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Workers in Hard TimesA Long View of Economic Crises$

Leon Fink, Joan Sangster, and Joseph A. McCartin

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780252038174

Published to Illinois Scholarship Online: April 2017

DOI: 10.5406/illinois/9780252038174.001.0001

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(p.1) Introduction
Workers in Hard Times
Leon Fink, Joseph A. McCartin, Joan Sangster
University of Illinois Press

Abstract and Keywords

This introductory chapter sets out the book's purpose, which is to put the present economic crisis and its impact on workers in historical perspective, situating recent developments in the context of previous economic crises that have marked the industrial era. For, while much as been written about the origins and impact of the present crisis, most of it treats that crisis in historical isolation, and most of it treats workers as mere casualties or as an afterthought, if at all. The volume is premised on the notion that the historical contextualization of the present economic crisis demands an approach that is both transnational and cross-disciplinary, and one that takes the experiences of working people seriously. The chapter then discusses the long view of economic crises and workers' agency in an era of global transformation. An overview of the subsequent chapters is also presented.

Keywords:   economic crisis, financial crisis, industrial era, workers' agency, historical contextualization, global transformation

Across the industrialized world, urgent questions have been raised and in some cases reopened by recent events. The financial crisis that rocked the global economy and led to a steep downturn in 2008 has caused mass suffering and taken a severe toll on working people and their collective organized strength. The accompanying loss of popular confidence in governments and financial institutions has triggered protest movements against austerity measures in Greece and Spain, and against the depredations of the “one percent”—as identified by the Occupy Wall Street movement—in the United States.

As the world economy struggles to cope with the last effects of the Great Recession amid growing inequality and stagnating incomes for the many, the impact of the economic crisis on workers has moved steadily toward the center of public and scholarly discourse. This volume puts the present economic crisis and its impact on workers in historical perspective, situating recent developments in the context of previous economic crises that have marked the industrial era. For, while much as been written about the origins and impact of the present crisis, most of it treats that crisis in historical isolation, and most of it treats workers as mere casualties or as an afterthought, if at all.

The volume is premised on the notion that the historical contextualization of the present economic crisis demands an approach that is both transnational and cross-disciplinary, and one that takes the experiences of working people seriously. Thus, the essays included here, which (but for one) were first presented at a conference at Georgetown University in September 2011, sponsored by the journal Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas and Georgetown’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, address the history of economic crises in North America, Europe, Asia, and Australasia, and draw on scholarship in history and political economy. These essays (p.2) push us toward a rethinking of the relationship between capital and labor, the waged and unwaged, the employed and jobless. They reposition thinking about economic crises in transnational perspective and consider how states, ranging from capitalist to communist, struggled and failed to cope with past economic crises, with consequences that were often devastating for workers. Yet the essays in this volume do not cast workers and their movements as mere victims of economic calamity and restructuring. They suggest various ways in which workers’ agency was expressed during periods of disempowering change, including this most recent period.

Putting the recent economic crisis in historical perspective, these essays also suggest its distinctiveness from past crises by highlighting the degree to which this crisis has emerged from a particular historical moment in the history of global capitalism, a moment shaped by the framework of neoliberalism. The contextualization helps make clear that the present economic restructuring, more than simply a deep downturn in the business cycle, might best be understood as a moment in the restructuring of a global regime of capital accumulation and labor distribution that is likely to have profound, enduring consequences for ordinary people the world over.

Toward a Long View of Economic Crises

The essays in this volume push us toward the long view. Long before debates about the necessity of state-sponsored unemployment insurance, or economists’ theories of “long waves” of capitalist development, workers were well acquainted with the experience of economic crisis. Severe downturns in the economy were filtered through daily life as degraded work, less work, no work, making do through the household economy, intensified work, informal labor, bartering, forced public labor, charity, relocating, and, at the extreme end of the spectrum, illness and starvation. Across the globe, this array of responses to crisis remains central to the lives of the working class, reminding us of what Bryan Palmer and Gaetan Heroux in their contribution to this volume call the “continuum” of waged and unwaged labor that characterizes the ongoing process of capitalist proletarianization, dispossession, and exploitation.

