Class Struggle In Present Day Globalized Capitalism – Analysis


An examination of the social science scholarship over the past 60 years reveals few, if any, publications discussing ‘the class struggle’ in anything but theoretical expositions.

By James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer

Numerous books and professional articles have been written about ‘class’ – inequalities, culture, internal differentiation (gender, ethnicity etc.). Labor specialists have discussed strikes, protests and collective bargaining.

Few if any writers have attempted to elaborate on analytical framework which sets forth the specific dimensions of ‘class struggle’, namely its historical, sociological, geographic locus.

In our formulation of a framework for discussing class struggle we will focus on the following dimensions.

1.) ‘Cyclical’ nature of class struggle (CS): the forces and conditions that evoke or diminish CS.

2.) Changes and continuities in the CS: in terms of the composition of the ‘class actors’; the geography or locus of CS; the demands and issues which arise from or give substance to the CS.

3.) The scope and depth of CS – namely the intensity of CS, in terms of the number of participants, strategic position and methods of struggle.

4.) The political, economic, social demands of the class struggle.

5.) The forms and basis of struggle – movement, community, trade union.

This framework will allow us to map and provide the bases for evaluating the advance or retreat of CS in the globalized economy.

The concept of “globalized capitalism” is both cause and consequence of the rise of neo-liberalism, an especially virulent form of capitalism which developed in the “post Keynesian” period beginning in the 1980’s and continuing through permutations and modifications to the present day.

The ascendancy of neo-liberalism was a direct result of the victorious class struggle of the ruling classes, led by the likes of Thatcher in England, Reagan in the US, Pinochet in Chile, Videla in Argentina, Deng in China, etc. Neo-liberalism opened the door to large scale, long term flows of unregulated capital; it embraced the wholesale privatization of entire strategic sectors of the economy; it eliminated labor legislation and crushed the labor movements. By the end of the1990’s neo-liberalism was synonymous with the ascendancy of globalized capitalism: international capital prescribed, imposed, enforced and benefited from deregulated capital even as the ‘anarchy’ of the market and the pillage of the productive economy and mass impoverishment led to a highly polarized class structure and eventually and inevitably to a severe crises and collapse of several neo-liberal regimes.

Globalized Capitalism and the Class Struggle

The globalization of capitalism has had a profound direct and indirect impact on the nature and conditions of class struggle. Let us briefly highlight some of the contemporaneous changes in differing geo-economic regions of the world economy.

The most striking impact of the globalization of capital has taken place in Asia – more specifically in China, where massive flows of capital by manufacturing multi-national corporations, in association with state capital has created a huge industrial working class. The proletarianization of tens of millions peasants especially migrants to the coastal cities was accompanied by savage exploitation: long hours, low pay and dangerous unhealthy working conditions. The “first generation” of new workers largely submitted to the dominance of capital or engaged in ‘passive resistance’: labor turnover on a yearly basis rose to over 30% as workers fled from one employer to another. The “official trade unions” were simply ‘arms’ of the capitalist state. However, the second and third generation of workers, those who entered the factory system in the current decade developed a distinct class consciousness: strikes, factory occupation, successful protests emerged for wages and in opposition to 12 and 14 hour work days, physical punishment and the murderous pace of the ‘production line’.

Migrant workers are denied the social benefits of resident workers – they are denied access to public health and education. Today the working class struggles in China are growing, expanding geographically and linking with a variety social struggles centered on state dispossession of land of peasants and farmers, locating contaminating metal and chemical industries in residential areas and widespread state pillage of public resources. The class inequalities resulting from global industrialization are the worst in Asia and the class awareness of these inequalities has heightened the tensions between rulers and ruled. Moreover, the symbols and historical memory of the earlier proletarian symbolism and protagonism, and revolutionary and socialist welfare system contributes to the class antagonism toward the privileged plutocratic family based ruling class.

While the ‘new manufacturing working class’ in China is engaged in more class conflicts than any other Asian country, the strikes and protests are still limited to local sites, lack national leadership and organization and are clearly ‘economistic’ – though increasingly the political leadership is held responsible for repression and complicity.

Globalization, Primarization and the Class Struggle in Latin America

The rise of Asia, especially China, has led to long-term increase in commodity prices, world demand and the rapid specialization of Latin American economies in primary goods exports, Agro-mineral exports based on massive flows of foreign and national ‘extractive capital’ is the motor force of growth. As a result the socio-economic axis of class struggle has shifted over the past decade.

