The More Things Change

REVIEW  On New Terrain: How Capital is Reshaping the Battleground of Class War by Kim Moody

Every 10 years Kim Moody produces a major analysis of the political economy of US capitalism and the working class, identifying problems and possibilities, and advancing a strategy for the labor movement to reverse its decline and begin to advance. On New Terrain is a valuable addition to this at a crucial juncture for the US working class under the Trump-led Republican hegemony.

On New Terrain sees a more confident Moody, arguing that in terms of the objective factors facing the working class we have turned a corner: “a new terrain of class struggle has emerged… which in many ways is more favorable to working-class initiatives than either the last period of labor and social upsurge in the 1960s and 1970s or the transition period of the 1980s and 1990s that preceded the new phase of consolidation and integration” of both capital and the working class (p69). He convincingly lays out the major possibilities of organizing a much more diverse working class, both to rebuild the union movement and with it a “new organization or party” as an alternative to the big business Democrats.

Along the way Moody tackles two major questions that dominated the 2016 election year’s populist surge, both left and right. He looks in depth into what caused the loss of 5.7 million manufacturing jobs from 1979-2010 (p8), showing that these were due more to productivity increases due to new machinery and speed-ups, rather than unfair trade terms or globalized competition singled out for attack by Trump and Sanders alike. Secondly he devotes a chapter to looking from every angle at the possibilities of transforming the Democrats, from an instrument of the bosses to one that acts for workers, to show just how impossible this is. Both are useful mines of information and arguments for trade unionists and socialists.

At the core of this work is an analysis, using concepts from Marx’s Capital, of the changes in US capitalism and the working class that Moody then uses to identify specific areas in the labor movement to focus on, aiming to reverse its decline, achieve a breakthrough and prepare the way for the next great labor “upsurge.”

While there are many strong points to this, ultimately the strategy he advances fails to address concretely enough key political questions, i.e. how to release the grip over the unions by the bureaucracy and how to build a working class party in opposition to the Democrats. On New Terrain will rightly get a wide reading on the left and among trade union militants, but by avoiding such questions and relying on a one-dimensional focus on the unions and trade unionism, it presents an unfinished strategy.

The working class today

Moody’s strategy centers on organizing the logistics sector, the movement of commodities from production, through warehousing, to end-user; i.e. the various segments of a supply chain network. Its huge hubs, centered in major multi-racial cities like Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, integrated into global webs of just-in-time production, are vulnerable to unionization and strike action he believes. Moody first raised this idea in his 2007 book, US Labor In Trouble And Transition, but here he takes it to a new level, concluding “these logistic workers having at least as much leverage in the economy today as autoworkers did in the 1970s” (p. 38).

He gives a useful short history of corporate expansion, from the 1970s, where it took the form of building conglomerates of unrelated economic activities, aimed at offsetting core areas where profits were stagnant, often due to working class resistance. In the wake of the deep recession of the early 1980s, downsizing, restructuring and divestment broke these behemoths up, and stripped away their non-core functions.

Two decades of globalization then oversaw a long, historic and international merger and acquisition wave, aimed at building bigger companies, focused on a core area of production (e.g. steel, car manufacturing), in order to realize economies of scale and compete in the more open global market.

By 2011, besides the Big Three car companies, four companies had expanded to control 75 percent of the meat packing industry, four airlines control 80 percent of air passenger traffic, and so on. The famous 1984 break-up of AT&T’s monopoly had seen a crowd of companies emerge; by 2014 just four telecommunications giants control 90 percent of the market. The same is true of the service sector, such as hotels, hospitals, supermarkets and food wholesalers, with Walmart, and increasingly Amazon driving consolidation in the retail sector. Companies with assets over $1 billion controlled 71 percent of total assets in 1990; by 2010 they controlled 87 percent.

As a result of this, workers’ standards of living have been mercilessly attacked. Between 40 and 50 percent of private sector workers earn less than the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) definition of a low-wage, with 28 percent earning under the official poverty level of $11.06 an hour. Only half of all employees receive employer-provided health benefits, mostly for managers and professionals. BLS predicts that 70 percent of new jobs will be in the low wage bracket.

