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The Worldwide Strike Wave and The Political Crisis of Global Governance:
Challenging Orthodoxies on Both Sides
Steven Colatrella
Orthodoxies Mainstream and Critical
Orthodox approaches tend to see global governance as an aspect of neoliberalism. Mainstream
approaches to globalization and neoliberalism in turn argue that in practice no one is in charge –
most well-known in Thomas Friedman’s electronic herd. In the liberal version of this formulation,
global governance organizations are needed to provide regulation or to address social problems
caused by market failure or by the limits of the market, as in the recent writings of ex-WTO head
Mike Moore and of economist Jeffrey Sachs. But critics of globalization and global governance
have also often seen global governance as a secondary phenomenon with respect to neoliberalism.
In this view, global governance serves either as a mopping up operation of problems created by
neoliberalism itself, or as a contradiction in which state power of all kinds, and governance itself,
are seen as part of the internal contradictions of neoliberalism as ideology, as in the work of David
One body of theory that does see global governance as central, that of Negri and Hardt, argues
gives, as Giovanni Arrighi stated in his critique of their book Empire “a radical twist” on the thesis
that territorial states had given way to a de-centered network of power. This thesis whether of the
mainstream Friedman version or the radical Negri and Hardt version, has been attacked by critics
both mainstream (Kenneth Waltz1) and oppositional (Hirst and Thompson)2 for mistakenly
assuming that globalization and global governance mean the end, or at least the qualitative
weakening of the nation-state Further, many radical opponents of globalization and neoliberalism
have argued that the opposition to neoliberalism is best understand as taking a multitude of forms
and as consisting of an extremely heterogeneous set of actors.
Nearly all of the above mentioned authors see neoliberalism and globalization as discontinuities
with any previous secular linear historical tendencies of capitalist development or see now such
tendencies in capitalist history in the first place. In this essay, I argue that global governance is best
understood through two distinct processes – the secular growth of hegemonic powers treated in the
literature on hegemony best exemplified by the work of Arrighi, and as a process of class formation.
Further, I identify the current planetary strike wave by workers as a dialectically-related process of
self-making by the working class globally and suggest that a new global composition of the
working class that is both a cause and effect of the strike wave around the world indicates that the
heterogeneous actors of the previous period of anti-capitalist struggle is giving way to a more
cohesive set of actors and forms of action indicating a changed power relation that is provoking a
global political crisis unprecedented in world history.
Introduction – actors and theory
Critics and supporters of global capitalism have in recent years focused on the diminished role of
the state – deregulation, privatization, the global diffusion of production3 – and seen a highly plural
set of actors – a “movement of movements” as the forces to be looked to for an
Kenneth Waltz, “Globalization and Governance” Political Science and Politics, 32, no. 4, December 1999, pp.693-700.
Hirst P. and Thompson G. (1999) "Globalization in question" 2nd. ed. Blackwell Publishers Ltd.
See, among a huge literature, Claus Offe and John Keane, Disorganized Capitalism: Contemporary Transformation of
Work and Politics MIT Cambridge 1985; Scott Lash and John Urry, The End of Organized Capitalism University of
Wisconsin Madison 1987; David Harvey, A Short History of Neoliberalism Oxford Univ Press Oxford and New
York2005; Naomi Klein, Shock Doctrine Penguin London and New York 2007; Bob Jessop, Liberalism, Neoliberalism
and Urban Governance: A State-Theoretical Perspective Antipode Oxford 2002;
“alterglobalization4.” This essay argues that in light of recent events, greater attention should be
paid instead to the class nature of global governance organizations, the transformation of nationstates in the service of a global capitalist class, and working class activity primarily in the form of a
gigantic worldwide strike wave. This class struggle, now on a world scale increasingly takes the
form of austerity, expropriation and exploitation guided by or initiated by organizations of global
governance in collaboration with national states, and a strike wave by workers unprecedented in its
worldwide scope since around 2007.
Further, I suggest here that the understanding of the historical tendencies of capitalism under
pressure of class struggle as articulated and described by Marx and Marxists that has seemed
confounded by trends in neoliberal globalization instead is best understood as confirmed by the
recent trajectory of both global governance and global strike action by workers. While avoiding talk
of “stages” that overstates historical determinacy and understates contingency resulting from the
unpredictable outcome of class struggles in the real world, we can restore confidence in the
possibility of understanding in a coherent way the general direction that events and social structures
in capitalist society necessarily take, all other things being equal. This is possible if we can
anticipate with some clarity and probability the likely impact of class struggles in reshaping and
reconfiguring the structures and institutions of global capitalism. In other words, we may restore the
role of theory, not as deconstruction of discourses alone, but as a guide to understanding the likely
direction of future development and as a guide therefore to radical action. Nor should this project be
dismissed by a facile critique of “teleology” – for I merely intend to remind us, for example, that the
world that the Communist Manifesto described, of a world market, worldwide commodity exchange
and the radical simplification of classes into owners of capital and workers for wages, hardly
described the world of 1848, but rather anticipated key aspects of the world of global capitalism
today. Likewise, Marx’s insight in chapter 32 of Volume One of Capital, that the historical
Toni Negri and Michael Hardt, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire Penguin New York 2004; Samir
Amin, The World We Wish to See: Revolutionary Objectives in the 21st Century Monthly Review New York 2008.
tendency of capitalism would be concentration of wealth and power, and centralization of
production, with a small elite in control of the resources of a society of expropriated producers,
anticipated developments fundamental to capitalism that had not yet happened at the time of his
writing. I analyze relevant insights of Marx, Engels and Hegel here to aid us in understanding the
meaning of global governance and of the growing strike wave.
Global Governance – the state form of global capitalism
Global Governance is arguably the name for what might pass these days for “a committee for the
management of the affairs of the bourgeoisie as a whole” – though we should recall that the much
repeated phrase by Marx and Engels stated that “the executive of the modern state” filled this role,
not, for instance, the legislature or other state institutions.
If not quite state forms, Global
Governance institutions, such as the G20, the WTO, World Bank, IMF, UN Security Council and at
an intermediate level the European Commission, as well as at least the key national central banks
certainly constitute some significant change in the way states work in a global context. In acting
often as Hegel’s “universal authority”, something between an executive committee and a
bureaucracy that sets the agenda for and coordinates state policies throughout much of the world,
Global Governance institutions are where the real power seems to be politically in the capitalist
world today. These institutions embody Arundhati Roy’s crucial insight that globalization means
not that national sovereignty is at risk, but rather that democracy is5 – especially if by democracy
we mean a democratic content and agency, and not merely a procedure.; second, Global
Governance institutions, as Marx made clear regarding state bureaucracies in his critique of Hegel’s
theory of the state, are not universal, neutral institutions, rather they occupy a universal space, as
public power, but they represent particularistic, indeed class interests. Representing capitalist
Arundhati Roy, “Confronting Empire: Speech Given at the World Social Forum”, January 27, 2003 Porto Alegre, Brazil
interests, and particularly finance capital, global governance organizations use the present crisis to
call on states to enact as public policy austerity, budget-cutting for social services, just as in an
earlier cycle they called on states to privatize, deregulate and liberalize. These policy requirements,
coming as they do from beyond the level of national governments, are not in themselves a negation
of national state power, but rather a transformation of it in class terms. National states, complex
creations that express the complicated class relations and outcome of class struggles historically in
each national territory, are, through the imposition and mediation of Global Governance, liberated
from the local class struggles that have heretofore shaped them, expanded and/or limited their
policy options and structures. They are instead increasingly interrelated globally as instruments of
an ever-more coherent global capitalist ruling class, by outlook and by unity in action, that is by
consistent purposeful action in the interests of their own class globally and nationally.
Opposing this renewed wave of austerity and neoliberal globalization is a host of movements,
organizations and protests, at times uniting in action a diversity of class actors. But increasingly, in
the past two years since the financial crisis broke and turned into a global recession, the opposition
has been spearheaded by the working class in country after country. Since Spring 2010 increasingly
purposeful strike waves have directly opposed the austerity imposed by national governments, and
the austerity called for by Global Governance institutions. Put differently, the past few months as I
write have seen the rise of a new concrete universal in the form of mass strikes against the abstract
universal of Global Governance. These strike waves, from China and India to South Africa and
Egypt, from France and Britain to Jamaica and Cambodia, from Vietnam to Greece, from
Bangladesh to Spain, have also challenged austerity as class rule. This planetary strike wave by a
world working class, is so far the most direct, and impressive obstacle to realizing the austerity
program of global capital in the face of a crisis itself resulting from the limited options for
profitable investment around the world. It is the meaning of the trajectory, and interaction, of these
two main class forces, as understood and anticipated by Hegel and Marx, that I will explore in this
Global Governance and Hegemony
A major weakness of the realist school of international relations theory is that it confuses
instruments with actors. National state governments, which are complexes of institutions shaped by
actors, primarily classes in struggle both domestically and internationally, are treated as actors in
their own right, with a presumed “national interest” as a guiding motivation. Giovanni Arrighi’s
work on successive hegemonies in historical capitalism by contrast, treats classes as actors, through
primarily ruling capitalist classes who, through political exchange with state rulers, enabling them
to acquire political and military protection for their capitalist interests, gain the organizational
capacity and the resources to organize global capitalism as a whole, exercising hegemonic
leadership as well as domination over other national capitalists and workers as a whole. Each
hegemonic power has reorganized capitalism’s form and content globally, transforming the system
and expanding its geographic reach in accordance with the need of capital’s ever-growing need for
surplus value, profit and accumulation. Each hegemonic power – Venice, Genoa, The Dutch,
Britain, and the United States - has thus had three crucial characteristics distinguishing it from the
one that had come before it. First, each was larger in geographic scale as a “container” of power and
profit; second, each rested on a wider social base, accommodating or incorporating the social
struggles that burst forth during and as both cause and effect of the crisis of the previous hegemony,
and finally, and though Arrighi never states this as a reason arguably as a result of the need to meet
the second of these criteria, each hegemonic power was a paler imitation of the purer form of
capitalist logic, of embodying an “executive committee of the bourgeoisie” exemplified by the first
hegemonic power, Venice.
For Arrighi, the problem is that the current, fading hegemonic power, the United States, is too
powerful militarily to be overcome by a new power, and no power embodies a qualitatively larger
scale – China, for instance being the same continental size as the US but no larger – so that the
renewal system of capitalism may be blocked, the US’ political power blocking the ability of
mobile capital to transfer its allegiance to a new political ally. A world-market oriented ruling class,
instead, perhaps such as that theorized by globalization theory, would lack the state protection
needed by capital, leading to a world market society that was non-capitalist. It is, instead, my
contention that the dominant factions of global capital, finance capital in particular, have found, in
global governance organizations and their actors, a new class alliance of political exchange that
does not sacrifice the political control, nor the military power it historically found in territorial
states. That alliance is with the bureaucratic rulers of global governance organizations and the
organizations at the national level of each state with which these organizations have privileged
relationships, and whose transformation into local units of global governance on behalf of finance
capital they have facilitated, especially central banks and treasury ministries. Further, this strategy
enables capital to overcome the growing tendency for less logically capitalist hegemonic powers by
allowing a considerable and increasing overlap and merger between the two classes of global
financial bourgeoisie and global governance bureaucracy, through the process of “elite
socialization” and interpenetration of personnel between the two, leading to the formation of a more
homogeneous global ruling class. To better understand this process, we need a brief excursion into
Hegel’s theoretical understanding of bureaucracy and governance. While Arrighi is more generous
in acknowledging somewhat a Hegelian influence in his work than say Negri and Hardt, he does not
specifically treat his themes in a Hegelian language. But it is through a discussion of Hegel on
bureaucracy, and Marx’s critique of Hegel’s theory, that we can also re-establish some sense of the
historical tendency of capitalist political development.
