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Through which period are we passing?

This essay is a criticism of the perspective that the 1990s and 2000s represented a “transitional period” between a “downturn” of class struggle in the US during the 1980s and the onset of a future “upturn.” This perspective, originally developed by the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in the mid-1990s, found itself displaced in the SWP by the idea that “the 1990s are the 1930s in slow motion”; however, it was revived by the International Socialist Organization (ISO) in the US after its break with the SWP. The seminal remotivation of the perspective from the ISO is Ahmed Shawki’s “Between Things Ended and Things Begun,” which appeared in the summer of 2001. The perspective was upheld subsequently in an internal document for the ISO’s National Convention 2007.

Today, the “transitional period” perspective (TPP) seems to have been retracted by the ISO leadership; I say it “seems” this way because it has never been formally retracted in writing, despite being formally promulgated in writing. (Here I mean “retracted” in the strict sense that the perspective is admitted as having been wrong even at the time it was proposed.) The rejection of the TPP was indicated, in the first place, on the floor of the ISO’s Convention 2013, in response to arguments put forward in an earlier version of this piece. Later, at his Socialism 2013 talk on “Perspectives for the Left,” Shawki distanced himself from “Between Things Ended and Things Begun,” saying, “Rereading it, there are so many mistakes in that article.” Unfortunately, he didn’t go into detail, noting only the “absolute underestimation” of the neoliberal transformation of society; still, since the article’s main thesis is the TPP, it is fair to assume that this perspective has been abandoned, at least rhetorically.

Since I was, I believe, the noisiest critic of the TPP within the ISO, I suppose I should be happy that it has been effectively discarded. And indeed I am–but I am not happy that this has become yet another example of a “silent switch” in the group’s political policy. Additionally, and related to the preceding, I do not think that the comrades have really broken with the underlying schema of the TPP, which predicts that the US should be currently experiencing an “upturn” in class struggle. In any event, since my work is, to my knowledge, the only systematic attack on the TPP–as opposed to a mere “declaration” of its falsehood from some Subject-Presumed-To-Know–I thought it would be useful to reproduce the arguments in a more accessible medium. (The original document was a submission to the ISO’s 2013 Pre-Convention Bulletin series. It has been substantially revised.)

Stuck in transition

Recall that the “transition period” perspective (TPP) is the contention that the US was in a “transition period” from (roughly) the early 1990s until the onset of the Great Recession in 2008. This period was transitional inasmuch as it mediated between a “downturn” in class struggle in the 1980s and the dawn of an “upturn” sometime in the future.

At some level, the TPP is saying something totally uncontroversial for Marxists: that class struggle cannot be permanently suppressed under capitalism; if it declines at one point in history, it will inevitably rise again. But this rudimentary insight is not in itself sufficient to generate a perspective, since it operates at the highest level of abstraction.

Even more damaging to the TPP is the fact that the downturn in class struggle, alleged to have ended along with the 1980s, actually extended through the 2000s. This can be seen very clearly through an examination of strike statistics. The Bureau of Labor Statistics maintains records on every major work stoppage (ie, strike or lockout involving at least 1000 workers lasting at least one shift) in the US; the series data goes back to 1947, but we need only concern ourselves here with data from, say, 1970. In the table below I show the total number of stoppages in each of the four full decades since 1970, along with the total number of workers involved.

1970-79 1980-89 1990-99 2000-09
Number of stoppages 2,888 831 347 201
Workers involved (thousands) 14,878 5,066 2,709 1,283

The trend is unmistakable: an exponential decline in the level of class struggle throughout the entire neoliberal period, inasmuch as this level is measured by stoppage statistics. Although the rate of decline is certainly largest during the 1980s, the evidence gives no reason to think that the downturn was finished by the early 1990s.

There are a few objections that might be raised at this point. First, it could be argued that the data is not complete, since it omits small stoppages. This is true, but I only claim that the data is evidence of the trajectory of class struggle, not the full picture. It is not necessary–nor is it usually possible–to obtain absolutely complete data before drawing conclusions about the development of social phenomena.