Up to the 1970’s industrial workers, organized in radical trade unions, industrial councils and linked to social movements played a central role in the class struggle as was clearly the case in Argentina (the Cordobazo) in Chile (‘los cordones industrial’), Bolivia (the tin miners).

By the late 1970’s, 1980’s, state repression decimated the working class leadership and disarticuled the organization. The neo-liberal polices of the 1990’s de-industrialized the economy and created a large informal sector, shrinking the size and eroding the militancy of the industrial working class.

The resurgence of mass- class struggle and social uprisings of the early 2000s were no longer led by the trade unions and industrial unions. In Argentina neo-liberal globalization resulted in the worst crises in the country’s modern history,resulting in a mass social uprising based mostly on the unemployed workers, impoverished employees and the bankrupted middle class. The systemic breakdown led to a class struggle centered in a wave of street blockages led by a multitude of piquetero organizations, independent of the industrial trade unions which played a marginal role. The ‘new bloc of class power’ was able to overthrow neo-liberal regimes and “Presidents”, but was incapable of ruling, eventually electing the center-left Kirchner regime. With the commodity boom and the economic recovery, the class struggle diminished in intensity, the unemployed movement virtually disappeared and the ‘class struggle’ was reduced to economic struggles and collective bargaining led and directed by the established trade unions. The center-left regimes of the Kirchners “institutionalized” the class struggle and limited its role.

Brazil: The Rise and Decline of the MST

Children singing the International Communist Hymn, 20th Anniversary of MST.
Children singing the International Communist Hymn, 20th Anniversary of MST.

The industrial working class struggles in Brazil have been sporadic, confineded to economic struggles and limited by trade union ties to the social liberal Workers Party. The epi-center of the class struggle has been centered in the Rural Landless Workers Movement (MST) which engaged in major land-occupations of uncultivated landed estates (latifundios) and other forms of direct action. While the intensity of the struggle and success in expropriating farmland varied in the more than 30 years of its existence, the MST retained its mass base of several hundred thousand landless workers. The MST combines radical social economic and cultural demands to a program of social transformation. The strength of the MST was based on its vast political education program, its national network of militant worker cadres, the ‘mystique’ of its activists and supporters and its success in securing land distribution. Its weakness was in the absence of consequential allies among the urban trade unions (CUT), the declining support from the rightward moving PT, and the lack of a political ‘reference’ especially after Lula Da Silva was elected.

The MST, lacking an independent political organization, supported the PT, arguing that the Party was “terrain for struggle”, hoping that it could pressure Lula into accelerating the agrarian reform. On the contrary the PT embraced the neo-liberal extractive capitalist agenda, promoting the growth of agro-mineral exports, financing the development of agro-business exports, repressing land occupations and tolerating the dispossession of Amazonian Indian communities.

The MST’s main allies included sectors of the University community which backed its educational program; ecologists who supported its fight against GM crops and especially a sector of the Catholic church – the Pastoral Rural.

The ‘coming to power’ of the ‘center-left’ PT had multiple impacts on the class struggle. The private sector industrial unions signed off on tri-partite agreements with employers and the regime, reducing the urban struggles. The MST dependent on government finance to sustain the co-operatives based on 350,000 previous land reform beneficiaries, ‘moderated’ its struggle and while maintaining its transformative program, became a ‘pressure group’, marginalized from the centers of PT and regime decision-making.

As in Argentina with the piqueteros the combination of the commodity boom, the coming to power of a social-liberal center-left party, the decline of unemployment and poverty via regime ‘reforms’ and continuing increases in urban wages,limited the class struggle in scope and intensity.

In both Argentina and Brazil, “globalization” was not the decisive factor in determining the scope and depth of the class struggle. The key was whether (1) globalization led to crises or an economic boom (2) whether a neo-liberal regime deregulated the economy or a social liberal regime introduced social reforms; (3) whether the ‘new political movements’ – the unemployed in Argentina or the landless rural workers in Brazil could create alliances with trade unions and an independent class based political organization.

