Mohsen Abdelmoumen: In your very interesting book: Choke Points: Logistics Workers Disrupting the Global Supply Chain, you argue that global capitalism is a precarious system. Can you explain why?
Dr. Immanuel Ness: The global economy is increasingly integrated in the production industry and as such, individual nations are highly integrated for inputs which are instrumental in transforming natural resources into fabricated elements in commodities. This system is highly dependent on the transportation of goods throughout the world. In this way, workers who are employed in logistics and the moving of goods are integral to the continued flow of commodities throughout the world. As goods are more and more produced for specific consumer and market demands in destination countries in the Global North, any disruption in this system scuppers the supply of goods. Logistic workers are crucial in the distribution of fabricated goods throughout the supply chain, and thus, have the potential to interrupt the delivery of commodities in various stages of production. Thus the notion of a choke point is rooted in the distribution system. Thus choke points slow and stop the capitalist system’s necessity to transform products at various stages in the global commodity chain. This interruption has a significant impact on the delivery of essential goods in a highly integrated global production system in which consumers of goods at various stages are prevented from obtaining crucial inputs into the system. Economic globalization and flexible production has elevated reliance on the smooth and rapid delivery of goods. If this system of transportation at key logistical points is interrupted or broken in factories, trucking, rail transit, airports, shipping ports, and warehouses, the delivery of these goods cannot reach production and consumer markets and poses a risk to profitability. Thus global supply chains intensify the significance of rapid and reliable transportation of agricultural products, raw materials, and industrial goods fabricated in factories that are increasingly dependent on contracting of production to sub-contractors. This places capital in a potentially precarious position, highly dependent on the delivery of ‘just in time goods’ to markets.
In your opinion, is capitalism able to overcome the crises it generates?
Yes, capitalism in the current era has dispersed workers through a range of production processes, facilities, and contractors, thus mitigating the power of workers to disrupt global commodity chains. While there are notable exceptions where workers in logistics have been able to slow, and, in some cases, prevent the production and transportation of commodities, workers do not have the organizational power today to resist an overcome the overwhelming power of capital. Moreover, there is a propensity of privileged workers in logistics, namely shipping and dockworkers, who are paid very high wages, and prefer not disrupting a system which has benefited them at the expense of lower wage workers. In general, lower wage workers produce commodities in agrarian and informal settlings and are typically in Southern countries where wages are significantly lower than in the metropolitan and settler-colonial states where finished consumer products are typically sold to higher wage consumers. In addition, it must be noted that trade unions are far weaker than they were in the mid-to-late 20th century, during the Fordist era, when labor negotiated far higher wages through their control of integrated commodity production. Globalization and the growth of interstate commodity chains severely weakens the power of labor to confront capital. Until this power imbalance is addressed in labor’s favor, multinational corporations will retain a dominant position.
Doesn't claiming that there is no alternative to capitalism reveal a powerlessness to create a system that goes beyond capitalism, which has shown its limits?
No, we live in a world which is dominated by capitalism, and indeed extensive struggles take place between labor and capital. The problem is that most trade unions have been defeated and any modicum of regulating rapacious labor markets is a formidable challenge for the working class. In this way, going beyond capitalism is nothing more than phrase mongering, as it is highly unlikely that capitalism will be overcome in the near future. Whilst it is possible that large states or regions can develop socialist systems, it is likely that the global system will be dominated by capitalism for decades to come. The main challenge is to restrict the capacity of capitalism to penetrate fundamental aspects of social life and to prevent capital from ineluctably commodifying essential services: food, health, energy, housing, education, and so forth and so on. The only way that an alternative can be achieved is on a state level, and this requires a very strong state which is committed to socialism to restrict and slowly confront capitalism. Such states must be large and strong. Recent examples of the pink tide in Latin America revealed the limitations of ‘going beyond capitalism’ without formidable capacities to challenge multinational capital and the imperialist states of the West and beyond which seek too commodify all social life.
Isn't the capitalist system decimating entire populations and destroying the planet through its unbridled consumption patterns?
Yes, the capitalist system now in place, neoliberal capitalism, has destroyed many of the social gains in the post World War II era in the global North. While residents in the rich countries of Europe, North America, Oceania, and beyond are whetted to continuing consumption, and in fact, standards of living have grown and not declined for the majority of the rich countries, we must understand that the advanced capitalist countries account for perhaps one billion of the 7.7 billion people who inhabit the planet. If the capitalist system of the rich countries were replicated on a global scale, the planet would cease to be inhabitable for the world’s population, where commodities are not available to the vast proportion of the populations. The consumption of rich countries at the expense of the poor majority is driving the world to oblivion. Indeed recognition of the devastating impact of capitalist commodity production has not led to a decline in consumption in the West.
You're a distinguished political scientist and a unionist. Do you not think that we need more than ever combative unions in the face of the ultraliberal offensive, job insecurity, massive unemployment, etc.?
Yes, absolutely. But we do not only need more combative unions, but stronger organizations. Today social scientists who study labor have focused on weak combative organizations, in the mould of the Industrial Workers of the World rather than strong organization. Autonomous unions are viewed as a new form of labor organization. What this perspective misses is that autonomous workers have always engaged in struggle against the bosses. It is true that many existing unions have become ossified and bureaucratic organizations, and have lost their commitment to class struggle, preferring to engage in concessionary bargaining with capital. But this is primarily true because unions really do not have the power to overcome capital. The Fordist factory is a bygone structure, and so too are unions which represent large numbers of workers. Thus, it is not only important to have combative unions, but strong unions. In my view, these unions must align with strong and committed political parties devoted to defeating capitalism and imperialism. In a way, this harkens to early 20th century unions which were aligned to political parties. Only today we must learn the lessons from successes and the mistakes that were made in the past. But if the working class and the vast majority of poor on the planet are to improve their lot, they must have organization.
Isn't there a strategic necessity to have a global workers front against capitalism and imperialism?
Of course it is always helpful to have solidarity among workers on a global scale, but given the vast differences in economic conditions that result from the value transfer from Southern countries to the North, it is unlikely that workers in rich countries will go against their economic interests and challenge capitalism and imperialism. Take for example recent elections in Europe, North America, Oceania, and OECD countries where we have a rise of right-wing working class movements who object to immigrants, do not challenge imperialist policies, and are more bent on increasing wages and social welfare conditions than engaging in solidarity with workers in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. You are correct that it is necessary to have a global workers’ front, but in my view, this front will come from oppressed workers in Southern countries, rather than relatively well-to-do workers in the North.
Didn't the bureaucratic unions abandon the working class struggle?
Yes, bureaucratic unions have abandoned support for class struggles. They have ignored rank-and-file spontaneous demands for improved wages, working conditions and social benefits. But this is generally true of economistic organizations, which is why it is necessary to also have a political commitment to anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism. Whilst the struggle will be long and drawn out, absent a dedicated vanguard party and leadership, dedicated to the working class, the quotidian struggles of workers documented in the numerous studies throughout the world, will not gain any traction. Union bureaucracy is also a function of trade unions who have accepted and advance capitalism and imperialism on every level. Thus the International Confederation of Trade Unions (ITUC) advocates for union forms which will take a subordinate position vis-à-vis capital. This is true for national sectoral unions as well, with a number of exceptions in Asia, Southeast Asia, and Southern Africa, where unions reject a subordinate position and are committed to anti-imperialism.
In your very important book for understanding the struggles of southern workers Southern Insurgency: The Coming of the Global Working Class, you explore the new struggles of workers in southern countries such as China, India and South Africa. What are the characteristics of the workers' struggle in these countries that you mention in your book?
Southern Insurgency: The Coming of the Global Working Class reveals the expansion of class struggles in the global South to build more responsible unions that are committed to class struggle, rather than bureaucratic unions which are wedded to collaboration with management, the state, and concessionary bargaining. The book shows that workers everywhere are engaged in autonomous class power. Even in China, workers’ develop independent bodies which seek to improve conditions. While the characteristics of each of the struggles in the auto industry, footwear production, and mining differ, workers power originates and is generated by the rank-and-file activities of workers. Sadly, unions, as economic bodies, are unable to expand demands to include all workers. High levels of unemployment, low wages, and dangerous conditions cannot be addressed on a national basis by workers’ assemblies, autonomous unions, and lack of dedicated and principled leadership. The book honors the class struggles of workers in each of these countries, which were the largest strikes during the 2010s, but it also shows the limitations of these struggles to transform into powerful forces for systemic national and regional change.
In Algeria, the autonomous unions have proved their combativeness in contrast to the bureaucratic union linked to the employers. Don't you think that in order to be effective, union movements need to free themselves from bureaucracy?
Yes, as noted, bureaucracy is a function of economism, a narrower effort to defend workers in discrete industries. In Algeria, autonomous unions have engaged in direct action against employers and their combativeness are models for workers in countries throughout the world. However, these unions must show they have the capacity to transform into stronger organizations. In Algeria, these movements have been repressed by state security forces. What is necessary is for these unions to cohere into larger bodies with a coherent leadership dedicated to the principles of the workers. Of course unions must free themselves of bureaucracy, but it is important not to equate bureaucracy with political and economic power. Autonomism is an everyday practice which must be reinforced by the capacity to break the capitalist system. While mass actions have been highly impressive, the Algerian working class must be unified to demand specific political and economic concessions from the state and capital.
You've done a remarkable work of anthology by publishing The International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest: 1500 to the Present in 8 Volumes, The Encyclopedia of Global Human Migration, and The Palgrave Encyclopedia Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism. To better fight capitalism, shouldn't we arm ourselves with theoretical tools that you offer in particular through your books?
Education is always an important endeavour and the more knowledge we have about the world around us and the history of left movements over the past, we can learn from successes and failures of the past. Each of these workers are aimed at showing the panoply of resistance that the oppressed engage to advance their interests. But they also show that in many instances political movements face the strong arm of the state and capital, which typically defeats these movements. It is important to fight to win rather than fight to lose. Thus, the range of political currents that are presented in the works show how various political movements have succeeded through having the power to overwhelm the state and capital. Incidentally, I am finishing a second edition to the Palgrave Encyclopedia of Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism, which shows how principled struggles which are rooted in reality, rather than utopian objectives, are the most efficacious in improving the conditions of the oppressed.
You're editor of the Journal of Labor and Society. Don't you think that the struggling working class needs its own media to counter the propaganda media that are in the hands of the power of money?
Yes, without question there is a need for a strong media to counter the propaganda that dominates the mainstream. Workers need not just journals, but popular broadcasting, online publications, film, literature, and beyond. It is an ever-present reality that even in academia, left publications are under attack and vulnerable as they are controlled by the major publishing houses which generate billions of revenue every year: While the Journal of Labor and Society has 50,000 readers a year, publishers are interested in the bottom line and profitability and frown against journals and publications which challenge capitalism and imperialism. Those of us who oppose the exploitative system of capitalism and imperialism must support journals on the left. But they are few and far between. Increasingly we are finding these journals abandoning their principles of social justice for the sake of profitability, which is the main indicator of success. I can name countless formerly left journals which have adopted neoliberalism and have moved to the centre. We must coddle and protect not just academic journals but all media which challenge the unjust political and economic system.
We see more and more imperialist wars unleashed for the benefit of the big capitalists and aimed at plundering the wealth of the peoples. In your opinion, don't the union movement and other organizations of the combative left in the northern countries have another fight to wage, and which is to affirm their solidarity with the peoples of the South, the damned of the Earth?
I completely agree. The record of resistance to imperialist war by the left is pathetic and weak. At times, most leftists support war on the basis of contrived humanitarian intervention. The trade unions in the US and other imperialist countries often support the policy prescriptions of the military, State Department, and the intelligence services. It will require significant education to counter the imperialist agendas of the northern countries, as there is little opposition. I am working on a project on War as Sanctions, to demonstrate that sanctions are used as an instrument of war in dozens of countries opposed by the US, Western Europe, and their allies. Sanctions are a hybrid form of war that in many cases kill more people than military conflict through lack of access to food, medicine, sanitation, and other necessities. Women and children are made especially vulnerable to economic sanctions. Countries are incapable of rebuilding infrastructure after the devastation of wars. These wars and sanctions disproportionately are waged against the Southern States in Southwest Asia, North Africa, Africa South of the Sahara, Latin America and the Caribbean. Imperialist wars benefit big capitalists in the most affluent states, and, as you say, plunder the wealth of the peoples and create more misery. I don’t see the union movement and the left in the Northern countries engaging in solidarity. In this case, opposition comes from generally small principled groups who recognize that these wars benefit the North. Thus, while the western media often objects to the cost of war, they refer to the dollars expended by the US, Europe, and other western countries, not the cost inflicted on the Southern countries. However, we in the West should not be let off the hook just because our countries are beneficiaries of imperialist war. We must struggle every day to change the calculus and oppose war. This is our task, this is our responsibility. I am completing three new books in the coming year covering these subjects.
Who is Dr. Immanuel Ness?
Dr. Immanuel Ness is Professor in Political Science at the Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. He is a scholar of worker's organization, mobilization and politics and a labor activist. His work has led him to travel in many countries, primarily in North America, Asia, and Africa. Dr. Ness research and published scholarly work focuses on political economy of labor movements, workers social organization, Global South relations, socialism and contemporary imperialism. He is co-editor of Journal of Labor and Society. Dr. Ness is also Senior Research Associate, Centre for Social Change, University of Johannesburg.
Immanuel Ness was a trade union organizer and labor activist from 1989 to 2011. During this period, he learned to advocate on behalf of disconnected jobless workers to organize their own association directly at New York State unemployed offices. In 1990, he founded the New York Unemployed Committee. Notably, he worked with Mexican workers, unions, and community organizations in New York City to establish a Code of Conduct for migrant laborers in 2001 who were paid below minimum wage.
Dr. Ness received his Ph.D. at Graduate School & University Center, CUNY.
He is author and editor of numerous articles and academic and popular books on labor, worker insurgencies and trade unions. His books: Choke Points: Logistics Workers Disrupting the Global Supply Chain (2018), Global Perspectives on Workers' and Labour Organizations (2018), Urban Revolt: State Power and the Rise of People's Movements in the Global South (2017), The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism (2016), Southern Insurgency: The Coming of the Global Working Class (2015), New forms of worker organization : the syndicalist and autonomist restoration of class-struggle unionism (2014), Encyclopedia of Global Human Migration (2013), Guest Workers and Resistance to U.S. Corporate Despotism (2011), Ours to Master and to Own: Workers' Control from the Commune to the Present (2011), International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest: 1500 to the Present (2009), The Encyclopedia of Strikes in American History (2009), Encyclopedia of American Social Movements (2005), Immigrants Unions and the New U.S. Labor Market (2005), Central Labor Councils and the Revival of American Unionism: Organizing for Justice in Our Communities (2001), Trade Unions and the Betrayal of the Unemployed: Labor Conflicts During the 1990's. (1998).
Published in American Herald Tribune, February 03, 2020: https://ahtribune.com/interview/3858-immanuel-ness.html