More subtly, it could be claimed that the data structurally overlooks much of the working class because workplaces have become much smaller on average. But this is a misconception: in 2006, a US worker had about 700 coworkers on average, only 11% less than in 1975. In fact, a service worker in 2006 had 970 coworkers on average. (See Samuel E. Henly and Juan M. Sánchez, “The US Establishment-Size Distribution: Secular Changes and Sectoral Decomposition,” Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond Economic Quarterly 95:4 (Fall 2009), pp. 419-454.)

The average manufacturing worker does labor in a much smaller shop–about half the size of the 1975 shop–but this is itself a result of the decline in class struggle: bosses have been able to squeeze more out of fewer workers, plus labor quiescence has allowed capital to stretch supply lines without fear of interruptions in production. (See Kim Moody, “Contextualising Organised Labour in Expansion and Crisis: The Case of the US,” Historical Materialism 20:1 (2012), pp. 3-30; and Laurie A. Graham, “How Foreign-Owned Auto Plants Remain Union-Free,” New Labor Forum 17:3 (Fall 2008), pp. 59-66.) In short, there is not much case to be made that the decline in large workplace confrontations is being made up for by a flowering of smaller conflicts.

Finally, one might argue that because the class struggle cannot be reduced to large strikes alone, there is no inconsistency in claiming that the downturn in class struggle generally ended in the 1980s, while the decline in big strikes specifically continued unabated. There is substantial truth in this argument: BLS statistics do not record the eruption of the global justice, antiwar, immigrant rights, or other movements, even though these were clearly manifestations of class struggle. Here we must recall, however, that the workplace is the fundamental locus of struggle for the working class; the power of the working class rests, in the final instance, entirely on its ability to stop the production (and turnover) of capital.

Thus the disorganization of the working class in the workplace cannot be “balanced out” by increased activity in the streets–this is like saying that a stalling engine is “balanced out” by nice tires. Of course the level of “political” class struggle (movements) may be, at any given moment, more or less independent of the level of “economic” class struggle (strikes)–but to assert that these levels have become delinked for some twenty years strains the Marxist logic. (If such things were possible, it would not be clear why the anarchist arguments about the “autonomy” of each struggle from every other are not, after all, correct.) On the contrary, the weakness of the struggle at the point of production underlies the many problems encountered in the social movements, such as the difficulty of sustaining them.

Legends of the rise

The TPP predisposes one to serious errors about the nature of the current conjuncture. The schema of the TPP is essentially: downturn-transition-upturn. If one contends that the US entered a new economic/political period since the onset of the Great Recession–as the ISO has claimed, in my view correctly–then per the TPP schema, one naturally concludes that we have entered an upturn in class struggle. This is, of course, empirically and even obviously false, whatever heroic attempts are made to deny it.

The number of major work stoppages in the US in 2009 (five) was the lowest on record (ie, since 1947). The same is true of the number of workers involved (124,000). The number of stoppages has increased since then–but an increase from virtually zero-level does not an “upturn” make.

Furthermore, the increasing use of lockouts, which unlike strikes tend to indicate the militancy of the boss, make the stoppage statistics even gloomier than they seem. Of the 19 stoppages in 2011, four were lockouts, accounting for 353,500 days idle, or 35% of the 2011 total. An additional “stoppage” accounting for 16,500 days idle was apparently misreported–the union insists it was not on strike. Subtracting these, we have left 14 strikes involving approximately 104,000 workers and 650,000 days idle. Of the strikes, a single one dominates: Verizon. This involved 45,000 workers (43% of the total) and 450,000 days idle (70% of the total).

There were 20 major stoppages in 2012, involving 145,400 workers idled for 1,256,400 days total. Excluding lockouts, however, there were 17 major strikes involving 135,100 workers idled for 605,800 days total. (Note the extraordinary fact that less than half of all days lost were due to strikes! That said, the lockout total is dominated by American Crystal Sugar, which locked out its 1,300-strong workforce all year, leading to 444,600 days lost.) The Chicago teacher’s strike looms large in the statistics, accounting for nearly a fifth of all workers on strike and over 30% of total strike days. Together with the strike at Lockheed Martin, this rises to over 59% of total strike days.

Finally, the average length of strikes (ie, days idle divided by number of workers) is a useful measure of the confidence of the working class, as willingness to engage in longer strikes suggests a higher degree of militancy. Based on the 14 strikes of 2011, the average strike length was 6.39 days/worker. For the 17 strikes in 2012, the figure is 4.48 days/worker. Both of these were, I believe, record lows since 1947.

