Southern Insurgency


Southern Insurgency The Coming of the Global Working Class

By Immanuel Ness
Pluto: UK, 2015, 226 pp.

Review by Robert Ovetz

China’s long-anticipated abandonment of its one child policy in 2015 has a crucial class element to it. According to Immanuel Ness, the projected fall of China’s population growth rate to below zero by 2025, encourages workers to take advantage of the growing labor shortage to launch a wave of self-organized wildcat strikes against manufacturers contracted with foreign multinationals. This upsurge of working class self-organization, what Ness calls the Southern Insurgency, is a sign of an upwelling of global class conflict that has been overlooked in the West battered by neoliberal economic policy of deregulation, austerity, and financialization. Neoliberalism in the wealthy Northern countries, Ness contends, is the flip side of the growing exploitation of industrial workers in the South. Such exploitation is hardly going uncontested. Industrial workers in China, India, and South Africa are self-organizing in order to bypass traditional parties and unions and assert their power on the shop floor. What is emerging are new models of organizing that contain lessons for the working class in the North.

Ness, who teaches political science at CUNY and is the editor of the journal Working USA and many books and encyclopedias on labor and working class struggles, has written an ambitious book that is impossible to ignore. Having traveled to those three countries while writing Southern Insurgency, Ness is not merely mapping the flow of capital’s power. At the center of this book is a close analysis of how workers are rejecting established unions and pluralist parliamentary activism in order to deploy their tactical leverage to disrupt the capital accumulation process at its most vulnerable choke points.

While it’s not discussed, what ties together Ness’s focus on the wildcat strikes in India’s Gurgaon, China’s Export Processing Zones (EPZ), and the platinum miners of South Africa is that the immensely valuable raw materials of the latter are crucial to continuing the profitable manufacturing of autos and IT in the first two. These three countries form the backbone of a new triangular trade between Northern capital and Southern raw materials and industrial labor that is growing increasingly vulnerable to locally organized workers. The strikes at the Maruti Suzuki and Yue Yuen plants in India and China and the Marikana mine in South Africa examined in detail by Ness were extremely local in scope. Yet, their innovative tactical challenge to contingent temporary and contract labor proved to be an innovative strategy to overcome internal divisions among workers. There are lessons to be learned here by higher education and service workers who are rapidly mobilizing to contest contingency in the U.S. that is now estimated to incorporate as much as 30 percent of the workforce.

While the Marikana mine strike is widely remembered for the police slaughter of 34 miners in 2012, what is not known is that the miners won the strike. Workers held open air assemblies to teach and train every miner at all three pits to be an organizer even while facing armed assaults by the COSATU-affiliated National Union of Miners (NUM) working alongside the police. Shortly after the slaughter, the company ended the strike by granting a significant wage hike for full-time and contingent miners and announced its plan to divest from the platinum mines. The  NUM was so discredited by its service to the neoliberal ANC ruling party, a new rank and file union has grown to challenge it.

Ness documents how Chinese workers have strategically concentrated on local workplace issues, despite the ban on independent unions. The resulting waves of local wildcat strikes has opened new political space. To address the local class conflict while channeling it away from erupting into a national uprising that could challenge both the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) and the Communist Party of China (CPC), the CPC recently began requiring local and provincial governments to arbitrate local work disputes thereby encouraging further local wildcat strikes. Because the ACFTU is the only union allowed in the country, an analogy Ness makes to the way western unions claim exclusive sectoral jurisdiction, there are no labor laws governing recognition and collective bargaining. This lack of labor law effectively makes all local strikes wildcats, a strategy ingeniously pursued by nameless organizers who organize strikes over local grievances and circulate them regionally. Their short sharp strikes are frequently arbitrated by local governments resulting in significant wage gains.

Ness’s analysis of the changing composition of class relations between workers and capital is exclusively concentrated on industrial workers in order to contest myopic claims of the declining relevance of the working class. Rather, as Ness documents, the number of industrial workers is rising rapidly in the South driven by massive internal migration in inverse relation to the decline in the North. Nevertheless, the emphasis on industrial workers may dissatisfy some, especially when Ness suggests that “work has not disappeared but has been relocated to the Global South” and as the “working class vanishes in Europe and North America.” But these passing observations are hardly reason to dismiss his findings. Rather, we should embrace and connect them to the massive growth of reproductive work, increasingly done by immigrant women to fill in what Ehrenreich and Hochschild call the “care deficit” in the North. It’s not surprising that predominantly immigrant home care workers are taking the lead in organizing service workers in the U.S. in recent years.

The story of the rising wave of wildcat strikes in the South is but the most recent cycle in a long historical cycle of working class struggle. An analogous process of industrialization and super exploitation driven by contingent migrant and immigrant workers characterized American capitalism between the 1870s and 1910s.

Lacking political allies, sympathetic unions interested in organizing them (with the exception of the Industrial Workers of the World), and protective labor laws, these workers are similarly self-organized, launched a nearly half-century-long insurgency that disrupted the accumulation of industrial capital. As a result, they devised new forms of syndicalist and industrial unionism and prompted capital and its political allies to make waves of concessions that established the modern Keynesian welfare state now being dismantled. Capital flight from these past concessions to the South has set a similar process of class conflict in motion—the end point of which is unknown. It may trigger a new era of global reform or spiral beyond control and beyond capitalism. Whether this will be the case ultimately depends on our capacity to circulate these struggles between North and South and industrial and non-industrial workers to widen the continuing crisis of capital.

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Robert Ovetz, Ph.D. is a lecturer in political science at SFSU and SJSU. He is seeking to publish his new book When Workers Shot Back: Class Struggle from 1877 to 1924.