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Re-presenting American Labour as
Labour in the Americas

Peter Waterman

John D. French, Jefferson Cowie, and Scott Littlehale. 1994. Labor and NAFTA: A Briefing Book, Center for Labor Research and Studies, Florida International University, Miami. 272pp.

Charles Bergquist. 1996. Labor and the Course of American Democracy: US History in Latin American Perspective. London and New York: Verso. 209pp.
 
 

Whatever happened to the Revolutionary Internationalist Proletarian in the Americas? Was he buried by the last of the socialists there? RIP? For 10 years around 1989 there seems to me to have been a decline in what I call `labour-oriented international labour studies’. This means labour studies placed within international context, or concerned with internationalism. Some of the scholars who had earlier championed labour seemed to have drawn in their horns, battened down their hatches - or migrated to the greener pastures of the new social movements. For at least one Latin Americanist of my acquaintance this turned out to be the ecological movement itself. In the last few years, however, I note a revival in both international labour studies and left address to such. These studies are, moreover, addressing themselves to the emancipatory and international potential of our quintessenially capitalist subject. The North American Free Trade Area (NAFTA) and its implication for work, workers and North-South relations seems to have had a galvinising effect on left scholars, particularly in the USA. 

Here are two products of such scholars, veterans of the trade and the commitment. The question I am concerned with is whether they are simply defending the RIP against the ravages of the present. Or whether they are coming to serious terms with informatisation, globalisation, the collapse of the communist and radical-nationalist projects, the challenge to universalisms (as disguised particularisms) and to master discourses (as male, white, rationalistic and imperial). Although they may not deal equally with labour internationalism, I will concentrate on the implications of these books for the RIP. 

I am not sure whether French, Cowie and Littlehale is a typescript conference briefing disguised as a book, or a book disguised as a conference briefing. I have a typescript version before me but will treat it as the published book it ought to be. This addresses itself squarely to labour and NAFTA, in terms of `national labor union responses to a transnational world’. Why it calls itself a `briefing’ is possibly because it was prepared for a 1994 conference on NAFTA. It works chronologically and thematically through the NAFTA process, union positions in the three countries, the legislative processes, social charters and side agreements, and the efforts of other allies of labour. We get a rounded and differentiated view of Mexican unionism, and of labour responses to NAFTA . All this is done without the theoretical apparatus one would expect in a...hmm...non-briefing. 

The book does have certain orientations and strategic purposes. The orientations are to 1) what history tells us - negatively and positively - about international labour activity in the Americas, 2) the dominant contemporary labour organisations in the three countries concerned and 3) to `transnationalism’, offered as a meaningful alternative to the romantic and rhetorical labour internationalism of socialist tradition - and to an equally traditional binary opposition between the national and international. The strategy offered is spelled out in the Conclusions. Amongst these are recognition of: 1) differences in national interest between workers in the three countries concerned - thus avoiding either a rhetorical or a nationalist internationalism; 2) the unique nature of NAFTA as a North-South free-trade area - thus requiring an eye to an internationally equitable economic order. 

The filling of the briefing is richer than the conceptual/strategic Introduction and Conclusion. Yet it seems to me that the problem with labour internationalism is precisely that of its theory, its subject and its future strategy. The concept of `transnationalism’ is too thin to carry the necessary weight. What I think we need here is some concept of `global solidarity’, which would link 1) a critical understanding of capitalist globalisation/informatisation (the latter not even recognised in the book), with 2) a de- and re-construction of `solidarity’ that allows for and builds on difference. The subjects of the book, the dominant contemporary labour organisations, were built in the period - and in the mirror-image of - national and industrial capitalism, and are as much an obstacle as a solution to labour nationalism. Even the Canadians still tend to prioritise the national over the international, or to present the movement from one to the other in terms of stages. It may be true, as the body of the book reveals, that the marginal labour groups and external NGOs tend to an a-critical activism and self-exaggeration. But they also commonly have both the form (networking) and the freedom (autonomy) to respond rapidly, flexibly and imaginatively to our New World Disorder. The marginal support groups and networks also have much more of an understanding of the world as a single place, of the relationship between class and democratic, or life, issues, and of the significance for transformatory action of culture and communication (neither of which is recognised by French and Co). 

Occasionally, a post-modern sensibility (or a sensitivity to post-modernism?) reveals itself within the body of the book. The work is, in large part, a critique of dominant right and left discourses on the Other Worker (whether this is Mexican, US or Canadian). In the North these both tend to construct a Mexican worker/unionism to be at worst feared, at best pitied and patronised. At one point we get some kind of semiological analysis of the back cover photo and text of Russ Perot’s nativist book on NAFTA. And John French appropriately closes his work with reference to Brazilian photographer Salgado’s amazing book on manual workers around the world. Here he reveals that what workers need to surpass nation-state identity is not simply new discourses (rational, calculative) but a new culture (aesthetic, emotional). 

The significance of popular culture for a democratic continental identity is one of the treasures in the odd book of Charles Bergquist. The title creates a puzzle, combining, as it does `Labour’, `Democracy’, `America’ (United States thereof?), `US History’ and a `Latin American Perspective’. The `five easy pieces’ in this collection of essays are important, but in no way succeed in making either history or historiography accessible to non-academics. Bergquist - an erudite representative of a powerful left labour history tradition - has here bitten off more than most of us can easily chew. Although concerned primarilly with a critique of major US works on the (labour) history of the Americas, Bergquist seizes on an odd but significant left cultural one. This is the famous Dorfman/Mattelart text on `imperialist ideology in the Disney Comic’, written in Chile during the Allende period. Bergquist, shows that beauty and beast can lie in the eye of the reader: they are not carved unambiguosly in stone. In a far-reaching and delicate analysis, Bergquist deconstructs the dependency thinking, political-economic determinism and ideological elitism in Dorfman and Matterlart. For him, Donald Duck is 1) immensely popular and entertaining and 2) ambiguous, containing numerous possible meanings - democratic and pro-labour as well as imperial and pro-capitalist. Bergquist does not theorise popular culture or its relationship to a hemispheric class identity or interest. Pity. Because I think we need to conceptualise culture and communication - dominant, popular and alternative - in relation to some kind of global solidarity culture, if workers, peasants, artisans and others are not to remain within national(istic) ones. 

Although, as I have suggested, he is not easily accessible, Bergquist is far from obscure. By the end of the book we begin to see profound connections between labour, democracy, history and the future of the Americas. Bergquist provides, particularly in his final chapter, a necessary theoretical supplement to French and friends, in so far as he deals with women, workers, peasants, communities...and with both historical theory and method. `Democracy’ actually functions in Bergquist’s mind as a catch-all for liberty, equality, justice, solidarity, ecological care and gender sensitivity. That’s fine, in so far as he demonstrates how a significant but limited part of the US working class won considerable victories historically but at the expense of such democracy - hemispheric, national and even organisational. The cost of the Faustian bargain is being paid today as US capital extracts the price from the privileged part of the wage-earning classes also. But Bergquist goes further than this, to consider the democratic potentials and limitations of (Latin) American labour history. Whilst favourably comparing historical methodology to the social scientific (amongst other things for telling stories about people in accessible narrative form) he also recognises that labour history shares the limitations of the class: 

Like the labour movement itself, students of labour must develop analytical concepts, and informational and organisational networks, that transcend their traditional focus on the nation state. (188)  Indeed. And there is a lesson in this for French and friends. But historians must also, surely, transcend the inevitably elitist expository strategy implied by writing and printing! Some historians, like Simon Schama, have made a trumphant transition to television. Historians could also express themselves with cheap, witty, illustrated Histories For Beginners - just like the social scientists! Bergquist’s appreciation of the comic book as communicational form clearly stops a little too early. 

Although Bergquist has a good feeling for the Americas as one world for labour and democracy, he actually has little to say about labour internationalism. In terms of both theory, strategy and the self-activity of the labour historian, however, his work has great potential. In showing, after all, how institutionalised labour actually permitted or encouraged the internationalisation of US capital, he suggests that contemporary globalisation is not economically-determined, nor an arbitrary decision of the dominant class. It is a temporary outcome of class and democratic struggles and compromises - in different countries of world areas. In revealing the connection between popular culture and democratic struggle he points us in the direction of the good old `struggle of ideas’ - well known to specialists on the RIP. Next time round, however, it had better be seen as the struggle over images, imagination and communication also. In linking the fate of labour historians to that of labour movements, he reminds us that the emancipation of the working class is not (pace the First International)) the task of the workers alone. 

A last word on the RIP. Recognition that this was a mythical creature, created by workers, labour organisers and historians/theorists, may reduce inspiration but increase hope. Workers could never live up to this myth - which is why it was necessary in the first place. Coming to terms with difference, ambiguity and interdependence amongst workers, between workers and democratic others - as urged by both these books - provides a basis for the dialogue and dialectic that will be necessary for the civilising of hemispheric society, as a preliminary to a hemispheric civil society. Next time round, however, the means had better prepare us for the ends, the utopia to be appropriately armed. 

[Peter Waterman, Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, has two books coming out in 1998: Globalisation, Social Movements and the New Internationalisms, Mansell/Cassell, London and Washington, c. 320pp; and, with co-editor, Ronaldo Munck, Labour Worldwide in the Era of Globalisation: Alternative Union Models in the New World Order. Macmillan and St Martin’s Press: London and New York.]

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