In both cases, it is clear the traditional urban employed industrial workers and their trade unions confined their activity to ‘low intensity’ and limited economic struggles. The high intensity class struggles in both countries were led by ‘marginalized’ popular sectors – the unemployed and the landless workers.

Venezuela: Class Struggle from Above and Below

Venezuela is the epicenter of the class struggle in Latin America and perhaps in the entire “Third World”. Unlike the case of Argentina and Brazil, the leading protagonists are the political nucleus of the political regime grouped around President Chavez and the mass of working poor organized in the popular barrios. The class struggle is manifested in five distinct and inter-related areas: (1) the renationalization of the strategic energy, telecommunications, minerals sector, (2) the radical redistribution of government revenues from the bourgeoisie to the working people in the form of advanced, comprehensive social programs including education, health, food subsidies, public housing, etc. (3) an agrarian reform expropriating large landlords and benefiting over 300,000 families (4) a national system of neighborhood and workplace councils which represents and articulates the needs of the urban and rural poor (5) a consequential anti-imperialist foreign policy, which consistently supports liberation movements, opposes US militarism and military coups.

Does the leading role of President Chavez represent a kind of ‘class struggle by proxy’ or is it as some leftists allege a form of “populist bonapartism”? The historical record speaks against both formulations: Chavez is as much a product of the class struggle as he is a leading protagonist. The process of social transformation took roots immediately after an aborted bourgeois class coup in 2002, which was defeated by a mass uprising of millions of working poor supported by constitutionalist military officers. The class polarization evidenced in the coup – between the US backed bourgeoisie and the working masses – and its defeat ‘educated’ ‘radicalized’ and transformed the Chavez leadership; the subsequent bosses’ petroleum ‘lock-out’ designed to destabilize and overthrow Chavez was defeated by a class conscious sector of the petroleum workers allied with and acting in concert with port and transport workers and the urban poor.

These mass class struggles and the victorious outcomes led Chavez to move from a nationalist-populist for a democratic socialist perspective. His vast social programs in turn led to organized support that took the form of a Socialist Party (PSUV) and popular and working class support for the socialization of strategic economic sectors.

The class struggle in Venezuela takes the form of a dialectical relation between mass-class opposition to the bourgeoisie and the Chavez political leadership. Venezuela today expresses the most acute class polarization, the most intense class antagonisms and the sharpest confrontation between US imperialism and anti-imperialism. The so-called “bonapartist” label which describes a “populist leader standing above the class struggle” has no relevance to Venezuela.

As was the case in Brazil and Argentina, the organized trade unions played no role, except a negative one in the process of social advance. During the coup the principle trade union the corrupt CTV (?) sided with the bourgeoisie, its principle leaders backed by the US AFL-CIO supported the coup and then the lockout. Subsequently several new ‘Chavista’ trade union confederations emerged, some of which played a positive role in building workers councils in some industrial sectors and supporting the governments social programs.

The driving force of the Venezuelan class struggle are the working poor who are backing a deeper and more comprehensive social transformation and are the major recipients of social reforms.

Given the under-industrialized nature of Venezuela’s rentier-oil dependent economy where a tiny minority of organized petroleum workers were co-opted, it is not surprising that the mass of urban ‘marginados’ became the vanguard of the process.

Venezuela’s globalized economy, deeply integrated in the world market produced both a volatile economy , a repressive pro-imperial regime and subsequently a radical democratic socialist regime intent on a socialist transformation. The key difference is (1) the way ‘globalization’ is articulated with the domestic class and political structure (2) the way in which world economy and especially the commodity boom (and high prices) facilitated public investments and social expenditures.

Class struggle created a pro-socialist regime which in turn converted the revenues from global trade into a social agenda that increased mass consumption and dynamized the domestic economy, favoring greater diversification of the economy.

Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru: Extractive Capital and the Class Struggle

The axis of class struggle in the Andean region has shifted dramatically to the mining and energy provinces with larger indian-peasant populations. Large scale foreign multi-national mining, oil and gas corporations in agreement with the national government have dispossessed rural communities, towns and villages of water and land, contaminated the environment and destroyed the social fabric in the course of long-term large scale unregulated pillage of natural resources. In recent years the boom in commodity prices and the rapid expansion of global markets, especially in Asia, has led to massive capital flows in extractive industries polarizing the provincial class structure between the capitalist state and the extractive corporations and a broad class alliance of farmers, peasants, Indians, artisans, small local shopkeepers, public employees and workers.