In the industrialized nations that are the focus of this book, economic crises were apparent long before industrialization, hitting rural producers and self-employed artisans in debilitating ways. Still, the increased importance of a market economy in which wage earning was central, and the eventual (if very uneven) triumph of industrial capitalism, meant that economic crises had increasingly visible, concentrated effects on the working class, simply because more people were dependent on the wage system for survival. Indeed, before the post–World War II period, some argue, unsteady rather than steady work (p.3) characterized the majority of working-class families in many countries: when an American working man reached the age of seventy in 1921, argues the American historian Alexander Keyssar in his study of unemployment, he would already have “lived through six downturns in the economy.”1

Over time, one can point to changes in state, employers,’ and workers’ views of economic crises, particularly how these actors thought they should be handled. In terms of one of the most visible manifestations of crisis, job loss, nineteenth-century notions of self-help, voluntarism, and the primacy of private charity gave way, by the mid-twentieth century, to more state intervention, professional and expert assessments of employment, combinations of private and public relief, unemployment-insurance plans, and internal union protections. This is not to suggest a whiggish history in which crisis is increasingly managed well. State aid for the jobless, for example, did not become an inalienable entitlement for the working class; in recent decades, hard-won economic supports have been removed, as nineteenth-century notions of voluntarism and self-help have reappeared in new, neoliberal forms. Moreover, these very broad changes were experienced differently according to race and gender, and they varied considerably across region and nation. Distinct national political cultures and path dependencies marked out diverse experiences of unemployment and welfare, as indicated in essays by Alvin Finkel and Melanie Nolan in this volume.

How working people coped with economic downturns also altered over time; their strategies for survival were framed by the economic, social, cultural, and political context in which they lived, by the categories of colonialism, race, ethnicity, gender, and occupation. In late nineteenth-century America, some laborers mobilized in unruly crowds to demand work and wages from local politicians, but in the craft American Federation of Labor unions, mass unemployment encouraged an even more exclusive and restrictive business unionism, as leaders viewed the “chronic insecurity” of the unskilled as a threat and a “blight” to be avoided in their union.2 During the Great Depression, some Canadian homemakers with families accepted the inevitable fate of economic crisis and redoubled their efforts to survive by doing without, mending, moving, taking in work, and many other strategies of domestic economy. In the same country, even the same city, more politicized, left-wing women demanded an end to capitalism, marched in the streets, and called, at the very least, for food for their children and fully funded unemployment insurance provided by the state.3

Documenting working-class interpretations of, and responses to, economic crises, both on and off the job, has been a central part of labor history, particularly since the advent of New Left and new social-history paradigms in the 1970s, which put an emphasis on the categories of experience, working-class life and culture, and politics and resistance. From the 1970s to more recent writing, (p.4) the material environment, cultural meanings, and political responses to economic crisis—ranging from joblessness to intensified work, from increases in women’s reproductive labor to consolidation of union “seniority” (i.e., security for some in the face of crisis)—have been explored by labor historians. This work has engaged with theory and placed workers within the broader context of capitalist crises, but many labor historians nonetheless placed more accent on workers’ experiences than on abstract analyses of what a crisis actually is, why crises emerge, and why they have been endemic to industrial, monopoly, and now neoliberal capitalism. Labor historians have also been satisfied with fairly expansive and flexible, as opposed to mathematical and economistic, definitions of crisis, since they were acquainted with the variable effects of economic downturns on different sectors of the working class.

