By Gerard Di Trolio
To rebuild a working class movement that can actually push back against neoliberalism and intervene at every level of society – from the workplace, to the community, and in politics – it is essential that activists understand how capital has reshaped workplaces in advanced economies.
Kim Moody’s new book, On New Terrain: How Capital is Reshaping the Battleground of Class War, is an important contribution in understanding these changes.
Moody begins the book by talking about the recomposition of the working class in the United States since the late 1970s. The U.S. working class has become more racially and ethnically diverse, seen an increase of women’s participation and the numbers of hours they work, and has shed manufacturing jobs while gaining service sector jobs. Moody also supplies the obligatory figures to show how wages of stagnated and the top 1 per cent has been taking a greater and greater share of wealth created
A number of important analytical nuances that Moody provides is important in understanding the contemporary U.S. economy.
First, Moody points out that U.S. manufacturing jobs have not simply been outsourced to China or other manufacturing sites in East Asia. Lean production and just-in-time manufacturing methods have decreased the number of workers required in factories that still exist in the U.S. Manufacturing output in the U.S. still managed to increase by 131 per cent between 1982 and 2007. Some manufacturing is even “re-shoring” to the U.S., though at real lower rates of pay and no union protection unlike manufacturing jobs of a generation ago.
Second, Moody does not buy into the idea of the “precariat” as some sort of new class. Moody reminds us that Marx and Engels were discussing and analyzing precarious work in their own time. The emergence of precarity in work is not simply a result of new technologies like some claim, but of how successful the class war waged by capital has been. Precarious work continues to disproportionally affect racialized and women workers.
Interestingly enough, Moody calculates that Canada has a higher proportion of its workforce in precarious jobs, at 20 per cent, compared to calculation of 15 per cent for the U.S.
The most important lesson from On New Terrain is Moody’s mapping of a framework of how a renewed labour movement can fight back.
The employer’s overwhelming power these days has not smoothed over or crushed capitalism’s contradiction. It has simply reshaped them and it is up to the labour movement to recognize this.
Moody identifies logistics and transportation as the new choke point where an organized working class can put pressure on capital.
It was things like lean production and just-in-time manufacturing that has necessitated the growth of logistics and transportation. Global supply chains are key to keep a modern consumer economy running. Warehouses have increased in average size and they are to be found in many major cities along with other logistical hubs for companies from Amazon to UPS.
A strike in a particular warehouse, transportation company, or supplier can quickly harm several major companies at once, from the retailer to other manufacturers depending on certain parts.
Some warehouses are unionized, as is UPS, and we saw how important that company is to the smooth running of the U.S. economy during the 1997 strike there. But for there to be significant working class power exerted on the logistics industry, unions must greatly increase their density across the sector. A labour movement that is thinking strategically must prioritize this.
The later chapters of the book offer an analysis of the current political situation in the U.S. with the rise of Trump, and how socialists and worker militants should respond both organizationally and electorally. Moody does not break much new ground here, focusing primarily the need to build independent working class politics clearly separate from the Democratic Party.
The book ends with a postscript that gives a careful analysis of Trump’s election. Moody pushes against conventional liberal wisdom and shows how the traditional Republican base helped to elect Trump while instead of a mass defection of white working class voters, Clinton loss due to a mix of working class apathy deterring turnout and active voter disenfranchisement spearheaded by state and local Republican parties to stop people of colour from voting.
As Moody writes: “In the actual results Clinton got 433,547 fewer votes than Obama, while Trump got 179,598 more than Romney, not enough to absorb all the missing Democrats. The biggest story here was the drop in Democratic voters. Thus, the biggest numerical shift was not to Trump, despite the large percentage of union household votes for him, but away from Clinton and the Democrats.”
Despite some ground that has been covered many times before, On New Terrain is an essential read for anyone wanting to think about revitalizing the labour movement. It should be read alongside a book like Jane McAlevey’s No Shortcuts which seeks to jump start serious organizing within the labour movement. Understanding how the economy and the working class itself has been restructured is the first step in building a challenge to neoliberalism before we can start organizing on the ground.