Manufacturing jobs have declined relative to the growth in service sector jobs, but output has not, doubling since 1980 to produce the same proportion of US GDP as in previous decades. Recessions were the big destroyer of manufacturing jobs, while output expanded after each on the basis of productivity growth, with “lean” production methods supplemented by surveillance technology, in a struggle to increase relative surplus value.

So workers now operate more capital and work in bigger workplaces for a smaller number of giant firms, making these ripe for unionization and, we could add, socialization. Transport and communications workers (also part of the productive core of the working class) grew by 68 percent between 1983 and 2007 (p. 38) and are centered on giant logistics hubs sited on the edge of conurbations. There are about 60 of these hubs, the largest employing 100,000-200,000 workers, the large majority of whom are low waged and racially diverse.

The working class, growing in size and as a proportion of the population, is far more diverse than 30 years ago, 35 percent non-white – Black, Latino, Asian – up from 16 percent in 1980 – and 45 percent female, all of whom are hit much worse by low wages and poverty (p 40). Tamara Draut in Sleeping Giant has calculated that 47 percent of the next generation of young workers aged 25-34 will be People of Color.
The concentration of both capital and the working class, and the sharpening of the antagonism between the two, with falling wages, intensifying work and record inequality all driving the politicization of the working class and radicalization of the youth. Moody pinpoints the logistics hubs as particularly ripe for unionization and the base for big concentrations of working class power, like that of car plants in the old CIO era.

Besides investment and work intensification, capital has attempted to restore profitability with “the annihilation of space by time” (Marx). The increasingly global production chains came hand in hand with just-in-time production and the speeding up of the circulation of commodities through the elimination of dead time, such as storage within production and between production and sale.

Despite this helping drive the mobility and velocity of capital, it has produced – and relies on – its opposite, an enormous amount of fixed and sunk capital: “roads, ports, rail yards, warehouses, factories, communications systems, equipment” centered on giant hubs, that “will be around for some time” (pp65, 67). That capital can’t simply close up shop and offshore at the first unionization drive, providing a stable base for a union revival in the medium term.

Moody provides much food for thought here but, as we shall see later, there are problems with his analysis. But before that, let’s look at his political conclusions.

Challenging the Democratic dead-end

Unusually for Moody he devotes half of his book to politics, a reflection of the politically charged times. He focuses on the growth in importance of state-level politics, the dead-end of the Democrats, and how a US electoral system long dominated by corporate cash has become immersed in it.

Political Action Committees (PACs) and now “Super PACs” allow business and the wealthy elite to flood billions into campaigns like never before. Even state and local elections, previously of minor importance, are now flooded with corporate cash, like the rest of US politics.
The “new Democratic business model” (p163) combines openly neoliberal, anti-labor policies and reliance on corporate money to pay for “professional” campaigns with expensive pollsters and mass communications. Now it also includes the manipulation of social media as the example of Cambridge Analytica reveals. So the cash barriers to standing candidates even in Democratic primaries are ever higher, shutting out contenders from labor and the left.

At the same time this has opened up a space for independent labor candidates to campaign against the Democrats’ business agenda, organizing real people to knock on doors, phone bank, talk to people at work, etc. Indeed outside of the Sanders movement, it is the unions that largely provide this function for the Democrats at election time.
Given the barriers to effective political action at the national level – including the commitment of the leaders of the unions, advocacy groups like the NAACP and NOW, and social movements to the Democrats – “it makes most sense to build from the ground up” (p150) both electorally and in terms of a new party.

Moody points to labor-backed candidates in local elections from Richmond, California to Lorain County, Ohio, “midsize industrial or formerly industrial urban centers with large working class populations”, where the business-as-usual Democrats are so hegemonic, the usual blackmail at election time over letting in the Republicans doesn’t work (p162).