The Universal Class – and Not
Hegel traced the development of modern society and came to a similar conclusion to that of Max
Weber: modern society would be governed by bureaucracy. However, for Weber bureaucracy is the
end result of a long process of instrumental rationalization of society that is a product of capitalism
but not fully reducible to it. For Hegel instead, bureaucracy is an organic part of modern society
based around the need for law to regulate the competition and fragmentation of civil society. Hegel
sees the bureaucracy as a form of “rule”, of political power in itself, that encompasses the executive
and judicial powers6. This is possible, and according to Carl K.Y. Shaw is compatible with liberal
doctrine despite Hegel’s opposition to formal separation of powers, because both the executive and
the judiciary have the same basic task: to concretize the abstract universal of a society embodied in
its code of laws and norms, into particular judgments and practices in concrete, real world situations
involving civil society. Without such judgments, and such concretization, society and the state
would become detached from one another, as the particular interests (in Marxist terms the class
interests) of civil society would atomize society, pulverizing it, and in the process destroy any
possible universality, that is, any possible connection of human members of society with each other
and therefore any larger purpose or common interest as well7. Thus the bureaucracy, and the
executive and juridical power it wields, provides for the possibility of modern bourgeois civil
society with its market economy and capitalist relations:
The particular common interests which fall within civil society, and which lie outside the
universal interest of the state…are administered by the corporations (i.e., bodies
representing industrial interests – SC)…the business of the these administrators is to look
after the private property and interests of these particular spheres…On the other hand, these
circles must be subordinated to the higher interests of the state…The task of upholding,
within these particular rights, legality and universal interests of the state, and that of bringing
GWF Hegel, Philosophy of Right §287 from The Hegel Reader ed. By Stephen Houlgate London: Blackwell Publishers
1998, p. 387.
See Karl Polanyi’s description of the effects of a self-regulating free market on society in The Great Transformation:
The Political and Economic Origins of Our Times Boston: Beacon Press, 2001, p. 76; this problem is arguably the main
theme of Emile Durkheim’s The Division of Labor in Society New York: Free Press, 1997, as well.
these rights back to the universal need to be performed by delegates of the executive power,
i.e., the executive civil servants and the higher consultative bodies8.
Nor is this all. For the state itself, as an individual state, is merely the representation of a particular
interest or set of interests within a larger international, that is, universal community (Hegel,
Philosophy of Right §340). Marx responds in his Critique of Hegel’s Doctrine of the State,
The bureaucracy is the ‘state formalism’ of civil society…The bureaucracy must therefore
protect the imaginary universality of particular interests…in order to protect the imaginary
particularity of the universal interest... …The corporation represents the attempt by civil
society to become the state; but the bureaucracy is the state which has really made itself into
civil society.9
The existence of the constitutional liberal order, and of the liberal interstate system depends upon
the authority wielded by the modern state executive and in particular of the bureaucracy and its
ability, based on knowledge to make judgments. Writes Carl K.Y.Shaw,
Bureaucracy in the sense specified by Hegel is compatible with liberal constitutionalism.
The task of modern bureaucracy – to realize the political norms in concrete situations and to
subsume the latter under the universal norms – is a type of “ruling”, not mere management.
Moreover, for Hegel, bureaucracy is indispensable for the modern constitutional state.10
This is a ruling class that rules - the bureaucracy of Hegel is a ruling authority11. But it is directly
linked, by individual biographies and by “elite socialization12” to the capitalist class as a whole or at
Hegel, Philosophy of Right §288 and 289 from The Hegel Reader, pp. 387-8
Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Doctrine of the State, in Karl Marx, Early Writings (London: Penguin) , p.107.
Carl K.Y.Shaw, “Hegel’s Theory of Modern Bureaucracy” in American Political Science Review, Vol. 86, No.2, (June
1992), pp.381-389, p. 387.
Here my analysis, like Hegel and Marx’s differs from that of Negri and Hardt and their conception of Empire as a
circuit of power networks, a view that, ironically coincides with the pro-globalization view that “no one is in charge”.
This phrase was originally applied optimistically by Ernst Haas to the integration of Europe, though I use it here
almost ironically, but not inconsistently with the original concept.
least to its dominant global and financial sectors13. Ralph Miliband14 noted the direct ways in which
capitalists ruled over workers and over political life, including their direct use of “class action”
through control of investment, a power feebly theorized by observers of globalization like Thomas
Friedman as the “electronic herd15” that punishes governments by disinvesting from their countries,
their currencies and their government bonds when policies cut against their interests. Hal Draper, in
his monumental study of Marx and Engels’ politics noted that on a number of occasions they made
clear that the state bureaucracy could be a class and indeed could, under certain circumstances, even
be the ruling class16, an intervention into the debate about the class character of the Soviet state not
entirely irrelevant to today’s issues regarding global governance 17. But the point here is that the
policy makers of global governance organizations are one in practice, elite socialization, career
trajectory and outlook with the global capitalist class, especially its global and financial sectors.
Marx makes clear that the entire house of Hegelian cards falls on a single point, the crucial one for
us here: the bureaucracy, including the executive and judiciary of the modern state are not universal
in scope nor neutral in interest. Their interest is a particular interest as opposed to a common one.
Their power derives not from knowledge per se, but from their relation to a set of class interests
present in the civil society, namely the power of capital and the class of capitalists. So, the
bureaucracy of global governance rules and it rules on behalf of a certain set of class interests. As
As shown in Richard Peet, Unholy Trinity: The IMF, World Bank and WTO London:Zed 2009 p. 17-18 with its
biographical sketches of several key players in the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations whose careers also
include time on Wall St. and at global governance organizations, and as can be seen in greater detail from the study of
James Wolfensen’s terms as President of the World Bank: Sebastian Mallaby, The World’s Banker London: Penguin
Ralph Miliband, Marxism and Politics Oxford, 1977, p.55.
Thomas Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree New York : Bantam 2000, p.112
Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Vol.1, State and Bureaucracy New York and London: Monthly Review
1971, p.83.
Draper’s argument is contested. Andre Liebich, “On the Origins of a Marxist Theory of Bureaucracy in the ‘Critique
of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’” Political Theory Vol. 10, no. 1 (Feb. 1982), pp.77-93, p.80, argues that both Hegel and
Marx referred to the bureaucracy as a stand or estate, not as a class .
Draper shows in his monumental study of Marx’s politics, the modern capitalist class is historically
unique in its inability to rule directly in its own name, requiring a separate class of politicians, a
view strangely enough confirmed recently by the Economist.18 Yet this solution involves the need
to maintain control over such a governing (as opposed to ruling) class, and global governance, with
its merging of careers in politics and business/finance, and in national and global politics, is meant
to resolve this problem.
Andre Liebich argued in 1982 that Hegel and Marx were both describing the Prussian state
bureaucracy of their respective times, and that Marx’s critique regards the status of the bureaucracy
that was, by young Marx’s time, declining sharply as many young university graduates (including
Marx himself) flooded the job market seeking civil service jobs.19
Liebich’s argument does not hold up. For the main question for Marx and Hegel was not in itself
whether the bureaucracy was a class or some other more precise definition, but rather whether it
represented all of society generally or universally. If the sad portrait of the Prussian bureaucracy
painted by Liebich is accurate, it is hard to see this class as the one that will universally represent
society. But in fact the civil society, as Hegel describes it, is on the brink of fragmenting from the
extreme division of labor, the class antagonisms and the particular interests that blind classes to the
greater or common good. This is a portrait of capitalist society, and Hegel at times seems to merely
draw logical conclusions from Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations on division of labor and the effects
of its extension within the organization of work on the laborer.20 The effect of work on the workers
means that, as CLR James summarized Hegel’s views: “Universality for the mass of men was
Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution: Vol. I: State and Bureaucracy New York and London: Monthly Review
1977, p.326; “Beware the Lure of the Businessman-Politician” Economist Oct. 2, 2010; Marx’s view on this issue is
noted in Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution: Vol. II The Politics of Social Classes New York and
London:Monthly Review 1978, p. 227 and p. 241.
Andre Liebich, “On the Origins of a Marxist Theory of Bureaucracy in the ‘Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’”
Political Theory Vol. 10, no. 1 (Feb. 1982), pp.77-93, p.82-3.
My former professor, the late, Giovanni Arrighi has of course argued that Adam Smith was an opponent of a
market-based capitalism. See G.Arrighi, Adam Smith in Beijing London and New York: Verso 2007.
impossible. Only the state, said Hegel, could embody universality for the community. But, in
particular, was a defense against the revolutionary masses.”21 At the same time, individual
capitalists are blinded by their own self-interests. So only the state bureaucracy can achieve
universality, and only bureaucratic control of the economy, and bureaucratic organization of
production, can provide a universal to such a fragmented society.. For Hegel, by being a real,
existing force in the world, untouched by the particular interests of civil society, the bureaucracy
makes universality concrete. Marx is having none of this. As Hal Draper puts it,
In short, the trouble is that the bureaucracy, which is put forward by Hegel as the
universal class, is not really universal in its particular interests at all; this is an
illusion. It is really just another class with particular interests like the others, peculiar
only in that its particular interest base is the state.22
The critical thing to notice is the placement of the discussion of the state civil service and executive
in the organization of the “Philosophy of Right.”
For sections 196 to 229 of the Philosophy of Right are dedicated first to a discussion of work, and
then to one of private property and ownership of resources. First, the division of labor and
simplification of and mechanization of work leads to class inequalities argues Hegel in Section 201.
This extraordinary passage brings us right up to the edge of Marx, as Hegel sees the modern
division of labor giving rise to classes. But what follows next is decisive: a discussion on the origin
of states in property relations. This leads, in section 204, to universal exchange of commodities and
money, leading to the following in section 205:“The universal estate has the universal interests of
society as its business.” (§205). Afterward, tellingly, comes a discussion of the police which states,
“The differing interests of producers and consumers may come into collision with each other,
and…needs to be consciously regulated by an agency which stands above both sides”. (§236) After
CLR James, “Dialectical Materialism and the Fate of Humanity” in CLR James, Spheres of Existence: Selected Writings
(vol.2) London and Westport, CT Allison and Busby 1980 p. 93.
H.Draper, op.cit. vol. 1, p. 83.
this comes a delineation of the role of the corporations, organized interest groups for particular
capitalist interests to be directly represented in the legislature, followed by the section on the State
itself. In other words, Hegel’s discussion of the bureaucracy is defined by the relation of the latter to
modern production, the fragmentation of daily life and the life of the worker to and by the division
of labor, as well as the fact that states themselves constitute only particular capitalist interests in a
world market.
