Putting the working class back at the center of resistance

On New Terrain:

How Capital is Reshaping the Battleground of Class War

In the weeks and months following the inauguration of Donald J. Trump, social-media discussions centered on the question of who would lead the resistance. Among the many candidates: insurgent feminists, dissident Parks Service employees, and the youthful army of Bernie Sanders supporters. Absent from the social-resistance imagination, at least until the victorious West Virginia teachers’ strike, has been the working class. That’s no surprise given the broad consensus across the Left that global economic restructuring has decimated the US working class in size and social power, its disaffected (and presumably white and male) remnants constituting a dangerously reactionary class, blamed for voting Trump into office.

In On New Terrain: How Capital Is Reshaping the Battleground of Class War, Kim Moody shoulders the daunting task of demonstrating that the transformations in capitalist production have not eliminated the US working class’s economic centrality nor its multiethnic, multiracial class-struggle and social-justice potential. Moody carries out this task by dispelling key

myths that obscure the substantial power that capitalism’s new terrain can afford workers—myths that separate social movements from the force they need for a mass and sustained change-making resistance.

Moody begins by discussing the common assumption that forty years into the neoliberal onslaught, “the working class has either dissolved entirely or at the very least been so fragmented” that “there is no underlying basis for class conflict and no central class large or strong enough to affect social change.” He does not discount the manufacturing job loss, geographic dislocations, and profound disorientation that together create the impression of today’s workers as disempowered and isolated “precariats.” Rather, Moody moves beyond impressions to dig into the data.

What the data shows is that manufacturing job loss since the 1980s isn’t due to any reduction in manufacturing’s economic importance nor has the destruction of manufacturing jobs been driven chiefly by offshoring, outsourcing, and downsizing. Much more important has been the spread of “lean production,” which pumps greater and greater amounts of surplus value out of fewer and fewer poorly paid and pushed-to-the-limit workers. Thanks to lean production, worker output has doubled since the 1980s. And largely thanks to lean production, the number of actual production workers has been cut in half. At the same time, the working class as a whole—those working for a wage—has increased as the number of jobs in logistics and the service sector—“employment associated with the labor of social reproduction such as health and social care and food services”—have risen in inverse proportion to the decline in manufacturing jobs.

What the data also shows is that, contrary to the myth of a “gig” economy, the average job tenure for these and other workers has not greatly changed over the past twenty years. What has changed are the terms of work. “Work for the vast majority of working-class employees,” Moody writes, “is far more intensive and demanding, likely to pay less and offer fewer benefits, with less state provision to fall back on, so that the rate at which workers are exploited is much greater than during the last period of upsurge in the 1960s and 1970s.”

In his opening chapters, Moody thus brings into view the real nature of the problem: a problem characterized not so much by widespread employment insecurity as by escalating economic insecurity that has reached beyond the working class into the “proletarianizing” professions of nursing, teaching, and engineering as “capitalism’s expansion inevitably ensnares and encloses more and more of those who must work for a living.” At stake here is more than showing what’s faulty about a neologism like “gigariat” and what’s downright insulting about fuzzy claims of a “sharing” economy. In these chapters Moody makes clear that just as the working class remains central to the US economy, so too does the need for a Marxist explanation of the one-sided class war that has ramped up exploitation and sent inequality soaring.

Having dispelled the shibboleths that contemporary capitalism makes moot a Marxist understanding of class and class exploitation, Moody tackles next the myth that today’s configurations of work reduce or eliminate the means for workers to exercise power at the point of production. While the 1980s was indeed characterized by “vertical ‘disintegration’”—by decentralization, fragmentation, downsizing, outsourcing, and greater employment precarity—Moody shows how subsequent decades have brought the opposite tendency: “the increased concentration and centralization of capital in almost every realm of the production of goods and services.” Moody traces two developments that in particular would increase the potency of workplace militancy.

The first development is a move by US and global capitalism away from conglomeration and toward monopolization of single industries. The result: any given industry (including, Moody points out, hospitals, retail, and other services) is dominated by fewer firms with larger, concentrated workforces. Concentration does indeed place even greater stress on workers: as a few large capitals compete against one another in a game of leapfrog for productivity advances and market-share grabs, they subject workers all the more to the tyranny of lean production. Yet a larger combined workforce also makes any given industry potentially prone to unionization. Lean production also leaves industry vulnerable to strike action at any point along its just-in-time supply chains.