Strangely there is no actual analysis of the politics of Sanders himself, nor of Corbyn in Britain, while his analysis of the new left parties of Europe, focused on Podemos in Spain, emphasizes more their intellectual-led, electoral-focused leaderships rather than their actual politics. His main attack is their “lack of emphasis on social struggle on the ground and overemphasis on winning elections”, but politically he seems to endorse their compromises as adequate, because they “are transitional in nature in that they challenge not only neoliberalism but also the priorities of capital in this era, while at the same time reflecting real popular sentiments.”

The only one which has actually won government, the Syriza experiment in Greece, basing itself on the massive anti-austerity wave to win office, and then surrendering to the EU, is not used to highlight what type of politics and parties we need.

Other than slipping in a reference to the “the classic problem of ‘reform or revolution’” (p148), and later rejecting “parliamentary socialism… an old but failed idea” compared to “democratic control from below over the vast powers of modern authority” (p168), there is little from a socialist perspective here.

What is missing, both in Moody’s analysis and in the objective situation, is an appeal for a new kind of party, based on the unions and the mass social movements of the working class. Its program should not be limited to immediate demands such as $15 minimum wage, but map these on to what Trotsky’s called transitional demands.

These start from and connect struggles in defense of immediate needs to a set of demands centered on workers’ self-organization, workers’ control, militant and direct forms of action and anti-capitalist demands that millions can mobilize around, not just elect representatives to argue for in Congress. Last but not least they need to spread the vision of an alternative form of society to capitalism; from which racism, exploitation and all forms of oppression are banished – in a word socialism.

Election campaigns for such a party would be subordinate this strategy of mass action. Indeed its elected representatives would tirelessly expose the limitations of “parliamentary” democracy and fight for its overthrow and replacement by the democracy of workers’ councils of action.
Independent labor candidates can be a starting point for such a struggle, but if they are not linked to the building of a wider new party of the working class they will fall into endorsing the Democrats (as some still do) and slow the movement’s advance, or even collapse back into the Democrats.

Political Economy

While Moody’s case is built on the use of Marxist political economy, which shows the relevance of Marx’s ideas today, there are some theoretical issues that weaken his study.

When teachers or nurses unionize and go on strike, is it right to lump them in with the middle class as “proletarianizing professionals” as Moody does (“Rough Guide to the class structure of the United States” p. 40) or to see them as having arrived in the working class already, as they would be seen in many European countries? There are contradictions of course. While increasingly militant, the relatively well-paid workers in sectors like education and health are protected from international competition to a degree, and underpinned by state spending.
They represent a potentially labor aristocratic infusion into the union movement (for instance 83 percent of teachers are white, while only 61.3 percent of the total population is white). Moody rather neglects this strand of the labor movement, which the West Virginia strike has put center stage, though overall he is right to direct the labor movement to organizing the less-skilled, multiracial mass of workers, directly incorporated in the production of surplus value.

Moody rightly attacks new class/post-working class theories such as that of the “precariat”, but his own take is unconvincing. He approvingly quotes the economist Robert Solow – “You can see the age of self-employment everywhere except in the self-employment statistics”.
The message is that precariousness is exaggerated or has always been there; insecure job security is the norm; people have always moonlighted (23). But it is precisely the outright destruction or relentless downsizing of “decent” full-time permanent jobs in manufacturing since 1980 that represents a real change, even if this always excluded large sections of Black, Hispanic and women workers. Linked to this is the fact that young workers face a future of this as the norm (p24), a future less prosperous than their parents’.

The one area that is most clearly covered is the statistics on temporary, agency work, which do show only a small increase from 2005 to 2015. Yet in citing a Warehouse Workers for Justice report on Chicago, Moody recognizes that 63 percent are temps, hardly a “marginal” workforce. These temps earn $3.48 an hour less than direct hires; due to low wages, 37 percent of all the workers hold a second job, while 25% receive government benefits (62). Neither are the two-tier workforces, agreed by the UAW and elsewhere in manufacturing, “marginal.”

US capitalism continues to suffer historically stagnant profit rates in production, which predate 2008. Everywhere is affected by this shift to lower pay, worse pension provision, benefit cuts, and less security. Precariousness is the downside of the spectrum between the most secure jobs, underpinned by skill, and outright unemployment, and for most workers their job’s future is moving in that direction.

