I want first to rescue Callicles’s very valuable observation from the obscurity of the comments section:
[T]he experience of previous generations has shown that labor organizing repeatedly suffers from failures to update targets and strategy as the nature of the economy changes. So worker organizing becomes anachronistic and (as a result) stagnant. The flip side is that there can be transformational bursts of activity when the right target comes into view. When the UAW made the jump from plant-by-plant organizing to taking on the giant of GM in its entirety, at the national level, this was such a moment. Capital was coming to operate as a nationwide system, and needed to be confronted at that level.
My thought is that, today, we can't make a dent in class forces in our country because class forces can no longer be confronted on the national level; taking on something like the Walmart global supply chain would then be analogous to taking on GM as a whole.To this I would only add that the legislative and regulatory framework that provides the terrain for labor politics should be included as well. In other words, an effective progressive agenda would have to move to the global level both to directly confront corporations and to change the global rules that corporations play by.
As Callicles implies, there are some very strong and instructive parallels between the situation in which the left now finds itself and that which prevailed in the early days of the Great Depression in the United States. During the prosperous years of the Roaring Twenties, progressives had been left disoriented and demoralized by the failure of “the masses” to mobilize against the elite. The stock market crash of 1929 and deepening economic crisis after a brief false recovery opened up new possibilities both within the political elite—parts of which slowly began to question the old laissez faire doctrines—and within the population as whole, whose hopes of a prosperous future were brutally revealed to be as bankrupt as the financial system.
After several years of indecision and infighting, a (largely uncoordinated) two-prong progressive offensive took shape. The elite faction that came to power with the election of Franklin Roosevelt advanced a legislative program of improving the working conditions and raising the standard of living of the working class. By guaranteeing the right to collective bargaining, outlawing child labor, establishing a national minimum wage, setting standards for maximum hours and overtime pay, creating a national pension (Social Security), and investing federal funds in infrastructure and other collective goods, the New Deal not only created jobs for some of the unemployed, but established by law a baseline of wages, benefits, and workplace treatment that became the foundation of the postwar middle class.
Emboldened and empowered by the legislative initiatives of the political elite, organized labor fought the second prong of the progressive offensive: a new strategy and tactics of pressure against corporate power. The CIO broke with the conservative AFL, which represented the old guard of craft unions seeking to preserve the privileges of skilled workers by excluding their unskilled fellows. In contrast, the CIO sought to organize all workers within an industry, skilled and unskilled alike. Rather than prosecuting plant-by-plant campaigns as in the past, it made the integrated corporate production chains of the most powerful corporations the object of attack. And it struck at strategic points in the production chain, bringing the entire production process to a halt in order to demand industry-wide concessions. In the course of only a couple years, starting with the dramatic Flint sit-down strike of late 1936 to early 1937, the CIO won an incredible series of victories in the most important industries in the nation: autos, steel, mining.
The labor breakthroughs of the 1930s were epoch-making not merely because they won dramatic improvements in wages and working conditions. More significantly, they created the foundations for a completely new form of capitalism—Fordism—that was in many ways far more humane than what came before. Central to this process was a new political imaginary that created, for the first time, a truly national politics. Prior to the 1930s, although an integrated national market had taken shape over the previous four decades, there was no national politics capable of intervening in and reshaping it. The legal consensus and institutional reality was that the federal government had almost no power to regulate the national economy. Although the AFL was a national federation of labor unions, it did not act at the level of the nation—what would have been the point, since there was no authority capable of responding to such demands? The many projects that sought to alleviate the great suffering generated by industrialization, such as Hull-House in Chicago or the Henry Street Settlement in New York, primarily acted at the local level. Reform struggles associated with the Progressive Movement—for a minimum wage, public utilities, democratic representation, &c.—were fought at the state or city level.
Only after the national economy collapsed over the years 1929 to 1932 did a national politics become possible—and then only by defeating the powerful advocates of austerity and free-market dogma. And it was only by making demands that previously seemed impossibly ambitious that the economy was rescued and reshaped to overcome the extreme dysfunctions that had crippled it. Out of these huge structural changes came the unprecedented prosperity of the postwar period, when corporations that had once violently resisted the demands of labor instead worked cooperatively with the unions.
The parallels with our current bleak situation are notable. Over the last four decades, a truly global economy came into being for the first time (its nineteenth-century forerunner reached across the globe, but only weakly incorporated the vast majority of the global population). Like the national economy of the US in 1930, the global economy now teeters on the edge of disaster. The transnational corporations, like their national counterparts a century ago, grew rich by exploiting and excluding the majority of the population—but now the exploitation and exclusion that built neoliberalism threatens to bring the whole system down. The capitalists are on the verge of destroying their own prosperity and sinking everyone else into even greater suffering, yet there is no global politics capable of preventing the disaster by stepping in and remaking the global economy.
The parallels extend to political actors as well. Like the craft unions of a century ago, today’s unions are fixated on defending the disintegrating privileges of a prior age or fighting “realistic” battles for a narrow constituency rather than demanding an entirely new system that embraces the entire (global) population. Elites now, like those in 1930, are paralyzed within the ideological categories that made sense before the crash but now only push the crisis further.
Today every single political actor, whether they benefit from the status quo or suffer from it, is still thinking in the anachronistic terms of the past. If our near-term political goal (five to ten years) is to revive social democracy, or achieve a “New New Deal”, then the lessons of the Depression are clear. We must begin thinking in terms that are relevant to the future. We must confront corporations at the only level that can change them systematically: the global level. We must demand regulation at the only level capable of addressing the structural disadvantages suffered by workers: the global level. We must organize a movement at the only level with a chance to save the global economy, and all of us, from complete catastrophe: the global level.