Here we have the second development that has increased rather than decreased the potential for class struggle: the “logistics revolution” as workers, all members of what Moody calls a supply chain gang, are increasingly concentrated not only within industries but also geographically in major hubs for transportation, short-term warehousing, and the services to sustain these hubs and their workers. The very just-in-time practices devised from intense competition between fewer capitals for greater market share have also necessitated the creation of “enormous ‘logistics clusters’ of transportation hubs, massive warehouses and distribution centers, ‘aerotropolises,’ sea-ports, intermodal yards, and sophisticated technologies that bring tens of thousands of workers into finite geographic concentrations, mostly in or adjacent to large urban metropolitan areas.”

Moody’s examination of the logistics revolution reveals that the story of the US industrial core isn’t simply one of decline, to be measured in falling rates of jobs held by factory and mine workers, but also of expansion: in rapidly rising numbers of transportation, warehouse, and information-sector workers on whom supply chains rely. Along these supply chains, and within the logistics hubs of Los Angeles, Chicago, and the New Jersey-New York port area, the lines separating production, warehousing, and transportation blur. In a single day warehouse workers receive a product, provide further assembly or customization, then ship it right back out. “The supply chain,” Moody argues, “from raw materials to the very doors of Walmart is, in the Marxist view, a production assembly line,” with the logistics clusters that tie production processes together comprising “value-producing agglomerations . . . much as the clusters of auto assembly plants of yesteryear in Detroit or the steel mills in Gary were at the center of their supply chains.”

This understanding of global supply chains upends the myth that restructured production practices have resulted only in a disintegration that diminishes workers’ numbers, relationships, and capacity for acting collectively. Also apparent in Moody’s analysis is that tales of global capital’s “flexibility” and “nimbleness”—always ready to take flight in search of cheaper, more compliant labor—are exaggerated. “It’s all very fine that due to ‘financialization,’ capital in its money form flies around the earth at the speed of light,” Moody observes, “but once the ‘buck’ has landed and is transformed into roads, rails, ports, warehouses, factories, communications systems, equipment, and the like, these investments don’t just get up and walk away.”

Transformed too is the racial and gender composition of the working class—a fact lost on election-year journalists looking for representative working-class voters only among white men in rural and rust-belt regions outside the new geographic centers of production and distribution. Today, nonwhite—predominantly African American and Latino—male workers comprise some 40 percent of the industrial core workforce. Women make up almost 25 percent of the warehousing and transportation workforce, 28 percent of manufacturing, and more than 40 percent of the information sector. Beyond the industrial core, Moody points out, are millions more workers who “work and live in large urban concentrations, and are even more diverse” as they “maintain and clean capital’s fixed assets, including . . . its office buildings, airports, bus and railroad stations, hotels, hospitals, schools, [and] universities” that are all necessary to capitalist production and social reproduction.

Through the first two sections of On New Terrain, Moody presents a comprehensive, convincing case that global capitalist restructuring has created plenty of fuel to ignite a new labor upsurge. But Moody also warns against making any hazy predictions about when or whether this “convergence” of incendiary conditions will “produce a conflagration.” Needed, he stresses, “is not crystal ball gazing but preparation.” That preparation includes rebuilding the very grassroots, democratic, and fighting forms of working-class organization smashed by neoliberalism and earlier waves of repression.

That preparation also includes dismantling any barriers between economic and social-justice struggle. After all, in the “giant logistics clusters and the contiguous urban neighborhoods that provide their labor force” are also found immigrants fighting deportation, women fighting sexual and economic degradation, African Americans fighting for their lives against predatory policing and school-to-prison pipelines, and Moody stresses that labor militants should in no way isolate themselves from these and other struggles that are very much class struggles.

Yet he stresses, too, that effective and sustainable resistance to oppression depends on rebuilding militant workplace organizing and action. “It is the workplace or the job where the greatest potential collective social power can be found,” Moody writes, and, significantly, “society’s most interracial site of power.” Among the workers tied together, in horizontal relationships and in greater concentrations, by contemporary capitalism’s supply chains and logistics nodes, broader social movements can find the power—the resistance—needed to disrupt business, and politics, as usual.