A Government Accountability Office study saw contingent, i.e. casual work grow from 35.3% of the workforce in 2005 to 40.4% by 2010 (see table). Princeton University found the percentage of workers engaged in alternative, i.e. flexible working rose from 10.1 percent in February 2005 to 15.8 percent in late 2015; the authors estimate that all of the net employment growth during this period occurred in the form of alternative work arrangements.

The leap in cash for informal payments points to an expansion of under-the-table work, gigging and self-employed work (such as eBay selling) by up to 50 percent since 2007, which one analyst called “the new normal for the foreseeable future”. Among part-time young employees in the US, 49 percent are underemployed, and 56 percent are subject to changing shifts and/or work hours.

While Moody is right that even workers in full-time permanent jobs, with the best pensions and benefits, are now experiencing insecurity, it is the lived reality for a growing minority that is disproportionately young, female, Black and immigrant, where it was always the norm.
Marxists have to be able to recognize when quantitative changes transform qualitatively the structure of the working class. In this case from one rooted in long-term oppression and exploitation, but whose conditions were relatively stable and uniform, to one where a growing number of immigrants, People of Color, women and youth have entered the workforce, and conditions and rights vary considerably and are under attack constantly.

Possibly for this reason Moody seems to skim over the radical changes in consciousness and the subjective factor, mentioning only in passing the rise of support for socialist ideas, particularly among the post-2008 generation where a majority see socialism or even communism as superior to capitalism. Indeed the political radicalization since 2008 is almost an aside in Moody’s analysis, when in reality this shift in consciousness is historic.

Related to this is the sense that 2008 “Great Recession” was just another recession, rather than the opening phase of a prolonged depression of stagnation, weak growth, lingering recessions, and the associated instability, class polarization and struggle that with such a situation. Political organizing and social explosions, like Black Lives Matter or the 2003 anti-war movement, may play as important a role as union organizing in preparing or actually detonating an upsurge.
Socialists and militants need to fight for the unions to be at the heart of all such struggles, but it doesn’t mean that organizing the logistics sector, worthwhile, as a focus as it may be, is the key to unlock the situation. The fact that Moody raised the prospect of such low hanging fruit, ripe for the picking 10 years ago, and it has not been taken up shows that the bloated, six-figure salaried union bureaucracy remains an obstacle that we might not get round before the fire next time.

Wouldn’t an obvious immediate step be to build a wave of local anti-Trump committees that joined BLM activists, the new women’s movement, workers’ centers, union locals and labor councils in hammering out a struggle against the Republican offensive. This would provide a natural arena to debate strategies for organizing, such as the logistics sectors, supporting strikes like the teachers, and even debating standing candidates against Republicans and discredited Democrats alike?

Moody’s almost single-minded focus on union organizing as the key route to a working class upsurge, with independent labor candidates and at some point a new party, is a thread throughout all four volumes and the politics of Labor Notes generally, but it begins to look like blinkers in these high-stakes, overtly political times.

Socialists and militants need to identify the key political questions associated with such revolts and provide consistent, concrete answers to the problems raised in them, along with an unbending stance on questions like immigration, racism and sexism. It is here that Moody’s politics lose their tread.

Organize the rank and file – but how?

Another very interesting part of the book is where Kim Moody investigates the various theories behind what causes strike waves and upsurges. He rejects mechanical schemas that cite the business cycle or economic “long waves”, instead focusing in on how capital at certain times is forced to counter falling profit rates by the “reorganization of the labor process at the plant level” and “attacks on living standards and particularly on working conditions” (p73). This recognizes that the class struggle does not rise in an even line or oscillate with the business cycle, but sees unpredictable, spontaneous leaps, strike waves and rebellions.
To explain these, Moody follows the late Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm’s theory of “compression” as the root of upsurges, “accumulations of inflammable materials which only ignite periodically, as it were under compressions.” Moody says these have to be “generalized and widely experienced” before an explosion is possible, though “it is impossible to fully gauge the subjective factor needed to set things in motion” (p76). He acknowledges that “grassroots organization is required to transform the explosive moment into sustainable power”, noting that sometimes this is built in the midst of struggle, not before it – the soviets in 1905 Russia, the shop stewards committees in wartime Britain are examples (p164).

