Παρασκευή, 16 Ιουνίου 2017

Book review Immanuel Ness: Southern insurgency, the coming of the global working class

Gregoris Ioannou
(a shorter version of this review is forthcoming in Capital and Class, Vol. 41:3)

The book’s argument:

The book begins with a historical overview which sets the Marxian analytic framework and situates the narrative in the context of the current neo-liberal era. This is characterized by the huge increase in Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in the Global South which has grown exponentially since the II World War and which has integrated previously excluded areas and populations into the global capitalist economy. Ness argues that FDI replaces foreign aid as the key form of development finance and that this reshapes imperialism. The movement of capital to the Global South is driven by the search for low waged workers and the highest possible extraction of surplus value but the profits produced there are primarily repatriated to the imperialist countries. Moreover the penetration of capital restructures the societies changing the form of rather than reducing the prevalence of poverty as industrialization is based largely on temporary migrant labour and on destroying pre-existing subsistence modes of life.

The main argument developed by Ness is that workers’ resistance is a constant parameter in this process and that global capital is only able to maintain this system through the use of direct force, social repression and indirect coercion. More importantly it illustrates how workers’ contestation of their employment terms and conditions is constant, determined, resilient and sustained in time, ingenious and creative and utilizing multiple and plural resources and techniques and assuming a variety of forms. This argument is substantiated through empirical data produced in the context of the three case studies which overview the recent big strikes and extended worker mobilizations in India’s auto manufacturing, China’s shoe manufacturing and South Africa’s platinum mining industries.  

One of the main tenets of Ness’ argument is that the expansion of FDI is tied to increased proletarianization and enhanced urbanization in the Global South and the expansion of the world’s industrial workers in absolute terms as well as in relative terms; the proportion of industrial workers in the South rising from 50% in 1980 to 80% in 2010 (p.38). This occurs through the subcontracting networks that feed into major multinational corporations. Through statistical data Ness illustrates that the inequality between developed and developing countries resting on imperialism and capital flows further accentuates poverty and social inequality while Northern capital comes to depend on low-waged Southern labour (p. 33). Multinational corporations take advantage of systemic unemployment and the lack of unionization in the extensive southern informal sector and relocates industrial production to the Global South as the Global North shifts to services.

Trade unionism, its condition, forms and limits constitutes a thread that traverses Ness’ narrative. Trade unionism is at the outset a central part of the descriptive and analytic goals of the book’s endeavor to account for the working class in struggle. It is approached both as an organizational form in historical terms as well and in terms of its actual current political function in different regional and national settings. This allows Ness to both compare forms of trade unionism on issues of composition and density, degrees of institutionalization and political leverage, militancy and effectiveness, providing insights as well as critical comments based on the observation of practices. Ness examines the implications of the weakness of traditional trade unionism and concludes that the militancy of the new industrial proletariat of the Global South transcends traditional trade unionism through the formation of worker assemblies, the formation of new independent unions and through pressurizing traditional trade unions forcing them to change their approach.

The notion of the “reserve of army of labour” is the key conceptual tool employed in the book in order to explain both capital’s strategy as well as the terms and conditions of work that workers’ have to face globally. The “reserve army of labour” is identified as the most important of the Marxian concepts and it is used to frame the historical development of 20th Century capitalism and explain its operation in the 21st Century. Ness argues that migration, both internal and international has always been tied to capitalist expansion and has taken different forms according to the patterns of global history as this has been shaped by imperialism. It was migrant labour that turned the USA into the world’s biggest economy, it was migrant labour that rebuilt Europe after the II World War and it is on migrant labour, internal as well as international that neoliberal globalization is currently built.

The book’s first case study focuses on Indian industrialization occurring in a global neoliberal setting and examines the processes of class formation through workers’ mobilizations in the recent period. As the state is unreservedly and fully backing global capital’s operation of exploiting low cost labour and as trade unions’ social and political influence has declined, worker representation and demands shift from the parliamentary level to innovative firm level workers’ organizational attempts. In the neoliberal era, all government and all major parties in both the global north and the global south have adopted more or less the neoliberal imperatives, argues Ness, and this creates a very restrictive context for traditional trade unionism in the last three decades. This has opened the space for new trade union initiatives which operate on a different logic and which focus on casual and insecure workers in the informal sector who are excluded not only from labour rights but also from traditional trade unionism as well. Often class antagonism unfolds and is waged on the terrain of trade unionism between and within unions, with employers establishing company unions in an attempt to counter autonomous unionization (p. 94). And more often it is brute repression that calls the shots, making things worse for the insurgents but really unable in the medium and long term to pacify the working class and prevent further insurgency elsewhere.