They are not alone: recent political commentators suggest that economists’ precise definition of a recession as a “decline in the rate of growth for two economic quarters,” or even a depression, a much longer and deeper downturn, do not adequately reflect the actual experiences of working-class families. William Peterson argues that American families have in fact been going through a “silent depression” since 1973, if we measure their real income and labor productivity—and the former in particular shows loss of purchasing power, growing inequality, and social distress.4 Such critics may not locate themselves in a Marxist tradition, but they are nonetheless cynical toward what they see as “globalization for the capitalist class/deepening inequality for the working class.” Neither team A (Keynesians) or team B (monetarists), argues Robin Hahnel, understand that capitalism needs to be “fundamentally redirected” to represent the interests of workers.5

In labor history accounts, working-class experience was never fully divorced from the macroeconomic landscape; however, economists and social scientists, whether neoclassical, Marxist, Keynesian, or monetarist (or variations, hybrids, and offshoots of those), have tended to engage more deeply with the concept and causes of economic crisis, though obviously, from different perspectives. Drawing on Marx’s analogy in the first volume of Capital to the many spheres or “floors” of capitalist society, the political economist Giovanni Arrighi, for example, invites us to move from the surface area, the “bottom floor” where labor is expended and exploited and where “all is visible,” to the upper floors, the scene of the “hidden abode of production,” where the “secret of profit making” is revealed, where those possessing economic power interact with those with political power. These are “complementary projects,” he notes, but—to paraphrase him simplistically—it is difficult to be on two floors at once.6 Socialists might respond that both floors need to be analyzed, since labor and capital are inseparable conceptually, and since a consciousness of one’s exploited position in the bottom floor may only emerge when the extraction of (p.5) surplus value at the upper floor is apprehended. However, Arrighi’s proposition is an apt reflection of the way in which scholarly literature has evolved; labor historians have tended to concentrate more on the bottom floor, political economists on the top one.

“Why do economic crises emerge and how do they differ?” is a question political economists have asked since the emergence of the dismal science itself. A long line of thinkers whose writing became the foundation of mainstream economics analyzed both limited financial crises—in which financial institutions suddenly lose their assets or value—and broader economic crises leading to recessions and depressions, which may or may not, according to the theory propounded, have been stimulated initially by financial crises. These writers may see crises as a repeated theme in the historic unfolding of capitalism, but they do not tend to see them as evidence of the inherent contradictions of capitalism, as Marx and later Marxists do. Ideas about crises, however, have not remained fixed in absolute theoretical boxes. John Stuart Mill wrote about the tendency of the rate of profit to fall over time, an idea that, though significantly altered, was important to later Marxist theorizing. The Soviet economist Nikolai Kondratieff developed a theory about “long waves” of capitalist development over periods of up to fifty years, and even if this idea was Marxist in its genealogy,7 it was taken up by other economists, though they tended to use price and money movements as economic benchmarks, while Marxists focused on production and commodities.8 Kondratieff paid a high price for this theory, which did not appeal to Stalin; his ideas led to exile and death within the USSR.

Many mainstream economic historians have explored the underlying tendencies and also the specific empirical causes, events, and policies that have led to crises, and for some scholars, this has produced theories that postulate what the “soft spots” of instability within capitalism are and how they exhibit continuities, or change, over time. Looking at the history of manias, panics, and crises, Charles Kindleberger suggests that crises often come after innovations that cause “displacements” in the investment system, and his theory, he indicates, builds on the earlier work of the American economist Harold Minsky, whose “financial instability hypothesis” explored credit, debt, and leverage. Minsky, resurrected more recently, drew on a variety of classical and Keynesian ideas; he explored the way in which the financial system oscillates between strength and vulnerability, with stability leading to rising leverage and larger risk taking, which can then become fertile ground for instability and crisis.

Minsky also appears in Paul Krugman’s recent discussion of depression and crisis.9 Analyzing the 1997 Asian economic crisis, Krugman combines a list of factors into an understandable explanation, detailing the existing points of economic vulnerability: the “vicious circle” of loss of confidence; plunging currency and financial bank and company failures; the process of transborder (p.6) contagion; and the lack of experience dealing with such a crisis.10 But for mainstream economists like Krugman, crisis does not inherently doom capitalism: it can still be managed and reformed. Indeed, he is dismissive of anyone who still thinks socialism has any relevance today.11

Crisis is recognized by these writers as an often-reappearing part of capitalism, though there are significant differences and debates, even within mainstream economics, on its origins and solutions. In John Kenneth Galbraith’s comparison of two crises, those triggered by the stock market “convulsions” of 1929 and 1987, he points to similar economic causes: recent tax deductions for the wealthy, changes in corporate finance, speculative market buildups, and especially “a vested interest in euphoria”12 that all led to internal contradictions and an eventual crash, no matter what the specific precipitating factor. For an economist like Galbraith, the market was not perfect, infallible, and self-correcting, and he understood that the effects of crises were “tragic”13 for many working people, a recognition that went along with his critique of the affluent society. His analysis of the crash and the Great Depression differs from that of the monetarist Milton Friedman, who emphasizes faulty monetary policies on the part of the Federal Reserve after the crash and bank panics as the cause of the prolonged and severe depression.