This is of course an application of the dialectical law of the transformation of quantitative changes into a qualitative leap, which explains how, at a critical stage of development, the slow accumulation of contradictions breaks out into crises and revolutions. However this can become a mechanical theory, if the phenomenon under investigation is not taken as a whole, in particular the “subjective factor”, the role human beings play.

The central role of the union bureaucracy – the layer of officials, who negotiate givebacks, sell out strikes and strangle union democracy – has to be taken into account, as do the actions of the left labor leaders and militants. But this is not just about the consciousness of individual workers or activists that “set things in motion”; it is about the actions of the various classes in motion against each other.

What Moody doesn’t explain is the material roots of the union bureaucracy, what its role in society is, whose class interests it really serves. Clearly at the highest level – and the bureaucracy is a hierarchy, if it’s nothing else – the General Secretaries and top officials are not workers. They are a privileged layer, whose lives are completely divorced from the workers they “represent”. They are encouraged by bosses and politicians to avoid trouble, to take the easy road and above all to support the wage labor system, which is their bread and butter. As Eugene Debs said in 1904, they are “the leaders of labor and the lieutenants of capital,” a phrase Lenin and Trotsky took up.

What is needed to counteract and defeat the bureaucracy is a movement from below, based on and fighting for the workers’ interests. Its aim must be to oust the bureaucracy and take (back) control of the unions. But how can such a movement come into being, and what are its essential tasks, over and above immediate ones connected to the conjunctural situation?

Moody for the first time advances the concept of the militant minority to explain what’s missing in the labor movement and has been for decades. This layer, existing in the strikes and rank and file movements in the 1960-70s, “remained politically rudimentary and isolated from each other”, without “nationally recognized leaders or organizations that straddled the movement as a whole”, and even without “a radical core of organized leftists”, as the Communist Party had provided in the 1930s. Moody sees such a layer in the making in the various union reform movements of the past decade (pp. 77-78).

A key goal at this point has to be to link up the strikes, militant locals, and reform movements democratically into a national rank and file organization – inside each union and “straddling the movement” – if this layer is not to remain “isolated”. Moody notes the positive steps forward to develop a national United Caucus of Rank and File Educators (UCORE), seeded in Labor Notes reading groups, initiated with the Chicago CORE that launched the 2012 strike and uniting caucuses from both teachers’ unions. It has already shown its worth by holding a “boot camp” to help the Philadelphia caucus to start its campaign against standardized tests. As one leader at the first conference said, “The lesson from Philadelphia and Chicago is that, even with strong union activists, it is not enough to defeat the corporate education reform efforts. But if we come together and collaborate we can win.”

Moody estimates there are thousands of rank and file activists leading strikes and organizing at the local level, and “nearly half a million or more union members in locals and national unions where the rebels have taken charge”. These activists, he says, are the “potential material” for the “militant minority.”

No, they are the militant minority… but they have no movement, such as the National Minority Movement, set up in the UK in 1924 after the fusion of the shop stewards movement under the aegis of the Communist International and Red International of Labor Unions. Moody tentatively proposes that Labor Notes might provide this role. It would only if it could become a membership or at least affiliate-based, decision-making body, democratically agreeing its policies and developing a genuine, consistent rank and file strategy that is more than just another loose synonym for “grassroots,” “from below” etc.

Moody lists the “set of operating principles and goals” in an appendix on Labor Notes that it shares with the emerging activist layer: “union democracy and accountable leadership; rejection of labor-management cooperation; strong workplace and stewards’ organizations; direct action and mobilization when needed or possible; racial and gender inclusion and equality; and the realization that the ranks will have to do or win these things ourselves. In short: a rejection of the norms of business unionism.” (211). However, in reality these goals require something more specific: the dissolution of the trade union bureaucracy.