The traditional militant mining unions have at best been neutral and in some cases support the ‘extractive strategy’ even as they strike over narrow economic demands. While the urban popular sectors – industrial workers under leftist leaders express criticism of the violent repression of the communities in revolt, they rarely engage in any militant struggles.

The presence or absence of center-left or center-right regimes does not make any difference in lessening class struggle in the extractive sector. However, Left regimes in the case of Ecuador and Bolivia have been successful in “fencing in” the provincial revolts, isolating the rebellious classes from the mainstream urban industrial classes and public employees struggles.

The global economy linking primary producers and exporters to the new dynamic manufacturing centers, such as China, has set in motion two different kinds of class struggle: in Latin America one led by petty-commodity producers dispossessed by extractive capital and another in China of industrial workers exploited by domestic and foreign capital.

Globalized extractive capital, by its nature, is the most extreme – as it dispossesses, pollutes and disrupts an entire ‘way of life’ and that is why the class struggle is most violent and intense. In Peru, the rebellions popular sectors have organized general strikes that have paralyzed entire provinces including mining activity and all transport. The Humala regime has declared a state of siege and massacred close to two dozen activists and arrested numerous others. In Ecuador the Correa regime has signed major contracts with mining and petrol multi-nationals despite the militant opposition of the major indian organization (CONAIE, ECUNAMI). In Bolivia, the class struggle has taken the form of militant political opposition by a sector of the Indian communities’ opposition highways cutting through their communal lands – dispossession for ‘modernization’ of capitalist exploitation of raw materials clashes with subsistance economies.

In other words ‘globalized’ commodity based economies have engendered political and social conflicts between class, ethnic and economic sectors, in which the state plays a decisive role in securing and promoting the role of extractive capital.

To the degree that the class struggle is confined to the provinces, among dispossessed marginal groups, the state-MNC alliance is capable of holding onto power. However, the increasing dependence of the state on investment and revenues from the export-extractive strategies makes it vulnerable to any disruption at the point of production, transport and shipping. That is why the ruling class strategy is designed to isolate the economic struggles of the workers in the cities from the revolts in the provinces.

Colombia: Complex Class Struggle

Colombia has experienced the longest sustained armed class struggle in Latin America and perhaps the world. The recent decade has witnessed the intensification of the class struggle “from above”; under President Uribe a savage counter-insurgency program led to the killing of thousands of trade unionists, peasants and Indians and the displacement of over three million peasants. Massive US imperial intervention in the form of $5 billion dollars in military aid and seven military bases and thousands of “contract” mercenaries gives the class struggle in Colombia a “global dimension”. The ‘globalization’ of the class struggle in Colombia has several dimensions: (1) the US large scale presence (2) the use of Colombia as a ‘trampoline’ to intervene in the class struggle in neighboring countries such as Venezuela and Ecuador (3) the displacement of millions of peasants to open the door for the expansion of global MNC (4) the assassination of trade union militants employed by US and European mining manufacturing and petroleum corporations.

The class struggle in Colombia is multi-dimensional, intense and fragmented. Several trade union confederations compete and are internally divided; the militant SINATRAEL confederations is the most militant and is subject to constant violent assaults. The peasant movements engaged in land struggles face constant violent attacks from death squads landowners and the military intent on dispossession to ‘pacify regions’ for the large scale entry of extractive capital in mining and oil sectors. The two guerrilla groups the FARC and the ELN are in revolutionary struggle against the regime and take direct action against the oleo ducts and other facilities of extractive capital.

To overcome fragmentation, several hundred social movements have united to form the umbrella group the “Marcha Patriotica” to create a united front of workers and peasants.

Colombia is moving rapidly and in a big way toward becoming a center of extractive capital, attracting over $9 billion dollars in 2011 especially in metals and energy. The class struggle from above,via the state, has intensified precisely to facilitate and create a climate for the long-term, large scale entry of extractive capital. In other words ‘globalization’ in both its extractive capitalist form and its imperial military expression is a determining factor in shaping the dominance of extra-parliamentary forms of class struggle.

