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Labour, war and world politics: Contemporary dynamics in world-historical perspective

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1. Labour, war and world politics:
contemporary dynamics in world-
historical perspective
Beverly J. Silver
INTRODUCTION
During the last decade of the twentieth century, there was an almost
complete consensus in the social science literature that labour move-
ments worldwide were in a general and severe (some argued termi-
nal) crisis. By the turn of the century, however, a growing number of
observers were suggesting that labour movements were on the upsurge,
most visible as a mounting popular backlash – from Seattle to Genoa–
against the dislocations provoked by contemporary globalization. Yet,
in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, with demonstrations
and strikes being cancelled around the world, questions were raised
about the future of movements that had appeared to be on a strong
upward trajectory. Then, on 15 February 2003, with war looming
in Iraq, some of the largest demonstrations in world history – with
strong labour movement participation– were held in hundreds of cities
throughout the world.
Students of labour movements have focused much attention on world-
economic processes in explaining both the global crisis of labour move-
ments in the 1980s and 1990s, and their recent and partial resurgence.
This continues to be an important line of inquiry. Yet, the ups and downs
around the turn of the century also remind us of the central role played by
war and world politics in the dynamics of global labour and social protest.
This theme is the focus of this chapter, not only in terms of the impact that
war and world politics have on labour movements, but also in terms of the
ways in which workers and workers’ movements have shaped the dynam-
ics of war and world politics.
The central purpose of this chapter is to derive lessons for thinking
about the contemporary link between labour and war from an analysis
of past dynamics. The chapter proceeds in three steps. In the first section
I draw on some of my empirical research on the world- historical dynam-
ics of labour unrest (including a database on world labour unrest, cf.
Silver 2003) to describe (what I call) the ‘vicious circle’ of war and labour
From: Handbook of International Political Economy of Production (editor Kees van der Pilj)
Elgar, 2015.
Labour, war and world politics 7
unrest that characterized the first half of the twentieth century. The
second section takes an even longer- term view by briefly comparing two
periods of world- hegemonic transition – that is, the period of transition
from Dutch to British world hegemony in the late- eighteenth and early-
nineteenth century and the period of transition from British to United
States world hegemony in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
By lengthening the time horizon of the analysis, we can begin to see aspects
of both recurrence and evolution in the relationship between war and
labour/social unrest (see Arrighi and Silver 1999a, especially chapter 3). In
the final section I return to the more recent period by asking whether and
to what extent the nature of contemporary warfare has changed, and what
such changes mean for the way in which workers and workers’ movements
are now embedded in world politics.
LABOUR, WAR AND WORLD POLITICS IN THE
TWENTIETH CENTURY
Figure 1.1 presents a time series of the number of annual newspaper
reports about labour unrest worldwide from 1870 to 1996 (cf. Silver 2003:
126). The figure is based on the World Labour Group (WLG) database,
which includes all acts of labour unrest (such as strikes and demonstra-
tions) reported in either The New York Times or The Times (London) over
this period. The database only includes the international reports from
these two newspaper sources, so omitting reports on the UK in The Times
and on the US in The New York Times (for a more extensive discussion of
procedure and reliability, see Silver 2003, Appendix A).
The most immediately striking feature of Figure 1.1 is the interrelation-
ship between world labour unrest and the two world wars – with labour
unrest rising on the eves of both world wars, declining precipitously with
the outbreak of war, and exploding in the aftermath of the wars. The two
highest peaks in overall world labour unrest are the years immediately
following the two world wars. The years 1919 and 1920 are the peak
years of the series with a total of 2720 and 2293 reports, respectively. The
next highest peak is 1946 and 1947 with a total of 1857 and 2122 reports,
respectively. The early war years themselves are among the low points of
the time series. There are only 196 reports in 1915 and only 248 and 279 in
1940 and 1942, respectively. Finally, the years just prior to the outbreak of
the wars are years of rapidly rising labour unrest leading to local peaks in
the time series. In the decade leading up to the First World War, the total
number of mentions of labour unrest increases from 325 in 1905 to 604 in
1909 and 875 in 1913. Likewise, the total number of mentions of labour
8 Handbook of the international political economy of production
unrest is rising in the decade leading up to the Second World War (from
859 in 1930 to 1101 in 1934 and 1186 in 1938).
If differentiated for metropolitan and colonial/semi- colonial coun-
tries (Silver 2003: 127, 128; for a more extensive discussion, chapter 4 of
the same work), the connection is strongest in the former. Even in the
colonial/semi- colonial aggregate the link is clearly visible, with labour
unrest rising on the eves of both world wars; short- lived but major declines
in overt unrest with the onset of war; and then major waves of unrest in the
aftermath of the world wars. For these countries the pattern is visible for
both world wars, but more pronounced for the Second World War.
This then provides striking prima facie evidence for the existence of a
strong link between wars (or at least world wars) and labour unrest. Such
an inter- relationship among labour movements, war and world politics
should come as no surprise to us. Indeed, there is a long established tradi-
1990
1983
1976
1969
1962
1955
1948
1941
1934
1927
1920
1913
1906
1899
1892
1885
1878
1871
3000
2000
1000
0
Year
Source: World Labour Group.
