No.16 Winter 2018

How capital is reshaping the battleground of class war in America

 

On Thursday 26 April, teachers across Arizona struck for pay raises and increases in public education funding. Over a thousand schools went out in over a hundred districts. Photos of street marches show a sea of red, as teachers, students and supporters proudly wore the colour of the #RedForEd movement. #RedForEd organiser Noah Karvelis told over fifty thousand protesters at the Arizona Capitol, “If we don’t stand up and bring a change, the people sitting in those chairs right there will not do it,” while pointing in the direction of the Arizona House and Senate.[1] The strike continued for over a week, until late into the night of Thursday 3 May when a 20 percent pay increase was passed by legislators. While not perfect, this is a significant victory given that Arizona teachers are among the lowest paid in the US and the state had seen no increase in public education funding since before the global financial crisis.

Arizona is the latest in a series of teachers’ strikes that have swept the US since the teachers of West Virginia went on strike in early March. Since West Virginia teachers have gone out in North Kentucky, Oklahoma and Arizona; at the time of writing a teachers’ strike in Colorado has just entered its third day. The do-it-yourself attitude of the West Virginian teachers has proven infectious and striking teachers have discovered newfound confidence in their ability to make gains in the face of what had previously seemed like the undefeatable rise of the right in US politics. In each case rank and file teachers have played an important leading role, and to greater or lesser extents clashed with the union officials. As one teacher from Kentucky put it, “Nobody is going to change the world for you. If you’re waiting for superman, he’s not showing. You have to be your own hero”.[2]

These strikes have been playing out while I have had the pleasure of reading Kim Moody’s most recent book, On New Terrain: How Capital Is Reshaping the Battleground of Class War. At several points throughout the book Moody points to teachers as a potential fault line in American class struggle, referring to recent union activity such as the successful 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike. No doubt when Moody wrote this he had no way of knowing exactly the extent to which teachers would disrupt the business as usual of US capitalism in such a short period of time.

Moody’s book is a thoughtful and well-constructed consideration of class and class struggle in the United States after some thirty years of neoliberalism and economic restructuring. His overarching argument is about the need to rebuild grassroots labour activism to challenge and reverse the ruling class onslaught against working class living standards since the mid-1970s.

Moody’s book is structured into three separate but overlapping and integrated parts: first looking at the restructuring of the working class in the US, then discussing changes in the structure of capital, and finally examining changes in the US political system and its implications for socialist organising today. This review will focus mainly on the first two parts, in view of the lesser relevance of changes to the US political system and in particular Moody’s extensive discussion of the Democrats to socialists outside the US.

Restructuring capitalism and the remaking of the US working class

Moody starts by examining the very real and significant restructuring of capitalism since the end of 1970s and in particular since the mid-1980s. He has compiled a wealth of statistics and data, which he has carefully analysed to create a fascinating picture of how US capitalism has changed itself in response to the decline of profit rates and the crisis that beset it at the end of the long boom. This restructuring has been complex and multifaceted, although as Moody makes the point, in a sense this is nothing new: the dynamism of capitalism has long meant it has a tendency to change and restructure based on the specific needs of the historical era. While Moody starts with the bottom (changes to the working class), for the purposes of this review I’m going to start with the changes he outlines at the top.

Moody describes a process of concentration and centralisation of capital that began in the 1980s and has taken place in three major waves of mergers and acquisitions (M&As) since then (1984-9, 1992-2000 and 2003-present). Much of the mainstream discussion of these M&As has related to the expansion of productive capital into financial interests, but Moody argues that this has been less significant than commonly claimed and that the trend has reversed in recent years. Much more important, Moody argues, is the tendency since the mid-1990s for capitalists to increase profitability by “capturing increased marketshare in specific lines of production”.[3] That is to say, since the mid-1990s corporate giants have acquired suppliers of parts and other essentials in the supply chain in order to shore up their dominance in that industry. Few industries have been unaffected by this tendency and Moody describes numerous examples from car and manufacturing industries through to service industries such as hotels and hospitals.