Hegel, in short, was reading into the near future the fate of humanity under capitalism. Carl Shaw is
at pains to point out that “for Hegel, bureaucracy is not a teleological organization.” 23 This is
theory, with its capacity to anticipate trends, not teleology. Hegel, Marx and Engels and arguably
Weber saw the same overall tendency. Engels, in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific makes clear that
the tendency of capitalist organization responding to the impact of the class struggle, is toward state
control of production:
In trusts, freedom of competition changes into its very opposite – into monopoly; and the
production without any definite plan of capitalist society capitulates to the production upon a
definite plan of the invading socialist society. Certainly this is so far still to the benefit and
advantage of the capitalists. But in this case the exploitation is so palpable that it must break
down. No nation will put up with production conducted by trusts, with so barefaced an
exploitation of the community by a small band of dividend-mongers.
In any case, with trusts or without, the official representative of capitalist society – the state
– will ultimately have to undertake the direction of production. This necessity for conversion
into state property is first felt in the great institutions for intercourse and communication –
the post office, the telegraphs, the railways…
But the transformation, either into joint-stock companies and trusts, or into state ownership,
does not do away with the capitalist nature of the productive forces. In the joint-stock
companies and trusts, this is obvious… The modern state, no matter what its form, is
essentially a capitalist machine, the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the
total national capital. The more it proceeds to the taking over of productive forces, the more
does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit. The workers
remain wage-workers – proletarians. The capitalist relation is not done away with. It is
rather brought to a head.24
Carl K.Y. Shaw, Hegel’s Theory of Modern Bureaucracy, p.386.
Frederich Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific in Tucker, ed., The Marx-Engels Reader pp.711-712.
For many on the non-Stalinist left, the analysis of state capitalism as an inevitable stage of capitalist
development, and a logical extreme, and therefore plausibly a final stage of capitalism, not only
informed the independence of many from Stalinist versions of Marxism and from apologies for
Stalinist states and parties around the world, but also allowed for a Marxist definition of social
progress that did not define progress as things always getting better, but rather as a further
deepening and development of the class struggle in fostering the conditions necessary for
The neoliberal turn seemed to shatter such ideas. The fragmentation of a traditional working class,
the privatization of many industries and services, and the far-flung market forces of globalization
seemed to laugh in the face of any “highest” or “last” stage of capitalism. But imperialism, Lenin’s
final stage, and state capitalism, identified as such by state capitalist theorists, have merged in
recent years. For while the neoliberal aspect of global capitalism has been most apparent, we are
more recently once again reminded that it is not the market that runs capitalism but capital that runs
the market, as well as dominating the state. Global governance can be defined as the coming
together of two related processes: One is the formation of a global capitalist class. This class has
gained fuller control of state functions and policies, and more fully subordinated the political actors
in every country, by using global institutions to serve the needs of capital. This involves closer
merging of their own class personnel with those of state institutions including global ones. The
other is determination of the major policy directions in every nation-state, by global governance
institutions dominated by the capitalist class and capitalist interests. The state is therefore best seen
not as a national institution, but rather as that which Marx and Engels defined it as, namely an
instrument of class rule.
See, among other works by members of the Johnson-Forest Tendency, Correspondence and Marxist Humanists, the
pioneering essay, “The Invading Socialist Society” by correspondence, recently republished in Noel Ignatiev, editor,
CLR James, A New Notion: Two Works by CLR James Oakland PM Press 2010; and Raya Dunayevskaya, Marxism and
Freedom New Jersey: Humanities Press 1982.
As a number of thinkers have recently theorized, from Giovanni Arrighi to Martin Shaw, the
national state is not typical of capitalism, as is usually, and superficially thought. Arrighi makes
clear that “none of the agencies that have promoted the formation and expansion of world
capitalism correspond to the mythical national state of political and social theory”. Martin Shaw
points out that the Cold War was characterized by “bloc-states” on both sides. 26 With the Cold War
over, Davos and the G20 directly connect the global ruling class. Yet such a globalization of class
and state relations is a response by capital to the class struggles directly preceding globalization,
namely the revolts of the 1960s and 70s worldwide, as well as those of 1989 in the Soviet bloc,
which together made the previous global state relationship and capitalist organization of work
worldwide impossible to maintain27.
What we see, therefore is the capitalist version of worldwide solidarity, the global village created by
the proletarian revolts of previous cycles of struggle. For a class society cannot survive without an
ideological project that presents the present system as one that everyone has a stake in. It is because
it is a class society that that project can only be, must be, ideological. As Crawford writes in his
wonderful essay on the effects of increasingly abstracted forms of office cubicle work on education
and the larger culture, “Some notion of the common good has to be actively posited, a higher
principle that can give people a sense of purpose in their work life.”28 There is a “risk”, as he points
out, “of being deceived into thinking there is a common good where there is not one.” 29 This aspect
of globalization as an ideology, and of global governance, has been under theorized it seems to me,
as opposed to concerns with identity, deterritoriality, biopolitics and other postmodernist themes
G.Arrighi, Adam Smith in Beijing London and New York: Verso 2007, p. 235; Martin Shaw, Theory of the Global State:
Globality as an Unifinished Revolution CambridgeUniversity Press Cambridge 2000, p. 125.
As I hope to demonstrate in my forthcoming work, The Working Class and the Making of the Global Crisis.
Matthew Crawford, The Case for Working with Your Hands, or Why Office Work is Bad for Us London Viking Penguin
2009, p. 153.
Ibid., p.152.
that have instead dominated the academic discussions of global capitalism. Globalization claims to
bring us all together, that is, it presents itself as the ultimate universalist project, as the grand
narrative. Global governance presents itself as universal law. Even heads of state can be called
before the bar. In practice, of course, the only international law, the only universal set of rules and
regulations that emerge are those that are compatible with capitalism. But this does not negate the
fact that, like the state itself, global governance addresses a real need in society, “the state’s
beginning,” wrote Hal Draper in explicating Marx and Engels’ theory of the state, “its prototypical
source, lies in indispensible functions of society.”30
Global governance, then, arises to fulfill a series of actual needs, some of society as a whole, some
of the class that rules global capitalism. It serves to regulate the activities of world economic life,
provide law and organization to what would otherwise quickly come to resemble the chaos
suggested by Hegel without the universal class of the bureaucracy, or the atomized social
breakdown so strikingly painted by Polanyi. Only in a classless society, a self-governed association
of producers31, would these functions return to the members of the society as a whole, and no longer
that of a single class. To understand this requires grasping that the seeming separation of politics
and economics, of the state and civil society is an appearance, is form but not content. “The family
and civil society are real parts of the state…they make themselves into the state.”32 As Marx makes
clear in his critique of Hegel, this arrangement, seen by Hegel as resolving the tensions between
Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Vol. 1 State and Bureaucracy, New York and London: Monthly Review,
1977, p.245.
Most recently theorized by Joel Kovel in The Enemy of Nature: The end of capitalism or the end of the world? New
York and Winnipeg: Zed, 2007.
Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Doctrine of the State in Karl Marx, Early Writings London: Penguin, 1975, p. 62-3.
particularity and universality and restoring the unity of economics and politics,33 in no way alters
the relationship between civil society, that is class society, and the state.
The corporations are the materialism of the bureaucracy, and the bureaucracy is the
spiritualism of the corporations. The corporation is the bureaucracy of civil society…The
‘bureaucracy’ is the ‘state formalism’ of civil society. It is the ‘state consciousness,’ the
‘state will’, the ‘state power’ in the form of a corporation, i.e. of a particular, self-contained
society within the state.34
Nor does this relationship change fundamentally when state power and corporations become global
in scope. As Kirstin Martens writes, “Civil society is an undisputed part of the structures of global
governance today,”35 it is impossible therefore, for global civil society as a whole to be represented
in global governance, but only particular interests.36 It is apparent how serious this problem is.
Global governance must be able to plausibly represent something universal, yet its institutions have
precisely been created to diminish popular control over political decision-making and
administration, as Adam Webb makes clear when he writes,
most global institutions, like the WTO, are deliberately set up to be unresponsive…they will
not listen to global social movements, now or in the future, because they were born deaf. By
and large they were founded to insulate economic policy and the rule of law from popular
majorities within nation-states.37
See Draper’s excellent account, in H.Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Vol. 1; see also the equally insightful
argument as to the particularity of capitalism as being based precisely on this separation in two important works of
Ellen Mieksin Wood, Democracy Against Capitalism, and Citizens into Lords New York and London: Verso 2009.
Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Doctrine of the State, pp.106.7.
Kirstin Martens, “Is Incorporating Civil Society Further into the Structures of Global Governance Really the Way
Forward ? Commentary on Jan Aarte Scholte’s Article, “Civil Society and the Legitimation of Global Governance.” In
Journal of Civil Society, Vol. 4, No.1, 73-75, June 2008, p.73.
Ibid., p.75.
Adam Webb, “The Calm Before the Storm? Revolutionary Pressures and Global Governance” in International
Political Science Review, Vol. 27, No.1 (Jan.2006), pp.73-92, p.83.
But if global governance demonstrates the inadequacy of identifying global capitalism with
neoliberalism qua fragmentation and privatization, if that is, it is a form of “universal class,” and an
instrument of global capital, then we must ask, is Engels’ hypothesis that such governance must
govern production itself still relevant, given the clear diffusion of production and privatization that
seem to belie the Marxist analysis of capitalism’s tendencies to centralization and concentration?
But much organization of production is in fact only seemingly diffused. The “delocalization” of
production may merely mean that production is increasingly global in scope, and at the global level
nothing is delocalized, but means instead that we must expand our sense of the geographic
“container” in which capitalist production takes place38. Control is often managed by central offices
of multinationals with far-flung subsidiaries and sub-contractors, but the struggles against
sweatshop work, and over the conditions of janitors in office buildings and hotels in the US, for
instance, have made clear that the formal decentralization of work does not imply a reduction in
centralized control and profit-making. This in fact arguably merely, in terms that Hegel or Engels
would understand, increases the need for governance of an increasingly fragmented division of
labor, but also of class inequalities with the command system of work.
C.George Caffentzis has explicated the role of physics and physicists in capitalist society as a field
of thought experiments – and practical experiments in the organization of work.39 In the case of
global governance, the crucial theoretical underpinnings have been developed within chaos theory.
“Chaos” writes James Crutchfield40 “provides a mechanism that allows for free will within a world
governed by deterministic laws.” It is no accident that the first international conference on chaos
See Prem Shakar Jha, The Twilight of the Nation-State ; see also the discussion of successive capitalist hegemonies in
G. Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century London and New York: Verso 1994 .
In particular in Midnight Notes, The Work-Energy Crisis and the Apocalypse 1980 Jamaica Plains, MA. The
interpretation of chaos theory, based on the approach pioneered by Prof. Caffentzis is my own and he is not
responsible for either the analysis, nor for any errors on my part in understanding of the science involved.