Figure 1.1 World labour unrest, 1870–1996 (mentions of labour unrest,
3- year moving average)
Labour, war and world politics 9
tion within the labour studies literature (and in the social science literature
more generally) linking domestic and international conflict (Levy 1989:
258–88; Levy 1998: 139–65; Stohl 1980: 297–330). The ‘presumed nexus of
civil conflict and international conflict’, political scientist Michael Stohl
suggests, is ‘one of the most venerable hypotheses in the social science
literature’ even whilst there is extensive debate on its forms and spatial-
temporal peculiarities (Stohl 1980: 297).
Stohl identifies three sub- variants of the civil/international conflict
hypothesis in his review of the literature:
1. involvement in war increases social cohesion at the national level
and thus brings about internal peace (sometimes known as the ‘rally-
around- the flag’ hypothesis);
2. involvement in war increases social conflict at the national level
including the chances of revolution (most famously formulated in
Lenin’s 1916 prediction that inter- imperialist war would intensify the
contradictions of capitalism and lead to revolution); and
3. social conflict at the national level encourages governments to involve
themselves in wars (sometimes also referred to as the ‘diversionary’ or
‘scapegoat’ hypothesis).
Curiously, the patterning of labour unrest visible from the World Labour
Group data may be interpreted as providing support for all three hypoth-
eses. Their apparently contradictory nature disappears if we see them as
having different temporal relevance. That is, hypothesis 3 (the scapegoat
or diversionary hypothesis) best describes the period leading up to the
world wars; hypothesis 1 (linking war and social cohesion) is most relevant
for the early phases of the hostilities; while hypothesis 2 (linking war and
revolution) is most relevant to the aftermath of the world wars. Their
combined effects helped produce the volatile and explosive character of
labour unrest during the first half of the twentieth century that is visible
in our figure.
Thus, on the one side, it has been widely argued that ‘diversionary’
tactics in part motivated decisions about war in the late- nineteenth and
early twentieth centuries. Rulers had learned that, at least in the short
run, little victorious wars could bolster governments. The Spanish-
American War (for the United States) and the South African War (for
the United Kingdom) were two such examples. On the eve of the Russo-
Japanese War of 1904, the Russian interior minister had openly stated
that ‘this country needs. . . a short victorious war to stem the tide of
revolution’ (quoted in Levy 1989: 264). Yet the revolutionary upheavals
that shook the Russian Empire in the wake of its 1905 defeat by Japan
10 Handbook of the international political economy of production
showed the potential boomerang effect of lost (or otherwise unpopular)
wars. The First World War brought both tendencies into sharp relief,
with the initial ‘rally around the flag’ response of workers being followed
by a wave of revolutions and revolutionary crises in the final years of the
war and its aftermath.
Yet beneath the volatility of labour unrest was an important longer-
term trend – that is, the strengthening of workers’ bargaining power vis-
à- vis their governments. By the late- nineteenth century, workers in the
main imperial powers had become critical cogs in war machines, not only
at the front, but also in the factories and in allied transportation industries
supplying the front. The growing industrialization of warfare (McNeill
1982: chapters 7–8) and the increasing size and centrality of industrial
working classes, combined with the turn toward mass conscription armies,
meant that rulers in Europe and North America were becoming more and
more dependent on the active cooperation of their citizens for imperial
expansion and war (Tilly 1990; Mann 1988).
The growing bargaining power of labour, in turn, contributed to a
second important long- run trend beneath the volatility of the period– that
is, the expansion of democratic and workers’ rights (including welfare
rights) or what might be called the increasing ‘socialization of the state’.
This extension of democratic and workers’ rights came in fits and starts,
with wartime itself often providing an especially propitious environment
for advances. To be sure, increased government repression of labour
militancy was characteristic of war periods, and is an important element
explaining the decline in wartime labour unrest. Yet with the growing size
and bargaining power of industrial working classes, simple repression was
becoming an inadequate solution and had to be supplemented by active
government efforts to secure the consent and cooperation of the masses.
At the shop floor level, tripartite agreements between trade unions,
employers and governments secured no- strike pledges from union leaders
in exchange for government and employer recognition of trade unions
and the establishment of collective bargaining and grievance procedures.
For the union movement in many core countries (notably, the United
States), the First World War marked the first time that employers relaxed
their implacable hostility to trade unions (Hibbs 1978; Feldman 1966;
Brody 1980; Dubofsky 1983; Giddens 1987).
Similarly, wartime proved propitious for the successful expansion of
suffrage rights for both propertyless men and women (the latter were
drawn into wartime factories in large numbers). The case of Belgium is
illuminating: there had been mass strikes in 1886, 1888, 1891, 1893, 1902
and 1913 for which universal suffrage was a central demand; yet Belgium
entered the First World War with a voting system in which older men
Labour, war and world politics 11
owning property had three votes. By the war’s end, however, Belgium had
equal male suffrage (Markoff 1996: 73–4, 85).