After World War II, the paradigm shift that occurred in the wake of Keynes’s writing opened up new analyses, not only of the causes of crisis, but also new strategies for reigniting economies, by addressing the collapse of demand that characterized depressions. His “central dictum,” echoed by Krugman, is “the boom, not the slump, is the time for austerity.”14 In the post–World War II period, those like Galbraith, who favored Keynesian and other interventionist approaches believed in either or both social investment and regulation by the state as a means of heading off and assuaging crises. While such thinking was influential in political circles for decades, the monetarist counterrevolution led, by the 1980s, to arguments that the market was self-correcting, even if setbacks and crises occurred. For those who accepted this idea, the notion that workers might be those suffering through such self-corrections was seemingly not a major concern.

The influence of monetarist discourse, given its increasing rootedness in academe and think tanks and its appeal to conservative governments and media owned largely by private enterprise, has been considerable. If wealth did not trickle down during the Reagan-Thatcher period, the ideology that capitalism was the origin of all progress, that there was “no alternative,” and that state intervention would only worsen an economic crisis did. Even those expounding the need for some regulation as a means of dealing with economic crises exalt the “good” of competitive capitalism. In Robert Barbera’s recent The Cost of Capitalism, written after the 2008 market meltdown, we do not get a critique (p.7) of the costs of capitalism—inequality, exploitation, homelessness, and the despoliation of the earth—but rather a call to make capitalism live up to its “true potential.” While he admits that capitalism has both “virtues and flaws,” he believes that “free market risk” is one of its chief virtues. He simply sees the need to balance “free market risk” with policies that rein in its “excesses” to save “the best system” around.15 Barbera, interestingly, also adopted Minsky’s ideas about how financial crises emerge but rejected Minsky’s solution to the crisis, namely “social investment” by the state. The latter, an essentially liberal idea, is now labeled by Barbera and others as “left wing,” indicating the extent to which the spectrum of debate has narrowed over the past two decades as the tenets of neoliberalism became mainstream orthodoxy.16

In response to these developments, what might a twenty-first-century Marxian analysis of crises look like? Marx’s writing offered a paradigm shift from mainstream economic versions of crisis, and his thought continues to shape current political economy, though there is no single Marxist interpretation: debates within Marxism are as wide-ranging as those between Marxists and anti-Marxists. The notion that economic crises are inherent to the capitalist mode of production, emerging from the internal contradictions in the system, though shaped also by exogenous factors, lies at the heart of most Marxist explanations. Marx’s argument that the tendency of the rate of profit to fall over time is another key element, though in more orthodox interpretations, the concept is the primary driving force behind crisis,17 while other Marxists, such as Ernest Mandel, note that Marx saw this as a “tendency” that elicited “countertendencies,” and further, that this tendency takes shape in different historical ways—thus echoing Marx’s own methodological emphasis on dialectical investigation in which the empirical informs the abstract, and vice versa.18

Inevitably, according to Marx, the drive for increased production and accumulation, and the changing ratio of constant to variable capital—the latter representing living labor power—results in pressure for more consumption and a higher rate of surplus value and exploitation, leading to contradictions that undermine the equilibrium of the system. Crises did not foretell the end of capitalism, but they did reveal its irrationalities and contradictions. Marx also allowed (however unhappily for socialists) that capitalism is very adaptable. Capital, he suggested, does not necessarily act as a monolith; even as a “reshaping” of the system after a crisis might leave some capitalists by the wayside, still others will benefit; and what may be needed to save the system as a whole may not serve the interests of some capitalists.19 There is “no crisis so deep,” suggests Alexander Callinicos in a paraphrasing of Marx,“that the capitalist class cannot recover from it, provided the working class is prepared to pay the price in unemployment, falling living standards, deteriorating working conditions”—words that have resonance in our own time.20

