Labor

In April 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated while organizing mass protests in support of an illegal strike by Memphis sanitation workers. Like many activists of his day, he saw a series of connections among discrimination by race, sex, and workplace exploitation. He asked, “What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?” (1968). In response to intersecting modes of oppression, King and others believed that liberatory social movements needed to pursue shared goals. The long tradition of such intersectional labor analysis includes the oratory of Frederick Douglass (2000) and the sociology of W. E. B. Du Bois (1995a, 1995b); the feminist anarchism of Lucy Parsons (2004) and Emma Goldman (1969); the revolutionary communist poetry of Langston Hughes (1973) and Amiri Baraka (1999); as well as the socialist feminism of Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (2006), Donna Haraway (1985), Angela Davis (1983), Barbara Ehrenreich (2001), and Leslie Feinberg (1993), among countless others.

The intersectional view of power exists in significant tension with common uses of the term “labor” to name a distinct or “special” interest group. In mainstream journalism and school curricula, the word most commonly refers to organized labor, especially politically influential trade-union membership. For many people, this mainstream usage calls up images of sweat and industrial grime, especially the meatpackers, miners, and autoworkers in films such as Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar (1978) or Barbara Kopple’s Oscar-winning documentaries Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976) and American Dream (1990). The problem with this usage is that it obscures a far more diverse reality. At present, the most unionized U.S. occupations are education and civil service (about 40 percent), as compared to 10 percent of miners and factory workers (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2011). If image reflected reality, our notion of a typical union member might be fiftyish and female, an Inuit teacher, a Puerto Rican corrections officer, or a Korean American clerk at the Department of Motor Vehicles. The gulf between simplistic media imagery and diverse reality raises critical questions regarding the tendency to stereotype labor as a chiefly white and male, well-organized, “blue collar” special interest group characterized by a culture of rough, manly, almost effortless solidarity.

Associated with agricultural or mechanical toil and modest social standing in earlier usages dating from the Middle Ages, “labor” emerged as a keyword in the nineteenth century for critical theorists and social reformers addressing questions of political and economic modernity. Along with the democratic revolutions and emergence of a capitalist economy, the rising self-organization and social consciousness of individuals who worked in order to live produced a new social category: “laborers.” This category—and the lived experience that enabled it—led to the recognition by social theorists that organized workers constituted a powerful, socially transformative class of persons. A wide array of theorists, both radical and conservative, recognized that this class embodied interests that were clearly distinguished from those of people whose incomes derived from ownership rather than their own efforts (the possessors of capital, or the capitalist class) (Blanc 1839; Marx and Engels 1848/1976).

Critical to understanding any deployment of the term “labor” during this period is the revolutionary labor theory of value. Plainly put, this theory is based in the idea that the value of goods derives from the labor necessary to their production (Adam Smith 1776/1937; Ricardo 1817; Marx 1844, 1867/1976; Mandel 1974). Karl Marx praised capitalism for its “constant revolutionizing of production” and agreed that it was generally an improvement for many ordinary workers over previous forms of economic organization. But he also observed, drawing on the sensationalist working-class literature of the period, that the system operated vampirically; it diverted a large fraction of labor-generated value to persons who owned the industrial means of production (that is, the investing class that purchases machinery and factories, hires the brain power of inventors and engineers, pays workers in advance of sales, and so on). In this sense, capital is nothing more than dead labor, as Marx put it, thriving and accumulating “by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks” (1867/1976).

This usage by Marx and other early social theorists emerged in connection with labor’s militant self-organization in the nineteenth century. The labor movement’s understanding of itself as a socially transformative class or group is broadly evident in the newspapers, essays, dialogues, and plays produced by workers in labor fraternities and working women’s associations. Women in New England mills built some of the earliest and most militant working-class organizations in the country and, like their male counterparts, produced a countercultural literature of dissent, provocation, and solidarity (“Women Working, 1800–1930”). This literature-from-below described a profound antagonism between labor and capital, describing laborers’ working conditions as the return of slavery, the end of democracy, and the return by stealth of aristocracy to North American soil. Between the middle of the nineteenth and the middle of the twentieth century, countless workers drew on this literature as they developed that “one big union” model of industrial unionism, as practiced by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or Wobblies), the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), and the pioneering Knights of Labor.

Influenced by E. P. Thompson and the Birmingham school of cultural studies, U.S. scholars such as Stanley Aronowitz (1974), Sean Wilentz (1984b), David Montgomery (1987), and Paul Buhle (1987) aligned themselves with these activists and reformers as they produced a new labor history. What was new about this history was its understanding of working people as cultural producers, not merely the consumers of cultural artifacts produced for them by others. Extending this legacy, the cultural historian Michael Denning (1997) chronicles how the rich and complex culture produced by and for union members—often dissident or radical union members seeking to change the culture of their unions for the better—shaped the broader culture and its politics, most notably in the left-wing popular art of the 1930s and ’40s. Until the campaign of repression launched by McCarthyism, most unions, mainstream and radical, had significant membership crossover with socialist, communist, or anarchist movements aimed at revolutionary working-class liberation, typically adopting an intersectional view toward oppression by race and sex (Maxwell 1999; Rabinowitz 1991; Coiner 1995; Kelley 1994).

