Introduction: The ‘Labour Question’ in Contemporary Capitalism


  • Amrita Chhachhi

  • Many thanks to the Development and Change Editorial Board for critical and constructive comments, and to Paula Bownas and Friedl Marincowitz for support and efficient handling of the Forum Debate.


The recent upsurge in workers’ struggles globally has bought labour again to the forefront, despite predictions that the working class was no longer relevant as a force for social transformation. Neoliberal globalization, with the hypermobility of capital, has led to the emergence of new forms of flexible work/labour, the co-existence of old and new working classes, and an extreme rise in inequality, realigning class structures nationally and globally. Financialization has ushered in a new regime of accumulation and there is a deepening crisis of reproduction. Can a Marx plus Polanyi theoretical integration capture contemporary dynamics of capitalist globalization and the role of labour? What do the trajectories of such struggles in the South tell us about the limits and potentialities for a counter-capitalist movement? More crucially, is the route to full social citizenship entitlements still possible via employment (with its further extension universally), or is it to be reached by directly demanding citizenship rights, bypassing labour-based demands? How do recent collective actions express workers’ interests/identities as workers, citizens and consumers? What role is the state playing in responding/mediating/facilitating these struggles? The Introduction delineates some of these contentious issues which frame this Forum Debate. The contributors all offer different perspectives and critical insights on the connections between forms of labour, possibilities for action and organization, the relationship between labour struggles and social citizenship and the role of the state in contemporary capitalism. The conclusion reflects on some of the equally controversial proposed alternatives and argues for going beyond minimalism and for the imperative of radical rethinking to ensure dignified work and full social citizenship entitlements as part of a new social emancipatory political project.


Three texts published almost concurrently in 2014 — two books and the latest statistics from the ILO — present a disturbing scenario. Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Piketty, 2014) is a powerful historical indictment by an economist of the continuing production of inequality inherent in the dynamic of capitalism, with the exception of the period between 1914 and 1973. His analysis highlights the declining share of labour in national income; at the same time the share to capital has increased to reach six times national income, compared to just over twice national income in the 1950s (ibid.). The book provides a compelling argument for controls over private capital to avert the further sharpening of inequality, which poses a threat to democracy.

More sociological, even literary in its rendering, Capital: A Portrait of Twenty-First Century Delhi (Dasgupta, 2014) is a scathing critique of the Indian new ‘bourgeoisie’ in Delhi, built through interviews with billionaires, drug dealers, workers and slum dwellers. Savage capitalism is embodied in the grasping, arrogant, predatory attitudes of the nouveau riche, and in the creation of new neoliberal subjectivities which justify and celebrate inequality. After a decade of liberalization the city's industrial workers, who were in full-time employment, now find themselves in precarious jobs.

The ILO Global Wage Report 2012/13 (ILO, 2014a) confirms the global decline in labour share noted by Piketty and other scholars (Dünhaupt, 2013). In sixteen developed economies, the average labour share dropped from 75 per cent of national income in the mid-1970s to 65 per cent in the years just before the 2008 economic crisis. It then rose somewhat but declined again after 2009. In a group of sixteen developing and emerging countries, it decreased from 62 per cent of GDP in the early 1990s to 58 per cent just before the crisis. In China, too, workers’ share of national income has gone down despite the tripling of wages in the last decade.

The decline in labour's share in income is only one indicator of the major shift in the balance of forces between capital and labour. The Global Employment Trends 2014 report (ILO, 2014b) notes that there were almost 5 million more people unemployed in 2013 than in the previous year, bringing the total number of unemployed to almost 202 million people. The bulk of the unemployed are in East Asia and South Asia, followed by sub-Saharan Africa and Europe. The youth-to-adult unemployment ratio has reached a historical peak. Vulnerable employment (self-employment or work by contributing family workers) accounts for almost 48 per cent of total employment. Although there has been a decline in the number of working poor, 375 million workers (or 11.9 per cent of the total employed) are estimated to live on less than US$ 1.25 per day and 839 million workers (or 26.7 per cent of the total employed) had to cope on US$ 2 a day or less in 2013. Informal employment remains high. Equally serious are the conditions of work for those wage workers who would not be classified as vulnerable or in the informal economy. A grim picture.

In April 2013, the media drew international attention to the deaths of 1,138 garment workers, with many others injured, due to the collapse of the Rana Plaza building housing five garment factories in Dhaka, Bangladesh. This led to widespread moral outrage and condemnation of the working conditions of garment workers in global supply chains catering to European markets. This was the worst industrial disaster to ever hit the garment industry.1 However, the Rana Plaza disaster is only the tip of the iceberg: since 2005 large numbers of Bangladeshi garment workers have lost their lives in fires. These industrial ‘accidents’ are not specific to Bangladesh and nor are they anomalies.2 In fact, they are closely connected to the labour upsurge within China — a wave of strikes by migrant workers in export factories in China starting in 2004 and escalating from 2011 onwards. More than 1,171 strikes and labour protests were reported between June 2011 and the end of 2013 with workers demanding better contracts, social security and housing. While this unprecedented unrest is being heralded as the making of a new working class — the epicentre of future struggles (Silver and Zhang, 2009) — it has already had the effect of propelling hypermobile capital into the cheaper locations of Bangladesh, Vietnam and Cambodia. In Bangladesh ‘factories’ are built overnight to accommodate new investment, violating all building norms and health and safety precautions, putting workers at risk in the drive for quick profits.

At the same time — and despite the grim picture presented above — capital hopping to cheap labour sites is meeting with resistance. What is significant is the effectiveness of campaigns in Bangladesh and Pakistan to expose sweatshop labour conditions in the garment sector after these incidents, and to push for corporate accountability in these industries, through an alliance forged between unions, international worker solidarity groups (Clean Clothes Campaign and International Labour Rights Forum), and local labour support groups. In Bangladesh, this alliance was able to identify buyers — a difficult task since buyers deny any link or responsibility for the supply chain. It then got thirty-five buyers and retailers to sign an accord on health and safety as well as a Tripartite National Action Plan (agreed upon by the government, business representatives and labour unions) which will initiate labour law and minimum wage reforms. In Pakistan, the alliance was able to claim compensation on behalf of the families of the victims of the fire from a German retailer, a step forward in buyer accountability. To counter capital mobility within South Asia (buyers have shifted from Sri Lanka to Pakistan to China to Bangladesh, Vietnam and Cambodia in the last few years), a South Asian Garment Workers Network has been formed to harmonize labour rights in the region and to launch a campaign for a South Asian Living Wage in the garment sector.3 These are small gains, yet important, as they represent a strong move beyond voluntary codes of conduct. Even at the bottom of the global garment supply chain, at the weakest link, it has been possible to organize, mobilize and address some labour violations.

