Questioning post-Fordism

Issue: 113

Paul Blackledge

A review of Bill Dunn, Global Restructuring and the Power of Labour (Palgrave, 2004), £45

Bill Dunn, whose edited collection on Trotsky was recently reviewed on these pages, has produced an excellent critique of the assumption, common across parts of the left, that changes in the conditions of labour over the last few decades have had disastrous consequences for the capacity of workers to mount collective struggles against capital.

Through a critical survey of the literature on both labour’s situation in a number of key sectors of the world economy—automobiles, construction, semiconductors and finance—and the dominant explanations for that situation in terms of the emergence of a globalised economy and the shift to post-Fordist production techniques, Dunn offers an alternative basis for an explanation of the defeats suffered by labour and the hegemony of neoliberalism in recent decades. However, while Dunn breaks with the view that workers are merely passive victims of their social situation, he does not simply invert the fatalism associated with some accounts of globalisation and post-Fordism—according to which the objective situation of workers has become so bad as to condemn them to impotence before the power of capital—with an equally one-sided model of class struggle voluntarism.

With respect to globalisation theory, Dunn challenges the suggestion that the undoubted changes which have come to be bracketed under the umbrella term ‘globalisation’ have led to a fundamental weakening of either the power of states or the power of workers. He insists that states have not been so undermined as some would argue, and that in any case the power of labour should not be equated with state power. Drawing on the Marxist model of combined and uneven development, Dunn shows that globalisation has developed and continues to develop in an uneven manner, such that patterns of foreign direct investment, for instance, remain skewed towards the Triad economies of Europe, North America and Japan, and where there is investment beyond these economies it is highly localised.

Dunn therefore shows how the world remains an extremely unequal place, both between countries and within countries. For instance, enormous expansion in parts of China, India and other countries in what was once known as the Third World goes hand in hand with the continued existence of a sea of poverty and underdevelopment both within these countries and outside the triad more generally.

Whereas certain theorists of globalisation, and certainly those ideologues who have hyped up the idea to justify attacks on workers, have posited globalisation as a large-scale account of the recent decline of the power of labour, the suggestion that we have moved from a Fordist towards a Post-Fordist labour process in the post-war years has provided many with a small-scale model of the same. It has been argued, for instance, that the deepening of the division of labour within the working class has led to it becoming so fragmented that it is now politically powerless as a class, while the rise of consumer led production has undermined the basis for collective action across the working class. Dunn challenges both of these arguments, insisting that changes in the system have been overemphasised and continuities downplayed. Concretely, Dunn, in an overview of changes in the sectors noted above, suggests a more complex picture than that posited by theorists of post-Fordism. Thus, while he accepts that ‘significant changes in the structure of capitalism occurred in the 20th century’, he maintains that ‘their social and spatial unevenness, complexity and differences of interpretation again suggest that the evidence is insufficiently conclusive to take labour’s structural disempowerment as established’ (p52).

As against those theorists of globalisation and post-Fordism who have tended to offer overly deterministic and consequently impressionistically pessimistic models of the decline of labour, Dunn proposes that the left would do better to analyse the defeats suffered by the working class from the mid-1970s not, mechanically, through accounts of the changing structures of either or both of the global economy and of the world of work, but rather through dialectical analyses of the relationship between these changes and changes in patterns of class struggles. Moreover, he argues that, while certain social processes have increased the tendencies towards the fragmentation of the working class over the last two or three decades, other processes have tended in the opposite direction, and this situation sets part of the context for class struggles without mechanically determining the outcome of those struggles. Indeed, against the simplistic view that changes in the labour process weakened the power of labour, he points out that, in the car industry for example, ‘decisive defeats for labour preceded substantial restructuring and may have provided the basis for it, rather than simply being its consequence’ (p202).

Dunn thus closes his book with a call for deeper analyses of the defeats experienced by the working class over the last few decades, with a view to pointing towards a way out of the crude economically deterministic models of the changes that have affected labour in that period. Moreover, he argues for bringing class struggle back into a sophisticated Marxist analysis of the defeats of the past, not out of simple academic interest in outlining a more powerful explanation of theses defeats, but, more importantly, as a means of offering a basis for a socialist strategy for labour in the 21st century. For, as he argues against the more pessimistic conclusions of certain theorists of globalisation and post-Fordism, a lot of evidence has confirmed the idea that ‘workers’ struggles continued, in practice, to make a difference’ (p204).