Reform movements of the past were constructed over a basic fault-line in the unions separating the members and the bureaucracy. Militants, rising out of struggles, battle the current leaderships. Once the struggle ends, the latter are still in their place when the smoke clears; or they stand against the incumbents and take their positions in the officialdom. Left officials can certainly talk left, and even adopt militant tactics, but in the final analysis they become, step by step, absorbed into the bureaucracy, compromising instead of pursuing a consistent policy of struggle, refusing to break from the rest of the union leadership that hold the struggle back.

In the US more than any other country, the material privileges of the bureaucracy – six-figure salaries, hobnobbing with politicians and the very businessmen that exploit their workers, etc. – make this a comfortable world, insulated from the harsh realities of the shop floor, a middle class caste within the workers movement. The former lefts avoid strikes or call them off, propose givebacks in secret, agree sweetheart deals to make it “easier” to organize a union, and do everything they can to obstruct reform movements or workers taking action outside of this framework.

That’s how the CIO upsurge was tamed and the 1960s-70s upsurge defeated. The opposition to the Democrats, and the labor party movements were whittled down, the unions were defeated, decline set in. The all-important question is: what is the attitude of a rank and file movement to this bureaucracy? Nowhere does Moody explain why the lefts become co-opted and how this tendency can be fought.
A rank and file movement needs strategies to organize, of course, but it also needs clear policies to dissolve this bureaucracy, and transform the unions into democratic, fighting organizations. Leaders need to be accountable: not just regularly elected but recallable. Their material interests need to be aligned with those of the members, with officials’ pay and expenses set at the level of a skilled worker’s wage – that will weed out the careerists from the fighters.

Left leaders who want to join the movement need to agree to fight for its policies, including taking the worker’s wage. Workplace committees need to control organizing efforts, strikes and negotiations, so “the members decide, and the officials provide” not the other way around. The slogan adopted by the first British Shop Stewards Movement, from which the rank and file tactic was developed, was “with the union leaders where possible, without them where necessary.”

The current militant minority in the US needs a national center that propagates that message and the approach it encapsulates: rank and file independence and initiative but the maximum unity in action, including giving all useful and progressive actions by the union tops the power of the rank and file activity, while spreading the motto, “Watch your leaders” and encouraging activists in every workplace to become independent leaders themselves.

That is not the approach of Labor Notes unfortunately. Moody says “political education” or “propaganda” should be deprioritized in favor of “educating in practical strategies and actions”, because “everything that Labor Notes did that worked was based on movement activity that was already actually happening”. Moody insists that Labor Notes plays an indispensable role as a democratic current within the unions, holding together a “dense, alive, and contemporary network of worker activists”. He even claims credit for the possibilities of the network “evolving into the sort of militant minority that gave political coherence to labor upheavals in the past”(p214).

He asks, “Could Labor Notes have done more?” In these times especially, a network is not enough; we need a united movement. Labor Notes – and socialists in the movement in general – can either tail the existing movement, limiting itself to supporting activity that is “already actually happening”, or they can point to its future. As Marx said in the Communist Manifesto, “in the movement of the present, [communists] also represent and take care of the future of the movement.”

This really gets to the crux of the matter: the fight to transform the trade unions into fighting, democratic organizations indissolubly linked to the task of building a working class party, independent of all strands of the bourgeoisie. All previous successes in the former task has relied on the existence of the latter, a party.

Sure, a new party can be built alongside the gathering together of a rank and file movement, but that movement cannot withstand the pressures of employers using their power to expel the militants, or the state using its power to extinguish their threat, without a party to support them and guide the fledgling movement. Moody fears this approach, that the party should ever take a leading role, insisting from the beginning “Labor Notes could not be seen as, or be anything like, a ‘front group’” (p201).

But we would warn against such an overcautious approach. Is it really likely that workers would shun Labor Notes if it started to organize militants as members and locals as affiliates? Would they turn away if Labor Notes conferences stated to hammer out a program of resistance and principles against bureaucratic power? Alternatively, will the current upsurge avoid the pitfalls of previous reform movements and strike waves, if the decisive next steps are not taken?