If Moody had ended On New Terrain here—with a meticulous, myth-busting presentation of the objective conditions rendered by global capitalist restructuring that intensify rather than negate the US and global working class’s emancipatory power—the book would have done a great reorienting service. What makes On New Terrain indispensable is Moody’s willingness to spotlight the urgent political question of who will undertake this critical preparation of preparing a working class that is aware of and able to act on its collective power. Here Moody turns to the rich history of US working-class rebellion and focuses especially the key determinant of a “militant minority” able, as labor historian David Montgomery puts it, “to weld their workmates and neighbors into a self-aware working class.”

At the heart of the Depression decade’s labor upsurge, Moody points out, were Communists, Trotskyists, and IWW veterans. Versed in Marxism, their teeth cut on social-justice struggle beyond the workplace, Moody highlights how these radicals “formed the backbone of the new stewards’ organization at the heart of industry, provided information and analysis within and across union lines, and, when necessary forced upon often reluctant officials both elements of democracy and the broader mobilizations that gave the CIO upsurge its power and durability.” Conversely, Moody also argues, it was the lack of a sizable militant minority—diminished by successive waves of anticommunist repression—that put the brake on the durability and outcomes of the rank-and-file rebellion of the 1960s and 1970s, with that era’s movements remaining “politically rudimentary and isolated from one another.”

The question, Moody argues, is not whether conditions are ripe for rebellion but “whether there exists . . . a ‘militant minority’ today large enough to help shape and strengthen the next upsurge when and if it arrives.” It’s a particularly urgent question, given the contradictions of the current climate: a broad radicalization from Occupy to the Sanders campaign; a recent uptick in strikes and other workplace actions; an absence of needed class politics to sustain and advance social movements; and with Democratic candidates angling for the mantle of resistance fighter, diverting activists from the project of building a mass political alternative to both capitalist parties. Moody brilliantly debunks the myths of a Democratic Party that can be redirected or divided to serve working-class and social-justice needs. Most notably, he shows how consolidation and concentration on the political plane (particularly of capital in party structure and elections) have created a Democratic Party even more impervious to realignment, reform, or a Sanders-style political revolution.

Yet after steering readers well clear of utopian and fruitless hopes for a Democratic Party solution, Moody loses some of the firm footing that otherwise grounds On New Terrain. In a book that cuts sharply against the view that the ballot and NGO-styled lobbying organizations can substitute for mass working-class self-activity, Moody overamplifies the opportunities for Left electoral politics at the state and local levels. He gives special mention, for instance, to Vermont’s Progressive Party without noting—or perhaps realizing—that this once-upon-time working-class party, founded on an explicit break from the Democrats, today endorses and runs its own candidates on Democratic Party tickets, and that some of its members, in their roles as legislators, city councilors, and school commissioners have championed school budget freezes and imposed contracts on teachers.

Despite having demonstrated that the strength and staying power of any labor upsurge rests with politically conscious socialists, Moody also downplays the explicitly socialist politics and organization needed to develop today’s militant minority. Labor Notes workshops, rank-and-file caucuses, and a revived shop steward movement are all critical ingredients for rebuilding democratic unions, but by conflating these formations with the socialist and syndicalist organizations at the heart of Progressive era and 1930s massive strike waves, Moody winds up trying to address the question of radical preparation for the fights to come primarily through the activities of trade unionism.

The great strength of On New Terrain is found in its overwhelming evidence that the challenges faced by today’s working class are owed less to the objective conditions created by neoliberal reorganization, and much more to the political reality that decades of repression, from the Red Scare to McCarthyism to COINTELPRO, have decimated the ranks of socialists and other working-class radicals, leaving workers and their unions with few defenses from the assaults of the past forty years. An answer to the question “How do we rebuild the militant minority?”—or maybe more to the point, “How do we recruit and equip with the compass of revolutionary Marxism a new generation of Kim Moodys?”—must be political as well. After all, On New Terrain’s significant contributions are owed not just to Moody’s ability to dig into Bureau of Labor Statistics data but to his explicitly Marxist understanding of the dynamics underpinning capital accumulation and of the working class’s enduring role in leading the resistance.

Issue #100

Spring 2016

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