This same period saw major advances in social insurance schemes such
as old- age pensions and health and unemployment insurance (Abbott
and DeViney 1992). These measures were, in no small part, responses
to increasingly effective labour militancy. However, they were also part
of a more general development of cross- class alliances in favour of a
strong and activist state. The intense competition that characterized the
late- nineteenth century Great Depression prompted clamours for protec-
tion from all segments of the class spectrum and economy. By the 1878
Congress of Berlin, national bourgeoisies in continental Europe had
joined agrarian elites in demanding that government action be oriented
toward obtaining exclusive spheres of influence, protected markets and
privileged sources of supply. Likewise in the United States, the depression
of 1893, which hit both agriculture and industry, and moreover, pro-
duced widespread social unrest, prompted US business and government
leaders to finally accept ‘overseas expansion as the strategic solution to
the nation’s economic and social problems’ (Williams 1969: 41; cf. Polanyi
1957: 216–7).
E.H. Carr has suggested that by the eve of the First World War the
incorporation of European working classes into cross- class national pro-
jects was already quite real. In the nineteenth century, Carr wrote, when
‘the nation belonged to the middle class and the worker had no father-
land,’ socialism had been ‘international’. Yet, the ‘crisis of 1914 showed in
a flash’ that things had changed dramatically. The ‘mass of workers knew
instinctively on which side their bread was buttered’ – that is, on the side
of their own state’s power. During the first years of the war draft evasion
was virtually non- existent, and labour and socialist agitation declined
precipitously in the belligerent countries (Carr 1945: 204).
Whatever the extent to which workers were effectively incorporated into
cross- class national hegemonic projects by the eve of the First World War,
a central characteristic of the first half of the twentieth century was the
extremely unstable nature of these projects. In part, the sheer brutality of
industrialized warfare disabused many of the idea that successful formu-
las for protecting workers and citizens had been found. More generally,
as would become increasingly clear, such national hegemonic projects
without a facilitating structure of global governance – tended to malfunc-
tion; and moreover, only further stoke the flames of inter- imperialist
rivalry and war.
The world economic crisis of the 1930s prompted a large number
of countries to pursue rapid industrial expansion as part of an effort
to overcome the social and political crises caused by the failure of the
12 Handbook of the international political economy of production
market system (Polanyi 1957: chapter 2). But rapid industrial expansion
relieved unemployment only by exacerbating other sources of domestic
and international tensions. First and foremost, it increased pressures
to seek out new markets and new sources of raw materials. These pres-
sures, in turn, brought about a renewed escalation of inter- imperialist
rivalries as the major powers sought out exclusive and protected overseas
domains. As inter- imperialist rivalries re- ignited, the pressure to industri-
alize further intensified given the now intimate links between industrial
and military capabilities. The vicious circle of international and domestic
conflict thus resurfaced on a far greater scale and with wider geographical
scope than that surrounding the First World War.
The labour unrest and revolutionary upheavals that followed the
Second World War also engulfed the colonial and semi- colonial coun-
tries (Silver 2003: 128). Already on the eve of the Second World War,
colonies and semi- colonies had become tightly interwoven into the supply
structures of the imperial powers (as suppliers of both men and material).
Workers in colonial export enclaves and allied transportation industries
came to occupy strategic positions within the resource- needs structure
of the imperial powers. At the same time, the long arm of the European
state reached into colonies and extracted colonial subjects to fight as
soldiers in imperial armies on faraway battlefields. Resentments against
such mobilizations fuelled worker radicalism and anti- colonialism. Key
nationalist leaders, most of whom made little effort to connect with
the masses prior to the First World War, by the 1920s and later came
to recognize the growing strategic importance of the masses, and con-
sciously made efforts to mobilize workers and peasants in the struggle
for independence.
To be sure, war did not everywhere lead to the strengthening of the
working class. In Shanghai, which had been the centre of the textile
industry, the war initially dissolved the working class as factories closed
and workers returned to the countryside so as to be able to survive. But
in the colonial and semi- colonial areas that were being incorporated into
resource provisioning, rather than being plundered, the war strengthened
the strategic bargaining power of workers.
Colonial powers, in an effort to keep labour unrest under control for
the duration of the war, promised to expand workers’ rights. One indica-
tor of this tendency was Britain’s decision during the Second World War
to introduce trade unions and conciliation and arbitration mechanisms
throughout its empire (Cooper 1996). During the First World War, tripar-
tite agreements among trade unions, employers and states only emerged in
metropolitan countries and were rapidly eliminated after the war. The tri-
partite agreements concluded during the Second World War were both rel-
Labour, war and world politics 13
atively longer- lasting and broader in geographical scope (see Lichtenstein
2002, especially chapter 3, on the less than whole- hearted embrace of the
labour–capital accord by US business).