Class Struggle Trumps Globalization

Critics and advocates of “globalization” of capitalism have argued that, in the contemporary period, the power of globalized capitalism – is networks and international reach – shifts the balance of power against practioners of class struggle at the “national level”. We find little data to substantiate this pessimistic claim. Highly globalized countries like Venezuela – highly dependent on petrol exports and food, arms and manufacturing imports – are at the forefront of the class struggle advancing the socio-economic position of workers, the urban poor and peasants at the expense of the international and national bourgeoisie. Against ‘global capitalism’, Venezuela has deepened economic ties with center-left regimes in Latin America and entered Mercosur; against a US imperial military boycott it has purchased defensive arms from Russia; again the opposition of US extractive capital it has signed petrol agreements with state companies of Brazil, Russia and Iran. Global extractive capital is not homogeneous and united in acting especially against a major oil producer.

Similar limitations of global capitalism with regard to class struggle politics are visible elsewhere. China’s working class struggles have extracted an average of 15% to 20% wage increases among coastal ‘global capitalist firms’ over the past half a decade. More recently, global capitalist firms are relocating to Bangladesh and to the interior of China, in response to growing worker militancy.

In Greece, Spain and Portugal global financial capital has succeeded in imposing harsh austerity on the working masses – but has worsened the socio-economic crises, prolonging negative growth and long-term, large scale unemployment and intensifying class struggle. In sum, globalized capital has the power to impose harsh regime policies but in doing so only intensifies class struggle, even among previous passive groups such as pensioners, as well as radicalizing the unemployed youth.

Conclusion: Globalization and Class Struggle

Globalization has not ended the class struggle as some pundits on the left and right argued. Rather globalization has changed the classes in conflict, the nature of the issues and the strategies of the antagonists. Above all ‘globalization’ is not the main determinant of the outcome or intensity of class struggle, nor is the level and result of class struggle frozen in time. Neoliberal regimes at the center of the globalization strategy were overthrown by heterogeneous coalitions of class and mass organizations in Argentina 2001, Bolivia 2003, 2005 and Ecuador (2000,2005). In other instances, highly indebted globalized economies in crises like Greece, Spain and Portugal have witnessed repeated general strikes and mass struggles.

Widespread class struggle is unfolding in dynamic industrializing countries such as China, where high levels of exploitation and inequalities and the absence of a ‘social net’ have provoked mass unrest.

On the other hand in globalized economies, center-left regimes, with dynamic growing extractive sectors have been able to limit class conflict to economic struggles among the mainstream trade unions and to isolate the militant class/social struggles of marginalized provincial communities, at least in the present conjuncture.

The intensity and scope of class struggle under conditions of globalized capital varies with the previous success of past class struggles and world commodity prices. Under extremist neo-liberal regimes, declining commodity prices and economic crises, class struggle intensifies. In conjunctures where center-left regimes successfully pursue full employment, wage increases and anti-poverty programs, and are favored by high commodity prices, the class struggle ebbs and is channeled into a collective bargaining framework.

As the current recession in Europe and the US deepens and spreads across the world economy, the Asian engine of world growth slows (China) or stagnates (India). As the depression in Southern Europe spreads north, Germany, France and England enter recession. The economic foundations sustaining capitalist hegemony weaken: global crises, declining commodity prices, radical austerity programs, augur an extension and intensification of the class struggle.The struggles of communities fighting extractive capital may spread to the cities; the decline of commodity prices will lower the margins for negotiated wage settlements among the urban working class.

Class polarization may sharpen as a zero-sum situation undermines the center-left formula of growth and reforms. Globalized crises may put closure on “export solutions”.A ‘new model’ derived from the outcome of heightened class conflict may emerge depending on who wins.A victorious ruling class will savage all social programs and increase exploitation and austerity; a victorious outcome by the ‘classes from below’ can augur a basic transformation of the crises-ridden capitalist system toward greater public ownership and planning under worker, ecologists, peasant and consumer councils.

James Petras

James Petras is the author of more than 62 books published in 29 languages, and over 600 articles in professional journals, including the American Sociological Review, British Journal of Sociology, Social Research, and Journal of Peasant Studies. He has published over 2000 articles in nonprofessional journals such as the New York Times, the Guardian, the Nation, Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Policy, New Left Review, Partisan Review, TempsModerne, Le Monde Diplomatique, and his commentary is widely carried on the internet. For more of his writings, check out the The James Petras Website.

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