Cited from John Jefferson Davis, “Theological Perspectives on Chaos Theory” in Perspectives on Science and
Christian Faith 49,( June1997): 75-84.
theory was held in Italy in 1977. That year saw a widespread revolt of a new kind in that country by
proletarians experimenting with the limits of capitalist organization of work and time, a high point
in the insurgency of class struggle between 1965 and 1979 that gave way to the capitalist
counterattack of neoliberalism with Thatcher and Reagan.41 That same year Ilya Prigogine was
awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on non-equilibrium thermodynamics42. By setting up or
controlling initial conditions, it is not necessary to control in a deterministic way the outcome of
every individual event in a system. “Planning” in short, no longer take the form of a bean-counter
deciding on the quantity of widgets produced by every factory, but rather the setting up of
conditions, such interest rates by Central Banks, and access to finance (in part through the
privatized global governance institutions known as ratings agencies), are sufficient to move the
overall economic activity over huge areas of the world in the direction generally desired. But chaos
theory points out that even slight changes in initial conditions can lead to big changes in outcome.
Thus the range of acceptable behavior must be especially narrow and rigid, as in the imposition of
neoliberal policies with little tolerance for variation. Global governance is needed to set up the
rules, and to do so in a way that the behavior of actors will be generally as predictable as another
capitalist intellectual asset – game theory – suggests. It is this narrow range of acceptable behavior,
established by such initial conditions – interest rates, the limits on public spending established by
the IMF or European Commission, the ratings of governments and business activity by agencies,
finance itself, which Schumpeter called “The General Headquarters of the Capitalist System”, that
workers around the world are now challenging in one of the world’s great strike waves.
About that turning point, see Sheila Cohen, Ramparts of Resistance London: Pluto Press 2006; and also David Harvey
on the rise of neoliberalism at that time, in A Short History of Neoliberalism Oxford and New York: Oxford University
Press 2005. On the relationship between capitalist economic crisis and working class insurgency in the past few
decades generally, see my forthcoming, The Working Class and the Making of the Global Crisis.
On some of the implications within the global economy of Prigogine’s work, see chapter 4 of my book, Steven
Colatrella, Workers of the World: African and Asian Migrants in Italy Trenton and Asmara: Africa World Press 2001,
entitled “Migrant Communities, Dissipative Systems and the Other Worldwide Web”.
The Worldwide Strike Wave, Austerity and the Political Crisis of Global Governance
If the workers took a notion they could stop all speeding trains
Every ship upon the ocean, they could tie with mighty chains.
Every wheel in the creation, every mine and every mill
Fleets and armies of the nations would, at their command, stand still.
Joe Hill
In the single two-day period of October 21 and 22, 2010, while France was still largely paralyzed
by massive strikes opposing President Sarkozy’s attempt to change the retirement age 43, and the
Acropolis and the Piraeus port in Athens remained closed by workers blockading them44, Spanish
air traffic controllers faced a threat of being fired (shades of Reagan) by their government for
striking45. While firefighters in Ireland were ready to strike46, their counterparts in London voted
to strike, as did other groups of British workers, including Lancaster taxi drivers, and Sellafield
nuclear power plant workers who blocked traffic during a march47. Elsewhere in the UK Swindon
Leisure Center workers struck protesting cuts by the local council, while the National Union of
Journalists members voted to strike Newsquest in Hampshire over a 2 year wage freeze48. In
Northern Ireland, a court order demanded an end to a strike at a meat factory. Dutch postal workers
were planning a strike49.
British unions promised large scale public sector strikes after the
“French Protesters Block Marseilles Airport” Associated Press Oct. 21, 2010; “French Leader Vows to Punish Violent
Protesters” New York Times Oct. 22, 2010;
“Acropolis Closed, Riot Police Protecting Entrance” Associated Press Oct. 19, 2010;
“AENA is Ready to Fire Those Air Controllers Who Strike Tomorrow” Avio News Oct. 21, 2010
“Firefighters Vote for Strike Action” Tullamore Tribune Oct. 14, 201.
“UK Workplace News Roundup” from Oct 21, 2010.
Workers at Newsquest Hampshire Vote Overwhelmingly for Action” National Union of Journalists
“Court Injunction Halts Tyrone Meat Plant Strike” BBC Oct. 21, 2010
government’s announcement of its economic program involving massive service cuts and
elimination of 500,000 civil service jobs50. Over a thousand Romanian Dock workers protested IMF
and EU sponsored austerity plans and demanded higher wages.
In Croatia, unions threatened a
general strike after the Constitutional Court rejected a referendum to reform labor laws52. Outside
Europe that same day, Tobago public servants marched in solidarity with their striking colleagues
in Trinidad, and the University of the West Indies offered concessions to its striking staff53;
University staff were on strike also in Nigeria54; Ghanaian teachers and professors were on strike
and In Hawkes Bay, New Zealand, high school teachers were on strike to start the school year,
while In Italy, the university semester’s start was blocked by a months-long strike by ricercatori,
the entry-level professors protesting massive cuts and changes in Italian Universities 55; National
Water Commission workers, members of Jamaica’s National Workers Union struck in the face of a
court order, demanding a 7% pay increase, in the wake of an earlier demand by Jamaican unions to
reject IMF policy demands56. A general strike in that country had only a month earlier been
narrowly averted by government concessions that made the IMF demands a dead letter57.
“Public Sector Cuts Make Strikes Inevitable, Warn Unions” The Guardian Oct. 21, 2010
“1,000 dock yards workers march in protest in Romania requesting higher wages”
The Associated Press (CP) – 23 October 2010
“Unions Threaten with General Strike” Croatian Times Oct. 22, 2010
“PSA Planning Massive Protest” Trinidad and Tobago’s Newsday Sept. 21, 2010; “Lecturers in Pay Protest at UWI”
Trinidad Express Oct. 16, 2010; “Workers Also March in Tobago” Guardian (Trinidad and Tobago) Oct. 20, 2010; “UWI
Increases Wage Offer to Staff” The Guardian (Trinidad and Tobago) Oct. 21, 2010.
“NIEPA Workers Protest Non-Payment of New Wage” NEXT (Nigeria) Oct. 21, 2010.
“Strike Jump Starts Year End Revision” Hawkes Bay Today (New Zealand) Oct. 21, 2010; “PNC in Solidarity with
POTAG” The Accra Mail Oct. 21, 2010; “Italy: Strikes Delay Start of Academic Year” University World News Oct. 17,
“NWC Customers Warned to Brace for Problems from Threatened Strike” Jamaica Observer Oct. 20, 2010; “Unions
to Government: Renegotiate IMF Agreement” Sunday Jamaica Observer Sept. 12, 2010.
“Government Happy General Strike Called Off” Jamaica Observer Sept. 17, 2010.
Strikes were spreading throughout many countries in Africa, in addition to the education sector
strikes: In Kenya, 80,000 workers struck tea companies to protest the introduction of tea-picking
machines58; in Swaziland, the logistics and transport company Unitrans fired 43 striking workers
and got a court order requiring workers to cease adhering to their own self-set hours of 7 am to 4
pm59; diamond production workers were on strike in Botswana60; in Zambia, striking miners were
fired on by their bosses at a Chinese company61; and in Zimbabwe airline workers struck while
public service workers demanded that diamond revenues be used to increase their pay62. In Benin,
unions organized protests that same week against the government’s ban on organized
demonstrations.63 Only a few weeks earlier, city workers in Uganda had occupied government
offices.64 In Nigeria, oil workers had postponed a strike the previous Spring after a10% pay raise
conceded by the government.65 But in the Fall, they struck over a proposed law on oil lobbied
heavily for by oil multinationals, and over actions by Exxon locally66. Doctors in Lagos were on
strike, university staff and lecturers stepped up ongoing strikes, electrical workers threatened an
“Kenya: Union Warns Tea Firms Not to Replace Striking Workers” Business Daily (Nairobi) Oct. 20, 2010; “Tea
Plantation Workers Set to Strike” The Standard (Nairobi) Oct. 20, 2010; “80,000 Workers Strike Over New Technology”
Reuters Oct. 18, 2010; “More Than Just a Gathering Storm in Kenya’s Tea Cup” The Standard (Nairobi) Oct. 18, 2010.
“Stay 200 Meters Away From Unitrans Premises” Times of Swaziland Oct. 21, 2010.
“Striking Union Workers: DTCB Compromising Diamond Security” The Israeli Diamond Industry Diamond News Oct.
20, 2010.
“Chinese Bosses Fire on Angry Zambian Miners” Daily Telegraph (Canada) Oct. 19, 2010.
“Civil Servants in Protest March to Demand Higher Pay” SW Radio Africa News Sept. 17, 2010.
“Benin Trade Unions Slam Government Over Ban on Protests” Africa News Oct. 13, 2010.
“KCC Employees On Strike” Daily Monitor (Kampala) Sept. 21, 2010.
“Labour Shelves Pay Raise Strike” Vanguard (Lagos) May 4, 2010;
“Nigerian Oil Union Calls Strike at Exxon’s Local Unit” Bloomberg Oct. 12, 2010.
indefinite strike and government workers in that country threatened a strike over a minimum
Bangladesh, which has seen enormous strikes and clashes with police by workers, especially from
the garment industry, was that same day witnessing a massive dock strike that faced military
repression, a strike by jute workers and one by garment workers in various parts of the country, all
threatening the country’s exports with devastation68. Pilots in that country defied government
warnings and began a strike on the 23rd.69 Elsewhere, sugar workers in Guyana had just ended a
strike when faced with government repression70, 500 workers at Foxcomm in India had been
arrested for labor activity71, DHL, the global logistics company faced worldwide labor conflict over
its policies72, Turkish UPS workers, sustained by considerable international solidarity,
involved a struggle over fired colleagues73, 80,000 public workers were on strike in Chile as miners
at that country’s massive Collahuasi copper mine prepared to vote to strike 74, and hospital
construction workers prepared to do likewise75. Bank workers in Brazil had just ended a strike after
“Union Intensifies Strike” Nigerian Observer Oct. 22, 2010; “Electricity Workers Threaten Indefinite Strike” Oct. 4, 2010; “Nigerian Oil Unions Threaten Strike over PIB Implementation” Oct. 4, 2010;
“New Minimum Wage: Workers Threaten to Go On Strike Oct. 1” Nigerian Tribune Sept. 23, 2010.
“CTG Dock Workers Attack Private Berth Operators, 15 Hurt” The Daily Star (Dhaka) Oct. 13, 2010; “Bangladesh
Deploys Army As Port Strike Hits Garment Exports” AFP Oct. 15, 2010; “Jute Export Hampered as Bailing Workers
Continue Strike” The Daily Star (Dhaka) Oct. 21, 2010.
“Pilots Defy Warning, Begin Protest against Service Benefit Slash” Daily Star (Dhaka) Oct. 23, 2010
“Sugar Workers Strike for Pay Hike” Stabroek News (Georgetown, Guyana) Oct. 19, 2010.
“Foxconn’s Global Empire Reflects a New Breed of Sweatshop” In These Times Oct. 19, 2010; “Protesting Workers at
Foxconn Arrested” Express News Service Sept. 25, 2010.