(p.8) Marxists like Ernest Mandel have theorized capitalism as a system that is characterized by “long waves” that are, in essence, part and parcel of the accumulation process. What is important is that these long waves are shaped by explainable economic factors and social relations; they are not simply arbitrary, or the result of one event, policy, or the influence of one “personality.” They can be explained by the dynamic internal to capitalism, along with “exogenous environmental changes and their mediation through socio-political developments, which include the balance of class forces, wars, and so on.”21 Long waves and crises thus always need to be historically situated, and economic rationalizations for them understood in a materialist rather than idealist vein; ideological explanation tends to follow economic shifts rather than vice versa. Thus, postwar capital’s acceptance of Keynesian policies reflected an understanding that these would not “upset the apple cart”22 of profits, while the counterrevolution against Keynesianism in the 1970s emerged not simply because inflation was suddenly recognized as a problem, but rather because monetarism reflected a key shift in capitalist class strategies as it strove to repair the rate of profit. The result was questions and challenges to key elements of the earlier Keynesian compromise, including its (fragile) entitlements for workers, such as social security and wage increases.23

Those writing in a Marxist tradition may share an approach that is historical and materialist, as well as certain basic assumptions about contradictions within capitalism, but their analyses can be quite different in orientation and emphasis. David Harvey’s oeuvre, for instance, advanced our understanding of the global and spatial organization of capitalism and its relationship to crisis. Exploring the limits of capital, his unraveling of capitalist crisis starts with a “first cut” explanation, which examines unstable contradictions in “commodity production and exchange,”24 while a “second cut” of the explanation goes on to investigate the financial and monetary aspects of crisis, including (but not limited to) speculative crises, since these may occur on a “semi-autonomous” basis. Even if they occur on their own account, he adds, they are still the “surface froth upon much deeper currents making for disequilibrium” in the system.25 Finally, a “third cut” explanation adds the “geography of uneven development” into the mix. Harvey’s work on the spatial and global nature of capitalism suggests a complex understanding of crisis that eschews a determinist reading of Marx while still accepting an element of determination. The circulation of capital across the globe, he shows, often reflects the search for a “spatial fix,” as capital searches for ways of alleviating disequilibrium or crisis in one area by searching out new forms of labor, land, and profit in another.

The importance of understanding capitalist crisis has not been limited to political economists looking at the “capital” side of labor-capital social relations. In their writing on segmented work, David M. Gordon, Richard Edwards, (p.9) and Michael Reich argue that crises are an inherent part of the world system of accumulation, since capitalism must continue to expand, but in the process of doing so, it runs into “walls of its own making which limit its existing structures.”26 Like Mandel, they too argue that crises do not only emerge from “crashes” but also out of periods of prosperity, as the 1973–74 downturn did, leading to a realignment of class forces and even reconfiguration within the capitalist class itself. Capitalist accumulation may be an uneven process, but it is explainable: there is a “social structure” of accumulation, a multidimensional set of environmental and social factors that shape how accumulation occurs and thus also shape the long swings, the booms and busts of the economy. Their conclusion, that the resolution of any crisis is shaped not only by the power and objectives of capitalism but also by workers and other economic actors, is an important recognition that class is not simply an inert structure but also a process of reciprocal social relations.

