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  • Published in Book Reviews

Kim Moody’s book on labour, unions and capitalism, is very valuable, but revolutionary organisation is essential, argues Richard Allday


Kim Moody, On New Terrain: How Capital is Reshaping the Battleground of Class War (Haymarket Books 2017). 287pp.

At £16, this book would not be overpriced in the general run of things, but given the research that is presented here, and the persuasive argument presented for a new strategic approach for organized labour in North America, the price seems even more reasonable. Given that you will in effect be getting three books for the price of one, it almost seems that Haymarket books are offering a loss-leader BOGOF offer to their customers (although in this case it is Buy One Get Two Free).

Having said that, Moody’s analysis and proposed solutions are not without their problems; but despite my reservations, this book is an extremely well-argued analysis of how the organisation of capital has changed over the last half century, what that means for workers – and particularly activists – and the opportunities, as well as the challenges, that it offers us. It is rare enough these days, for a commentator to offer optimism as a side order to their analysis, and this Moody definitely does – not least because he savages the liberal nonsense of the ‘gig economy’ and the ‘precariat’, as new and transformative conditions in capitalism.

While he writes for a predominantly North American (and in particular US) audience, the close identification of our ruling class with that of the US over the last half century, in collaborating on the neo-liberal project, means his book is as relevant to British - and to a lesser extent Irish - workers as his stated audience. Moody has been a significant contributor to the labour movement of North America in particular for many decades. This book is the latest, and possibly the most significant, since his early contributions – through ‘media and organizing projectLabor Notes – to developing a workers’ strategy based on lay activists in the North American trade-union movement.

Change and continuity in labour under capitalism

The first two sections of the book deal with the physical changes in the structure of capital and the working class in the US, not just in terms of the composition (as more women and Hispanics have entered the workforce), nor the geography (as the rust belt gets more corroded, and capital shifts southwards) but also in the nature of the jobs on offer. Moody restates the argument that capital has markedly increased its penetration of the ‘social reproduction of labour power’, originating in the recruitment of large numbers of women workers in the post-war boom – thereby removing them from the social reproduction of labour power and ironically pushing them disproportionately into the now-commodified substitutes (elder and childcare, health maintenance, food preparation and other areas, p.29).

He highlights the statistic that fully 90% of all job growth in the service sector (excluding managerial and professional jobs) comes from this area of ‘the reproduction and maintenance of capitalism’s workforce and fixed capital’ (p.21). He makes the ancillary points that: in most cases these are low-skill, predominantly physical jobs, held down disproportionately by ‘women, immigrants, Latinos, or African Americans’; and that  ‘on the other hand, they are landlocked and seldom susceptible to offshoring’, which brings to mind the view of Sharon Graham (head of Unite the Union’s Organising Dept.) that the lower the labour cost in any sector, the less risk is posed by job-destroying technology or automation – because the economic imperative is not present. The ironic corollary, that increasing collective strength in these areas, resulting in better pay and conditions, will tend to increase this imperative is not addressed by Moody, though it fits with his (and Labor Notes) overall analysis and strategy.

So far, there is little new in what Moody has to say, though he draws the statistics together in an informative, intelligible and illustrative form. The strength of this work becomes apparent when he takes on the myth of the gig economy in the following chapter. Citing the fact that the ‘younger the worker, the more jobs of shorter than average duration she experienced’, he points out that this has been the case for the majority of workers throughout the history of capitalism. Drawing again on the statistics, he demonstrates that ‘both a lifetime job with the same employer and endless multiple short-term jobs were always the exception. There is nothing new about this’ (p.24).

Instead, he argues that what ‘is under consideration is the degree of change’, and shows that, although the number of precarious or contingent jobs has increased (by some three million in the decade 1995-2005), the proportion has remained virtually unchanged, 15.2% in 1995, 15.5% in 2005. Accepting that there are no figures prior to 1995, he dug out the figures for ‘personnel supply services’ (which includes but is not limited to temp agencies). In 1980, these supplied 543,000 workers. A decade later, the number of workers supplied by temp agencies alone was 1,288,000, rising to 2,189,000 in 1995. ‘Thus, it is most likely that the biggest jump in precarious work came with the initial spread of lean production in the 1980s and early 1990s, at which time it was part of the fragmentation experienced by many’ (p.25).

