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Getting over the politics of Humpty Dumpty

Ten propositions on contemporary class formation, its geography and its implications for politics

Jane Wills (Department of Geography and The City Centre, QMUL )

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall;
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall;
All the King’s horses and all the King’s men, couldn’t put Humpty together again
… and sometimes, that’s all there is to it … mourn and move on

Many of those who remain attached to idea and institutional infrastructure of what’s left of ‘the labour movement’ have still to come to terms with the nature of contemporary capitalism and its emergent forms of class formation. The politics of Humpty Dumpty is still at large as trade union/labour activists seek to inject welcome energy into organising while remaining attached to the old models of organisation and inherited traditions of doing politics.

Today I want to outline ten propositions on contemporary class formation, its geography and its implications for politics as a journey beyond the land of Humpty Dumpty. If we start from the ground up, what does it tell us about the kind of labour organisation that might really make sense?

Proposition 1

During the twentieth century, capital moved to labour in what we now know as the New International Division of Labour. Employers in labour intensive industries were able to tap supplies of cheap, willing, nimble-fingered labour in the developing world. Eager to earn rent from the labours of their citizens, such activity was encouraged by the Governments of those nations. One group of workers (in the North) were dropped as another were engaged in production (in the South) and this involved a sharp upturn in the feminisation of the world’s working class too.

Proposition 2

This new geography of production and class has deepened exponentially during the past 30 years. Governments in the South trip over each other to offer incentives for capital, exemplified in the Export Processing Zone. Governments in the North get periodically perplexed by their recalcitrant working class, passing legislation to ‘encourage’ people into low waged work, to ‘improve’ themselves with higher education, and if that fails, to punish them for anti-social behaviour.

Proposition 3

At the same time, there has been a sharp acceleration in the number of workers moving beyond their home countries to work. Increasing numbers of people from the Global South and East have found their way North and West, again increasing potential gains to employers. London now has a stark bifurcated Migrant Division of Labour. Canary Wharf exemplifies the reliance of multinational capitalism on a multinational workforce. The investment rooms and the cleaning cupboards are inhabited by extraordinarily diverse populations. Research with one cleaning contractor in one building in 2006 found that the 105 workers came from 29 different countries. Well over half the workers now doing the least desirable routine and manual jobs in London were born overseas. Research conducted for the Global Cities at Work project here at Queen Mary found that 90% of the cleaners working on London Underground were born abroad, many of them in Africa, and similar trends were found in catering, hospitality, home care and food processing. Welcomed by employers, such migrants fill a gap doing work that ‘natives’ are unwilling and apparently unsuited to do. As this representative from the Confederation of British Industry recently put it:

If you have a choice between two individuals, one of whom seems really enthusiastic about work, who wants to get on … who wants to learn and wants to move on and wants to perform well, then you are going to choose that individual with that positive attitude. If those positive attitudes are coming more from migrant workers than the UK-born, then I am afraid you are going to go for the migrant workers. We know what the solution to that disadvantage would be: a bit more enthusiasm from the indigenous worker.

(Susan Anderson, CBI, quoted in House of Lords Select Committee of Economic Affairs, 2008, 33).

Employers can sidestep the problems of the ‘native’ working class and extract better surplus from migrants instead. Added to this, the growing competition between differentiated streams of migrants (and in the UK, particularly between those coming from the countries of the A8 and those less publicly legitimate – and racialized - groups from the Global South) to keep wages down.

Proposition 4

Since the 1980s a new employment paradigm has also developed that further increases the power of capital over labour and the potential to use spatial competition to increase the surplus extracted. Subcontracted employment now means that the largest companies don’t directly employ workers and instead, they rely on suppliers. This model is endemic in raw material extraction and production, manufacturing, transportation/logistics, catering, cleaning, HR, IT, security, state services … and just about most things. Subcontracting allows big capital to squeeze their suppliers and to relocate without the geographical bind of sunk costs.

Proposition 5

Under the old paradigm of factory-type employment relations, labour organisation involved workers recognising their shared interests at work, developing the capacity for collective organisation (often assisted by the agitation of radicalised colleagues as well as resources and ideas from the labour movement) and then mobilising to recalibrate the terms of employment. Labour organisation was geographically focused on the workplace. And as an aside, this is the model that is being promoted by many advocates of the trade union organising agenda. Yet if workers continue to adopt this model in the context of subcontracted employment relations, they simply price themselves – and their employer – out of a job. Effective labour organisation has to be able to reach the ‘real employers’ at the top of the chain to then change the terms of employment.

Proposition 6

Under the old paradigm of factory-type employment relations and workplace trade union organisation, the labour movement was sometimes able to secure the political leverage required for national Government to intervene in the interests of labour. Indeed, in some instances, the state sought to regulate employment in the name of the nation. Organised labour no longer has such power and the actions of what’s left of the labour movement are generally seen as sectional special interests of marginal relevance to the good of the whole. Increasingly, the labour market is a site for the exchange of labour-power almost as a pure commodity form (and this is most clearly exemplified in the hire of labour for the day or the hour).

Proposition 7

If labour is to develop the capacity to act it is obviously imperative to tackle subcontracted employment; to find an ideology, strategy and tactics that no longer relies so heavily on the nation-state; and to deliver motivational gains for/with workers to fuel further organisation.

Proposition 8

Pioneering work by groups like Women Working Worldwide and London Citizens, the group behind the London Living Wage, reveal a lot about what this new kind of labour organisation might look like. In the former case, WWW have developed international networks that allow workers’ issues to reach the ‘real employer’ and in the latter, broad-based community organisation, direct action and media exposure have put the issues in front of the clients for cleaning services. In both cases, people have organised to challenge the moral economy of contemporary capitalism. Doing so has involved broad coalitions bridging the distance between frontline workers and senior managers, shareholders, beneficiaries of corporate charity, politicians, the media and consumers. North and South, workers cannot recalibrate contemporary labour relations on their own. Moreover, it is imperative to remake the coalition that allows workers issues to travel – to become community interests (with parallels to the links between the early labour movement and the Labour/Social Democratic parties at a national level in a country like Britain) – at any scale necessary.

Proposition 9

The state might feature as a target, or occasionally an ally (as in the case of the departed Ken Livingstone and the London Living Wage) but the state will not deliver on this agenda. At the moment, the emerging movement is being driven by a mixture of emotional commitments including a desire for human rights, social justice, fair trade, more accountable capitalism, Corporate Social Responsibility and feel good consumerism. The demand is for capitalism to develop a new moral economy. The demand is contained within capitalism and is not about any form of systemic change or transformation in social relations.

Proposition 10

The experience of groups like WWW and LC highlights the potential for labour to be an agent in alliance with others. Such action has taken labour beyond the politics of Humpty Dumpty. These movements have found ways to tackle the nature of contemporary capitalism and subcontracted employment relations. In some cases workers have been able to sustain workplace organisation but in others, episodic activity in the broader alliance or from a base in the community is enough to secure change and all workers can manage or desire. Cleaners at this University, for example, were part of the demand for a living wage which was realised last year but they were not part of a union. The demand was made by a broad coalition of London Citizens member groups (including faith, community, trade union branches) with the student union on site adding support. Labour issues were largely articulated as community concerns. Labour was one part of a wider struggle for justice.

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