“DHL Faces Worldwide Unrest” Transport and Logistics News Oct. 14, 2010;
“World Action Day Tomorrow Backs Fired Turkish UPS Workers” International Transport Workers Aug. 21, 2010;
“Chilean Public Employees on Strike” Latin American Herald Tribune (Caracas) Oct. 22, 2010; “Chile Collahuasi Union
Set to Strike as Vote Near” Reuters Oct. 21, 2010.
“ACT NOW! Solidarity Campaign – Labour Conflict in Chile” Building and Wood Workers International Oct.
20, 2010.
winning the largest pay raise in years76, and auto workers had only weeks before won their highest
pay raises ever through striking77. The conflict over a pay increase and housing allowance that had
sparked a massive general strike of public sector workers in South Africa the month before was
only finally settled that same week78, while in Argentina a city wide general strike in Buenos Aires
was threatened over the death of a railway worker, as sanitation workers in the city were just
returning to work after a 3-day strike79. Around 2,000 Vietnamese workers were on strike at a shoe
factory80. In South Korea the country’s largest union federation was planning for demonstrations
against the G20 meeting in that country a few weeks later81. The relative quiet in Egypt compared
with the ongoing strike waves that had lasted most of the past few years ended the same day and
workers protested nationwide, just days after having protested government repression of workers’
political activism in Cairo82.
Palestinian workers struck a Green Line Israeli factory over
nonpayment of wages, as their co-nationals went on strike against the UN agency handling health
“Brazil Bank Workers Keep Strike After 6.5% Raise Offer. They Want 11%” Brazzil Magazine Oct. 20, 2010; “Bank
Workers End 15-Day Strike” Wall Street Journal Oct. 14, 2010.
“Unions Secure Record Wage Increases in Brazilian Auto Sector” International Metalworkers Federation Sept. 22, 201.
“COSATU: Strike Over But Still No Deal” Mail and Guardian (Pretoria) Oct. 13, 2010;
“Argentina Protest Over Labour Activist Killing” BBC News Oct. 21, 2010; “Tension Mounts as Demonstrators March
to Protest Death in Earlier Clashes, CTA Umbrella Union Calls for General Strike Today” Buenos Aires Herald Oct. 21,
2010; “Garbage Collection Returns to Normal After 3-Day Conflict” Buenos Aires Herald Oct. 20, 2010.
“Workers at Vietnam Footwear Factory on Strike” Oct. 22, 2010
“Police Alert Over Anti-G20 Rallies” Korean Herald Oct. 15, 2010.
“Labourers Stage Protests Nationwide to Demand Better Salaries” Al Masry Al Youm Oct. 20, 2010; “Workers
Protests Put Forcibly Down” Al Masry Al Youm Oct. 19, 2010.
services in the refugee camps83. Staff at the Palestinian colleges and universities held a sit-in at the
Education Ministry of the Palestinian Authority84.
In the Czech republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Bulgaria and elsewhere, unions warned, threatened or
prepared for new actions over austerity programs, while strikes in Croatia and Serbia had only
recently died down over some of the EU’s demands on those countries for austerity as preconditions
for membership85. Ukrainian workers had just won a five-month long strike at a sausage factory,
winning a big pay increase.86 In Kazakhstan, Oil workers struck to protest the arrest of a union
The list could go on, and I have focused on the labor news from one day. As the Summer and Fall
of 2010 went, it was not an atypical day. If the French revolts made it seem exceptional, they
themselves might be considered relatively less impressive than other worker actions of the same
year, such as the strike wave in China, or the 100 million strong general strike in India in
September. Vietnam continued to witness extraordinary worker militancy across nearly every
industry, while one estimate was that Russia had seen 93 large, unauthorized strikes in 201088. A
“Palestinian Authority Workers Still on Wages Strike at Sol-Or Factory” Jerusalem Post Oct. 21, 2010; “Public Health
Risk as UNRWA Goes On Strike” Ma’an News Agency Oct. 21, 2010.
“Workers in Governmental Universities and Colleges hold a sit-in in front of the Council of Ministers asking the PA
to meet their demands” Democracy and Workers Rights Center Palestine Oct. 22, 2010
“Demonstration in Belgrade Rejects European Austerity Plans” Building and Wood Workers International
Oct. 1, 2010; “Bulgarian Police Officers Start Protests” FOCUS News Agency Oct. 17, 2010; “Czech Unions May Go On
Strike if Further Talks with Government Fail” Prague Monitor Sept. 17, 2010; “Protest Over Pay Cuts” Prague Post
Sept. 22, 2010; “Meeting Between PM and Union Shows No Progress on Wage Issue” Prague Daily Monitor Oct. 1,
2010; “Romanian Finance Ministry Workers Protest Pay Cut” Reuters Oct. 14, 2010; “Romanian Teachers Strike Over
IMF-Driven Pay Cuts” April 24, 2010; “Poland: Trade Unions to Protest Wage Freeze” The
News.PL Sept. 22, 2010; “Croatian Workers Protest Against Shipyard Sale Decided by Government as Part of Effort to
Join EU” Canadian Press Sept. 22, 2010; “Vegrad Workers On Strike” Slovenian Press Agency Sept. 20, 2010;
“Long Struggle Ends in Victory for Ukraine Belkozin Workers” International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel,
Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco, and Allied Workers Associations Oct. 15, 201.
“Kazakh Oil Workers Strike over Activist Arrest” Radio Free Europe Oct. 23, 2010
BBC Monitoring Former Soviet Union – Political Supplied by BBC Worldwide Monitoring
new labor federation founded there was a sign of the growing militancy89. The estimates for strike
activity for China were shaky, but already a couple of years before one researcher found 87,000
labor protests involving millions of workers and no one doubted that 2010 had seen an increase in
strike activity, the number of workplaces and workers involved and the intensity of strikes and
confidence of strikers compared with previously90. That same day saw construction workers
blocking streets in Dubai, where militancy had been common in recent months 91, while Bahrain92
had also experienced strike activity on a vast scale recently as well. Meanwhile in Iraq, unions
continued to block privatization of oil resources and faced government union busting as a result93.
This strike activity is arguably only the high point (so far) of a global strike wave dating to 2007
and building in globality, intensity, militancy and geographic presence. It is extraordinary for the
simultaneity of large scale strikes in country after country, and its near universal spread – only in
the United States is there no strike wave to speak of at all, and the Philippines seemed extraordinary
in having less labor militancy than in recent years. In South Korea the decline in large strikes was
explainable by strong arm legislation and other anti-union moves by the government to counter the
power of workers expressed militantly only a few years before. Meanwhile in Mexico, again, only
June 13, 2009 Saturday “Expert analyses tendency of strikes, labour disputes in Russia”
“New Trade Union Association Created in Russia” Itar-Tass Sept. 20, 2010.
Ching Kwan Lee, Against the Law: Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt Univ. of California Press 2007, p.5
“Building Workers Block Traffic in Protest Over Wages” The National (Dubai) Oct. 22, 2010; “Capital’s Taxi Drivers
Refuse to Sign New Contracts” The National (Dubai) May 13, 2010; “1,474 Labourers in Mass Salary Delay Protest” January 5, 2010.
“Al Hamad Workers Strike in Bahrain” Nov. 16, 2009; “Hundreds of Oil Workers
Protest in Bahrain” Feb. 12, 2010; “Bahrain Port Workers Call Off Protest” Nov. 9, 2009; “Strike Plan by Bahrain Company Workers” Trade Jan. 21, 2010;
“DHL Trade Union in Bahrain Strike Talks” July 12, 2010;
Sherwood Ross, “Union Busting in Iraq” Oct.19, 2010.
massive repression, including the firing of 40,000 power company workers by the country’s
president, kept labor activity there under control. Similarly, in Thailand, only the massacre of the
Red Shirts movement of farmers and workers demanding democracy earlier in the year prevented
people from engaging in protest.
Aside from these few exceptions, many of which prove the rule by being so only as a result of
severe State repression of workers struggles, much of the world has witnessed the use by workers of
their traditional weapon of withdrawing their labor in recent months, and over the past three years it
is difficult to find a part of the world that has not seen significant worker protest or large scale
strikes. To understand this strike wave we need to understand it in its context, which is largely
unprecedented, and we also need to see it in relation to its precedents, other worldwide strike waves
historically. Doing so will enable us to see how well the categorizations of strikes and the attempts
to analyze strike movements apply to today’s worldwide strike wave and possibly to help us judge
its potential, understand its meaning, and theorize how it may play a role in shaping the global
economy and society. Just as importantly, we need to grasp what role this strike wave has already
played in the current economic crisis that began in 2008, and what its relation is to the attempts to
address or use the crisis by capital and governments as well as its relationship to global governance
Major Themes in the Strike Wave
The recent and ongoing strike wave features particular, if widespread, groups of workers. We can
get a better idea of who is striking and why from a closer and more precise look at these participants
and their characteristics. Several themes present themselves as we examine strikes in recent years
and months. One is the highly widespread geographic scope of the strikes – many are in emerging
economies where industry on a large scale is a recent development: Brazil, Bangladesh, Cambodia,
Vietnam, South Korea, South Africa, India, and above all China, to name a few. That the strike
wave has encompassed the Ukraine, Ethiopia, Swaziland, Kenya, Egypt, Bahrain and Kazakhstan,
indicates just how global globalization has become, and along with it the revolt of workers. Thus,
Brazilian auto works, Ethiopian steel workers, Kenyan tea pickers, Swaziland diamond workers,
Egyptian workers in nearly every category imaginable, Ukrainian sausage factory workers,
Bangladeshi garment, jute and dock workers, Cambodian garment and textile workers, Vietnamese
shoe and garment workers, and Chinese auto workers, textile workers and many others have been
on strike on a large scale in recent years, along with nationwide strikes in South Africa, Nigeria,
Egypt, and several in India, including one that certainly stands as the largest single day general
strike in history with 100 million workers participating.
Second, logistics, crucial to the global economy based on commerce94 – the moving of goods and
services, and when relevant persons – are a key site of struggle, with workers expressing their often
newfound power in strikes at docks, on railway lines, truck routes, shipboards, at customs and
border crossings, at post offices, delivery services and on airlines. Dock workers from New Jersey
to Romania, and from the Piraeus to Bangladesh, have been on strike in the current strike wave.
Railways have been on strike in nearly every country in Europe, but crucially, many of the global
logistics companies, DHL, UPS have faced high levels of international worker militancy.
A third major aspect of the strike wave has been strikes by production workers or other workers
involved in the production or supply of basic commodities used as raw materials – agricultural
products, extractive industries, industrial metal mining, gas and electricity supply, oil in particular.
