by Victor Wallis
As several authors in this collection observe, global conditions of the present have moved back into alignment with those of 1864, as a result of two quite recent historical developments. First came the collapse of first-epoch socialism, which brought the world back to its pre-1917 setting of unfettered capitalism. Second was the worldwide financial meltdown of 2008, which, along with continuing unconstrained social polarization (squeezing the poor to bloat the rich), subjected the working class to an immediate level of stress comparable to that described by Marx in his Inaugural Address to the First International.
This is not to deny the immense differences between the two periods, which can perhaps be grouped under two major headings: one having to do with the configuration of nationalities, and the other with the material conditions that would constitute the point of departure for any possible alternative social order.
In today’s capitalist world, national boundaries are in some respects more porous than in that of 1864. Although imperial rivalries have not entirely vanished, they pale next to the unprecedented concentration of military might – and disposition to use it anywhere – in the hands of a single major power. Equally important have been the vast worldwide displacements of both capital and people. As a consequence of this, we now have complex patterns of cross-investment among the major powers (on top of their already existing financial stake in colonized regions), and we also find new modalities of migration, in which economic migrants come to constitute a permanent sub-proletariat – or join an already existing one, “racially” defined – in the countries to which they move (with or without legal authorization).
The world of 1864 has also been left far behind in material terms. This refers at once to numbers of people, sophistication of technology, and depletion of resources.1 Social transformation has become more difficult at the same time that threats to species-survival have made it more urgent. The increasingly problematic character of national borders reminds us in political terms of a truth that has long been acknowledged – if not sufficiently popularized – at the level of science, namely, that all life converges in a unitary global ecosphere. Non-human species – notably, those that migrate – do not recognize state boundaries; nor do viruses, greenhouse gases, airborne particulate matter, weather-patterns, or rising sea-levels. What is done to the resource-base within any single locality inescapably affects the conditions of life everywhere else.
This global interdependence has existed since life began, but the strains along some of its axes have now reached a new level. The margin for permissible use of resources has drastically tightened. This means that solidarity – which implies mutual understanding, sympathy, and (eventually) full collaboration – will have to encompass more dimensions of human life than ever before. Solidarity in the 19th century was grounded theoretically in the internationalism of the Communist Manifesto. Activists of the First International saw its potential usefulness above all in protecting workers against firms that might hire scab labor from abroad. But thanks in part to Marx’s participation in the practical work of that body, notions of common class interest were raised above the kind of short-term calculus that still grips too many working-class organizations today (as for instance when they prioritize capitalist growth-objectives over environmental protection).2 English textile workers thus rejected the superficially plausible notion that their interests lay with the plantation-owners of the US South, whose slave-labor exports supplied the raw material on which their jobs depended.
Now as then, solidarity – the guiding spirit of internationalism – must rest on a broadly conceived understanding of common interest. The US is currently the scene of massive protests among fast-food workers – with support-demonstrations in thirty other countries – calling for a living wage. The forces most resistant to that demand are the same ones that seek to obstruct basic public awareness about the environmental crisis – and, above all, about the massive reordering of priorities required in order to effectively address that crisis. The common core-interest of the ruling class (across issues) is clear to its protagonists, whereas that of the working class, i.e., of the popular majority, continues to be perceived by its subjects only in fragmentary fashion. The building blocks of 21st-century solidarity thus present themselves in a variety of distinct spheres – from the Social Forums that sparked worldwide protest in February 2003 against the impending US assault on Iraq, to the globally inspired environmental movement 350.org (referring to the commonly understood target-concentration for atmospheric carbon dioxide).
Within the labor movement as such, the steps toward a revived internationalism have so far been halting. Much manufacturing work has shifted to countries with massive reserve armies of the urban poor. New technologies, driven by corporate criteria of efficiency, have fostered the casualization of labor, further weakening workers’ capacity to organize. But where there has been (as in South Africa) a strong tradition of organizing transcending strictly trade-unionist goals, new centers of solidarity emerge. Within the now partly deindustrialized countries of the global North, unionism tends to be stronger in the service sectors, and in some of these – such as security services – organizing tactics have shifted from job-actions to corporate campaigns, which have come to focus on issues of “governance” (in the sense of rules needing to be imposed on corporate conduct). In this respect, internationalism is now coming to take on the specific form of transnationalism. That is, solidarity has become a matter of linking workers across borders not just at certain climactic moments (e.g., during strikes), but as a routine part of their work-lives.3 A noteworthy expression of this, documented below, is the practice – initiated among communications workers – of union-sponsored cross-national contacts for rank-and-file workers as well as for union officials.
Consistent with this latter development is a revival of interest in workers’ self-management,4 reminding us of an aspect of Marx’s thought that, as also described in these pages, informed his organizational work in the International. Together with activation of the rank-and-file, a renewed attention to cooperative principles of workplace organization restores a sense of workers as full citizens – actively shaping social production – and not just as repositories of a particular functional interest.
In this respect, it is worth noting a final sense in which the conditions of 1864 and today differ from those prevailing during much of the intervening period. Today, as in 1864, there is no hegemonic working-class political party. The prospect of developing such a party was implicit in the work of the First International, and the fact that a party had not yet materialized explains at once the limitations in what the Association could implement and, on the other hand, the range of positions that it could consider seriously in its debates. We now have the opportunity to learn from that experience.
1. On the severity of resource-depletion, see Michael T. Klare, The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources, New York: Henry Holt, 2012.
2. On the environment as a class issue, see Victor Wallis, “The Search for a Mass Ecological Constituency,” International Critical Thought, vol. 3, no. 4 (2013), 496-509, and Jeremy Brecher, “‘Jobs vs. the Environment’: How to Counter This Divisive Big Lie,” www.labor4sustainability.org/articles/%E2%80%98jobs-vs-the-environment%E2%80%99-how-to-counter-this-divisive-big-lie/
3. Jamie K. McCallum, Global Unions, Local Power: The New Spirit of Transnational Labor Organizing, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013
4. See Immanuel Ness and Dario Azzellini, eds., Ours to Master and to Own: Workers’ Control from the Commune to the Present, Chicago: Haymarket, 2011, and Richard D. Wolff, Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism, Chicago: Haymarket, 2012.