This has positive and negatives for the ruling class, and I will discuss some of the negatives in more detail later. The upside has been the clearing out of inefficiencies in the system, with M&As often resulting in downsizing and closures as well as a consequent feeling of insecurity in the remaining workforce. The larger size of the corporations and their dominance over lines of production have also enabled them to increase the rate of exploitation of the working class, as they can undermine conditions and speed up production through just-in-time supply lines. Moody also links the increases in exploitation with increases in capital intensity and consequent increases in productivity.[4]

Indeed this degradation of conditions of the working class is noted by Moody in the first few chapters of the book as one of the aspects of the restructuring of capitalism. A capitalist offensive against wages and conditions was a key response of US capitalism to the end of the long boom and international competition. Beginning in 1979 Moody notes moves within the ruling class, starting in the car industry, to introduce “lean production methods” designed to minimise “waste” in production. Characterised as “management by stress”, Moody notes that “lean methods constantly stressed the production system to locate and eliminate non-value producing labor”. This involved a range of strategies, but Moody stresses that “at its heart was the fight over time”.[5] Lean methods have seen an intensification of work as every spare moment of productive time is squeezed out of the worker. The introduction of these methods has been particularly strong in blue collar, manufacturing and industrial jobs, although it has impacted on the service sector as well.

Moody uses the dramatic reduction in break time as a pertinent example: from the 1980s until the 2000s, the number of breaks in the workday fell by 30 percent for men and 34 percent for women; the length of breaks also declined (29 percent for men and 25 percent for women) and the length of time at work before taking a break increased (by 20 percent for men and 27 percent for women).[6] In fact since the early 1980s lean production resulted in more than a doubling of the productivity of labour in the US, particularly in manufacturing and industry.[7] Moody concludes that the introduction of lean production and other processes of intensification have led to significant increases in productivity at the expense of working conditions, and have come alongside decreasing or stagnant wages. The overall consequence is that working class people are working longer, harder and for less money.

Moody discusses this for two reasons. One is to point to the very obvious decline in working class living standards, which he argues has been a major consequence of the restructuring of capital, and a subsequent transfer of wealth to the ruling class. But he is also reasserting the importance of the industrial working class in response to academics who have been spruiking its imminent demise, perhaps the most notable being Guy Standing. Standing argues that structural changes in capitalism have led to a more stratified and fragmented society than Marxist theory has accounted for. For Standing and his ilk the traditional working class has been replaced instead by a new “dangerous class”: the “precariat”, made up of the precariously employed who are “flanked by an arm of unemployed” and “socially ill misfits”.[8] As Moody summarises, for these theorists “there is no underlying basis for class conflict [in contemporary society] and no central class large or strong enough to affect social change”.[9]

Moody examines lean production and the increases in the exploitation of the working class as a means of explaining why the industrial working class has declined as a portion of the working class as a whole. He rejects the idea that the Western industrial working class has ceased to exist or become irrelevant due to its declining size; he also rejects the idea that there has been a decline of the industrial capacity of the working class due to offshoring or import competition. On the contrary, the relative shrinking of the industrial working class has been due to increased productivity resulting from just-in-time and lean production methods. As Moody puts it:

All of these changes [associated with lean production]…have led to one of the biggest job-destroying intensifications of labor in the history of capitalism. By the second decade of the twenty-first century, if you survived the process, your job had been stressed, reengineered, measured, monitored, standardized, intensified and connected just-in-time to another stressed, reengineered, etc., job while you and your fellow workers had been informed that you were the organisation’s most valuable asset.[10]

Moody pushes back too against the notion of the “precariat” as the new “dangerous class” or agent of social change, as popularised by Standing in his two books on the topic.[11] He convincingly argues that theories about the precariat are impressionistic and do not reflect a meaningful analysis of the data. Moody includes a wealth of facts that both assure us of the ongoing existence of the working class and throw significant doubt on the notion of a class marked by its extreme precariousness. He examines statistics about the number of people employed on a casual basis, the number of people who work for temp agencies and the supposed surge in the growth of the “gigariat”: jobs in the so-called “gigging economy” made famous by Uber, Deliveroo and AirTasker. Moody concludes that “the percentage of multiple jobholders in the employed [formal] workforce with some ups and downs, has not changed significantly since the 1970s, when they averaged 4.9 percent of those employed just as they do today”.[12] He argues that if anything the growth in the sense of precariousness has more to do with the high levels and increased duration of unemployment experienced by the working class and especially young workers since the onset of crisis in 2007. He also reminds us that “for Marx and Engels, precariousness was the natural condition of the working class”.[13]

