An International Working Class?


By Rick Patelunas

Marx and Engels wrote in the Manifesto of the Communist Party that “workingmen have no country” and “national differences and antagonisms between peoples are daily more and more vanishing, owing to the development of the bourgeoisie, to freedom of commerce, to the world-market, to uniformity in the mode of production and in the conditions of life corresponding thereto.”[1]  But the ascendance of the neoliberal world-economy has given us capital without a country, while maintaining working-class differences and antagonisms.

Capital freely flows between the North (North America, Europe and Japan) and the South and back again.  The success of the neoliberal world-economy makes it possible for capital to transcend many of the unwanted effects of nation states while at the same time realizing the military and legal protections provided by those same nation states.  For example:

Lawmakers in the U.S., the U.K., France and Italy have scrutinized companies such as Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard Co., Apple, Google Inc. and Inc. Those inquiries have revealed an Apple subsidiary that earned $30 billion over four years with no home for tax purposes and loans that let HP access its off-limits offshore cash. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the Group of 20 nations are trying to negotiate a common set of rules to prevent such profit shifting.[2]

Although billions of dollars of profits have no home for tax purposes, the multinational firms realizing those profits certainly have homes, mostly in the developed North.  Strategic planning, design and marketing functions are performed at the home office by generally higher-paid workers.  Production is more likely done in one or more countries throughout the South by lower-paid workers.  By spreading production throughout multiple nation states, firms are able to increase efficiency, another name for increasing profits, by taking advantage of cheap labor and raw materials.

In the July issue of Monthly Review addressing Imperialism, Torkil Lauesen and Zak Cope draw on the work by Kraemer, Linden, and Dedrich to provide a useful case study of the Apple iPad.  Apple is a US-based company that develops patents and sells computers and communications equipment, but outsources all of its manufacturing.  All iPads are assembled in China using “748 suppliers of materials and components into its production chain, 82 percent of them based in Asia – 351 of which are in China.”  In 2010-2011, the market price of an iPad was $499, of which only $33 was for production wages in the South while $150 was for administration, R&D, etc., mostly in the North.[3]

The North-South relationship not only promotes capital accumulation; there is another subtle benefit to the capitalist class — it drives a wedge in the international working class.  Workers in the North benefit from the South-to-North capital flow by way of cheaper products.  Roughly 80% of production is done in the low-wage South, and examples like the iPad and Wal-Mart’s low cost supply chain result in lower product prices for workers in the North.  At the same time, additional production in the South brings workers in the South into the global reserve army of unemployed, which in turn, helps keep wages in the North lower.  Thus, workers in the North face the subtle contradiction that the lower prices of products produced with cheap labor in the South threaten their own wages and employment stability.

It’s not lost on politicians serving the capitalist class that nationalism and xenophobia are useful tools to perpetuate a divided working class.  The Others are stealing your jobs:  whether it’s immigrants invading the nation or the Others in far-off places, they are stealing the jobs of our fine citizens.  The rational consumers in the North may harbor feelings of resentment against big banks and multinational corporations, but more importantly, they sense the precariousness of their situation.  The Others make good scapegoats when the reserve army of unemployed is one of the reminders that things could always be worse.

Lower prices and propaganda help capitalists enjoin workers in the North in their exploitation of the South, but as capitalism morphs and adjusts and co-opts, workers must do likewise.  The neoliberal world-economy since the 1970s has seen a shift in the North from large manufacturing to smaller firms and service industry occupations, stagnant wages, declining union membership and a shrinking welfare state.  In the South, manufacturing has grown, but without living wages, unions, or state protections for workers.  Workers in the North and South are responding in different ways, for example, the alternative organizing methods presented by Immanuel Ness in, New Forms of Worker Organization.[4]

Chapter 9, “Syndicalism in Sweden: A Hundred Years of the SAC” by Gabriel Kuhn explains the internationalist efforts of the Central Organization of Swedish Workers (SAC) “in a world of increasing labor migration, international trade treaties, and neoliberal corporate rule.”  The SAC has coordinated with and continues to work with Spanish, French, Italian and Polish syndicalist groups; organized and won cases in Sweden for undocumented migrant workers, primarily from Latin America; and initiated a Fair Wine Trade campaign in cooperation with trade unions in Chile, Argentina and South Africa that improved the working conditions of vineyard workers outside of Sweden.[5]

It might be that Marx and Engels’s country-less working class is still working its way to resolution.  A short-term solution is doubtful though, and a single approach or silver bullet unlikely.  Alternative worker organizing, cross-border and other transnational union organizing, the Occupy movement, community advocacy, campaigns like that of Bernie Sanders and other actions may all be necessary parts in the struggle towards resolution.

[1] Tucker, Robert C. Ed. The Marx-Engels Reader, (New York NY, W. W. Norton 1978 2nd Edition, 1978) 488.

[3] Torkil Lauesen and Zak Cope, “Imperialism and the Transformation of Values into Prices,” Monthly Review 67/3 (July – August 2015)

[4] Immanuel Ness, New Forms of Worker Organization:  The Syndicalist and Autonomist Restoration of Class-Struggle Unionism, (Oakland, CA, PM Press, 2014) 1, 10 -12.

[5] Ibid., 175-180.

 Rick Patelunas is a DSA member from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

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