These workers have seen prices spike to historic heights in recent years, especially during the 20072008 rise in prices widely attributed (if problematically) to increased demand especially from
growing economies in Asia, and they have increasingly struck to demand a greater share of the
As brilliantly demonstrated in the pioneering study, Edna Bonacich and Jake B. Wilson, Getting the Goods: Ports,
Labor and the Logistics Revolution Ithaca: Cornell University Press 2008.
greater wealth that their work has created. Strikes in this sector, in particular, were initially
responding to the price spikes that were likely a combination of increased demand along with
another factor – the massive speculation in futures markets for all such commodities. This search
for a safe haven to invest in by capital, searching, in the wake of the housing market and derivatives
collapse in the US that sparked the financial crisis, for profitable investment free from worker
militancy, and the strikes that followed this capital flow, led, in my view, to turning the financial
crisis into a global recession. Capital that had fled mobilized workers in the first place into financial
refuges now fled from the formerly safe haven of commodities futures as workers in these
industries demonstrated their determination to gain something from the historic increase in wealth
flowing to their industries and employers.95 Chilean copper miners, Bolivian tin miners, Namibian
diamond miners, jute workers in Bangladesh, sugar workers in Guyana, Mozambique cocoa
workers, Nigerian oil workers, Kazakh oil workers, Kenyan tea pickers and many others have
struck on a large scale across a large swath of the world economy for the past three years,
demanding higher wages.
Fourth, state workers and other groups directly affected by state austerity policies have been major
actors in the global strike wave, from France to Benin, from Nigeria to India, from Brazil and
Argentina to Egypt, from Greek state workers to British students, from Italian high school students
and staff to university ricercatori, from Buenos Aires sanitation workers to Hungarian railway
workers, from Kenyan electric power workers to Czech doctors, militancy has been increasingly
common among state workers and those immediately involved in state services. These workers and
An argument I develop more fully in my forthcoming book, The Working Class and the Making of the Global Crisis.
The last straw that broke the camel’s back, however, was not the strike wave of urban workers, but the failure of the
global elite’s last gasp at avoiding the need to turn to a crisis to overcome worker resistance – namely the attempt to
finish the Doha round of WTO talks on world trade, which instead capsized on resistance by emerging economies like
China and India who in turn were reacting to the gigantic wave of revolt each has seen across the countryside of their
national territories. In facing such revolt, agreeing to lift tariffs and subsidies and expose their largely subsistence
farmers to the competition of global agribusiness would have been like pouring gasoline on a very large fire already
barely kept under control.
allied groups are on the front lines of the struggle against austerity that is today every bit as global
as world trade.
If austerity is today fully globalized, it is because the same policies are increasingly implemented by
governments across the world as part of the formation of an increasingly coherent ruling class,
formed and intellectually trained through Davos’ annual World Economic Forum, and the process
that Ernst Haas called “elite socialization96” resulting from participation in organizations such as the
EU, G20, WTO, IMF and informal gatherings like Davos97. The strike wave, inasmuch as a
principle challenge to austerity programs98, is not only increasingly the most impressive obstacle
worldwide to the implementation of these programs, but to the degree that austerity results from
initiative taken by or through global governance organizations – the EU, IMF and G20 – the strike
wave is oriented against global governance organizations themselves.
In this sense these are to a considerable degree political strikes, but with a new angle – that the
strikes are directed not only against policies of austerity of national governments but also against
global governance, best defined as the partial or full transformation of national states through global
organization with the objective and practice of insulating governments from their national
populations and making them more effective as instruments for imposing global capitalist interests
on the rest of society. Ireland, as I write, is preparing for a governmental crisis, mass protest and
Haas originally referred to the increasingly European outlook and cooperation beyond the immediate issues at hand
resulting from working with one’s government counterparts in the European Economic Community, Ernst Haas, The
Uniting of Europe: Political, Social, and Economic Forces 1950-57 Stanford: Stanford University Press 1968. I have
extended the meaning here to suggest a process of international, arguably global class formation.
To give an idea how central to our times is this process, and how formative or transformative participation in such
organizations and events, including Davos, can be be, consider the following passage from Nelson Mandela’s
published diary extracts: “The decisive moment..was when I attended the World Economic Forum in Davos,
Switzerland, where I …met the major industrial leaders of the world…who made it a point to express their views very
candidly on the question of nationalization, and I realized…that if we want investments we will have to review
nationalization…we had to remove the fear of business that…their assets will be nationalized.” Nelson Mandela,
Conversations with Myself London: MacMillan 2010 p. 381.
See my (as yet unpublished) essay, “Worldwide Strikes against Global Governance”.
strikes, to respond to an EU-IMF-sponsored austerity program. Already, aside from the strikes and
protests, including 40,000 union member participants against the G20 summit in Seoul in
November 2010, a number of strikes have specifically targeted global governance organizations and
not just their own national states. Irish public workers99, Jamaican labor unions100 and others have
specifically challenged their governments’ agreements with the IMF, while Croatian unions have
opposed austerity mandated as required in order to join the EU101. Thousands of Romanian Finance
Ministry workers walked off the job to protest IMF demands,102 Pakistani state workers protested an
IMF demand for privatization of electrical power plants103, and European labor unions united for a
one-day protest in Brussels on September 29, 2010 to oppose continent-wide austerity programs.104
In an especially ironic struggle, the staff at the International Labor Organization, tasked with
proposing and monitoring the implementation of better labor standards worldwide, held a sit-down
strike to prevent a governing board meeting to protest their precarious, short term contracts and
their working conditions.105
The presence of global governance in the midst of the austerity policies, and the link of these global
organizations and their apparent class bias and policies106 at the center of the globalization process,
along with the structural links between workers internationally stemming from the physical
connections of logistics and the diffusion of working class experience geographically, mean that
“Public servants face pay cuts as IMF moves in” The Independent (Ireland) Nov.19, 2010
“Unions to Gov’t: Renegotiate IMF Agreement” Jamaica Observer Sept.12, 2010
“Croatia’s United Unions Threaten General Strike Dec. 10” Bloomberg Nov. 17, 2010
“Romanian Finance Ministry Workers Protest Pay Cuts” Reuters Oct. 14, 2010
“Privatization of Power Sector in Pakistan: Appeal for Solidarity with WAPDA Workers” (statement by Divisional
from website Oct. 28, 2010
Chairman & Zonal Secretary WAPDA Hydro Union)
“Unions Rally to Fight European Austerity Measures” Sept. 17, 2010
“ILO Staff Protest Halts Board Meeting” Swiss Info Nov. 10, 2010
See for instance the call by the IMF for Ireland to reduce its minimum wage, which has no relation to budget
cutting or debt whatever, as a part of the austerity program needed to obtain an EU-IMF loan: “EU Urges Feuding
Ireland not to Delay Budget” Reuters November. 23, 2010.
international solidarity, at least in sentiment, increasingly in solidarity activity, and even, as the
European day of protest indicates, in united action, has become more common recently107. As we
shall see, the strike wave itself, and the class struggle as a whole, are themselves constitutive of the
possibilities that these same struggles then confront as challenge and opportunity. There is another
significance of the centrality of global governance organizations in the imposition of austerity, of
huge implications: austerity is the sign that global governance as an ally in political exchange with
finance capital overcomes the increasing proportional reduction of the capitalist logic that has
characterized each successive hegemony historically, indeed austerity globally clearly seeks to
overcome the limitations on capitalist dominance of political processes worldwide imposed by
democracy and previous cycles of class struggle embodied in national institutions and policies. But
it also erodes and risks completely erasing the ideological power of globalization as a universal, that
is the hegemony as opposed to dominance aspect of global governance, its potential to seem to
represent some of the hopes of humanity worldwide. Instead, it is increasingly apparent that hopes
placed in one global governance organization after another – the EU once seen as embodying a
different logic than the neoliberal US, the UN peacekeeping and aid operations under attack for in
Haiti and the Democratic Republic of the Congo for their treatment of locals, the G20 which has
signally failed either to address Climate Change in any plausible way, or to see in the economic
crisis anything other than a budget-busting danger requiring austerity as a cure – are doomed to be
unrealized as the capitalist dominance of these organizations overrides whatever larger social or
political content they may have been thought to hold. This raises two crucial problems for capital:
first, increasingly the bourgeoisie, finance capital in particular, is trying to rule directly, in the form
of personnel, class merger with the global governance bureaucracy and elite socialization. Second,
the social base on which this ruling class of global capitalists must govern is ice-thin, lacking either
For instance the widespread acts of solidarity with the UPS workers’ struggle in Turkey, the recognition of the
struggles of Greek workers as a predecessor to their own fight against austerity on the part of French unions, the
aforementioned protest in Brussels by united European unions, the support of international unions for the strikes by
Chittagong, Bangladesh dock workers, and the protests against the G20, among others that could be cited.
the social base of a national state formed through class struggles and compromises over long
periods of historical time, or the potential for universality contained in form and potentially in
content in global governance organizations themselves. Thus, the problem is not that the national
state, which as we have seen was always overrated as a norm under capitalism anyway, being
superseded by supranational organization or processes – indeed capitalism has always been
supranational as a process. Nor is it that capital abandons the military power of a hegemonic
territorial state. The US, its allies and NATO are after all still available to do the heavy lifting in the
foreseeable future. But today, virtually any state whose rulers are integrated into the global elite
socialization process and tied down with debt and participation in austerity can fill the role when
needed especially with respect to revolt by its own national population (the Tiananmen Square
massacre – a precondition for the rise of China as a destination of so much global direct investment,
and the recent coups in Thailand and Honduras are only a few examples). Rather, while capital, by
allying with the global governance bureaucracy as a political exchange, and then seeking merge
fully with it to form a global ruling class, gains a near universal political mobility to match its
mobility qua capital as money and investment, it loses any political legitimacy and social support
for this political project. Democracy, as Arundhati Roy argues, not the nation-state, is what is in
danger from such a project, and along with it any reason for the vast majority of the population of
any country to support any longer the rulers of society, the organizations doing that ruling, the
direction in which they are leading the world, or their national governments which through the
global governance and austerity processes are converted largely into instruments of capitalist
dominance. In short, dominance, rather than hegemony, comes to the fore and the social base of
capitalist rule rests on a narrower base than it has for 500 years. This approach contrasts sharply
with that of Tilly, for whom legitimacy rests primarily on rulers being recognized as legitimate by
other rulers, rather than by the people they rule. But today, the latter form of legitimacy is nearcomplete, as Davos, the G20 and elite socialization provide for, and insure compliance with, the
criteria for membership and boundaries of action for the global ruling class. That very legitimacy of
rulers in the eyes of their fellow elite erodes and risks erasing the legitimacy of national rulers in the
eyes of their populations in revolt, which, along with a new working class composition that has
access to newfound power globally brings with it the making of a worldwide political crisis.
Approaches to Analyzing Strikes
Perhaps the most common distinction made between different types of strikes is a traditional one
between political and economic strikes. This distinction largely came from the experience, analysis
and practice of the Socialist parties of the Second International – the distinction is, for reasons we
shall examine further along, absent in the works of Marx and Engels themselves. This distinction
reflected the organizational division of labor in the second international between unions and parties,
where the former were presumably organizations to deal with the economic needs of workers and
the latter for addressing the political aspirations.
A second way to categorize workers’ struggles is employed by Beverly Silver in her
groundbreaking work that demonstrated the existence historically of global strike waves 108. Silver
distinguishes between Polanyi’s and Marx’s analyses of workers’ struggles. For Polanyi, the
struggle is against the commodification of labor and against a self-regulating market’s tendency to
strip workers of all social protections, though, as Silver points out, Polanyi’s analysis lacks any
discussion of power and such defense could feasibly, even inevitably occur, from the top down
without active worker participation. For Marx, the struggle involves one against exploitation, is
centered on workers’ presence in the labor process and at the workplace, and is over maximizing
the gains to be made from and beyond a system that has the features described by Polanyi. Thus, for
Beverly Silver, Forces of Labor: Workers Movements and Globalization Since 1870 Cambridge and New York:
Cambridge Univ. Press, 2003.
