As the great LKJ once asked. One intriguing but in many ways unsatisfying answer to this perennial question has been given by Beverly Silver her a recent publicationâ€˜Forces of Labour: Workers movements globalization since 1870â€™. The book has generated a certain amount of excitement in certain, ahem select, quarters because of the breadth of its analysis and its contention that a combative new labour internationalism may be about to emerge.
The fusion of Marxist political economy,and Braudelian historiography may be familiar to readers of Giovanni Arrighi,who Silver has closely collaborated with in the past, and this approach undoubtedly lends the work a distinctive epic sweep. So you are treated to graphs charting the occurrence of labour militancy across the world for a 140 years, bar charts describing the changing sites and industries subject to uppity workers and a well researched elaboration of how new industries and product cycles function within the global economy. More importantly this â€˜long viewâ€™ analysis meshes a theory of capitalist globalisation maintained through war, financial innovation and economic adaption in the face of workers militancy in a provocative and stimulating way.
One of the most interesting arguments in the book is that it questions â€˜the race to the bottomâ€™ thesis which is a commonplace in much current affairs and political analysis from both left and right wing perspectives. The idea that we are currently engaged in a race to bottom idea is based on the asssuumption that in contemporary globalisation all the cards are in the hands of corporate, transnational capital which can move elsewhere as soon as workers get restless. Silver argues that history shows that such a simplistic theory of capital mobility does not stand up to scrutiny. In one of the best sections of the book she traces the fortunes of the global automobile industry in the twentieth century and finds that despite shift across the globe and widespread automation militancy tends to flare up where the industry goes despite the best efforts of capital.
Overall there is a great deal of useful research in Forces of labour and it is admirable both because it is closely argued and theoretically sophisticated. Undoubtedly the book is a useful addition to Harveyâ€™s work on â€˜spatial fixesâ€™ and Arrighiâ€™s work on financial fixes in contemporary capitalism. Nonetheless, to my mind the book is not sufficiently detailed in explaining the downturn in labour militancy (pretty dramatically represented in all those graphs it has to be said) nor what we reasonably expect of the various forces that are shaping our world. It is not that she ignores these questions but that in taking the reader to the top of a rocky mountain from which to survey history and discern fascinating broad patterns some of the texture and grit of political reality is lost. Sometimes a fine grit is exactly what seizes up the workings of a precise and well oiled clock.