Labour militancy and revolutionary upheavals peaked worldwide in
the aftermath of the Second World War. With the Communist victory in
China in 1949, the problem of repressing or accommodating the social rev-
olutionary challenge from the non- Western world moved to centre stage
in the global strategies of the new world hegemonic power (the United
States). Until 1949, attention had been focused on Europe where, as a
US undersecretary of commerce reported to President Truman in 1947,
‘most. . . countries were standing on the very brink [of revolution] and
may be pushed over at any time; others are gravely threatened’ (quoted in
Loth 1988: 137). By 1949, the social revolutionary threat was unmistak-
able. ‘Instead of a single, weak and isolated USSR, something like a dozen
states emerged, or were emerging, from the second great wave of global
revolution. . . Nor was the impetus of global revolution exhausted, for the
decolonization of the old imperialist overseas possessions was still in full
progress’ (Hobsbawm 1994: 82).
Nevertheless, by the 1950s the rising and explosive pattern of labour
unrest in the first half of the twentieth century gave way to a far less
volatile dynamic in the second half of the twentieth century, especially
in metropolitan or core countries. This shift was in part related to the
unprecedented concentration of military and economic power in the hands
of the United States at the close of the Second World War, which brought
an end to the great power rivalries that had fed the vicious circle of war
and labour unrest. Of equal importance were deep institutional reforms at
the firm, national, and especially the global levels, which sought to accom-
modate some of the demands that had been thrown up by the labour,
nationalist and other movements of the first half of the twentieth century,
and through which the US sought to respond to the global challenge posed
by the Soviet alternative. The various elements of these reforms have been
referred to as ‘liberal corporatism’, ‘embedded liberalism’, the ‘globaliza-
tion of the New Deal’, the ‘welfare–warfare state’, and for the third world,
‘decolonization’ and ‘development’ (cf. Silver 2003: 149–61). Embedded in
the reformed global institutions was the implicit recognition that labour is
a fictitious commodity that needs to be protected from the harshest ver-
dicts of an unregulated world market economy. It was only in the context
of this reformed international institutional environment that cross- class
national hegemonic compacts could find a relatively stable ground on
which to stand.
14 Handbook of the international political economy of production
WORLD HEGEMONIC TRANSITIONS COMPARED
From a world- systems perspective, the current period in world history not
only has strong analogies with the first half of the twentieth century; it is
also comparable to the late- eighteenth and early- nineteenth centuries. All
three periods are times of deep ‘systemic chaos’ associated with the crisis
and decline of world hegemonies: (1) the transition from Dutch to British
hegemony in the late- eighteenth and early- nineteenth centuries; (2) the tran-
sition from British to United States hegemony in the first half of the twenti-
eth century; and (3) the current period of crisis and decline of US hegemony.
Limitations of space and time prevent me from defending the proposition
that we are now in a period of crisis and breakdown of US world hegemony;
an extensive defence of this proposition as well as of other arguments put
forward in this section can be found in Arrighi and Silver 1999a.
Let’s start by noting that there are strong links between interstate
conflict and domestic conflict in the late- eighteenth and early- nineteenth
centuries, analogous to those that we found for the first half of the twenti-
eth century. We cannot draw on a database of global labour/social unrest
similar to that used in the previous section. Nevertheless, a clear pattern
emerges from the secondary historical literature. As argued in detail else-
where (Arrighi and Silver 1999a: 159–76), the Seven Years’ War marked
the first step toward a late- eighteenth century ‘vicious circle’ of war and
social unrest. The dislocations of the boom–bust cycle caused by the Seven
Years’ War in North America were important in detonating the American
Revolution. The immense costs of France’s intervention in the American
Revolutionary War, in turn, were crucial in bringing about the final col-
lapse of the French monarchy and the French Revolution. The French
Revolution and Napoleonic Wars simultaneously increased social strains
and produced the intra- elite rift that opened the space for a full- scale slave
insurrection in France’s most profitable colony (Saint Domingue/Haiti),
which, in turn, inspired further slave conspiracies and maroon rebellions
throughout the Americas, as well as a second wave of abolitionist and
reform mobilizations in Europe. The late- eighteenth and early- nineteenth
centuries, like the first half of the twentieth century, was thus an age of
‘global’ war and revolution.
Yet differences are as important as similarities. My use of the word
‘global’ (and the fact that it is in quotation marks) points to a similarity,
but also a first difference between the two periods of hegemonic transition.
In the late- eighteenth century, ‘globalization’ processes had advanced to
the point where words and deeds in the Americas often had a rapid and
resounding impact on Europe (and vice versa). Thus, it would be accurate
to characterize the revolutionary ferment of the period as unfolding within
Labour, war and world politics 15
the Atlantic world as a whole. Yet, if revolutionary contradictions largely
diffused within the Atlantic world during the first transition, in the second
transition such ‘contagiousness’ had become a truly global affair, inter-
connecting Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas.
A second difference is the fact that interstate and intrastate conflicts
were far more deeply intertwined in the second transition. In both transi-
tions, wars produced social unrest. However, in contrast to the transi-
tion from British to US hegemony, there is no evidence that the reverse
relationship also obtained – that is, neither the Seven Years’ War nor the
French intervention in the American Revolutionary War seem to have
been motivated by efforts to quell social unrest on the home front. By
contrast, not only was class and nationalist agitation escalating on the eve
of the First World War; even the colonialist adventures in the late 1890s
followed (and attempted to divert) increasing class antagonisms.
