A Mild Critique of Global Capitalism A title like Labor inherently alludes to (intentionally or not) Karl Marx’s Capital, and we indeed discover that Andrew Herod cites the nineteenth-century foundational work favorably. Nevertheless, exactly how and to what extent Labor extends, revitalizes, or applies Capital does not unfold immediately. Whereas Marx proceeds boldly, Herod proceeds cautiously in tone, substance, and conclusion. The book begins by adding the concept of “human” to “labor,” that the people who work all over the globe are and have always been human, with all the hope and suffering that entails in global capitalism. Beginning with the North Atlantic slave trade, Herod points out that slaves were not just mere productive units in abstract vessels of labor, but in fact human beings whom the owners forcibly removed from their families and homelands to dominate and exploit for profit—or at least this is my summary. Herod portrays labor relations more technically and congenially (a tone some might perceive as more scholarly) as both a cognitive-emotional subject as well as an object of analysis (and, presumably, exploitation). Does anyone disagree with this? Some cold-calculators and racist ethnocentrists may not care about universal human rights and dignity or see slavery as problematic, so maybe the message goes out to them? Despite this initial note of possible injustice (and key point from Marx, that human labor is indeed human), Herod refrains from a direct indictment of global capitalism. His scholar-speak allows critique without apparent bias, but will disappoint readers looking for passionate engagement with the intersection of race-gender-class. Instead, he would like us to consider some demographics. Cognizant that labor migration is a central aspect to…what? Perhaps a worker’s perspective—the global exploitation and/or emancipation of workers worldwide? Perhaps a capitalist’s perspective—the flow of capital and global supply chain management? Neither: Herod’s non-perspectival orientation describes forced and unforced migration, as people either flee a lack of opportunity and oppression or seek greater prosperity elsewhere. Is there a difference? Does anyone willingly leave a home or homeland that provides fulfillment and prosperity? Using statistics, Herod ably demonstrates that labor migration relates directly to economic growth, regardless of the specific type of economy, whether manufacturing, natural resources, or technology. We also see the ethnic and gendered nature of global migration, internal migration, all kinds of migration that altogether create gender, intellectual, and overall workforce imbalance that makes rich regions richer and poor regions poorer. Yet all is not well in the richer regions either. Adding well-chosen case studies to statistics, prosperity and impoverishment synergistically promote an ascendant precariat class (84) of people who can lose their high or low livelihood at any time. Herod sees this as an inherent compatriot of neoliberalism, and that sure seems logical—as we remove traditions, regulations, pensions, social-safety nets, and anything else that inhibits the acquisition and expanse of capital, the entire political-economic system transforms people back into that abstract quantity of labor thingy Herod cautioned us about earlier and which he seemingly established as an essential moral violation. Yet moral violations even on a global scale do not supersede unbiased scholarly detachment, apparently, so Herod avoids any particularly vehement critiques, lest we miss the concurrent benefits that the “new” economy offers compared to the “old” economy. Old economy—picture industrial stacks pouring out soot and armies of workers drudging in and out of factories on rigid timetables imposed by nameless and faceless bureaucrats. New economy—picture sparkling high-rise offices, immaculate robotic and renewably powered production facilities and self-scheduled intellectual workers. To his credit, Herod recognizes this “new” economy as mostly propagandistic fiction (my phrase), or at least open only to select higher-level precariats and global capitalists. Indeed, Herod argues (139) more decisively that, in political-economic terms, the “new” economy is not really any different than the “old” economy. Access to global labor, for example, means that those sparkling offices conceal the masses of domestic and custodial workers who constitute a global underclass that has its own feminine migration patterns which share the same globally low pay and poor working conditions (162) with their masculine industrial counterparts. The “global care chain” depopulates rural areas all over the world, destroys social networks, and concentrates the poorest labor in the wealthiest cities, “in the homes of Silicon Valley computer programmers, financial whizzes in Hong Kong, software engineers in Britain’s Silicon Fen, or IT innovators in Bangalore” (168). Global migration means opportunity for some, but more broadly lowers both the wage floor and the ceiling. Highlighting historical exploitation by race, gender, and region, social upheaval, precariats the world over, Herod remains academically disinterested and thus content to understand the world, not to change it. Any inclination of change falls to others, and in this regard the book offers some advice, the three R’s of agency. “Resistance” refers to “consciousness” that challenges capitalist domination—does he mean class consciousness? “Reworking” applies to the relations of labor—does he mean class revolution? I don’t think so. Throughout the book, Herod sees workers mainly as vocational and/or demographic groups and not as economic classes, and moreover, the final R—“resilience”—is “an individualistic form of agency, one in which workers simply accept their position and do not really challenge the existing social order” (202). In that case, agency sure seems a lot like acquiescence or escape, an opium of the masses. Overall, the book speaks mostly from somewhere between capital and labor in the language of demography to identify the benefits of neoliberalism and mitigate the exploitation with no particular perspective either way. Consequently, the book speaks competently but mostly to beginners—very much like an abridged version of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21stCentury—and thus will not likely capture the attention of those with any prior thoughts about globalism, whether scholars of political-economy looking for greater conceptual and analytical precision, or activists looking for critical engagement. Herod convincingly integrates data and argument to expose a crescendo of injustice amid a cacophony of unregulated global exploitation, but he replies with a dispassionate whisper. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: email@example.com. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Social Forces – Oxford University Press
Published: May 14, 2018
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