China’s path to industrialization was different, as a result of its different historical trajectory, institutional context and positioning in global capitalism. Although the Chinese state effectively embarked upon liberalization and market policies since the late 1970s in its attempt to modernize and industrialize, attracting global capital ventures, it has largely remained in control of its economy maintaining a unique state capitalist framework combined with foreign investment. The new working class in China has been crystallized through the decline and privatization of state owned firms, internal migration expanding the private sector workforce and the decline in the reserve army of labour amid growing worker demands (p.115). Ness observes that the main form of mobilization is spontaneous single-factory struggles as the workers are unable to coordinate themselves and form regional and national organizations. However this is also a form of strength for the Chinese working class because it allows the growth of workplace power and militancy, qualities that would have been moderated in the presence of a nationally coordinated trade unionism. Ness takes this argument further by examining the role of (ACFTU) the existing national labour federation and the only authorized trade union, which although it is in reality a branch of the ruling Communist Party, it is effectively similar in terms of its role and function with Western trade unions.

Ness indirectly claims that the key factor in assessing trade union function is not the closeness between its leadership and management and the state, but between its leadership and its rank and file. Moreover, in opposition to scholars and commentators who view the ACFTU as thwarting the struggle for labour rights, Ness takes a more nuanced position and argues that in fact the inability of ACFTU to represent the interests of its increasing members allows workers to engage in a variety of repertoires of rank and file action. At the same time, the exponentially increasing labour disputes are the real driver behind the expansion of ACFTU membership (p. 130). And last but not least both the ruling Communist Party and ACFTU are often caught off guard and are unable to control growing labour unrest. Workers in China are thus able both to act outside the existing trade union framework and to secure wages and benefits directly from their employers and indirectly from the state as a result of the pressure their militant collective action can exert on it.

The different historical trajectory of South Africa tells a different story of trade unionism, whereby the leading role of trade unionism into the anti apartheid struggle led it, in the neoliberal universe of the post apartheid period, into the absorption of the big confederation of trade unions (COSATU) in the South African government. Ness claims that the insurrectionary working class of the transitional period became gradually disillusioned with COSATU which prioritized issues of political equality for the blacks while neglecting the socio-economic struggle and the enhanced poverty brought about by neoliberal capitalism. A severe blow to COSATU came in the last years after its failure to respond in the growing violent repression against insurrectionary mine workers. Ness views the traditional South African trade unions as complicit to the growing informalization of labour and accounts for their hostile stance in the face of recent strikes allowing and facilitating their brutal repression which culminated in the massacre of 2012 in Marikana. More importantly however, the insurrectionary forces were not pacified by the Marikana massacre as the strike wave of 2014 testifies and the result was a split in the trade union movement through the emergence of more militant trade unions that seek to express and direct the growing labour unrest in South Africa.

Discussing the book’s approach and implications:

Having outlined the main arguments and provided an overview of the author’s perspective I will now refer to some weak points and omissions in the analysis. There are two main weaknesses in the book: the overt focus on the global south and on industrial work while arguing for the coming of the global working class and subsequently the insufficient balance between and within the three case studies and between description and explanation in the development and substantiation of the argument.

While Ness documents very well the industrialization processes in the global south and emergence of a militant industrial working class, in his attempt to situate his findings in and against the dominant western discourses, he takes for granted the equation working class=factory workers used by liberal claims about the working class being an “outdated” notion. Ness adheres to a classic late 19th and early 20th Century Marxist conceptualization of the working class tied to industrial and manufacturing work and defends it through an exclusive focus on the global south. Although he substantiates his claim and justifies his approach both analytically and empirically, he omits to link this with proletarianisation processes under way in the service sectors in the global north as well as to smaller extent in the global south and thus weakens the generalisability of his argument concerning “the coming of the global working class”. Even when he discusses developments in global north, he restricts his references to proletarianisation processes to the past and present of migrant work. The absence of even a rudimentary discussion of major processes occurring in the global north, such as the rising social inequality and the shrinking of the so called middle class or labour aristocracy, is in my opinion a significant omission that, although carrying the danger of diluting the argument, could have enriched the scope and projected implications of the book’s analysis.