This is related to a third difference between the two world hegemonic
transitions: over time, war produced mass social unrest far more quickly
in the twentieth century. Put differently, we can detect a ‘speeding up of
social history’.
At the root of this ‘speeding up of social history’ is a fundamental transi-
tion in the organization of warfare. For as long as old- style armies of paid
professional mercenaries and ‘gentlemen’ predominated, wars could drag
on for years without provoking mass social unrest. However, as states
came more and more to depend on mass conscription and the patriotic
mobilization of their citizens in wartime struggles, great power rivalries
and social conflict became far more intertwined, and the ‘vicious circle’ of
war and social unrest was unleashed far more quickly. In this respect, the
mobilization of citizen armies during the Napoleonic Wars was a first pre-
monition of things to come – a premonition that led Europe’s rulers to end
experiments and restore old- style armies of ‘paid professionals, mercenar-
ies and gentlemen’ after the war. As William McNeill has pointed out, the
experience of warfare in the age of revolution convinced Europe’s rulers
that ‘the fierce energy of the French conscripts in 1893–95, and the nation-
alist fervour of some German citizen soldiers in 1813–14, could challenge
constituted authority as readily as it could confirm and strengthen it’. By
restoring old- style armies, Europe’s rulers ‘refrained from tapping the
depths of national energies that the revolutionary years unveiled’. But
they also kept ‘the spectre of revolutionary disorder at bay’ (McNeill 1982:
221). Nevertheless, by the end of the nineteenth century, states once again
were developing nationalism and patriotism as the new civil religion and
as a basis for mobilizing soldiers as citizens.
Indeed, by the time of the First World War, military strategists were
well aware of the close relationship between war and mass social conflict.
16 Handbook of the international political economy of production
New military strategies, such as naval blockades aimed at cutting off food
supplies and raising the threat of mass starvation among non- combatants,
were designed to create domestic instability on the enemies’ home front.
Such strategies recognized the importance of retaining popular loyalty
(and the danger of losing mass support) for success in war.
In sum, if prior to the nineteenth century rulers seemed to fight wars
with little concern for ‘public opinion’, by the end of the century domestic
politics and international politics were intimately intertwined.
INTO THE TWENTY- FIRST CENTURY
What are the implications of the preceding discussion for understanding
the early twenty- first century? We have described a process in which war
and labour/social unrest played out on an ever larger and more intercon-
nected global stage; a process in which all three of Stohl’s hypotheses
linking domestic and international conflict became increasingly relevant
as war and labour/social unrest became more and more intertwined;
and a process of ‘speeding up’ of social history, with wars producing
mass labour/social unrest more quickly. Another important question
that arises is what role wage workers will play in the social unrest of
the transition. If we interpret the evolution from the first to the second
transition as a trend (increasing importance of wage workers, declin-
ing centrality of peasants and especially slaves), then we would expect
wage workers to be even more central protagonists in the current transi-
tion. This is not totally far- fetched, but is an important argument to be
developed later.
At first sight, the anti- war movement that emerged in 2003 in response
to the threat of war on Iraq would seem to confirm these predictions, with
mass protest preceding the start of the war. Nevertheless, there are impor-
tant differences between the nature of warfare today and the nature of
warfare in the first half of the twentieth century, and these differences have
important implications for contemporary dynamics. With the establish-
ment of US world hegemony and the Cold War world order, the scope for
conventional inter- imperialist (North–North) wars was greatly reduced.
The end of overt wars among the most powerful states, in combination
with the relatively ‘labour- friendly’ institutional reforms at the national
and international level that accompanied the ‘global New Deal’, accounts
in large part for the less volatile pattern of labour unrest in the 1950s,
1960s and 1970s.
While the tendency towards North–North war was contained, North–
South wars were not. In the US–Vietnam War we can see both a continu-
Labour, war and world politics 17
ation of the trends discussed above as well as a significant turning point.
The radicalizing effects of costly and unpopular wars were demonstrated
once again with the emergence of a strong anti- war movement, the
growing refusal of US soldiers to continue fighting (Appy 1993), and the
‘contagion’ between the anti- war movement and other social movements.
Likewise, the propensity of states to respond to unrest through a further
‘socialization of the state’ (an expansion of workers’ and citizens’ rights)
was once again in evidence. Here I have in mind the expansion of the
Great Society programmes that went hand- in- hand with the escalation
of the Vietnam War. Yet the intertwined fiscal, military, political and
social crises produced by the Vietnam War also showed the limits of the
combined guns and butter strategy.
The deep crisis of the 1970s led the United States government in the
1980s under Reagan to implement a series of major changes in its global
economic and military strategy. The new economic strategy amounted to
an abandonment of the domestic and global New Deals. In the military
sphere, the new strategy involved the end of universal conscription and an
increase in the weight of capital- intensive (as opposed to labour- intensive)
warfare. The long- term tendency of the United States to rely on high- tech
military methods increased still further with the application of ‘informa-
tion age’ technologies to warfare. Tremendous energies were devoted to
the automation of war (that is, the development of military hardware such
as pilotless drones and cruise missiles that allow for the complete removal
of the First World human from both the risk of being killed and direct
contact with the process of mass killing).