The purpose of Moody’s relentless insistence on mining data to extract the truth comes to fruition when he lambasts those academics and commentators who have wrung their hands in recent years over the ‘gig economy’, also termed the ‘sharing economy’ the ‘servant economy’ or the ‘precariat’. As with so many pundits and politicians, the more radical the language, the less substance is likely to be present, and as Moody acerbically comments (quoting economist Roger Solow): ‘You can see the age of self-employment everywhere except in the self-employment statistics’ (p.26).

This is to say that arguments that working-class politics can no longer succeed, because of fundamental changes in the structure of employment, or because a ‘traditional’ working class has been decimated, are simply incorrect. There have been massive attacks on the standard of living of the working class, it is true, but current problems are not new in nature. Class politics are as vital as always.

Class struggle and politics

This puncturing of the over-inflated ‘critique’ of the self-styled ‘radical centre’ personified by the Clintons, Obamas and Bliars of the metropolitan elite’s ‘new politics’ is deeply satisfying on a purely personal – and (let’s face it) vindictive - level; it is also essential to Moody’s incisive demolition of the failed strategy of the dominant strand of the US left, over the past seventy years, of seeking to push the Democratic Party to the left.

It is at this point that the reader comes up crunch against the dilemma facing Moody: his overarching commitment to assisting the development of a ‘militant minority’ – clearly demonstrated in Appendix G (pp.200-214) – is indisputable; his criticisms of both the official trade-union attempt to develop an ‘organising strategy’ (pp.78-81) and of left illusions in the Democrats (pp.107-17) is visceral and apposite. Which makes it all the more frustrating that ultimately, his prescription is for more of the same medicine that he and his co-workers have been applying for the past forty years.

Chapter Ten (‘Electoral politics from a socialist perspective’) provides an acute analysis of the importance of external struggles impacting on electoral politics, and of the need for organized labour to break from its illusions in the Democratic Party – and yet still sees the primary effect of the social movements to be their potential of being utilised as a long-term class-based electoral alternative.

He explicitly locates the alienation of millions of working-class voters from ‘progressive’ politics in the Democrats’ pursuit of ‘respectability’. He provides good evidence for the potential for an anti-elite groundswell (so ably manipulated by Trump) and highlights that the Democrats’ failure to speak to working-class needs has ‘created not just “angry white men” who voted for Trump but also angry white, Black, Latino and Asian men and women who, for good and sound reasons, no longer see the Democrats as their defenders’ (p.183). There are important lessons here for the smug remoaners who persist in assigning the working-class Brexit vote in the UK to recidivist racists, but that would entail them addressing their own elitist assumptions - so is unlikely.

And then he goes and blows all his good work! ‘A new party that can mobilize previous non-voters has a good chance of winning in the long run” (p.157, my emphases). And the very next sentence: ‘This is a tinderbox awaiting a potential explosion’. Comrade, the whole essence of an explosion is that it is instantaneous, immediate, instant; an explosion that takes place over ‘the long run’ is more properly described as a ‘dissipation’.

This then, is the source of my frustration with this book. An author so clearly committed to helping build a self-confident, self-sustained, self-organised working-class response to this divisive, oppressive and exploitative social system, at the end of the day, is reduced to offering palliative care when what is called for is radical solutions.

The nature of class

The central weakness of the analysis on offer is twofold: firstly, a tendency to locate class in subjective rather than objective terms. Thus, although his Chapter Three offers an optimistic assessment of the power, and growth of the working class. He notes that if ‘working-class people in employment make up just under two thirds of the workforce, those in the class amount to at least three-quarters of the population” (p.41) it raises perturbing questions.

In my book, the overwhelming majority of employees are (almost by definition) working class, whether they realise it or not. If your only means of acquiring the necessities of life is to sell your labour power, you are working class (whether you like it, or admit it, or not). Of course, there are members of our class who identify themselves with the exploiting class (most coppers, and most middle managers, spring to mind), but that doesn’t change their objective social position; as they find out when the state or employer ceases to need their services.