Even if one denies that the US has entered an “upturn”–and most ISO comrades do–the logic of the TPP invariably brings one back to “upturnish” conclusions. Thus the ISO leadership insists that the level of class struggle in the US has increased in the last five years relative to (at least) late neoliberalism. This is supported (very typically) by giving a list of examples–a method of argumentation that, of course, proves nothing. (As a wise man said: “In order to depict [the] objective position one must not take examples or isolated data (in view of the extreme complexity of the phenomena of social life it is always possible to select any number of examples or separate data to prove any proposition), but all the data on the basis of economic life….”) Indeed, an examination of the aggregate data suggests that the level of class struggle has been stagnant at best, if not actually declining.

Equilibrium lost

If we reject the TPP and its downturn-transition-upturn schema, what should replace it? My own view is that, instead of relying on this basically idealist cycle, we should revisit Trotsky’s concept of the capitalist equilibrium. Per this model, we observe a relatively stable capitalist equilibrium spanning from the early 1980s until 2008; ie, the neoliberal phase of world capitalism. Since the crash of 2008, equilibrium has been lost and not regained. It will be regained–there is, alas, no indication of the “death agony” of capitalism–but the parameters of the new equilibrium are not yet determined. This perspective has the advantage of being completely compatible with the “new period” perspective, without prefiguring the trajectory of class struggle.

In the history of the Marxist movement, perhaps nothing has caused groups to come to more grief than misunderstanding the political period. Our struggle is long and difficult, and we naturally want to see our labors bear fruit. Yet what we expect from the world is of no account to the world; we must be scientists of revolution, verifying or discarding our hypotheses with complete disinterestedness, seeking only the most accurate picture of the capitalist reality, so as all the more accurately to attack it.

  1. November 2, 2013 at 10:10 am

    A really interesting post.

    For me the problem with the downturn-transition-upturn model is that it implicitly presumes that the next upturn will be something like the last. Yet the contingent historical circumstances that produced that form of upturn are unlikely to be repeated.

    The Moody article seems to me to be key because it asks the uncomfortable question of what sort of rise in social resistance we will see in “economic” circumstances not at all like those that allowed the growth of union-based struggles on a mass, and sometimes quite radical, scale in a previous era.

    Let’s look at Greece, where the level of workplace struggle is not only quite high but is tied to political strike action on a large scale. In fact most struggles by workers in Greece in circumstances of crisis go down to defeat. Yet the movement continues to grow and radicalise in fits and starts. A series of governments have fallen because of the high level of social resistance and the inability of the political class to find a stable arrangement with enough social influence to drive through their austerity agenda. Indeed, the stable post-junta party political system has cracked under the pressure, with massive realignments and the rapid rise of new party allegiances (naturally unstable).

    Most interestingly, unions have not really grown in membership, despite a clear increase in working class combativeness and confidence and politicisation. Part of this is down to job losses and closures hollowing out some union organisation, but activists I know in Greece make it clear that the idea of “joining the union” is not the central issue in the struggle as it may have been in the 1960s and 70s.

    Reading Broué on the German revolution makes this line of argument clearer: The crisis of 1923 sees declining industrial/workplace struggle alongside sharp political radicalisation, opening up a potentially revolutionary situation. Simply put, the depth of the crisis means that industrial/workplace solutions are not a logical response to a crisis of all of society, and solutions are needed instead at the level of politics.

    So the TPP model strikes me as not very helpful because it doesn’t specify what we are transitioning towards. In that sense it has failed in its predictive capacity. This seems most acute when you describe the ISO’s issues with the “new period” argument. I think we are in a new period, but it is one where the crisis of authority of the political elite has accelerated under the pressure of the social crisis, but not in every country one where the social resistance to the crisis has played out in some “onwards and upwards” style of “upturn”. I see that crisis of authority — one that preceded 2007 and overdetermined the “transition” period — as being a direct result of the effects of the neoliberal turn which, despite its apparent “victory”, in fact undermined the social basis for the old political institutions to manage subaltern interests. Hence why you can get perpetual (and worsening) political instability without a clear return of mass struggle on a scale that simple notions of “upturn” imply.

    Anyhow, just some thoughts.

  1. November 26, 2013 at 2:29 am

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