Wars in the 1990s like the Falklands/Malvinas War, the First Gulf War
and the Kosovo War were a very different type of war than that which
radicalized workers and other citizens, and created the explosive pattern
of world labour unrest in the first half of the twentieth century. Internal
opposition to these late- twentieth century wars within First World coun-
tries remained low because First World governments (the United States
in particular) went to extreme lengths to keep casualties among their own
citizen- soldiers to a minimum (tending toward zero). These wars inflicted
tremendous damage on the generally poor countries on whom the high-
tech explosives landed – destroying economic infrastructures and hence
stable working classes and civil societies (indeed, it has been reported
that not a single factory was operating in either Kosovo or Baghdad;
Vargas Llosa 2003; author’s own communication). But they have not (to
paraphrase Durkheim) ‘violently moved the masses’ in the First World. If
warfare continues to insulate First World workers (and citizens more gen-
erally) from its more horrifying aspects while destroying stable working
classes and civil societies elsewhere, it is not likely to produce the kind of
18 Handbook of the international political economy of production
powerful and explosive labour and social unrest that characterized the
first half of the twentieth century.
This type of warfare is also reversing the long- term trend in the relation-
ship between states and the mass of their citizens discussed in the previous
sections. For the more the United States and other First World countries
move toward the automation of war, the more they emancipate themselves
from dependence on their worker- citizens for success in war. As such, the
growing bargaining power of workers and citizens vis- à- vis their states –
an inadvertent by- product of the inter- imperialist and Cold War rivalries
of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries – is being reversed, along
with many of the economic and social benefits achieved. It is an open ques-
tion as to whether the major declines in workers’ and citizens’ rights in the
1980s and 1990s are causally related to the transformations in the military
sphere, or are merely coincidental. There is, however, no doubt that the
decline in social welfare benefits and the disappearance of union jobs
with good wages and benefits along with rising tuition costs and declin-
ing scholarship funds, has made it much easier for the US government
to recruit its ‘all volunteer’ army from the ranks of the poor and working
class (Halbfinger and Holmes 2003).
I have argued that in the 1980s and 1990s, the global political–military
context contrasted sharply with the global political–military context that
produced radicalized and explosive labour and social unrest in the late
nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries. However, the response
of the Bush Administration to the September 11 attacks on the World
Trade Centre and the Pentagon raised the question as to whether we were
seeing another fundamental turning point in the nature of war and in the
interrelationship between war and workers’ movements. Indeed, the 2003
occupation of Iraq (and the developing military quagmire) was a funda-
mentally different operation than the routine bombing of Iraq that had
been going on since the end of the First Gulf War.
The early signs of demoralization and open protest among US troops
in Iraq and their families – resistance that burst into the open at a far
earlier stage than it did in the Vietnam War – together with the global
mass anti- war movement, suggests that the ‘speeding up of social history’
thesis continues to have some validity (cf. Harris and Franklin 2003). It
is possible that unrest in the military ranks had already been building up
in response to the high disability rates associated with service in the First
Gulf War, combined with cuts in veterans’ benefits implemented by the
US government. Chalmers Johnson (unpublished) has suggested that
the US casualties in the 1991 Gulf War are far higher than the wartime
battle figures would suggest, given the ‘potential toxic side effects of the
[depleted uranium in the] ammunition now being widely used by [the US’s]
Labour, war and world politics 19
armed forces’. He estimates a death and disability rate of 29.3 per cent for
the First Gulf War once one includes the deaths and disabilities linked to
‘service- connected exposures’ during the war.
Moreover, it is important to point out that the policy of simultaneously
cutting the welfare state while expanding the warfare state constitutes
a sharp reversal of the twentieth- century trend in which the two grew
hand in hand. Indeed, this sharp reversal may in large part explain the
passage of a (relatively timid but unprecedented) anti- war resolution by
the AFL–CIO (American Federation of Labour–Congress of Industrial
Organizations) in 2003 – a step that broke with the US labour federation’s
long- held practice of actively supporting US foreign policy (Letwin 2003;
to be sure, many within and outside the labour movement, while acknowl-
edging its unprecedented nature, have nonetheless emphasized the timidity
of the US labour movement’s anti- war mobilization).
Rather than respond to these signs of labour and popular unrest with
a social policy that expands workers’ and citizens’ rights, the current US
government strategy seems to be to further reduce its reliance on the mass
of the population for fighting wars. Efforts to further automate war con-
tinue apace (Brzezinski 2003). At the same time, two ‘new’ strategies were
already taking shape by the time of the 2003 war on Iraq. One was the
growing reliance of the US military on private military contractors. The
supply contracts awarded to Halliburton have been mainly commented on
in relation to the odour of crony capitalism. Yet, they are also a way of
privatizing military supply activities and thereby limiting the number of
troops officially in the war arena. Employees of the Halliburton subsidi-
ary, Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR), not only fed and housed troops and
constructed, supplied and serviced military bases; they also maintained
high- tech weapons and trained soldiers in how to use them. Other private
military contractors (such as the Vinnell Corporation) were even more
directly involved in combat activities.