The call to examine historical specificity and the array of class forces within times of crisis is repeated in recent political-economy theorizing on the crisis in profitability that has unfolded since the mid-1970s, including those exploring intensified global financialization. Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, for instance, caution that we should not see a “neverending” crisis since the 1970s (as they suggest Robert Brenner does), since this ignores the way in which the capitalist system changed over these years, including experiencing “another technological revolution.” In other words, if we see crisis as the new normal, we cannot really understand the precise contradictions of each conjuncture. Even more important, they “bring the working classes back in,” cautioning that capitalism can only be understood when the whole array of class forces, including class struggle (or the lack of it), is taken into account. If crises cannot be avoided by capitalism, they can be managed, and a key factor in this process is whether working people and organized labor can mobilize, or whether their weakness—as in the last decades—has played a role in capitalism’s success. They caution that if we do not take the working class into account as a potential force, we may join the triumphalist “end of history” determinists: “[C]risis does not just lead capitalism to unravel on its own … our theories of crisis must be politicized to integrate the responses of both states and class actors, including the working class.”27

The explosion of writing in international political economy over the last few decades reflects academic efforts to come to terms with world capitalism since the unraveling of the postwar boom. Significant theoretical differences exist between schools of international political economy, but there is some common understanding that capitalism needs to be analyzed as a world process, in which trade and markets, the circulation of commodities (including labor), as well as power and imperialism, both formal and informal, are all critical elements. (p.10) Some writing, however, continues to emphasize the significant role of states, and in particular the American state, in the making of global capitalism.28 Writing on globalization has built on a long line of world-history thinkers like Immanuel Wallerstein and Fernand Braudel: Braudel’s “world historical analysis” of systemic cycles of accumulation, Arrighi notes, was used as a building block for his recent analysis of the hegemonic blocs of capitalist expansion of Genoa, Holland, and Britain over centuries, a study that explores how capital sought out flexibility, choice, expansion, and profit through the world economy.29

Mainstream and Marxist economists alike have analyzed crisis in relation to the global nature of capitalism, through different theoretical lenses and with different political objectives. Influential Marxist scholars of development, such as Andre Gunder Frank and Samir Amin, with their focus on development and underdevelopment, centers and peripheries, north and south, indicated how booms and crises are experienced differently in the First and Third Worlds. Indeed, Amin warns emphatically that it is a mistake to confuse capitalist expansion with “development,” while Frank argues that the postwar boom was wrongly assumed to be a “universal” phenomenon: capitalism has always been uneven, “spatially and sectorally,” and what was a boom in the West did not “serve the Third World well.”30

Studies of world capitalism have thus shown the nearsightedness of economic analyses that presume the “West is the rest”; the causes, nature, and experience of economic crises may affect global regions quite differently, leading to different theoretical perspectives in their analysis. Even before the downturn in the mid-1970s, Frank was pointing to signs of impending capitalist crisis; he then took some delight in puncturing the overstated optimism of the mainstream doyen of economics, Paul Samuelson, who noted in 1972 that “the business cycle had been so well analyzed and counteracted as to have practically gone out of existence.”31 The boom in the West, Frank suggested, led to a collective forgetting of inherent features of capitalism, including the tendency for the rate of profit to decline. That Frank’s pessimistic prediction more accurately described the following decades than Samuelson’s can hardly be cause for celebration, since the impact of 1970s stagflation on workers’ lives was quite negative. Short time, no time, intensified unpaid and paid work, unemployment, ill health: these were, and are, the very real consequences of crisis for workers. The challenge for historians of labor is to be cognizant of the political economy debates that help us explain crisis without losing sight of the human lives and the costs for workers and their communities. Finding an intellectual space that encompasses the bottom and top floor of capitalism may be a difficult enterprise, but it is one worth pursuing.

(p.11) Rethinking Workers’ Agency in an Era of Global Transformation

A second characteristic of the essays gathered in this volume is that they view workers as more than victims of economic crisis. They take workers, their organizations, and their struggles seriously. And yet the way in which they treat working-class agency also indicates important changes in the field of labor history across the past half-century.