Moody also interrogates the growth of the service sector, often cited as evidence of the decline of the industrial working class. Moody argues that service sector jobs have always existed under capitalism and that the growth of the sector has reflected the changing needs of capitalism. On the one hand the increased workforce participation of women has led to the commodification of work traditionally done for free by women in the home, such as childcare. At the same time the general growth of capitalist production has required workers to service those industries, such as teams of cleaners to service the high-rise office blocks that exist in every major city in the world. As well Moody suggests that many service jobs were once classified as industrial, but due to outsourcing show up elsewhere in the statistics. Regardless, he argues convincingly that such workers are just as organisable and powerful as their industrial counterparts.[14]

A strategy for change

Moody’s review of the conditions of the working class is overall quite bleak. He documents the speeding up of production, the lengthening of the working day, the steady reduction in real wages. But the crux of this book is not to mourn the past; it is to suggest strategies for rebuilding a fighting union movement, made possible and necessary by the restructuring of US capitalism.

For instance, while the process of M&As has undermined working class living standards, it has also potentially given the remaining workers more power. Due to decades of concentration of capital and rationalisation of production methods, workers in the US exist within interconnected supply chains where slow-downs and stoppages at any one point can cause production to grind to a halt across entire industries. Even the attempt to outsource the production of component parts, initially done to bypass union strongholds, has been affected by this process. The concentration and centralisation of capital in these specialised areas has meant there are fewer avenues to circumvent hold-ups in the system by simply sourcing products elsewhere. Unions today have a great potential power to organise industrially among these workers, in whole chains of supply and often in very large workplaces.

Moody’s point is again made clearly in his discussion of the “logistics revolution” that has resulted in a concentration of potential power in the hands of workers. Moody dedicates an entire chapter to eloquently constructing a picture of the logistics industry as being a “supply chain gang”: an industry of rapid growth with the establishment of huge logistics parks dominated by just-in-time production.[15] Parks in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles concentrate over 200,000 workers in a single location. These urban centres also possess a large pool of Black and migrant workers in situations of high poverty and unemployment, who can be drawn on as needed via labour hire and temp agencies.

If you pause to reflect on this for just a few moments it becomes obvious the sheer power that is held by workers in logistics. The efficiencies and tight schedules means stoppages can cause a case of severe constipation in global production. Just-in-time and lean production relies on all the gears being oiled and working smoothly. But if just one of those parts refuses to go along with the plan then the potential effect of this can reverberate along the supply chain. As Moody puts it,

[t]he new and emerging shape of capitalism offers opportunities, not certainties. It does, however point to some broad strategic directions and possibilities. There are three dimensions that offer some promise: the larger size of national or regional corporations in many industries, the huge concentrations of workers, particularly Blacks and Latinos, in urban areas, and the fragility of the whole just-in-time logistics supply chain system.[16]

This raises the question: if this potential power exists, why hasn’t it been utilised? Moody points to the political orientation of the union movement as being the overarching problem. His arguments echo some of the arguments made in Tom Bramble’s recent article about the decline of the Australian union movement.[17] The issue is not the lack of class power for workers today, but rather the politics of class collaboration and the single-minded focus on electoral strategies. Moody describes rapidly shrinking memberships and attacks on the very right to organise, both the terrible of decades of “business unionism” (striking sweetheart deals with bosses) and a stalwart commitment to the Democrats by union leaders.[18] Again, the similarities to the Australian context are hard to miss.

