On the emergence of a global working class

Excerpted from Nick Dyer-Whiteford:

“The idea of a ‘global working class’, which a decade ago would have been dismissed as leftist phantasm, is attracting increasing attention (Baranov, 2003; Linden, 2008; Mason, 2007; Struna, 2009; Breathnach, 2010).

‘Global worker’ designates collective labour that is : i) internationalized by the world-scale expansion of capital, a process in whose long historical arc a turning point is the doubling of the available global labour-power occasioned by the 1989 fall of the socialist states; ii) variegated by an increasingly complex division of labour, conventionally termed ‘the growth of the service sector’ (Soubbotina, 2000), describable in Marxist terms as an expansion of employment in the spheres of circulation and social reproduction; iii) universalized by the inclusion of women–aka ‘the feminization of work’ (Morini, 2007), the growth of production centers outside the global north-west, and flows of migrant labour, all shattering the notion of a white, male working class; iv) connected, albeit to very differing degrees and with many stratifications, to digitalized communications systems – crude but telling indicators are the global count of two billion Internet users and five billion cell phones; v) precarious in its conditions, with a chronic insecurity underpinned by capital’s access to a transcontinental reserve army of the unemployed, a surplus population whose task it is to survive in a state of readiness for work; iv) planet-changing in the effects of its labours, effects that, while historically cumulative, are only now becoming visible in global bio-crisis.

The global worker is not just an aggregate, the sum of all labours directly and indirectly mobilized by capital, a reckoning that could have been made at any time in the last three hundred years. What gives this abstraction a contemporary concreteness is its organizational form: the ‘value chain’. Subject since the 1980s of a burgeoning managerial study, value chains (Porter, 1985) – also variously termed ‘supply chains’ (Tsing, 2009), ‘commodity chains’ (Gereffi & Korzeniewicz, 1994) and ‘global production networks’ (Henderson et al., 2002; Levy, 2008) – are institutionally and technologically linked sequences of labour-processes that ‘add value’ at every stage, from research and development to assembly and marketing, dispersed to locations around the planet calculated, in terms of production costs, resource availability, and proximity to markets, to maximize profits. Some sensitive analysts prefer to avoid the ‘linear connotations’ of ‘chains’ (Levy, 2008: 2), highlighting the ‘intricate links – horizontal, diagonal as well as vertical – forming multi-dimensional, multi-layered lattices of economic activity’ (Henderson et al., 2002: 442). The construction of value chains require organizational power and geographic reach of the sort generally only commanded by multinational corporations, often entails foreign direct investment (FDI), international trade agreements, and ‘complex forms of governance at multiple levels’ (Levy, 2008: 2). The value chain form is enabled by neoliberal globalization policies, and driven by the financialization of corporate practices in which ‘need to meet capital market expectations and appease mutual fund managers’ necessitates cutting costs and increasing efficiencies at every level (Levy, 2008: 35, citing Williams, 2000).

Digital technologies are a sine qua non for value chains, which depend on a telecommunications infrastructure to reduce the transaction costs of ‘coordinating dispersed operations’ and on software systems for ‘modular production processes that rely on standards and routinized interfaces with suppliers and customers’ (Levy, 2008:8). Equally important is the use of electronic communication to integrate transportation with systems of retail or business-to-business distribution: the icon of this ‘the elevated significance of logistics’ is the digitized Universal Product Code (Sealey, 2010: 28).

Conversely, however, value chains are necessary for digital technologies, which are produced in world-wide division of labour that links very different kinds of labour. The computer industry can be schematically divided into two main sectors: software and hardware. In the software sector, key areas such as business applications and digital games display a characteristic pattern where key creative design and engineering functions are located in high-end studio or campus ambiences in North America, Western European and Japan. Routinized programming is increasingly outsourced and off-shored to subcontracted enterprises, whether in Bangalore, Ho-Chi Minh City, Dublin or Budapest, where wages and working conditions are an order of magnitude lower. This value-adding logic also extends to the incorporation of ‘free labour’ (Terranova, 2000) through selective use of open-source programming initiatives or user-generated content, such as game mods. If one ignores the role of janitorial, cleaning and service staff, characteristically migrant, often female, who maintain the environments of programmers and designers working through the ‘death marches’ and ‘crunch times’ routinely demanded by the industry, much of this software work falls within the scope of ‘immaterial labour’ (Hardt & Negri, 2000: 290-294), even if with a very high degree of stratification.

Where the full scope of the labours necessary to a Microsoft, an Apple or Sony becomes apparent is, however, on the hardware side (Smith et al, 2006). Here again, the key design and prototyping for an Xbox, an iPad or iPod or a Playstation3 is likely to be done by high level engineers and architects. The semiconductors required, which a decade or so ago might have come from toxic chip fabrication lines, will today more likely be produced in highly automated Taiwanese plants. When one comes to the actually assembly of the devices, however, this will performed by in Central America, Eastern Europe, or – most probably – in Southern China, with its manufactories of silent, serried work, obligatory unofficial overtime and incessant industrial accidents: reports suggest as many as 40,000 fingers a year are lost in Pearl River factory lines, giving ‘digital labour’ a grim signification (Barboza, 2008). Beyond this, the role of manual labour in the making of computing devices plunges off into yet more abyssal directions–on one hand into the mining of columbine tantalite and other minerals indispensable to consumer electronics amidst the carnage of the Eastern Congo, and on the other to the toxic e-waste disposal sites of Asia and Africa where computers and game consoles go to die, in their expiration poisoning the workers who excavate their remains (Dyer-Witheford & de Peuter, 2009). The point here is not just that manual work continues to exist in a so-called digital age as some residual hold over; it is rather that the profitability of digital products depends on the incessant re-positing of cheap, degraded labour, so that new technoscience and human exhaustion accompany one another hand in hand.

Anna Tsing’s (2009: 48) apparently portentous claim that analysis of supply chain capitalism is ‘necessary to understand the dilemmas of the human condition today’ is thus correct. Global capital unites humanity, then divides it again. Class is defined by who appropriates surplus value from whom. In the planet factory, command flows down the value chain, but value flows upward in an inverse cascade, from the one billion absolutely immiserated people living at the edge of malnutrition (the involuntary regulators of the price of labour power for the system as a whole), stopping at a series of intermediate plateau or shallow pools–the old and new industrial proletariat class-bathes ‘immaterial labour’, and passes though a range of intermediate and contradictory positions (managers and technocrats) before ascending to condense in the bodies of a global ruling class. The process by which the rich live longer, in better health, with more beautiful bodies, sensory extensions and mobility now, in the age nanobots and immortality enzymes, promises to become a veritable plutocratic mutation.”

1 Comment On the emergence of a global working class

  1. AvatarBob Haugen

    This is great analysis of the situation. But do you, dear reader, think it is possible to repurpose and extend and improve ~some~ (but not all) of these techniques for ourselves (whoever ourselves may be, those who seek a better system)?

    Create a beneficial economic ecosystem (and I do mean ecosystem: in the words of J.K. Gibson-Graham AND Ethan Miller, recently quoted on this blog, “What if we were to see the economy as ecology—as a web of human ecological behaviors no longer bounded but fully integrated into a complex flow of ethical and energetic interdependencies”)?

    Those supply chains described above are actually economic ecosystems, but ugly destructive exploitative ones. They are weak and inefficient because all the players are scrabbling to get more of the wealth for themselves.

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