By Polanyi-type labor unrest, we mean the backlash resistance to the spread of a global selfregulating market, particularly by working classes that are being unmade by global
economic transformations as well as by those workers who had benefitted from established
social compacts that are being abandoned from above. And by Marx-type labor unrest, we
mean the struggles of newly emerging working classes that are successively made and
strengthened as an unintended outcome of the development of historical capitalism, even as
old working classes are being unmade. 109
We may broadly, with some caution, suggest that the Polanyi-type struggles are particularly
prominent in the efforts to defend previous welfare-state gains especially in Europe, while the
Marx-type struggles to gain a greater share of a growing amount of wealth is more typical of
countries like Brazil, South Korea, South Africa and especially India and China, though some of the
struggles in Latin America and Africa especially in extractive industries, raw materials and
agricultural sectors likewise feature struggles to increase wages and benefits, improve conditions
and gain a greater share of wealth and control in the workplace. Steven Sherman, in his review of
Silver’s book, suggested a third category, the “Luxemburgian” form of worker unrest, based on
Rosa Luxemburg’s theory of the mass strike, in which “workers take control of a set of industries
and replace capitalists as the organizers of the social division of labor.”110 While so far the strike
wave has not seen a return to the twentieth-century experience of workers councils, prominent from
at least the first Russian Revolution of 1905 to the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and Polish Solidarity
of 1980, some of the strikes recently have suggested the possibility of such struggles. This
(amended) typology appears fruitful for us then. And so long as we are careful and not doctrinaire
in our use of it, it seems to help us think about the fact that strikes have been especially prominent
in countries like India, Bangladesh, Vietnam and China as well as Brazil, areas that capital has
flown to – what Silver calls “the spatial fix” – and that it is precisely the presence of these workers
in a worldwide strike wave in large numbers, intensity of their militancy and the large number of
Silver, Forces of Labor, p. 20.
Steven Sherman, “Workers and Globalization: A Review of Beverly Silver’s ‘Forces of Labor’”
Sept. 20, 2003.
strikes they have engaged in that gives this particular strike wave its particular and striking
character. While Silver’s research would caution away from describing this as the first global strike
wave, it is certainly the first one in which the global South’s workers appear not as secondary, or
minor players, but as the largest set of forces in the field, and that in industries central to the world
economy and in struggles largely urban in location. In short, much as Silver foresaw in her work of
2003, the balance for forces globally has not necessarily shifted only in capital’s favor, but also
toward these workers who, as Lenin’s last published work pointed out, constituted the vast majority
of humanity.
Likewise, the struggles over the pension reform in France, the budget cuts of the Cameron
government in Britain, against the IMF-EU austerity program imposed on Greece, even the defense
by workers of Eastern European countries of rights remaining from the Soviet era in some aspects,
but in any case guarantees under threat by neoliberal demands of the EU, IMF or global investment
forces has this Polanyi-like sense to them. Workers are struggling to defend not just this or that
particular right or guarantee, but an entire sense of themselves as citizens won as a result of hard
struggles in the past that define their status in their countries and in Europe in general against the
neoliberal abstraction of the market111.
As for the Luxemburg-type struggle, again, while these have not occurred as such (yet?), the
struggles in France and Greece appeared at times to pull back just from the brink given that at this
point the stakes become everything, and workers may have shrewd understandings of the forces
arrayed against them in a global capitalist system with global governance organizations
concentrating power on one side. In a sense, this might be the 21st century version of the Polish
workers’ famous decision in 1980 not to pursue direct control of industry and the state but to
demand a free union in Solidarity instead given the risk of Soviet intervention. An interesting aspect
For an excellent discussion of this wider dimension of the strikes and protests in Europe, see Mark Weisbrot, “Why
the Protesters in France have it right” counterpunch, Oct. 22, 2010.
of this might be the cooperatives, factory and land occupations and experiments in direct democracy
in countries such as Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Argentina where workers utilize the shield of
friendly government to extend control over one area of social life at a time rather than seek head-on
collision with all the forces of capital, national and global, all at once. But the threat of such
Luxemburg style workers councils remain latent in the strikes and solidarity actions in Bangladesh,
Vietnam, China and elsewhere and awareness of that threat influences government and business
decisions to use repression or concessions depending on which seems more likely to avert the
possibility of such a transformative struggle emerging. That the strike wave is so worldwide not
only needs to be understood in a globalized context and, as I have argued elsewhere in a statetransformed context (global governance)112, but also understood as changing that context. After all,
one advantage of ruling classes and capital historically was geopolitical – a mass strike was likely to
occur in one place at a time and knowledge by workers elsewhere of its occurrence, until around the
1960s, was not likely to happen in “real time ” Today that is less true, as both the strike wave and
the awareness of events in other countries are far more global than ever before. This means that
what could be up for grabs worldwide is power everywhere, whether Marx-style bargaining power
or Luxemburg-type social power over the division of labor. But at this point we must await future
events to extend this analysis.
Instead, what seems most helpful is to go deeper into the specific conditions and arenas of struggle
characterized within the strike wave so far to understand better both the Polanyi and Marx-type
struggles and conditions facilitating these and being changed by them. In general we can identify a
few key themes: public sector workers, revolt against the policies demanded by global governance
institutions; demands by workers in raw materials, extractive and agricultural industries to gain a
larger share of the wealth at a time when the prices and profits of the products of these workers’
labor are high; struggles by oil workers, which is a subset of the previous one mentioned of
See my article, “worldwide strikes against global governance”.
extractive industries but with two particular aspects – the key role of their industry in the world
economy and therefore the potential level of structural power of oil workers and the struggle against
various attempts to re-privatize oil in various countries under control of multinational energy
companies; and logistics, especially docks, trucking, and transport. These sectors have been
especially active worldwide and suggest that this strike wave, and not only in the countries more
highly characterized by rising investments due to the spatial fix and by Marx-type struggles (hence
my repeated suggestion to use Silver-Sherman typology with some caution to avoid simplification),
but also in France, Greece and elsewhere in Europe and the US.113
Silver, following Eric Olin Wright, distinguishes between workers structural power and their
associational power.114 The former involves holding strategic positions in the division of labor,
whereby workers can apply that power for gains either for themselves or for their class as a whole,
or to block or protest unpopular moves by governments. The recent strikes have involved a
considerable representation by workers holding structural power positions and using it to oppose
policies of national governments and global governance organizations. Associational power instead
involves workers ability to organize – formally or informally – to enhance their strength and
influence. The latter has been somewhat more typical of late of the strikes in newly industrializing
countries – China, Vietnam, South Africa and Brazil. But each of these forms of power, we should
note involves aspects of the other, since without organization the strategically placed location in the
division of labor of certain groups of workers would not register the influence that it objectively
indicates potentially. Likewise, associational power can lead to ability to block, paralyze or even
guide policy processes and content, as the larger class as a whole, organized as such, becomes a
kind of macro-structural power, holding the division of labor in its entirety as their strategic
For instance the dock workers shut down of East Coast docks in New Jersey in October 2010, or the dramatic
shutdown of all West Coast docks in 2003, nearly triggering a crisis in the whole global economy, not to mention the
significant strike by Seattle dockers during the anti-WTO demonstrations in 1999.
Beverly Silver, Forces of Labor, p. 13.
stronghold. The largest scale version of associational power of course, would be global in scope,
involving a degree of solidarity that transcended national borders in common action, or coordinated
action, or at least a unity in action even if acting independently. Silver’s work strongly backs the
idea that while individual countries all have their collective action and political cultures, that
transnational strike waves lead us to an analysis that transcends specific cultural causes. Similarly,
while cultural diffusion among countries similarly situated or with common histories can lead to the
spread of working class movements across national borders, such connections, along with the even
more direct connections of person-to-person diffusion through migration or organizational contacts
are not strictly necessary. But the existence of such contacts, as Silver points out, allows us to go
beyond the national level as a unit of analysis or investigation and to properly investigate global
strike waves as sui generis.
Silver’s analysis, though, rests largely upon opportunity – the creation of large industrial working
classes in urban settings and the placement of, and diffusion of strategic structural positions in the
division of labor by capitalist globalization itself makes large scale strikes possible. This is
consistent in many respects with Marx’s own analysis of working class potential, and like Marx and
Silver I will also avoid discussion of specific cases of working class consciousness. I take this
approach both because this requires a larger, and longer-term research project (on every continent!)
and because whatever the consciousness and its expressions, of workers in struggle in the present
period, the strike wave on a global scale is a social fact of great importance and clearly one not
reducible to any individual national cultural development of working class activity, since the
cultural conditions are so vastly different in the many countries mentioned above even in a threeday period of strikes worldwide. Further, the global strike wave is not reducible to, and is instead
resistant to any analysis based upon the historical-comparative approach pioneered by Katznelson
and Zolberg, emphasizing national differences in working class history, organization and activity.115
In Ira Katznelson and Aristide Zolberg, Working Class Formation: Nineteenth Century Patterns in Western Europe
and the United States Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986. For a critique of this approach to international
Whatever the national differences between working class people and their history and movements
in France, Greece, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Egypt, Nigeria, China, India, Cambodia, South Africa,
and the Czech Republic, two facts remain: that workers in all of these countries engaged in largescale strike movements in 2010, and that, allowing for the difference between demanding higher
wages in low wage countries and fighting to defend decent wage levels and social programs that
provide income to working people in higher wage countries, all of these strikes were directed
against austerity programs and more often than not against policies implemented with the
encouragement, even often the initiative of global governance organizations such as the G20, IMF
or EU.
But before we look more closely at specific national level strikes and create a useful typology of
them using Silver’s conceptual framework, which provides most of what we need to understand the
present movement of global workers struggles, there is one other set of concepts for understanding
strikes and workers movements that we need to look both for how not to understand the strike wave
and for one crucial insight that will allow us to deepen the analysis we largely take from Silver with
help from Polanyi and Marx. The late Charles Tilly attempted an even broader analysis of working
class movements and protest than even that attempted (with somewhat more success in my view) by
Silver. Collective action in general, protest in general, strikes, riots, collective violence, Tilly’s
work sometimes fruitfully, sometimes not, seemed to seek the right, and most general category for
understanding the activity of people in protest. His unmatched gathering of centuries of data on
nearly every imaginable protest, revolution, strike, riot and act of collective action is a contribution
in itself to social science’s attempt to grasp these phenomena which he rightly places at the center
of the modernization process, likewise a contribution in thinking about the modern world. But the
very comprehensive nature of his data often led to schematic thinking and a failure to see the
relation between supposedly discreet forms of collective action in his analytical approach. Thus,
working class activity, see Chapter 7 of my own book, Steven Colatrella, Workers of the World: African and Asian
Migrants in Italy in the 1990s Trenton and Asmara: Africa World Press 2001.
simplifying somewhat, Tilly’s analysis famously saw food riots as rural or premodern and strikes
and the organization of unions as urban and modern.116 This schema fails to explain more modern
food and price riots such as those that have accompanied the anti-IMF riots over the past thirty
years around the world, or the food price riots in several countries during the price spikes of 2007-8.