Moody, of course, has an alternative to this disastrous approach: rank and file organising. This is where the teachers come in. Moody refers to the success of grassroots organising among Chicago teachers as an example of what is necessary to rebuild the union movement and make gains in the face of the ruling class onslaught. Following the victory of a rank and file reform ticket in the union elections, in 2012 the Chicago teachers took serious strike against the liberal Democratic mayor Rahm Emmanuel, shutting down the city’s schools for nine days. The teachers made impressive gains and the strike was so successful that in 2016 Emmanuel simply gave in to all the teachers’ bargaining demands rather than face the prospect of another industrial battle. Moreover the 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike had a flow-on effect as others took confidence from their victory to push forward in their own demands, resulting in an uptick of industrial action in its aftermath.[19] This mirrors the effect of the West Virginian teachers on teachers across the US: confidence can be contagious.

Moody also makes an important point about the need for explicitly political organising in the struggle to rebuild our unions. One of the key aspects of the new terrain of US capitalism is the increased diversity of the working class. Moody dedicates a whole chapter to documenting the significant numbers of women, Blacks, Latin Americans and migrants who now make up the US working class. Given the specific oppression of these layers, it will be crucial for the unions to take up these issues to prove their relevance and build their power among a new generation of workers. This has long been the case, as indicated by historical examples of the intersection of Black rights movements with that of organised labour.[20] Similarly, today the largest growth groups of union members in the US today are women and particularly women of colour, as well as Latin Americans. Moody points to growing activism within the Latin American community as a significant part of the explanation for this: as Latin Americans have moved into action for civil rights they have also gained confidence to struggle in their workplaces and to unionise.[21] While Moody does not take up this argument, it is a useful rejoinder to the “class first” socialists such as Adolph Reed who want to diminish sectional demands (such as those against racism) as being less important than those that are about class.[22] Rather, the two are intimately intertwined and the working class is strengthened by its ability to bind together and oppose all the elements of oppression that its members experience.

Some brief points about US politics and some criticisms

The final section of Moody’s book consists of a fascinating discussion of how changes in US capitalism have impacted on the political system. He explores a number of ways in which the political landscape has changed, including the increased role of huge corporate donations in politics, the gerrymandering and growing dominance of the Republicans in the states, the rise and co-option of Bernie Sanders, and voting patterns among the working class, particularly union members. He also examines in great detail the increasing disconnect of the Democratic Party from the interests of working class people, driven both by their commitment to big business and their shift away from neighbourhood organising in favour of campaigning driven by polling and marketing data. Moody’s overarching point has relevance beyond the US context: the rise of neoliberalism has dramatically narrowed the space for left-leaning people to work within the existing structures of political power, not that there was much space before. Over several chapters he constructs a highly detailed picture of the mainstream politics and a convincing argument against the Democrats as a strategy for social change.

While Moody makes a convincing case against organising in the Democrats, his alternative for political organising is at times less clear. It’s not true to say that it’s entirely absent: he makes mention of the role of radicals and revolutionaries in rebuilding the union movement in past upsurges, and there is a worthy discussion of the same tucked away in the book’s final appendix.[23] However it is a pity that this is not more core to his argument. To me it seems a crucial part of the project facing the US revolutionary left: the need to cohere and galvanise a left that is clear about the role of the working class in the project for social change, the nature of the union bureaucracy and the Democrats, and so on – that is, a left that can argue for and implement the strategies that Moody puts forward. Instead a chapter is dedicated to a socialist electoral strategy that at times feels like it is a little preoccupied with finding every small electoral gap that socialists could potentially exploit.[24] It’s a pity that some of the discussion about the role of the revolutionary left did not make it into the main text, and is tucked away in an appendix that no doubt many will overlook.