The second weakness concerns the balance between and within the three case studies and between the descriptive and explanatory function of the analysis employed. Ness undertakes a very ambitious task at hand: to account for recent developments in the labour relations system of three big sectors in three countries, two of them really having the size of continents. While this empirical strategy allows Ness to make the necessary projections and identify global theoretical and political implications, this also sets additional analytic difficulties. Because of the huge volume of facts and data that need to be mentioned in order for the reader to understand the broader historical, economic, political and social context in each case study, Ness has less room for discussion of the issues he identifies. While the richness of the empirical data used is often more than valuable, at certain points the analysis becomes thin as the weight falls on contextual description, chronicling of events and narrating facts.

“Southern insurgency: the coming of the global working class” is a book that is situated in the empirical tradition of Marxist literature, that uses Marxian concepts and frames in order to account for and explain social phenomena. Although Ness mainly employs classical Marxian concepts and notions drawn from the orthodox Leninist approach, the development of the analysis is also informed by subsequent Marxist elaborations. For example the focus on the strikes and the accounting of the relationship of the militant workers’ groups with their broader communities resonates with the 1960s and 1970s spirit of approaching working class consciousness and class composition in historical and political terms through observing the forms, modes and patterns of worker resistance[1]. Theoretically the geo-political and international political economy framework employed connects the book with the third worldist Marxian school[2] albeit with a novel take on the notions of dependency and inequality that takes into account the developments occurring in the neoliberal era.

Although a Marxist book, “Southern insurgency: the coming of the global working class” is open both in terms of analytic tools and insights, as well as in terms of its general implications for social science, which extend beyond the Marxist school and tradition. The book is primarily situated in the field of political economy but it also draws elements from and contributes to a series of other social science fields such as sociology of labour, employment relations and labour history. The interdisciplinary spirit characterizes also the methodology with multiple means of data collection such as fieldwork interviews, document analysis and descriptive statistics.

“Southern insurgency: the coming of the global working class” is a valuable book and constitutes a significant contribution for social science in general and Marxist analysis in particular. First of all it analyses very recent developments and is thus covering hitherto unchartered ground expanding the scope of existing knowledge. Second it offers a comparative discussion across sectors and countries and sets Western analyses in a global context. Third it empirically substantiates the refutation of a series of Western-centric “post Marxist” discourses about the declining significance of industrial work and of the industrial working class as an analytic category and a social force[3]. Fourth it provides detailed accounts of new forms of struggle by informal workers, outside traditional trade unions which can expand and enhance our understanding of mobilization processes and social movements. The latter continues and builds upon Ness’ previous work on migrant workers in the USA[4].

The main implications arising from Ness’ research is the need to rethink the role of industrial production in capitalism taking into account the new conditions effected through the expansion of foreign direct investment in conditions of neoliberal globalization. The rise of a militant working class in the global south, as documented by Ness creates a new parameter, necessary in the analysis of present day imperialism as well as in the analyses of labour relations and class politics in a global setting. Multinational corporations and their subcontracting networks and their sweat shops are not challenged mainly by consumer politics in the global north as mainstream conventional wisdom has it, but by workers’ resistance in the global south. More importantly, this resistance which scores sometimes small and sometime bigger successes renews the discussion on trade unionism, its demise and its renewal. Ness argues forcefully that the demise of traditional trade unionism is structural and that it cannot in its current form have organizational success, challenge neoliberal capitalism or express workers’ interests and that more attention and energy must be spend in new and innovative forms of really-existing worker mobilization as they appear primarily in the informal labour markets in the global south.

In the form of conclusion, I reiterate my position that “Southern insurgency: the coming of the global working class” contributes significantly to our understanding of present day capitalism and the forms of the dialectic of capital accumulation and worker resistance in the global south. With fresh data, analytic rigor and a detailed narrative, Ness sketches the contours of the 21st century class struggle and offers an account rich in insights on trade unionism and class composition in the global political economy.


Amin, S. (1976) Unequal development, Sussex: Monthly Review Press

Giddens, A. (2006) Sociology, (5th ed.) Cambridge: Polity Press

Gorz, A. (1982) Farewell to the working class: an essay on post-industrial socialism, London:
Pluto Press

Laclau, E. and Mouffe, C. (1985) Hegemony and socialist strategy: towards a radical democratic politics, London: Verso

Ness, I. (2005) Immigrants, Unions and the New US Labor Market, Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press   

Tronti, M. (1966) Operai e capital, Einaudi Editore [Workers and capital]

Thompson, E.P. (1963) The making of the English working class, London: Penguin

Wallerstein, I. (1979) The capitalist world economy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

[1] Thompson 1963; Tronti 1966.
[2] Amin 1976; Wallerstein 1979.
[3] For example Gorz 1982; Laclau and Mouffe 1985; Giddens 2006.
[4] Ness 2005.

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