These movements can hardly be considered to have happened in a “premodern” world or society,
despite the participation of either rural or indigenous people in some of the revolts.
As Walton and Seddon demonstrate, modern food and commodity price riots can be traced to the
1970s and the implementation across the Third World of IMF Structural Adjustment Programs by
governments117. Indeed, some authors have sought to argue that a rural indigenous movement in
remote southern Mexico such as the Zapatistas can be defined as “postmodern”. The anti-IMF riots
were very much a series of protests against the most modern, up-to-date form of global capitalist
rule, of global governance, IMF structural adjustment programs, of a modern capitalist social
relation – the so-called debt crisis, and of mobilizations in urban and well as rural settings. The
2007-8 food price riots were even more clearly a result of globalization in its most recent aspects118.
However, Edward Shorter and Tilly have more usefully made a point about the political character of
strike waves that we should not neglect in analyzing today’s worldwide strikes. Tilly and Shorter
argue that there is a “complex” relationship between strikes and political crises whereby “the timing
of strike waves depends largely on the timing of political crises” but not in a directly causal way.
Rather “politics constitutes an important kind of precondition for the eruption of large-scale worker
movements” and organization on the part of workers is equally a precondition. They do not
distinguish between formal and informal organization, though they lean toward stressing the
Charles Tilly, From Mobilization to Revolution, pp.116-117.
John Walton and David Seddon, Free Markets and Food Riots Cambridge, Massachusetts and Oxford, UK: Blackwell
1994, pp. 38-9.
John Walton and David Seddon, Free Markets and Food Riots write that these revolts respond to changes that
“result from a closer integration of the global economy with the international state system coordinating the
reorganization through agencies like the IMF.” P. 50.
importance of the former. Nevertheless, the larger point is a good one: workers movements are
political, strike waves political actions. Further, workers organization and collective actions are a
part of political crises, and though the authors do not use the word dialectical to describe the
relationship between working class political and organizational collective action and political crises,
we may. Eschewing both narrowly economic or rational choice approaches to explaining strike
waves and myths of spontaneity, Shorter and Tilly argue that political crises act “as a prime factor
in bringing a large number of men together for collective action. When men act together, we think it
is usually for political reasons.” Moreover, the most thoroughgoing, rigorous and methodologically
innovative (if highly eclectic) full-length study of strike waves yet, Franzosi’s “The Puzzle of
Strikes” similarly found it
clear that historical processes do not unfold in an additive, linear fashion, that causation does
not go in one direction only, that we cannot simply look at industrial conflict as the
“dependent” variable and at economic, organizational, institutional, and political factors as
the “independent” variables, that industrial conflict itself (particularly such momentous
outbursts of working class protest as strike waves) produces effects in the economic,
organizational, institutional, and political spheres, subverting established relationships and
setting up new ones. More generally, the class struggle shapes the very process of class
formation: the structural composition of classes, and of the working class in particular, and
the organizational forms and agencies for the articulation of its interests. Strikes, strike
waves in particular, provide the melting pot for classes.119
In other words, strike waves are constitutive of both a political or economic crisis and the
organizational framework in which they take place, and of the actors themselves in the class
struggle. My argument here, synthesizing the findings of Franzosi with those of Tilly and Shorter, is
that the structural and associational power of the global working class and the strike wave that has
grown in size, geographic scope and intensity since 2007 is both formative of the global economic
crisis and political crisis of global governance, and a response to that crisis on the part of new
actors, themselves formed by these same struggles that have given rise to the crisis and the actors in
Roberto Franzosi, The Puzzle of Strikes: Class and State Strategies in Postwar Italy Cambridge and New York:
Cambridge University Press 1995, p. 349.
The Making of a Global Political Crisis
The crisis of legitimacy of global governance, of neoliberal policies of national governments in
collaboration with global governance, and of globalization in general as lacking the support of the
majority of people in most countries and especially of the working class, has come to constitute a
political crisis whose first manifestations were the anti-IMF revolts across the global South,
followed by the anti-globalization movement whose first large-scale action took place at the WTO
meetings in Seattle in 1999.
The austerity programs implemented nearly everywhere, with the initiative, support, pressure and
even coercion at times of global governance organizations has led to a political crisis across most
countries in the world. The strike wave is a manifestation of this crisis and a cause of its further
deepening. By September 2001, the most powerful people in the world were unable to meet
publicly without being confronted by hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, such as at Genoa for
the G8 summit in August of that year. It was no accident that the WTO meetings scheduled for
November were to be held in Doha, Qatar, a place immune to public demonstrations which are not
permitted, nor that the G8 scheduled their subsequent meeting on the top of a Canadian Rockies
peak. Short of going to the moon, the world’s elite were meeting in the most inaccessible venues
imaginable, itself a symptom and result of, and worsening of the legitimacy crisis facing global
But it was with the use of the crisis by capital, especially finance capital and state banks, to impose
austerity on the general population nearly everywhere outside of China (where austerity is a
permanent state of things despite wage increases, inasmuch as wages’ share of national income fell
from about half to about a third over the 1990s to today), that the crisis of legitimacy of global
governance and of the national governments implementing austerity policies became the focus of
not just widespread revolts in the Global South, but of a worldwide strike movement almost
everywhere. At the same time, the newfound power of Global South populations, and of some key
sectors of workers in the global North is part of the conditions of globalization itself, as Silver
crucially demonstrates. This too is part of the political crisis, inasmuch as strategic power in the
hands of groups that are unrepresented politically, or whose interests are opposed to present policy
means a political crisis, at times of epic proportions120. Already the predominantly urban anti-IMF
riot identified and analyzed by Walton and Seddon, with its epicenter in the national capital, marks
the political nature of the riots – a far cry from the local, clientelist, and community moral economy
based food price riots studied by Tilly, Eric Hobsbawm and EP Thompson. But the global scope of
revolts against Structural Adjustment, as Walton and Seddon argue,
constitutes both a quantitative difference in the scale on which protest is acted out and a qualitative
difference in the organization of protest…The difference in scale, of course, is connected with the
distinct and international conditions that precipitate austerity protests…Where classical food riots
petition local magistrates for redress, austerity protests appeal to the national government. 121
But these appeals to national government are not merely larger scale or more modern versions of an
appeal to a trusted local notable: “Authorities are still important targets”, noted Walton and Seddon,
“but now as perpetrators of hunger rather than as protectors of the people too slow to act in their
expected capacity.”122 The diffusion of production globally, the increased importance of logistics,
Interestingly, of two important works that foresee a global revolutionary political crisis, Adam Webb, “The Calm
Before the Storm? Revolutionary Pressures and Global Governance” in International Political Science Review, Vol. 27,
No.1 (Jan.2006), pp.73-92, p.83, and Martin Shaw, Theory of the Global State: Globality as an Unifinished Revolution
CambridgeUniversity Press Cambridge 2000, the more fully developed analysis, that of Shaw which develops an
entire, plausible and intelligent alternative political framework for understanding globalization, does not tie his
concept of global revolution to the struggles against Structural Adjustment or neoliberalism, let alone austerity and
global governance, but rather to an extension of liberal globalist values. Webb, in noting that the majority of the
world’s people do not believe that globalization has addressed their needs or improved their conditions, is closer to
the mark here, but fails to see any structural power in the hands of the disaffected that might make the global
revolution more than a utopian possibility. Webb thus relies on Iraq-like inter-state conflict and the spread of Political
Islam to identify agents capable of carrying out the global revolt he presciently senses on the horizon.
Walton and Seddon, p. 51.
Walton and Seddon, p.51.
the extension of anti-austerity protests of the Global South to Europe and other developed countries
as well, and the increased associational and structural power shown by workers in the recent strike
wave, mean that the political crisis can be defined best as the confluence of a new level of workers’
power globally, notwithstanding important differences in their defensive or offensive stances
varying by country, and an unprecedented crisis of political legitimacy resulting from the
implementation of austerity contrary to the class interests of the majority in every country, and the
origin of these policies in the alliance of ruling classes through the initiative of global governance
organizations and implementation by national governments. In other words, a more powerful
working class more disaffected from those in power and in rebellion on a quantitatively and
qualitatively larger scale globally means a political crisis without precedent in world history.
Conclusions: Revisiting the major themes of the strikes and the elements of political crisis
Several themes clarify the meanings we can attribute to the strike wave of the past few months and
years. These involve generally two major trends: the transformation of state power brought about by
the global alliance of previously national ruling classes through the interpenetration of global
governance institutions and national states, their personnel, policies, and outlooks that more
effectively subordinates government everywhere to the interests of certain dominant sectors of
global capital; and the changing class composition of the working class internationally through the
diffusion of industry globally, the growing importance of logistics to the global economy, rendering
aspects of it more vulnerable to strike action by key groups of workers, the diffusion of experience
by migration and the common experience of attack on working class needs and livelihoods through
austerity with a common source in global governance implemented through national governments.
More precisely, we can identify the following as major themes in recent strikes: strikes by workers
involved in the production or supply of important raw materials for industry and agricultural and
extractive commodities, whose prices have been historically high for most of the period since 2007;
Oil, while one commodity among these, is also so strategic that strike action by workers involved in
its production and supply deserves treatment on its own; opposition to austerity policies by those
most directly affected – state workers of all kinds and other groups – students, teachers, doctors and
nurses, bus drivers, railway workers, etc. directly impacted by government austerity; protests
directed openly against global governance organizations; strikes by transport and other logistics
workers (docks, railways, truckers, seamen and others) whose structural power has grown as a
direct result of the greater integration of the world economy through the growth of trade and
globalization; strikes by workers in key national export industries, again, a newfound structural
power, enhanced by growing associational power, resulting directly from growing global economic
integration, trade and globalization.
To recap then: using the useful frameworks of Silver, Tilly, and Walton and Seddon, we can
approach the strikes around the world as an as yet distinct but already interacting and simultaneous
movement of both Polanyian and Marxian workers movements, made possible by the structural
power diffused to more groups of workers in more parts of the world by globalization itself, by
increasing, and increasingly global associational power developed by workers’ own organizational
efforts facilitated by the globalized means of communications, transportation, and logistics of the
world economy, and the global political crisis that results from this strategic power, when combined
with the narrowing to a small elite those benefitting from policies of austerity that clash directly
with interests of the global working class as a whole and specifically certain key groups within it in
most countries. This confluence could lead to a greater associational power through the spreading of
the struggle to further sectors of workers within each country, and through greater international
solidarity as common interests, struggles and methods are identified. In that case, the global
political crisis would grow sharper, and the clash between workers everywhere representing the
general interests of society and that of global governance and those governments that continue to
follow its lead on behalf of capital would grow sharper. Under such conditions, Luxemburg-type
struggles, in which workers seek, as they did in various ways and places during the 20th century to
reorganize the division of labor itself and govern would not be out of the question. At that point, the
global political crisis caused by growing workers’ power and a worsening legitimacy crisis, could
open a new, planetary era of revolution.