BOOKS/Seth Sandronsky

New Industrial Proletariat

A money trail tells the tale. In Southern Insurgency: The Coming of the Global Working Class (Pluto Press, 2015), Immanuel Ness looks at new forms of worker organizing in manufacturing and mining across India, China and South Africa.

Ness employs the “Marxist theoretical tradition.” Social or class relations are primary, shaping production, consumption and distribution of commodities.

Ness fits the current moment of capital flight from and labor union decline in the Global North into an historical frame. In China, for example, once like India a victim of British colonialism, foreign direct investment arrives in the post-Mao era.

Currently, Communist Party of China (CPC) officials cooperate in this transnational business model. The CPC helps to deliver a low-wage workforce for super-exploitation as factory workers.

Ness unpacks the labor process of Chinese workers. Thus he examines, closely, the forces and factors driving peasants from the countryside to the Pearl River Delta region for employment, and what occurs there.

These former peasants hold a vital place in the multinational production system that relies upon export promotion zones. Profits flow into corporate coffers in the Global North, while the poor and working classes there buy cheap commodities from China with stagnant wages.

China’s proletariat rebels against the hukou system of migrant labor control. Ness documents how, collectively, Chinese workers use direct action on the shop floor to improve their working lives.

Proponents of the labor status quo include the All-China Federation of Trade Unions that join forces with the CPC to disunite workers, Ness’ research uncovers. Workers in part use social media and independent protests to fight for their rights when the ACFTU ignores them.

Ness’ work dovetails with that of Martin Hart-Landsberg. A recurring theme in their writing is capital’s mobility and labor’s immobility.

As capital from the Global North flows into China, India (the world’s two most populous nations) and South Africa, elected officials and officially-sanctioned labor unions back policies to profit foreign investors. Compliant trade unions are the third leg of this exploitative link.

Indian officials, like their Chinese counterparts, gift foreign capital. An example is tax breaks to create special economic zones of export-based industry to profit major global brands.

Ness’ method is historical and material. Then and now, the capitalist system generates a surplus job-seekers who exceed job openings, Marx’s “reserve army of the unemployed.”

Capital loves surplus labor. It drives down wages and divides workers, all the better to exploit and discard them.

In England then, and now in China, India and South Africa, peasants migrate into industrialized cities. The sheer scale of this labor process in the Global South dwarfs England’s experience at the dawn of industrial capitalism.

At the Maruti-Suzuki auto plant in the Gurgaon industrial belt of India, the government’s pro-business policies help to squeeze economic value from car production workers, and to attack independent rank-and-file labor organizing. Ness details how Indian auto workers struggle against their state-corporate foes.

There are wins and losses. State violence against strikers is fearsome but hardly the whole story.

One reason why is that Indian workers are strategically poised to transform working conditions at the point of production (over one million autos manufactured annually). This equation hikes the stakes, and makes Indian workers’ movements of self-directed protests so crucial.

Turning to South Africa, mining workers use a variety of actions: strikes, sit-ins and mine takeovers to wring concessions from employers during the post-apartheid era of black governance 2009-14. The miners’ strength is in their unity and place in the global order.

South African mine workers extract essential minerals. Their use literally moves the world economy, e.g., platinum for cars’ catalytic converters (exhaust emission systems).

The mining workers push back against the interests of foreign investors, the ANC government and its partnered labor unions. Challenging bureaucratic union structures, miners demand and receive in some cases bigger slices of the economic pie.

There are also firings. As bad as that is, there is worse.

Take the government massacre of Marikana mine workers in 2012. That bloodbath signaled the end of a post-apartheid ruling order in South African, according to Ness.

Workers in China, India and South Africa are taking “direct action against institutionalized exploitation in various arenas, and are making demands that are reshaping traditional unions,” Ness writes. As labor unions decay within the Democratic Party stateside, what workers are doing in the Global South is relevant.

He presents evidence that this “new international working class” of the Global South, like the International Workers of the World in the Global North a century ago, is using mass and wildcat strikes to gain ground against capital, the state and unions formed within political party structures. In this way, Ness’ informed and informing book helps us to better grasp the global labor order.

Seth Sandronsky is a journalist and member of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. Email

From The Progressive Populist, January 1-15, 2016

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