Class is not a subjective matter, so it is worrying when Moody writes: ‘As teachers, nurses, and other professionals are pushed down into the working class, the majority grows even larger’ (p.41). No comrade, the working class has not grown any larger at all, it is just that growing sections of it are becoming aware of their class position, which is a very different statement. It is true that conditions which masked the fundamental capital-labour relation are being stripped away in many professions. But this is a different argument.

The second weakness of this book follows from the first: having conceded a substantive role to subjective assessment (i.e. your class position ultimately depends on your view of it), Moody compounds the drift by his concept of constructing a ‘militant minority’.

Here Moody reveals both the strength and ultimate weakness of a syndicalist approach to trades unionism, quoting with obvious approval Labour historian David Montgomery who:

noted the importance of this active core of the class in understanding the course of class struggle. He wrote, “Both ‘history from the bottom up’ and the common fixation on great leaders have obscured the decisive role of those whom twentieth century syndicalists called the ‘militant minority’: the men and women who endeavoured to weld their workmates and neighbours into a self-aware working class” (p76).

Moody then goes on to laud the socialist and syndicalist leaders of the shop-stewards movements of Britain and Germany during and immediately after the first world war, and the ‘radicals, members of the Socialist Party, Communist Party, Trotskyists, Musteites, and veterans of the IWW’ who ‘made the upheaval that produced the industrial unions of the …CIO … both powerful and durable’.

The weakness in syndicalism

This begs the question why the shop-stewards’ movements ultimately failed (I would argue because they rejected the need for conscious political organization) and puts a very rose-tinted gloss on the US experience. Challenged by right-wingers in the labour movement on employing Trots, commies et. al. as the spearhead of his union’s organising drive, John L Lewis, president of the United Mineworkers offered the classic response: ‘Who gets the rabbit, the hunter or the dog?’

The trajectory of the Mineworkers union, its growth but also its rigid top-down control, and eventual collapse into business unionism pure and simple, should provide a salutary warning for any militant who thinks industrial activism alone is enough to win the class struggle.

This is not meant as a mean-minded sectarian snipe at Moody – who has proved his commitment to our class many times over – but as a serious critique of the failures of syndicalism (also many times over). The allure of syndicalism lies in the fallacious belief that we can separate the economic struggle from the political; that it is enough for an industrial activist to want to confront the boss, and with luck s/he will generalise her/his opposition to the boss to a criticism of the boss class, and thence to the boss system. This will lead to an identification with, and participation in, radical politics.

There is just enough truth in this for it to be attractive (and less challenging than building a revolutionary organisation), but it ducks the central fact that these are never organic developments, there is no pre-set trajectory of political development, and that development requires a political organisation to drive it.

It is striking that in his lambasting of the Democrats, and his explanation of the disappearance of the ‘militant minority’ from US trade unions after World War II, there is no mention of the war in Korea, or Vietnam (or more pertinently, the opposition to these wars), or the civil-rights movement, or the women’s movement. This is because too many members of the ‘militant minority’ either ducked their heads on these thorny issues, or adopted such a sectarian line that they isolated themselves. In other words, it was not absence of politics that saved or failed to save this tendency; it was the adoption of the wrong politics. An example from the opposite direction is the emergence of the Detroit Revolutionary Movement. This should have been a shining beacon (warts and all) for syndicalists (and revolutionary socialists) in the late 60s/early 70s. Yet it passes unremarked.

So, in conclusion: this book is a treasure trove of facts and analysis on the transformation, industrially, physically and politically, of capitalism in the last fifty years. It is immensely informative, and innovative. It is well written and engaging. It analyses the enemy very well; but Moody’s answers do not match his critique.

So please, if you buy it (and if you are serious about being an industrial activist buy it you should), also buy Rosa Luxemburg’s ‘Reform or Revolution’, and ‘The Mass Strike’ and Chris Harman’s The Lost Revolution: Germany 1918-1923.

There, that should keep you going till Easter.

Richard Allday

Richard Allday

Richard Allday is a member of Unite the Union’s National Executive, a branch secretary and shop steward in road haulage.  A member of Counterfire, his comrades know him better as 'the angry trucker'.