The emerging New Labor History in the 1960s and 1970s frankly celebrated working-class subjectivity, sweeping aside the economistic behaviorism of labor economists like John R. Commons and Selig Perlman, who had first shaped the field in North America. The generation of historians who came of age with the New Labor History set out to correct a historical record that tended, in the influential words of E. P. Thompson, “to obscure the agency of working people, the degree to which they contributed, by conscious efforts, to the making of history.”32 During the 1970s and the early 1980s, led by the work of David Montgomery, Herbert Gutman, and their students, a raft of books and articles recovered aspects of working-class resistance to capitalist values or management’s control of the workplace, whether expressed on the shop floor or in the realm of culture.33

By the mid-1980s the infatuation with working-class agency was tempered by worries, at least in U.S. circles, over the lack of synthesis in a field that was producing an abundance of craft and community studies but no compelling master narrative, and by the growing sense that social historians were giving short shrift to questions of politics and political power. More structural-minded historians such as David Brody or Melvyn Dubofsky urged labor historians to return to institutional questions surrounding the history of collective bargaining, the function of law, and state power. Their approach drew strength from historical sociologists such as Theda Skocpol, who sought to “bring the state back in” to the realm of scholars’ concerns,34 a call that had some resonance with labor historians in countries such as Canada, where political economy had long maintained a strong, parallel presence, or Australia, where the influential role of governing labor parties and highly developed state structures of labor regulation made the state an inevitable focus of debate.

A confluence of intellectual and historical developments made it more difficult to write meaningfully about working-class agency in the years since 1980. The accelerating globalization of the world economy, resurgent conservatism (including working-class conservatism), the erosion of union power, and the decline of collective action made the historical agency of common people less visible than it had been in the tumultuous 1960s or strike-prone early 1970s. New (p.12) fields of scholarship further complicated the effort to identify or recover, much less celebrate, working-class agency. Poststructuralist theories, a shift from social to cultural history, and the attendant accent on representation and discourse resulted in challenges to the very categories of agency and experience that had underpinned earlier studies of working-class life. Historians of gender, race, and whiteness helped us understand the extent to which working-class agency was always refracted through prisms of race or gender privilege.35 Historians of the new conservatism showed that workers’ agency could be expressed in defense of individual freedom or capitalist values as readily as it was expressed in defense of a distinctly working-class interest,36 while analyses of corporate and state assaults on workers’ legal and economic entitlements revealed how ideologically successful they often were, dampening working-class and trade-union resistance. And historians of capitalism began to move away from the experiences or consciousness of workers as they sought to understand capitalism’s development over what Fernand Braudel called the “longue durée.”37

It seemed to some that the triumph of the neoliberal paradigm by the end of the twentieth century marked not only “the end of history” but also the end of any meaningful discussion of working-class agency in history. Yet this has not been the case. The economic instability of the last decade has given rise to new evidence of workers’ agency, whether expressed in the protests of workers on the streets of Madrid or Athens; the upheavals of the Arab Spring, in which workers and their organizations played a major role; emerging organizations of excluded or “precarious” workers; or the growing backlash against financial power embodied by phenomena like the Occupy movement. The Great Recession has again forced us to reconsider the contours of working-class agency.

The essays in this volume come to terms with working-class agency during hard times in different ways and with varying levels of attention to the question. Yet they share one general characteristic in common. They do not seek to uncritically recover and celebrate working-class agency, as one early strand of the New Labor History once did; they search for a balance between agency and determination, between an appreciation of the impact that workers’ struggles have had on history, on the one hand, and a clear understanding of the larger forces that have limited working-class responses, especially in periods of crisis and transformation, on the other hand. Some essays in this volume see a greater degree of agency in their working-class subjects than others, but all grapple in one fashion or another with how to strike the right balance between what workers have done and what has been done to them. In this respect, the essays gathered here help mark how much the field of labor history has changed over the last forty years. Thus these essays have been influenced not only by the shadow of the Great Recession but also by the historical and intellectual developments of recent decades.

(p.13) Organization of the Volume

The volume is organized in four parts. Part I focuses on the effects of economic depression on workers’ lives. In a close look at turn-of-the-twentieth century Toronto, Gaetan Heroux and Bryan D. Palmer offer an account of mass distress that considers how the poor, waged and unwaged, were subjected to state-based regimes of disciple and how they struggled to fight back. In the last essay he completed before his death, David Montgomery sketches out a broad overview of economic panics and workers’ responses to them in the United States from Jacksonian times to the Great Depression. In the third contribution, Wendy Goldman reconceptualizes the Depression-era Soviet experience, using Marx’s concept of primitive accumulation, with its emphasis on dispossession, proletarianization, and violence.