Globally there are increasing reports of workers’ protests, expressed either directly against abysmal working conditions, below-minimum wages (Cambodia, Bangladesh), restructuring and retrenchment (South Africa, India), or through involvement in broader anti-austerity, anti-globalization movements such as the los indignados and EuroMayDay protests, as well as pro-democracy movements in the Arab world.4 Many of these ‘anti-precarity’ protests have incorporated women, migrants and other marginalized workers.

Less visible than these instances of gross violations, public uprisings and spontaneous assemblies, which may well be evanescent, is the sustained process of organizing by newly recognized workers on the margins — domestic workers, sex workers, migrant workers. Years of organizing and advocacy by organizations and international networks working in the informal economy finally led to the adoption of two conventions by the ILO: the Home Work Convention, in 1996, and the Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers, in 2011. This is a major breakthrough in recognizing the significant contribution to the economy of undervalued and invisible work, although the struggle for ratification and implementation of these conventions on the ground continues. Beyond pushing for regulatory frameworks, workers from the informal economy have engaged in collective bargaining using innovative techniques to win increased wages and social security benefits, redefining conventional notions of labour and creating new kinds of membership-based collective organizations (Budlender, 2013). Similarly, newly formed associations of sex workers across India, Nigeria and South Africa continue to demand legal recognition as workers entitled to labour rights.

Contrary to the projections in the 1980s–1990s that ‘the labour movement seems to be historically superseded’ (Castells, 1997: 360) or even earlier that the working class was no longer a force for social transformation (Gorz, 1983), the recent upsurge in labour struggles globally has bought labour again to the forefront. If by the labour movement we mean not just the traditional trade union movement (which is indeed under threat internally and externally especially in the North), but this wider movement where self-defined workers organize, protest and struggle as workers as well as citizens, there is no doubt that the labour movement is alive and well. As Silver and Zhang (2009: 174) succinctly put it: ‘where capital goes, labour–capital conflict follows’. This is obviously not a seamless process purely determined by the logic of capital. The particular delineations of state/capital/labour political dynamics, processes of consent, co-option, containment and institutional compromises, as well as diversity in intersectional (caste/class, gender/ethnicity) locations created and reconfigured by capital, can lead either to other ‘multiple solidarities which tend to make collective, class-based action harder to achieve’ (Harriss-White and Gooptu, 2001: 92), or to new forms of anti-capitalist struggles and organizations.

Contemporary neoliberal globalization, along with the hypermobility of capital, has led to the emergence of new forms of flexible work/labour, the co-existence of old and new working classes, and an extreme rise in inequality realigning class structures nationally and globally as noted above. Financialization has ushered in a new regime of accumulation — increasingly autonomous and mysterious — restructuring relations between capital, shareholders, state, etc. and impacting on everyday life, with profound effects on workers. Hidden from view is the underlying deepening crisis of reproduction. Just as poor women in the South bore the brunt of the economic crises in the 1980s and late 1990s, managing households despite an increase in both paid and unpaid labour, so the current crisis in Europe, through cuts in services and welfare grants, is affecting the poorest and most vulnerable women and households (Elson, 2014; Sen and Grown, 1987). These developments pose conceptual and strategic challenges for understanding the labour question in contemporary times.


Analytical frameworks need to shift conceptually as well as epistemologically to understand the contemporary dynamics of capital and labour. There is a need to perhaps reverse the gaze — a Southern perspective could well provide new answers to old questions and new questions could upturn old answers. In this Forum Debate we felt that a useful point of departure was to revisit Marx's formulation of the labour question. This combined two aspects: firstly, the role of labour in production, regimes of accumulation and social reproduction; and secondly, its emancipatory potential as a counter-capitalist force.

The proposition that workers were an emancipatory force was based on one of the key features of twentieth century capitalist industrialization: large-scale industrial concerns in manufacturing, agribusiness and mining. The concentration of a mass of workers in these large-scale industries created the conditions for the emergence of class consciousness, of shared interests, and led to the formation of trade unions which launched struggles to improve wages and working conditions. Struggles at the point of production reflected structural power since they directly challenged the process of surplus value extraction and capital accumulation. Through the twentieth century, as Fordist systems of mass production spread, labour movements increased their bargaining power. They were able to secure workplace rights as well as social citizenship entitlements, from the time of the struggle to reduce working hours in 1847 in Britain, to the social compact in the mid-twentieth century whereby ‘the political economy of the [capitalist] class succumbed to the political economy of the working class’ (Marx, 1864).

Marx's formulation came under heavy criticism for its assumption of an evolutionary and universal process of proletarianization leading to class consciousness and revolutionary action. However, while a particular strand of official Marxism adopted such a mechanical schema, another non-linear perspective emerges through Marx's Capital Volume I (Marx, 1867) which illustrates the dialectic of capital and labour through:

a constant transformation of the working class and the form of labor–capital conflict. Revolutions in the organization of production and social relations may disorganize some elements of the working class, even turning some into ‘endangered species’ — as the transformations associated with contemporary globalization have doubtless done. But new agencies and sites of conflict emerge along with new demands and forms of struggle, reflecting the shifting terrain on which labor–capital relations develop. (Silver, 2003: 19)

Thus the link between structures of domination/subordination, class formation and the political balance of forces between capital, labour and the state in workers’ struggles for social justice posited in the classical labour question remain important for analysing contemporary capitalism. This perspective underpins the Forum Debate whose central theme is the link between types of work and possibilities for action and organization (class in itself/class for itself) and the relationship between labour struggles and social citizenship.

The Keynesian production/consumption social compact reached in the North after World War II expanded wage employment based on Fordist mass production. The state ensured a broad raft of social citizenship rights resulting in an increase in the social wage. This model of the heyday of welfare capitalism has established the central normativity of employment and job creation in progressive policies as well as trade union and labour movement strategies. Critical to this model was the accelerating process of decommodification: ‘For labour, it has always been a priority … Decommodification strengthens the worker and weakens the absolute authority of employers. It is for exactly this reason that employers always opposed decommodification’ (Esping-Andersen, 1990: 22). Indeed, for the trade union movement, employment would establish universal social provisioning, covering stages in the life cycle leading to a decommodification of social existence. Despite variations and specificities in the formation of working classes in colonial and post-colonial countries of the South, the small organized labour movements in Africa, Asia and Latin America also went far beyond workplace issues, asserting workers’ power and participation in national liberation movements and fighting for the expansion of political and social citizenship entitlements.5

This model constitutes an imaginary evoked as the golden age for labour which informs perspectives seeking to counter post-Fordist regimes of informalization, precariatization and fragmentation of labour, as well as the intense and often violent process of commodification today. Despite its limitations (the social compact was a reproductive bargain forged between the male breadwinner and capital, excluding women workers as well as informal economy workers),6 the forging of the welfare state with the standard employment contract and wider social security provisions, including education, health, social housing and the public provisioning of utilities, were tremendous gains for the working classes. Breman and van der Linden (this issue) argue that these benefits were accompanied by a reduction in inequality, both structurally and culturally, resulting in a process of social levelling.

In the last few decades this emancipatory role of labour began to be questioned. Post-Fordist transformations in the nature of work, the labour process and the fragmentation and flexibilization of production systems were seen as undermining the basis for workplace bargaining. The hypermobility of capital and relocation to low-wage sites created competition between workers and a ‘race to the bottom’ initiated at a global scale was seen as further weakening labour. The social compacts forged over the twentieth century were dismantled, leading to a ‘de-socialization of the state’ and a shift away from its commitment to protect labour, however limited this was in practice. Employment could no longer ensure labour rights or the possibility for an expansion of social citizenship.

The nexus between wage labour and social citizenship is contested today. Breman and van der Linden (this issue) present one view on the disappearance of the social compact in the West. Tracing the dismantling of the welfare state, the disappearance of full employment, accompanied by flexibilization of labour policies promoted by the World Bank which has led to a regime of informality in the West, they argue that this process is similar to the characteristic informalization of labour in the South, although there are some situational differences. The central point they make is that precarization of working class life in the West is here to stay, particularly after the 2007/08 global economic crisis. The state has not withdrawn as such but has given up its mediating role between capital and labour and is openly supporting the interests of capital. Breman and van der Linden draw an almost Dickensian picture of class polarization, rising inequality, the swelling of an underclass dependent on food kitchens and poor relief, economic pressures and insecurity, particularly among the elderly and unemployed youth, and argue for reinstating the standard employment contract that underpinned the mid-twentieth century social compact.

Despite a (more or less) shared analysis of the consequences of dismantling the welfare state and the social compact, other scholars have challenged the very premise of the wage labour–social citizenship dyad as being located in a productivist paradigm with little relevance to the contemporary period. Barchiesi provides a rich and provocative account of the historical conditions and struggles of South African workers as wage workers upto the present, where the relentless decline of full-time formal jobs illustrates the inability of waged labour to be the basis for inclusion in social citizenship. A high degree of stratification and commodification characterizes the new South Africa, resulting in a lack of universal social entitlements. He argues that government policies ‘have been focused much less on creating decent jobs than promoting entrepreneurial initiative and a black empowerment often consisting of financial buyouts rather than productive investment’ (Barchiesi, 2011: 252). In a scathing account of South African government policy discourses, trade union strategies and recent proposals in the US and the EU as well as Southern governments promoting employment guarantee schemes, he questions ‘the governmental and academic rationalities for which employment is the solution to all ills’ (Barchiesi, 2012: 98). The discourse of employment and job creation — reflected across the political spectrum — operates as a disciplinary mechanism of social control, a mirage, a promise that can never be fulfilled and most importantly acts as a substitute for the more critical issue of resource redistribution (Barchiesi, 2012). Critically assessing the gap between community-based movements and labour in South Africa, he states that since wage labour is no longer a socially emancipatory force, ‘a left emancipatory project in post-apartheid South Africa increasingly faces a choice between liberation of and from wage labor. The latter option would involve innovative experimentations with radical decommodification and redistribution, such as the elaboration of claims for forms of universal income independent from labor market positions’ (Barchiesi, 2008: 64).7

Similarly, though from a different standpoint and based on his earlier analyses (Standing, 2009, 2011), Standing (this issue) argues forcefully against the notion of ‘Full Employment [which] became a social democratic fetish in the twentieth century … taken to Tayloristic extremes by Lenin and the Soviet system and by Mao's iron rice bowl or danwei system’ (this issue). The welfare regimes, through workers’ struggles, did lead to a process of partial decommodification, despite being sexist and labourist. Standing contends that this was fictitious since it reinforced wage labour dependency. Neoliberal globalization ushered in a new regime of re-regulation of labour and a global strategy of labour recommodification. Extending Polanyi's analysis of the great transformation to the 1980–2008 period as one of Global Transformation, he proposes a radical rethinking of mainstream approaches, arguing for the delinking of work and social citizenship and a post-neoliberal globalization world based on occupational citizenship in which workers gain control over their lives and the horror of mass commodification.


Given the third wave of marketization and its consequences it is not surprising that new theorizing on labour is dominated by a conceptual shift to Polanyi and his critique of the ‘liberal creed’, in which the belief in and practice of the self-regulating market was utopian since it in fact required state action. The market, disembedded from society, produces, through unregulated commodification, great misery and devastation. The fictitious commodification of land, labour and money (since they lose their essential nature by being subject to the market) generates a counter movement for the ‘protection of society’. In the twentieth century this brought both social democracy as well as fascism (Polanyi, 1957; see also Block and Somers, 2014). Scholars applying a Polanyian lens have been critical of many aspects of his theorization of capitalism and of ‘society’, but have found the notion of embedded markets and the pendulum swing of the double movement useful for understanding the state (Evans, 2012; Silva, 2012), the labour movement and broader social movements (Fraser 2013; Lee, 2007; Munck, 2007; Silver, 2003; Standing, 2009; Webster et al., 2008). Tension remains, however, around the distinction between the Marxist conception of exploitation — which is linked to processes of capital accumulation, social reproduction and class relations which have the potential, through the common interests of workers, to counter capitalism — and commodification, a form of countering which brings together a broader range of societal actors and represents a shift from class to a broader notion of society (Selwyn and Miyamura, 2013).

The construction of this binary is itself problematic and needs critical assessment. While some argue that commodification has more salience today (Burawoy, 2010), others apply a framework that combines the two. Silver (2003), for instance, has argued that the contradictions between crises of profitability and crises of legitimacy that have historically characterized capitalism, produced in the twentieth century what might be called a ‘Polanyian pendulum swing’ between periods marked by a move towards the relative decommodification of labour and the establishment of social compacts, and periods marked by a move toward intensified labour commodification and the breakdown of established social compacts. As capital pursues spatial, product and financial fixes to resolve contradictions, workers resist both the tendencies of commodification (Polanyi-type) and proletarianization (Marx-type) through a variety of struggles based on structural and associational power (Wright, 2000).

This powerful framework is just one narrative, with its focus primarily on pure wage labour and strategic industries such as textiles and automobiles. Other narratives would complement this through, for instance, rich historical studies on the formation of working classes in Africa, Asia and Latin America, structured by colonialism, the significance of migration and multiple forms of labour, the role of the post-colonial state, as well as a range of different forms of resistance and struggle to gain work-related as well as social rights.

Can a Marx-plus-Polanyi theoretical integration capture contemporary dynamics of capitalist globalization and the role of labour? What do the trajectories of such struggles in the South tell us about the limits and potentialities for a counter-capitalist movement? More crucially, is the route to full social citizenship entitlements still possible via employment (with its further extension universally), or is it to be reached by directly demanding citizenship rights, bypassing labour-based demands?

Redefining the labour question in twenty-first century capitalism requires, first, the identification of new forms of labour (precariat, cybertariat, care workers, etc.), ongoing class differentiation, changes in ‘older’ class configurations and the ways in which these are linked to processes of accumulation. The profound changes in the reorganization of production, consumption and reproduction raise once again the problematic issue of identifying classes and the potentialities for emancipatory struggles in contemporary capitalism. The universalization of proletarianization and the conversion of all forms of labour (rural petty producers, craft workers and so on) into commodified free wage labour (free in a double sense of being free from ownership of means of production and free to sell her/his labour power) under capitalism has long been debunked, particularly from the analysis of the specific forms in which capitalism has developed in post-colonial countries. Neither the agrarian transition nor the transition from the informal economy to pure capitalist industrialization has occurred in the same ways as developed in the ‘first capitalist nation’. Far from a linear trajectory towards pure wage labour, historical and contemporary studies have highlighted the variety of labour regimes and multifarious forms through which labour is incorporated into circuits of capitalist production with fluid dividing lines between free and unfree labour, particularly in the post-colonial world.8 Reviewing the historical patterns and dynamics of capital accumulation, van der Linden (2008) shows that while pure wage workers constituting the industrial proletariat in the twentieth century (seen by Marx as central for workers’ emancipation), were certainly predominant as a class, there were also a variety of forms of labour exploitation as well as resistance and struggle by other ‘working/subaltern classes’. Studies of post-colonial countries across different regions have highlighted the heterogeneity of the working classes, including forms of neo-bonded labour, a growing mass of the reserve army of labour, trapped within informality and circulatory migration, conceptualized as the labouring poor, which nevertheless contribute to capital accumulation (Breman, 2013).

The second critical issue following from this expansion of the concept of the working classes, is whether these can still be seen as an emancipatory counter-hegemonic force, forging a common identity into collective action. We pose this question not as a teleology of the working class as a revolutionary subject, the ‘gravediggers of capitalism’, and the inevitable collapse of capitalism, but working classes as key actors in the struggle for labour and citizenship rights and a force for democratization — a role it has played historically.

Moving beyond the evidence of a labour upsurge we need to ask to what extent are these struggles defensive? Statistics on strikes say little about the nature and outcomes of struggles. What role is the state playing in responding/mediating/facilitating these struggles? How do recent collective actions express workers’ interests as workers, citizens and consumers reflecting ‘multiple positionalities’ and multiple identities in relation to the circuits of capital, including production, exchange, consumption and reproduction (Chhachhi and Pittin, 1996; Harvey, 2000)? Are citizenship struggles against commodification (Polanyi-type) more effective in transforming capital–labour relations than the classical exploitation at point of production/proletarianization (Marx-type) labour struggles? Contributors to this Forum Debate address these questions which flow from the central theme of the labour question in contemporary capitalism elaborated above.

There are specific reasons for adopting a perspective on the labour question rather than on labour per se. Current analyses of labour in development studies, for instance, have by and large severed the critical link between class and politics and downplayed the significance of labour struggles from below. In addition, the current shift to eulogizing broad-based counter movements as citizenship struggles (often within a Polanyian framework) slides over the importance of class-based structural locations and state, capital and labour dynamics which have significant implications for organizing, political agency and social transformation.9

This is evident in the eclipse of ‘labour’ in development policies/studies. In a review of development economic discourse on inequality and poverty as the condition for labour, Wuyts (2001) notes that after the 1980s, development policy shifted from a concern with employment to a focus on poverty, which delinked the conditions of labour from regimes of accumulation. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, unemployment emerged as the new variable in social and economic analysis, along with Keynesianism and its emphasis on the centrality of unemployment (ibid.: 3). From the 1980s onwards there was shift towards ‘pro-poor’ growth. The problem of the poor was seen as ‘not too much market’ but ‘too little of it’ (Collier cited in Wuyts, 2001: 11). ‘Labour’ fell off the policy map as such with the dominance of what some have called a ‘labour and development’ ‘technicist’ approach, as followed by the ILO (Standing, 2008), which ignored issues of class formation, the labour process and labour struggles and politics. The absence and presence — i.e. the modes of incorporation — of ‘labour’ in development discourse/policies are revealing.

Further shifts in this discourse are elaborated by Bhattacharya (this issue), who argues that neoliberal labour reform discourses have legitimized a frontal attack on labour rights. In the first phase the neoliberal economic reform package called only for labour adjustments as a temporary measure during the stabilization and structural adjustment period. It was declared that as employment and growth revived, ‘this temporary sacrifice on the part of labour would be well offset by future gains’ (Bhattacharya, this issue). In the second phase there is a more direct attack on labour rights setting forth arguments on the virtues of perpetual low labour costs. The labour market and institutions were now seen as fundamental obstacles to economic growth. Accompanying the spatial shift of capital and production to developing countries, a discourse of legitimation is articulated, comprised of the classical arguments of ‘comparative advantage’, wherein labour rights are presented as a luxury benefiting a labour elite, and their abrogation as a trade-off for the good of many — ‘an outright attack against organized labour in the name of the marginalized’ (ibid.). This in turn put pressure on advocates of labour rights in advanced economies to adjust their demands so as to prevent the relocation of production and jobs.

Bhattacharya points to two significant consequences of this legitimation discourse. The first is a redefinition of formal employment: everybody, in the name of intra-worker democracy, is flattened to the same denominator of informality. The promotion of self-employment via a parallel discourse celebrating the ‘informal economy as a sphere of vibrancy, entrepreneurship and capital accumulation’ (ibid.), most clearly articulated by De Soto, furthers a neoliberal anti-labour discourse which constructs not just a forced dichotomy, but even an exploitative relationship between informal workers and organized sector workers. The second is the promotion of an entrepreneurial vision whereby ‘any attempt to include [workers] in a labour-exploitation and labour-rights framework is sidetracked, as they are seen as potential partners in an extended accumulation process’ (ibid.).

The disjunction between labour and the processes and politics of accumulation can also be seen in the substantial body of literature that has emerged on global commodity chains/global value chains. In these studies labour is present but with little analysis of the labour process or class dynamics. As Selwyn (this issue) notes, this literature focuses predominantly on ‘economic upgrading’, with the assumption that increasing firm-level competitiveness, will result in a win-win scenario of ‘higher profits for capital and better remuneration for labour’. The recent attempts to link economic upgrading with social upgrading (Barrientos et al., 2011) brings in labour issues but remains restricted to a narrow conception of the Decent Work paradigm (Saith, 2004).

Another important reason for focusing on the labour question is the influence of post-structuralist approaches in the study of labour which have led to a tendency to circumvent the category of class, preferring to explore issues of identity, agency, subjectivity, representation and culture. While these explorations have significantly enriched our understanding of the complex relationship between the analytical location of objective class position and subjective class identities, and are critical to understanding modes through which people/workers represent and negotiate their participation in particular contexts, a large section of the literature produced by the post-structuralist turn ignores or even denies the importance of structural factors. This is a shift away from Thompson's now classic analysis about the ways in which ‘class happens’ — the combination of historical, cultural and social factors as well as class location and experience of struggle, which produces class consciousness. Cooper delivers an apt reminder that ‘coal miners dig coal, dock workers carry loads, domestic workers clean floors’: ‘To talk seriously about how whiteness or masculine respectability was constructed should not be to assume that people spent all day thinking about who they were; they had other things to do. Fresh and thoughtful analysis has emerged from confronting representations with the nitty-gritty of labour’ (Cooper, 2000: 213).


This Forum Debate includes scholars who have made pivotal conceptual contributions towards understanding the dynamics of state, capital and labour in contemporary capitalism, based on pioneering empirical studies. We asked contributors to address the issues related to the labour question by focusing on the following two main themes (which are of course interlinked): new and ‘old’ forms of labour (precariat, petty commodity producers, proletariat), and their linkage to processes of accumulation and the politics of state, capital and labour.10

While engaging with Marx's classical formulation of the labour question and with Polanyi, the focus is not on proving either approach to be right or wrong but rather on assessing the relevance of key formulations as well as present alternative conceptualizations for understanding the labour question under contemporary capitalism. The scope is limited to labour in the urban/non-agricultural economy. All the contributors are critical of neoliberal globalization and market-based solutions and see labour as central to any counter-capitalist transformation. There are, however, differences. The contributions to the Debate include a range of approaches, from classical Marxist positions to heterodox and newer conceptualizations. Although not all the contributions address the full range of complex issues related to labour in contemporary capitalism, each provides a grounded perspective on some of the key issues and controversies which frame this debate.

Conceptualizing Contemporary Work/Labour and Implications for Struggle

Analysis of class categories, of wage labour and who constitutes the ‘working class’, requires both an abstract level of theorizing as well as identification of concrete features in different contexts. A key debate in identifying the working class hinges around ascertaining the degree to which labour is incorporated into the circuits of capitalist accumulation — the distinction between formal and real subsumption of labour to capital.11 The empirical extension of the concept has resulted in either the classification of almost all contemporary forms of labour as capitalist, the identification of pre-capitalist remnants, or a differentiated categorization of ‘classes of labour’. Each characterization implies a different understanding of class dynamics and the possibilities for strategic and emancipatory struggles.

Three of the contributors to this Forum Debate focus on aspects of this much broader discussion on forms of labour, class formation and the possibilities for emancipatory struggles: a new global class structure and the precariat as a new class in the making (Standing); the social and political ambiguities of the continued and increased persistence of self-employment — particularly petty commodity production in the informal economy (Harriss-White); the diversion and displacement of labour-based class struggle in discussions of the precariat and petty commodity producers (Bhattacharya). As the contributions show, these are contentious issues.

The Proletariat versus the Precariat?

Standing asserts the necessity of rethinking the labour question by reconceptualizing the distinctions between work, labour and labour power as well as differentiating modes of income. Based on these distinctions, he describes the emergence of a six-tiered new global structure of social and economic stratification and fragmentation. The new class he identifies as the precariat has distinctive features (relations of production, distribution and relations to the state) which reflect the new global labour process. These features (insecurity and flexibility of employment; reliance primarily on flexible and insecure money wages; few to no citizenship rights) differentiate it from the proletariat and imply the lack of a clear location in the capitalist production process and consciousness. The significant difference is that while proletarian consciousness is linked clearly with identified workplaces and to long-term security, the precariatis oriented towards seeking security outside the workplace (Standing, 2011). Standing argues that the insecurities and aspirations of this new class in the making reveal the impossibility (even if it were desirable) of returning to the model of industrial citizenship in which social rights are attached to specific labour statuses. For him, redefining the labour question in this era requires transcending the wage labour–social citizenship model and initiating a Polanyian-style counter movement (from below) through overlapping struggles for recognition, representation and redistribution that enhance occupational citizenship, restoring dignity, control and the principles of solidarity.

This re-visioning of the labour question and projection of the precariat as the class leading the struggle for emancipation has inevitably generated controversy. Bhattacharya (this issue) critically assesses some of Standing's key propositions: the distinction between work and labour; the precariat as a class different and distinct from the proletariat and its potential for transformation; and the advocacy of occupational citizenship as the basis for an alternative solidarity-based association. While acknowledging that there is a distinction between hidden forms of unpaid work (reproductive) and productive work, he argues that it is the dialectical relationship between these (productive work being both based on and affecting reproductive work) that determines capitalist exploitation. Work cannot be separated as a sphere of free autonomous activity; it is linked to the circuits of capital accumulation. The shift from labour to work, from proletariat to precariat, results in a shift from a strategy of gaining labour rights vis-à-vis capital towards gaining rights from the state. Further, the vision of occupational citizenship ignores the transformation of work relations in corporations where incentive systems and creation of new inter-subjectivities fostering individualism and an entrepreneurial spirit undermine any possibility of building bonds of solidarity. Bhattacharya reasserts the classical notion of the importance of the objective dimensions of a shared experience of exploitation, subjugation and alienation under capital as the only basis for class solidarity and action.

Petty Commodity Producers versus Labour?

The discussion of forms of labour, labour's relationship to capital accumulation and political strategies becomes more complicated at the empirical level, particularly in relation to the informal economy which is multi-stratified including a heterogeneous range of different classes and forms of exploitation.

One of the most ambiguous categories in both agrarian and industrial settings has been petty commodity production (PCP). Based on decades of research in India, Harriss-White challenges the old assumption of rapid proletarianization and ensuing class polarization. She argues that actually existing capitalist societies contain many forms of social reproduction that combine the contradictory tendencies of both capital and labour. Deconstructing the homogenized notion of PCP and distinguishing it from wage labour exploited on labour markets, she describes PCP as a combination of ownership of means of production, of self/family exploitation and of exploitation through markets for ‘(commercial) property, finance, raw materials and finished products/commodities’ and as imbricated in a variety of ‘modes of surplus appropriation and distribution’ (Harriss-White, this issue). In India, the size of this category doubled between 1991 and 2005. The existence, persistence and multiplication of PCP without much accumulation or differentiation up or down the class ladder requires rethinking the assumed transition to wage labour (pure or disguised) and consequent class differentiation. Harriss-White stresses that this form of production is being ‘replenished and reproduced’. The contradictory position of this ‘awkward class’ is reflected in a lack of coherent politics.

Bhattacharya questions the dichotomy that Harriss-White constructs between PCP and labour. He argues that most of the burgeoning informal economy is disguised wage labour even though it might appear to be PCP. Most seemingly independent producers have little control over their labour or product, and are subject to exploitation and extraction of surplus value even if this occurs through the mediation of exchange. The penetration of global commodity chains and the effects of the global economic crisis on such forms of labour push this section even further into informality, which is the primary strategy of capital accumulation. Hence, contrary to Harriss-White, he not only sees PCP as predominantly disguised wage labour but also points to a trend towards pure wage labour in the informal economy. The political strategy that emerges from this understanding is for the organization of all sections of the ‘labouring classes’ to struggle against capital rather than focusing energies on citizenship or regulatory rights from the state.

A critical dimension in analysing forms of labour, which is mentioned but not fully discussed in the contributions, is the link between social reproduction and capital accumulation. Feminist analysis has highlighted the significance of the ‘hidden abode of reproduction’ in providing the conditions for the reproduction of human beings at a daily and generational level and its contribution at a systemic level. As a result of feminist advocacy, unpaid care work is beginning to register to some extent (‘counted’ in statistics, ‘accounted for’ in representations of the economy, and ‘taken into account’ in policy making; Elson, 2000). This, along with the current care deficit ensuing from demographic changes and ageing populations in the North and the supply of Southern female labour via global care chains, has made the care economy part of public policy discourse. Does this conceptualization of the care economy provide us with a fuller understanding of social reproduction than the 1980s wages for housework debate?

This has relevance to some of the issues raised in the discussion above: the distinction between work and labour needs to be applied within the reproductive economy to also assess its relationship with capital accumulation. The labour involved in care work has been discussed either in its commodified form (domestic workers), or when it is partly decommodified via state policies on care-related interventions dealing with time (e.g. paid care leaves), financial resources (e.g. cash transfers) and services (e.g. pre-schools, homes for the elderly) (Daly, 2001; Razavi, 2007, 2011). Pearson has argued that reproductive economy ‘better captures the range of work involved which goes beyond the personal care of other household members and encompasses a range of reproductive activities which were formally referred to as domestic labour’ (Pearson, 2014: 32). Further reflection is also needed on new processes of commodification of biological reproduction based on biotechnology. The emergence of international birth markets and surrogate biological reproduction is tied into circuits of capital accumulation and flows from ‘South to North, from third world to first world, from poor to rich bodies, from black and brown to white bodies, from young to old…’ (Sarojini et al., 2011: 2). Is this labour? Are surrogate mothers/womb renters, workers?

New Labour Struggles: State, Capital, Labour Dynamics

Within this Debate section, Friedman provides a nuanced analysis of the labour upsurge in China, countering positions that have celebrated it as a harbinger of transformation or have argued that the struggles of migrant workers reflect a class in the making. He suggests that labour politics in China today is the outcome of contradictory processes which could be characterized as a form of alienated politics. Workers’ resistance is rational at the workplace but it is individualized/cellularized with little inter-workplace coordination and has not coalesced into political demands at an aggregated class level. At the same time, workers’ resistance does have political consequences, which have been contained by the state. Friedman elaborates on a range of techniques deployed by the state: institution of a legal contract, the enforcement of the state union, the ACFTU, as the sole representative for workers, and brutal repression when required. This has fragmented and undermined workers’ resistance. In response to what could be considered Polanyian struggles by public sector workers against commodification, and Marx-type struggles by migrant workers, there has been a counter movement by the state with the promulgation of a series of laws to improve job security and material well-being, as well as some redistributive policies which manufacture consent while coercion is being exercised at the local level by ‘decentralized legal authoritarianism’. Hence, despite labour resistance, there is no labour movement due to the lack of a strong representative workers’ organization that can raise political demands. Despite this sobering assessment, Friedman does see possibilities for politicization of these struggles, given the process of commodification of rural land which undermines the safety valve that the hinterland provided, forcing migrant workers to take on Polanyian-type citizenship-based demands.

Another perspective is provided by Dinerstein's analysis of the Piquetero movement in Argentina which challenges the interpretation of the Movement of Unemployed Workers through the 1990s–2000s as a defensive struggle. She argues that this movement went beyond the simple Marx/Polanyi characterization of struggles by generating significant changes at multiple levels — changes in workers’ subjectivities/identities as well as changes at socioeconomic and political institutional levels. The Piquetero movement made three significant contributions to labour struggles in Argentina that raise general issues for reformulating the labour question. First, the movement challenged the assumption that it is only in the sphere of production that class identity and collective resistance can occur. The mobilization of unemployed workers created a new labour subject by organizing outside the workplace, asserting a new ‘labour’ identity that combined both an identity of resistance (the Piqueteros) and a work identity (unemployed workers) and formed democratic organizations which were independent of trade unions and political parties. Second, this movement went beyond protest to establish community cooperative and productive projects in the neighbourhoods which sought to establish ‘dignified’ work and democratic and solidarity practices. Third, the movement politicized the issue of unemployment and gained control over state employment programmes. Where other scholars argue that these programmes and the incorporation of the movement represented a counter movement from above, leading to institutionalization and cooption of the movement, Dinerstein argues that the ‘routinization of the UWOs’ collective action’ was simultaneously a gain and a loss. The significance of the movement, however, lies in seeing the unemployed as a subject of labour and unemployment as a base for collective resistance. The unemployed are hence part of the working class proper and have shown that collective representation is possible through new forms of organization rather than just via trade unions and political parties. Dinerstein argues for a different notion of ‘political organization’ than that put forward by Friedman.

The possibilities and challenges to traditional forms of organizing are highlighted in Selwyn's contribution on unionization down the chain of export-agriculture grape production in North-east Brazil's São Francisco valley. Distancing himself from Polanyian approaches, Selwyn highlights the centrality of capital — class relations within a Marxian political economy approach which incorporates the balance of class forces, analysis of labour regimes and the labour process. Through analysis of organization and struggles in the grape export industry, he sees Marx-type and Polanyi-type struggles (offensive and defensive struggles) as interrelated. The emergence and consolidation of the rural trade union combined structural power at the workplace with associational power to achieve major gains for workers, most important of which was the politicization of employment relations in the grape sector and the strategic ways in which the union used regulatory standards by global buyers to extract rights at the workplace. The inclusion of women workers led to demands that went beyond traditional wage issues. The linkage with other unions transmitted lessons from earlier struggles. A combination of strategies by capital and, ironically, neo-developmentalism under Lula led to a change in the balance of forces and in the orientation of the union, as many leaders were incorporated into government. The rise in the minimum wage and social policies like Bolsa Família provided a cushion for the poorest sections and blunted the need for wage struggles. The union subsequently began to extend outwards into working class communities to develop a deeper class consciousness. Selwyn's analysis illustrates the resurgence of trade unionism that has also gone beyond workplace issues. Rather than cross-class alliances, he reasserts the centrality of class struggle at the point of production as key to social transformation.

One would add that the union's strategies also illustrate the accumulation and transmission of organisational experience resurrecting working class traditions (Thompson, 1963) which have been brutally severed and broken through the fragmentation of the global labour process and expulsion of unionized workers. Each newly formed class (like the migrant workers in China, garment workers in Bangladesh) now has to develop strategies anew.


The landscape of labour straddles multiple temporalities in the resurgent capitalism of the twenty-first century. Hard manual labour coexists alongside trafficked sexual labour, child labour and new forms of work and labour in the knowledge economy, leading some to argue for a third Great Transformation towards cognitive capitalism. There is a sense of déjà vu: new classes in the making, alongside sweatshop labour, factory fires, mining disasters, a ruthless process of accumulation through dispossession in the countryside, the decimation of the traditional working classes. Struggles against exploitation at the point of production and outside it (contrary to the prognosis that fragmentation and geographical dispersion wiped out the possibility of class formation and action) continue apace with struggles against commodification, with no indication that the latter is overtaking and displacing the former.

In this Forum Debate we offer a sample of the critical issues that centre around the complexity, diversity in forms and context, and the possibilities and constraints on labour as a subject of emancipatory struggles. Contributors have overall argued that the counter movement to neoliberal capitalism demands both class struggle (with differences over who would lead the way), and the ‘re-embedding’ of markets in social relations. This opens up further questions for debate.

Rather than keeping the binary implicit in combining Marx and Polanyi, we need perhaps to also read Marx into Polanyi and vice versa (Halperin, 1984). The nature of the re-embedding of markets depends critically on the class composition of the counter movement, in what ways it can represent the ‘interests of society’ as a whole (a Polanyian assumption which underplays class power and clashing interests) and whether it comes from above or below. Both labour-based and broader counter movements from below are confronted with common and difficult issues of heterogeneity within and between the various classes, sectional interests, sustainable organizations and representation. More so than in the time of the two Karls, interventions have to address capital at a global scale, moving beyond Polanyi's methodological nationalism. What are the political possibilities of realizing Piketty's (2014) proposal for financial transparency — a global register of financial assets, as well as a progressive global tax on private capital?

Is the way forward to renegotiate the Social Compact at a global level for a minimum programme ensuring a social floor wage, regular employment and universal social security (Breman and van der Linden, this issue), or to move beyond employment to a more comprehensive Precariat Charter (Standing, 2014), whose central proposal for a universal basic citizen's income could increase bargaining power and provide escape from poverty traps? Irrespective of whether the route to emancipation is via employment/labour organization or via a broader struggle against commodification, confrontation with the state and global institutions are inevitable. There is not much evidence of the state withdrawing support from capitalism's recovery and accumulation project. In many instances the counter movement has come from above, as noted in relation to China, Argentina and India in the contributions (see also Harriss, 2010), with the state stepping in with minimal entitlements to ensure stability and systemic social reproduction. Is this Polanyian counter movement from above simply a neat harmonization of social contradictions — a reassertion of governmentality?12 Doesn't the trade-off between allowing labour market flexibility, on one hand, and granting a minimal contingent state-based provision of social assistance (as in the recommendations of the Indian National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector, and in the proliferation of cash transfer programmes), on the other hand, undermine the possibilities for distributive justice as well as the assertion of democratic citizenship through collective organization? There is an uncanny resonance of contemporary discourses with the statements made in the Economist in 1853, which were subjected to a scathing critique by Marx in his letter on the labour question published in the New York Daily Tribune (see Marx, 1853).

Re-embedding the so-called self-regulating market through another wave of social protection also requires some reflexivity. Social protection is double edged. The advocacy of public welfarism emerging from the South needs to be assessed cautiously as it combines a new form of welfare contractualism combined with promoting maternalism, adding more work for women already constrained by time poverty.

Notwithstanding differences in analysis and political positions, the contributors to this Debate raise provocative issues and unsettle some normalized assumptions; they call for rethinking and reaffirming the significance of labour and class in understanding contemporary capitalism and the possibilities and challenges for emancipatory struggles and social transformation. That this acquires urgency today needs reiteration given the growing strength and political influence of right-wing movements globally. There are already examples of the incorporation of workers/citizens/denizens into national chauvinist state projects. The continued spread of and allegiance to authoritarian religious fundamentalist political projects (an ongoing counter movement), which provide a non-class based ‘identity’, security and sociality in the vacuum created by the failure of global and state institutions and the abandonment of the agenda for redistributive justice, perhaps represent some of the greatest challenges to emancipatory agendas in our times. Yet, the conditions are being created for a real emancipatory project. To find them we need look no further than the new relations of sociality and alternative institutional structures in the solidarity economy, the emerging transnational worker solidarity networks, and the continuing pressure for democratizing traditional unions — a plurality of alternative ways to ensure democratic control over finance capital, rapacious markets and national/global institutions. This means going beyond minimalism and requires a radical rethinking of old solutions to develop a truly social transformative political project.

  1. 1

    A fire in March 1911 at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York City killed approximately 146 workers.

  2. 2

    In September 2012, for instance, a fire broke out in Ali Enterprises, Karachi, Pakistan, in which more than 300 garment workers were trapped and burnt to death, with numerous more injured. In the same month at least sixty-eight Vietnamese migrant workers were killed in a fire in a garment factory near Moscow.

  3. 3

    See for more details and Report of the Roundtable on Strategies for Accountability and Decent Work Conditions in the Apparel and Garments Industry in South Asia, Kathmandu, Nepal, 25–27 February 2014. The Roundtable was organized by the Pakistan Institute for Labour Education and Research, the South Asia Research Collective, the International Institute of Social Studies, and the International Development Research Centre.

  4. 4

    Social movement theorists have celebrated these as spontaneous uprisings with heterogeneous new civil society activists. Often ignored in these assessments is the prior mobilization and organizational role of the labour movement which formed part of the uprisings. For instance, there is little mention of trade union support for the Occupy movement, or of the fact that, in Egypt, ‘the decade leading to the downfall of Mubarak saw probably the most sustained wave of labour protest in Egypt's recent history’ (Abdelrahman, 2013: 577).

  5. 5

    See Silver (2003: Ch. 4) for an overview of the social compacts in the North and the South and state strategies of reform, repression and restructuring to contain and control labour.

  6. 6

    A similar implicit gender contract underpinned the passing of labour legislation in India which led to the exclusion of women workers from the textile industries (Chhachhi, forthcoming 2014). Esping Andersen's analysis has been criticized by feminists who have pointed out that welfare state regimes were underpinned by a gender order. The dominant ‘male breadwinner model’ excluded most women from the decommodification process and its concomitant benefits and rights. Others argue that while women derived benefits indirectly via men, men, on the other hand, could enter into employment precisely because women stayed in non-commodified labour (see Razavi, 2007 for summary of this debate and Esping-Andersen, 1999 for a revision of his framework). In addition, the discussion on commodification, decommodification and recommodification assumes a different significance in developing countries where much larger sections of the population never had access to state resources (Chhachhi, 2008).

  7. 7

    See critical reviews of Barchiesi by Scully (2012), Webster (2012).

  8. 8

    See Chakrabarty (2001) and Mezzadra (2012) for ongoing debates on a non-Eurocentric interpretation of capitalist development and labour.

  9. 9

    See Chan and Siu (2012), Lee (2007) and Pun and Chan (2008) for ongoing discussion on class versus citizenship in relation to recent labour struggles in China.

  10. 10

    While all articles stand on their own, Standing and Harriss-White had the opportunity to read and respond to the critical issues raised in the contribution by Bhattacharya. Further debate and exchange between all authors and readers is welcome.

  11. 11

    See Banaji (2003), Bernstein (2013), Brass (2010) and Lerche (2010) for an ongoing debate on the free/unfree labour and formal/real subsumption distinction.

  12. 12

    K. Sanyal has argued that dispossession through ongoing primitive accumulation of capital necessitates a form of welfare governmentality through the provision by the state of basic needs of livelihood (Sanyal, 2007). See Breman (2013) for a critical assessment of Sanyal.


  • Amrita Chhachhi is Assistant Professor of Gender, Labour and Poverty Studies at the International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University, The Hague, The Netherlands (e-mail: Her research interests are gender, labour, poverty and social policy and culture/identity, religious fundamentalisms and social movements. She has published a number of articles and co-edited several books on these topics. Her forthcoming book, Gender and Labour in Contemporary India: Eroding Citizenship, will be published in 2014 by Routledge.