Battle lines drawn

Issue: 160

Tony Phillips

A review of Kim Moody, On New Terrain: How Capital is Reshaping the Battleground of Class War (Haymarket, 2017), £15.99

The centrality of the working class to capitalism through the production of surplus value and consequently its power ultimately to overthrow the system are key concepts for revolutionary Marxists. But the apparent decline of manufacturing industry in the advanced capitalist countries combined with a historically low level of class struggle have led to these central tenets being questioned by some on the left.

Kim Moody has produced an important new book which shows that attempts to write off the working class as the agent of change do not consider key developments in capitalism today. He shows that, far from weakening or falling in numbers, as for example, Guy Standing might argue with his notion of a new dangerous class, “the precariat”, the proletariat is actually growing in size and power. While the book concentrates on the United States, Moody argues that broadly similar developments are underway across all advanced capitalist countries and that this means that, objectively, the working class has the potential to reverse the attacks of the neoliberal era.

Moody argues that what he calls the “renewed period of capitalist expansion” from 1982 to 2008 saw a massive increase in productivity (p1). This led to a decline in the size of the industrial workforce, but at the same time, a growth in US manufacturing output. The author refutes claims by Donald Trump and some trade union leaders that the relative fall in the number of US manufacturing jobs in recent decades is due to imports and outsourcing overseas. Instead, he argues that this decline in the manufacturing core of the workforce has been relative but not absolute. Employment in the automobile industry is unchanged despite automation, plant closures, moves, mergers and acquisitions (p45). At the same time there has been a growth of giant logistics hubs employing hundreds of thousands of workers based in urban areas such as Los Angeles, Chicago, Memphis and the New York-New Jersey area. The location of these hubs permits access to transport hubs and the reserve army of labour, much of it from ethnic minorities (p61). Marx argued, in volume 3 of Capital, that turnover time is central to profitability, so any time that commodities spend in storage is dead time. Modern just-in-time warehouse processes aided by new technology reduce storage time and ensure that products are shipped the same day as delivery—the “annihilation of space by time”, as Marx put it. Moody believes that logistics clusters are part of the production process bringing commodities from factory to market so, as Marx argued in volume 2 of Capital, with reference to transport workers, logistics workers produce surplus value.

The author argues that the pressure to reduce storage time puts huge pressure on workers but also gives them enormous power. The large-scale and long-term fixed investment in logistics hubs, the concentration and centralisation of capital leading to fewer and bigger firms controlling logistics hubs, makes them more vulnerable to worker action.

As Moody points out, change in the composition of the working class has been a recurrent feature of capital accumulation. He disagrees with those who claim that the rise in the number of jobs in service industries has somehow weakened the working class. He points out that service industries are mainly about reproduction of the labour force. Industries such as fast food represent the commodification of services formerly carried out for free by women in the home. Many service workers produce surplus value. The author explains that the last two decades have also seen the deskilling, standardisation and intensification of supervision of work including jobs formerly regarded as professional or highly skilled, for example teachers and nurses (p33). He shows that there has been no major change in the proportion of precarious workers, workers with more than one job or the self-employed in the past 20 years.

Addressing questions of strategy, Moody believes that the role of the militant minority was key to previous upsurges of struggle in America and that the rebuilding of such a minority is a vital task for today. Business unionism and top-down organising drives have failed. The need is for unions such as the Chicago teachers’ union, where grassroots activists have control and have led successful struggles, to spearhead organising, targeting the vulnerabilities of modern capitalism.

He goes on to argue that as well as the industrial terrain changing, so is the political situation. Like the Republicans, the Democratic Party is a thoroughly capitalist organisation that cannot be won for the left. Attempts to realign it towards labour, the poor and minorities have always failed. The party is not a membership organisation and so has no democratic structures to enable supporters to have a say outside primaries, and the party structure is controlled by full-time officials and ultimately by big business and wealthy donors. Its loose structure means that it can absorb social movements but then incorporate them. There is no way that the party’s ruling Democratic National Committee would have allowed Bernie Sanders to win the Presidential nomination in 2016.

Moody is critical of the limited strategy of Sanders’s “Our Revolution” organisation. He argues that it does not attempt to involve the millions of Sanders supporters and that its focus on electoralism downplays mass mobilisation. He advocates campaigning outside the Democratic Party to reach the millions of working class people, many from ethnic minorities, who do not vote, many of whom are well to the left of Democrats. He argues that there is no evidence of a switch of working class support to Trump. To build a mass movement of opposition to big business and its two-party system, he thinks that socialists need to start from the bottom up. He advocates “aggressive labour and grassroots working class organisation and action outside the confines of the Democratic Party…much of this active resistance will be in the streets and workplaces of urban America” (p187).

Despite the election of Trump and the rise of the alt-right, the huge support for Bernie Sander’s campaign for the 2016 Democratic Presidential nomination, the Black Lives Matter movement and the wave of teachers’ strikes show that there is plenty of anger among US workers. Moody’s welcome and important book shows that they still have the power to resist and how socialists can build a mass movement of opposition to neoliberalism in its heartland.

Tony Phillips is a member of the SWP based in Walthamstow in London and a Unison trade union branch secretary working in the fire service.