Part II highlights the relationship between economic upheaval and political crisis. As the two essays included here indicate, however, the influence can move in either direction. Scott Reynolds Nelson focuses on the worst crisis of the nineteenth century to show how the panic of 1893 led to the Pullman strike, the radicalization of Eugene Debs, and the origins of the progressive movement. Sven Beckert begins with the worldwide crisis of cotton production touched off by the American Civil War, emancipation, and the subsequent frantic search for alternatives, including coolie and sharecropping labor systems.

Part III shifts the focus to the relations of working people and state services: in particular, how have national welfare systems (as buttressed by labor movements) forded the stream of economic crisis? Alvin Finkel provides a sweeping reinterpretation of workers’ wage struggles across the West from the Great Depression through the rise of neoliberalism in the 1970s. The latter moment is the point of takeoff for two other essays: Judith Stein concentrates on the default of U.S. governmental stewardship over the industrial economy during the 1970s, while Melanie Nolan emphasizes how coincident attacks on workers’ welfare in Australia were met by a progressive counterresponse.

Part IV connects historical analysis to the contemporary crisis unleashed by the global Great Recession in four distinct settings. Sean Cadigan describes a new, highly gendered economy of boom and bust, haves and have-nots, in the Canadian Maritimes. Lu Zhang trains her sights on the continuing tug-of-war between Chinese state managers, eager to replace permanent workers with a cheaper, contingent labor force, and autoworkers, who sense their leverage within a world market and an ideological system formally committed to worker rights. Hilary Wainwright’s essay offers a transnational, historical, and comparative look at the political mobilization of the European working classes against austerity and inequality. She examines the recent example of Syriza, a radical left coalition that emerged in opposition to neoliberal attempts to impose a crushing austerity (p.14) on the Greek population, comparing this experiment to earlier political efforts mounted by the left wing of the British Labour party in London in the early 1980s, and by the Brazilian Porto Alegre movement, closely identified with the Brazilian Workers party, from 1989 to 2004.

The volume concludes with an essay by the economist Edward Montgomery contrasting the U.S. government’s response to the Great Recession to that of the Great Depression. Like his father, David Montgomery, the younger Montgomery takes a long view of events. His examination of recent economic trends leads Montgomery to sobering conclusions about what the post–Great Recession world holds in store for workers. Ironically, the vision Edward Montgomery sketches of the likely future that seems to be taking shape for American workers resembles in some ways the picture of working-class insecurity that the elder Montgomery found in the nineteenth century. In the current fiscal crises touched off by the Great Recession, we witness worldwide struggles over the defense of a social wage fought for over a century by popular movements across the West. Perhaps it is not surprising that it is in Europe, where labor and its associated political parties had gone furthest in regulating capitalist markets, that the contemporary clashes are fiercest and most explicit. Even within Europe, the recent neoliberal crisis and workers’ responses have taken on different forms, made complex by center-periphery relations among European states, the design of the Economic and Monetary Union, and the permeation of neoliberalism into former Soviet-bloc states. The ideological power of capital and some states to construct the crisis as one of “hard-working” nations versus “spend-thrifty”38 ones is being challenged in the streets by those suffering the crisis on a daily basis, and their responses will be conditioned by their own actions and labor-movement history as well as the macroeconomic relations of capitalism, precisely the dual dynamics featured in many of the essays in this volume.

The essays in this volume do not offer up easy solutions for the present, but they do indicate the approaches and perspectives necessary to analyze current crises. Taken together, they emphasize the necessity of historicizing our present problems, balancing context and specificity, structure and human agency. Indeed, they make clear that cogent historical thinking is crucial to understanding the problems with which workers the world over are grappling today.


(1.) Alexander Keyssar, Out of Work: The First Century of Unemployment in Massachusetts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 47.

(2.) Ibid., 218.

(3.) Denyse Baillargeon, Making Do: Women, Family, and Home in Montreal during the Great Depression (Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1999); