The remaking of a global working class

Beverley Silver,
Roar.

The dominant approach in the social sciences since the 1980s had been to assume that labor and class-based mobilizations are a relic of the past. “Globalization”, it was widely argued, unleashed an intense competition among workers worldwide, and resulted in a relentless downward spiral in workers’ power and welfare. The restructuring of production—plant closings, outsourcing, automation, and the incorporation of massive new supplies of cheap labor—was said to be undermining the established mass production working classes in core countries and creating insurmountable barriers to new working-class mobilization everywhere.

This argument came to be known as the race-to-the-bottom thesis. It was an argument that left its proponents flat-footed when it came time to make sense of the worldwide upsurge of labor unrest and class-based mobilizations taking place since 2008. This new upsurge has taken a variety of forms: a wave of strikes by factory workers in China and other parts of Asia, militant wildcat strikes in South African platinum mines, occupations of public squares by unemployed and underemployed youth from North Africa to the United States, anti-austerity protests in Europe. These were just a few of the signs that the tide was turning. Indeed, it is likely that we are just at the beginnings of a new worldwide upsurge of labor and class-based mobilization.

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