, contemporary discussion assumes that there is a fundamental conflict of interest between workers in the developed world and those in developing countries. The working class may be global but – so the argument goes – the interests of those in the North and South conflict. Cheap labour from the giant working class of Asia is said to be undermining living standards in the West. Criticism of foreign workers, sometimes implicit often explicit, takes several related forms. Sometimes it manifests itself as hostility towards migrants. But more often, particularly in America, it takes the form of anxiety about cheap imports and hostility to outsourcing jobs abroad. The rising economic power of Asia is seen as a fundamental threat to workers in the developed world.

Often the terminology is confusing. The working class in the West – that is the bulk of the population – is frequently labeled as a ‘middle class’ in the discussion. In America, there is a substantial debate about how the middle class is being squeezed by the rise of Asia with its cheap labour force (3). So Robyn Meredith, an American journalist based in Hong Kong, argues in her recent book: ‘For the American and European middle class, this is the terrifying dark side of globalization. With more than a billion workers suddenly thrown into the world’s labor pool, many unlucky Westerners will lose their jobs, and many will see their standards of living fall unless they take action to make themselves better contenders in the worldwide labor markets.’ (4)

Whatever the terminology the argument is usually the same. With the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s it is argued that up to two billion more people entered the global economy. With the demise of the Eastern bloc the old barriers between East and West broke down. As a result a global labour force has emerged. This in turn, it is argued, allowed multinational firms to engage in what is sometimes called ‘global labour arbitrage’ (5). Companies can go anywhere in the world to find the cheapest labour.

New technology is said to exacerbate this process. Rather than move migrant workers to the West or simply import from abroad, it is possible for firms to outsource many of their operations. Perhaps the best-known example is of Indian call centres answering calls from Western consumers. Sometimes the call centre is owned by Western firms and in other cases it is outsourced to Indian companies. But either way it is often argued that Western jobs – and sometimes those of poorer countries, too – are being threatened or perhaps eliminated completely by Asian workers. As Larry Summers, a former American treasury secretary, has argued in the Financial Times: ‘As the great corporate engines of efficiency succeed by using cutting-edge technology with low-cost labour, ordinary, middle-class workers and their employers – whether they live in the American Midwest, the Ruhr valley, Latin America or eastern Europe – are left out.’ (6)

Several policy conclusions are drawn from this discussion. Often they are promoted individually, but sometimes they are part of a package. It is argued that immigration controls should be tightened. Protectionist measures are often advocated to curb the imports of Asian goods. And often it is argued that the educational system needs to be reformed to give workers the skills to better resist Asian competition. What all these have in common is that they give the incorrect impression that Asian workers threaten Western living standards (7). To the extent that prosperity in the developed world is under threat, it is not Asian workers who are to blame. On the contrary, Western leaders are constantly urging their populations to curb their living standards – even though they may not say so explicitly. For example, policies designed to encourage people to use their cars less or curb energy use are, in all but name, austerity measures.

In fact, the economic rise of Asia has helped raise Western living standards. Ever more Asian workers are producing ever more goods more productively. The industrialisation of Asia has meant that, among other things, goods from clothes to electronics are much cheaper than they would otherwise be. As a result living standards in the West have risen in real terms. Such goods would be cheaper still if it was not for protectionist barriers against Asian imports.

More fundamentally, it is still the case that the working class in the West and that in Asia have a commonality of interests. It remains true that they lack a stake in existing society. Their livelihoods depend on being able to sell their labour power to their employers. There is no inherent clash between Western and Asian workers. They may speak different languages and eat different foods, but they still share a common material interest. From a humanist perspective, what could potentially unite them is more important that what divides them.

Of course it does not follow that the world is on the verge of a new revolutionary upsurge. But today’s problems have to do with the contemporary climate of low expectations rather than any fundamental schism between different sets of workers. The emergence of a global working class is probably the best feature of globalisation.

Daniel Ben-Ami will be taking part in a discussion on the theme of the new global working class alongside Jonathan Fenby, Guy de Jonquières, Nigel Harris and Robyn Meredith at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London at 7pm on Tuesday 20 November. For more information visit the ICA website here. Visit his personal website here.

Previously on spiked

Neil Davenport questioned Paul Mason’s suggestion that a ‘new working-class movement’ is emerging across the globe. Daniel Ben-Ami asked: ‘Who’s afraid of economic growth?’.James Woudhuysen raised three cheers for China’s economic miracle. Nathalie Rothschild pointed out that where China was once criticised for its ‘red authoritarianism’ it now wins plaudits for its eco-authoritarianism. Sheila Lewis asked whether the rise of China should be seen as a threat or an opportunity for the West. Or read more at spiked issue China.

(1) Available here. An edition with an introduction by Mick Hume, spiked‘s editor-at-large, was published by Junius Publications in 1996.

(2) ‘The globalisation of miserabalism’, Neil Davenport, 21 June 2007; Midnight in the Century, Frank Furedi, Living Marxism, December 1990

(3) For the more general debate on America’s vanishing middle class see America’s No. 1 endangered species, Nick Gillespie, Reasononline, 9 February 2007.

(4) The Elephant and the Dragon, Robyn Meredith, WW Norton, 2007, p13.

(5) The global labor arbitrage, Stephen S Roach, in Flying on One Engine, Thomas R Keene (ed.), Bloomberg, 2005.

(6) The global middle class cries out for reassurance, Larry Summers, Financial Times, 29 October 2006.

(7) On Western leaders feigning concern for wages in the developed world see Davos 2007: ‘waging’ war on China, Daniel Ben-Ami, spiked, 1 February 2007

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World


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