The trend towards using private military contractors began in the 1990s,
and has become central to the current Defence Department’s strategy for
limiting the number of active duty troops, even in the face of expanding
military commitments. This strategy has the effect of further reducing the
benefits that the working class and poor can derive from the existence of
the military–industrial complex. As pointed out in an article in Business
Week, aptly titled ‘Outsourcing war’, the supply and support jobs pre-
viously done by full- time soldiers receiving salaries and fringe benefits
are now being done by ‘flexible employees’ working on a contract basis,
including lower- cost ‘host country nationals’ and immigrant workers
brought to Iraq from other low- wage countries (Bianco and Anderson
Forest 2003). Training of foreign armies is another area outsourced to
20 Handbook of the international political economy of production
private companies. Thus Vinnell, on the basis of its previous contracts,
including ones for training the Saudi national guard, was awarded a $48
million contract to train the nucleus of a new Iraqi army (ibid.).
Such privatization of warfare harks back to the period before the age of
nationalism when states depended on paid mercenaries rather than their
own citizens to conduct warfare. It also harks back to an even earlier age –
to the age of discoveries – when the lines between business enterprises and
war- making enterprises were far from clear (here I have in mind the char-
tering of the early British and Dutch East India Companies both to conduct
trade and make war in the extra- European world, see Ortiz 2010: 19–24).
A second ‘new strategy’ – the concerted efforts to cajole, bully and/
or bribe other countries (especially third world countries) into sending
troops to Iraq – harks back to the age of colonialism. This strategy is in
many ways reminiscent of the reliance of the imperial powers on colonial
troops in the first half of the twentieth century. As discussed above, in the
twentieth century this reliance on colonial troops had rather contradictory
effects. On the one hand, the mobilization of the Indian Army meant that
Britain could conquer and then run an Empire that simply could not be
run by British citizens alone. On the other hand, such mobilizations had an
empowering and dislocating effect that increased the bargaining power of
colonial subjects including workers, while simultaneously fuelling labour
radicalism and nationalism. In the post- colonial era, it is still unclear
whether the Indian army (or the armies of other post- colonial states) can
be cajoled, bullied and/or bribed into playing the role of the ‘iron fist
in the velvet glove’ of the new Anglo- American empire. The enormous
popular opposition to suggestions that their citizens should play such a
role is visible in places as diverse as South Korea, Turkey and India. Such
opposition prior to troop deployment – once again suggests that the thesis
of a ‘speeding up of social history’ retains some contemporary relevance.
The above discussion suggests that there is a growing decoupling of the
warfare and welfare states. This in turn has potentially important implica-
tions for labour internationalism. To paraphrase E.H. Carr, if workers in
the twenty- first century are now finding themselves once again without a
‘fatherland’, will labour politics turn ‘instinctively’ internationalist once
again? (Carr 1945: 20–21). To be sure, the persistence of the enormous
North–South wealth divide is a significant (and perhaps insurmountable)
barrier to any such development (Silver and Arrighi 2001; Silver 2003,
chapters 1, 3 and 5). Nevertheless, the above discussion suggests that a sea
change in the relationship between labour, war and world politics may be
in progress.
In conclusion, what does the above narrative suggest about what is to
be (and can be) done? How effective can social movements in general,
Labour, war and world politics 21
and labour movements in particular, be in influencing the contemporary
dynamics of war and peace? If we return to our comparison of world
hegemonic transitions, we come to a rather pessimistic conclusion. For in
the first half of the twentieth century, labour and other protest movements
were not able to stop the slide into a long period of war and ‘systemic
chaos’ (Arrighi and Silver 1999a; 1999b: 310). What they were able to do
was to affect the nature of the new world order that emerged afterwards.
To be sure, movements from below were far more effective in influencing
the content of the newly emergent world order in 1945 than in 1815. At
the outset of British world hegemony in 1815, Britain no longer faced a
serious popular revolutionary challenge. France (the main great- power
embodiment of the revolutionary challenge of the late eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries) had suffered a decisive military defeat, as did the
British labour movement domestically. Haiti won its independence, but
was ostracized from the international community. The initial thrust of
British domestic and international policy in the immediate aftermath of
the Napoleonic Wars was repression at home and the restoration of the
anciens régimes on the continent. Reform policies only emerged later.
In contrast, at the outset of US hegemony, the Soviet Union (the main
great- power embodiment of the revolutionary challenge of the first half
of the twentieth century) emerged from the Second World War battered,
but much stronger politically and militarily, and was shortly joined by a
revolutionary China. Moreover, both labour and nationalist movements
emerged from the twentieth- century world wars strengthened and radical-
ized. The counterrevolutionary challenge of the Axis powers was defeated
in the war, while the power and prestige of the revolutionary challenge was
enhanced (Arrighi and Silver 1999a: chapter 3).