Largely as a result of feminist activism and research, the activities that we understand as labor have expanded enormously since the early 1970s. Pointing out that the creation, training, and care of (traditionally) male wage workers depends, all over the globe, on the often unwaged, traditionally female labor of reproduction, Selma James and Mariarosa Dalla Costa (1972) led an innovative “wages for housework” campaign and radicalized our understanding of the labor process. James and Dalla Costa objected to the common understanding of reproductive labor as referring to the generally unwaged activities of child rearing by parents and other caregivers in the family and community. Instead, they usefully expanded the insight that capitalism’s visibly waged activities depend on an elaborate supporting network of unwaged effort. This insight altered a long-standing agreement between radical and conservative nineteenth-century theorists that the political economic analysis of capitalism should focus only on wage labor, particularly labor that led directly to the employer’s profit, such as factory work.

As a result of this feminist intervention into labor history and politics, new areas of analysis came into focus: unwaged labor, as in child rearing and housework; donated labor, as in volunteerism or internship; waged labor in the nonprofit sector, such as teaching, policing, and civil service; free creative or intellectual work; subsistence labor in small agriculture; forms of forced labor such as slavery, indenture, and prison labor; labor in illegal or unregulated circumstances, as in sweatshops or sex work; working “off the books” in otherwise legal activities such as babysitting and food service. Underscoring all of the teaching, feeding, nursing, transportation, clothing, and training involved in “producing” an industrial worker, feminists and analysts in the Italian autonomist tradition, such as Paolo Virno and Tiziana Terranova, argued that the value represented by consumer goods is produced in a social factory, a vast web of effort that intersects at the point of assembly but is not limited to it (Virno 2010).

This is not just a critical or theoretical observation. As any college student or recent graduate can attest, nearly all forms of contemporary enterprise are restructuring the labor process to maximize the contributions of unwaged, underwaged, or donated labor: from volunteers, students, apprentices, and interns; from regular wage workers who communicate by email and take phone calls at home or in transit; from local government, which pays for worker training and security services; from permanently “temporary” workers who are not entitled to benefits; or from outsourced workers who are superexploited by contractors, often in another country. The persons who contribute much of this unaccounted-for labor include women, students and teachers, migrants, guest workers, the undocumented, workers in the service economy, clergy, and civil servants. Many of them are seduced into donating or discounting their labor by canny management that portrays the discount as a fair exchange for workplaces that are perceived as fun, creative, or satisfying (Ross 2004, 2009). Persons in all of these intensely racialized laboring groups played a leading role in the worldwide revolutionary ferment of the 1960s. While they often intersected with each other in both planned and spontaneous ways, the new social movements they participated in were largely independent (or autonomous) of traditional sources of power to shape the course of the state, such as political parties and the dominant trade unions. The school of thought that came to be known as autonomism emphasizes their power independent of organized political parties and trade unions, and the intersection of workers’ interests across economic sectors and national borders.

Grasping labor as social productivity includes the crucial understanding that contemporary capitalism captures profit from many activities not generally understood as labor. Consider social media as an example. Many kinds of businesses directly monetize recreational or self-expressive social activity, as in the social sourcing of revenue-producing content on YouTube, the Huffington Post, and other media-sharing sites. Users also make a second, less obvious gift of countless related activities—the labor of rating content, publicizing it (by passing links along), and surrounding the content with entertaining commentary. This phenomenon was notably described by Maurizio Lazzarato (1996) as immaterial labor, a kind of labor previously reserved to privileged or professional taste makers such as professors, critics, public-relations and advertising workers, and journalists. The breadth of this social productivity includes students’ low-wage, underwaged, and donated labor in work-study or internship arrangements. But that is only the tip of the iceberg. Students create value for campuses in myriad ways, from athletics and performance to donated journalism, service learning, running extracurriculars for other students, and so on. Facebooking one’s social life or working out in the fitness center can be understood as making a donation to the campus brand (Bousquet 2008, 2009).

Where capital cannot seduce labor, it seeks to rule by other means. The capitalist reaction to labor insurrection worldwide has been state adoption of economic neoliberalism and the steady globalization of the production process (Harvey 1989). This means that much of the work involved in producing goods consumed in the United States—even putatively “American” brands such as Apple, Levi’s, and Harley-Davidson—is the labor of Chinese, Mexican, Indonesian, African, and Indian workers. Organizations such as China Labor Watch and films such as China Blue (2005) document, across industries, persistent patterns in Chinese manufacture: typically hiring primarily young, single, female workers between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five, who will burn out or be fired because of worker abuse ranging from violence and toxic chemical exposure to eighty- and ninety-hour workweeks, often with net salaries (after deductions for employer-provided dormitory housing, food, and other necessities) of less than thirty cents an hour. In response to the domination that many workers experience in capital’s globalization-from-above, it seems inevitable that laborers will have to build a worldwide solidarity in self-defense—a visionary workers’ globalization-from-below.

Collectivities, Money, Power
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