This criticism notwithstanding, it is worth mentioning Moody’s brilliant postscript on the Trump presidency. Moody takes on arguments about the white working class being responsible for the election of Trump. He presents a detailed analysis of data on voting trends pointing to the fallacy in this claim, with wealthy voters being disproportionately more likely to vote for Trump. He also puts forward a scathing indictment of Hillary Clinton as a candidate of neoliberalism and the status quo, and points to this as the reason for her failure to mobilise or connect with the poor and working class. Yet every change opens up new opportunities, as Moody stresses throughout his book. He argues that fault lines on social issues such as race and class have the potential for organisation and fighting back. We have already seen this with the unrest in the US around immigration policies such as the Muslim ban and now of course the movement of teachers. As Moody succinctly puts it, the resolution “lies in aggressive labour and grassroots organizing outside of the confines of the Democratic Party… [M]uch of this active resistance will be in the streets and the workplaces of urban America”.[25]

Moody’s book is a fascinating read and one that everyone interested in fighting the onslaught of neoliberalism should take the time to look at. It paints a picture of significant change since the 1980s, most of it not very positive for our side. But it also arms socialists with a series of arguments that can help make the case for the ongoing relevance and possibilities of working class struggle in a context of both academic trends that argue the opposite as well as the steady decline of union membership. He makes a clear and forceful argument against class collaboration at a workplace level, and on a political level opposes the subordination of the labour movement to the cynical electoral calculus of mainstream parties. His alternative is a strategy based on rank and file organising on economic and political lines. Each of these arguments bears relevance to the Australian context, and I would recommend this book both to those seeking to deepen their understanding of US politics as well as those looking to strengthen their capacity to intervene into the workers’ movement here in Australia.

 

References

Blanc, Eric 2018, “This Is a Struggle of Regular Working People: An interview with Nema Brewer”, Jacobin, 2 April, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2018/04/kentucky-teachers-public-workers-strike-pensions-budget.

Bramble, Tom 2018, “Our unions in crisis: how did it come to this?”, Marxist Left Review, 15, Summer.

Georgakas, Dan, and Martin Surkin 2012, Detroit: I Do Mind Dying. A Study in Urban Revolution, Third Edition, Haymarket Books.

Moody, Kim 2017, On New Terrain: How Capital is Reshaping the Battleground of Class War, Haymarket Books.

Reed Jr., Adolph 2016, “How Racial Disparity Does Not Help Make Sense of Patterns of Police Violence”, Nonsite.org, 16 September, http://nonsite.org/editorial/how-racial-disparity-does-not-help-make-sense-of-patterns-of-police-violence.

Reed Jr., Adolph 2018, “Black Politics After 2016”, Nonsite.org, 23, 11 February, http://nonsite.org/article/black-politics-after-2016.

Standing, Guy 2011, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, Bloomsbury Academic.

Standing, Guy 2014, A Precariat Charter: From Denizens to Citizens, Bloomsbury Academic.

Zamora, Dan 2016, “Bernie Sanders and the New Class Politics: An interview with Adolph Reed”, Jacobin, 8 August, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/08/bernie-sanders-black-voters-adolph-reed-trump-hillary.

 

 

Kyla Cassells has been a socialist activist since 2005 and is a member of the Community and Public Sector Union.

[1] Richard Cano, “How Arizona’s #RedForEd movement galvanized years of frustration in 53 days”, AzCentral, 28 April 2018, https://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/arizona-education/2018/04/28/arizona-redfored-teacher-movement-organizers-53-days/560258002/.

[2] Blanc 2018.

[3] Moody 2017, p47.

[4] ibid., pp49-58.

[5] ibid., pp14-15.

[6] ibid., pp15-16.

[7] ibid., pp18-19.

[8] Standing 2011, pp7-8.

[9] Moody 2017, p7.

[10] ibid., p18.

[11] Standing 2011; Standing 2014.

[12] Moody 2017, p27.

[13] ibid., p23.

[14] ibid., pp19-22.

[15] ibid., p59.

[16] ibid., p84.

[17] Bramble 2018.

[18] Moody 2017, pp78-81.

[19] ibid., p83.

[20] A good example is the radical unionism of Black workers in Detroit in the 1970s; see Georgakas and Surkin 2012.

[21] Moody 2017, pp36-7.

[22] For recent examples see Reed 2018; Reed 2016; Zamora 2016.

[23] Moody 2017, pp76-8 and Appendix G.

[24] ibid., Chapter 10.

[25] ibid., p187.