US hegemony from the start had to incorporate reformist policies
designed to respond to the popular demands thrown up from below,
including policies that recognized that labour is a ‘fictitious commodity’
that cannot simply be left at the mercy of an unregulated world market
economy (ibid.: 202–3). Thus, in past hegemonic transitions both the
strength and content of popular protest mattered in shaping the long- term
outcomes.
However, as we stand on the eve of a new slide into systemic chaos, con-
siderations about the eventual impact of labour and other movements on a
future world order may not be particularly comforting. They may not even
be relevant, for given the tremendous destructive powers that humans
have at their disposal, there is no particular guarantee that most or any of
the world’s population would survive another long period of generalized
war. Thus, the problem of avoiding the slide into systemic chaos takes on
great urgency.
22 Handbook of the international political economy of production
The analysis carried out here has tended to emphasize that labour is
being weakened vis- à- vis states by the ongoing transformations. Moreover,
‘the biggest demonstrations in world history’ in February 2003 did not
succeed in stopping the war. Nevertheless, the weakness thesis can be
overstated. In the first half of the twentieth century, strikes by workers in
the armaments, energy and transportation industries had a major impact
on the military–industrial complexes of the belligerent powers. Today,
transportation workers are still strategic actors, not only for the smooth
operation of the world- economy, but also for the smooth operation of the
world military–industrial complex. In this context, the announcement in
early 2003 by railroad and dockworkers in countries around the world
that they would refuse to move materials for war on Iraq is important,
even if they were not able to materially affect the course of events (Letwin
2003). Second, the growth in the use of private military contractors not-
withstanding, the refusal of worker- soldiers at the front to go on fighting
has been key in affecting the course of events from the First World War to
Vietnam and Iraq.
Moreover, it is important to point out that there is nothing inevitable
about the slide into systemic chaos. The ‘international system’, writes
David Calleo, ‘breaks down not only because unbalanced and aggressive
new powers seek to dominate their neighbours, but also because declin-
ing powers, rather than adjusting and accommodating, try to cement
their slipping pre- eminence into an exploitative hegemony’ (Calleo 1987:
142). The neoconservative Project for a New American Century was in
large measure an attempt by the United States to convert its declining
hegemony into an exploitative empire through the use of military force
(a point anticipated in Arrighi and Silver 1999a, especially the conclud-
ing chapter; cf. Arrighi 2007, chapters 7–9). The mass anti- war protests
in 2003 appear as an almost intuitive recognition by people around the
world (including many in the United States) that what amounted to a
new US imperial project risked precipitating major worldwide chaos.
Indeed, since 2003, the likelihood that we have already entered a long
and deep period of global systemic chaos has grown. It remains an open
question as to whether the forces identified in this chapter (and others not
discussed here) will be sufficiently strong to put a break on the slide into
mounting systemic chaos and to facilitate a transition to a more peaceful,
just and equitable world order.
... During the world wars, industrial workers and belligerent governments alike discovered the disruptive power of armaments workers upon whose labor states relied for the war effort. In short, industrial workers-with armaments workers at the vanguard-leveraged their states' reliance on them into substantive gains through waves of work stoppages (Silver, 2003(Silver, , 2015. Ultimately, workers' wartime strikes in the early-and mid-twentieth century led to significant gains in unionization, wages, and benefits (Dubofsky and McCartin, 2017: 188, 194-195, 295). ...
... Ultimately, workers' wartime strikes in the early-and mid-twentieth century led to significant gains in unionization, wages, and benefits (Dubofsky and McCartin, 2017: 188, 194-195, 295). The arrangements that emerged out of these waves of unrest-in which firms and states agreed to union recognition, full employment, and basic welfare provisioning, in exchange for relative labor peace (and recognition of the prerogatives of firms to make changes to the production process)-set the basis for a new social compact and a nexus between warfare and welfare (Silver, 2015;Wehrle, 2003). 1 Yet, after holding sway for a generation, these arrangements began to unravel with the neoliberal project in the late-1960s/early-1970s. ...
... The war was a key factor in the draining of state fiscal capacity and contributed to a period of social unrest and international disorder (e.g. Halliday, 1983;O'Connor, 1973;Silver, 2015). In response to these crises, elites pursued a neoliberal project, aiming to "disembed capital from [a web of social and political] constraints" that had developed in the midtwentieth century" (Harvey, 2005: 9). ...
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... Yet, with the switch in the 1980s from promoting welfare states and developmentalist social compacts to the promotion of neoliberal policies, including austerity and structural adjustment on a global scale, the social-economic pillar of US hegemony also crumbled. A vicious circle has ensued whereby the insecurities produced by a dysfunctional US regime of military protection and the insecurities produced by a dysfunctional regime of social protection have fed into each other, resulting in a slide into systemic chaos on a global scale (Silver, 2015(Silver, , 2019Silver & Payne, 2020). ...
... It was based on massive military expenditures (i.e., military Keynesianism) and a close connection between advances in workers' rights and warfare. The welfare state and warfare state developed in symbiotic relationship to each other (Silver, 2015;cf. Payne, 2020). ...
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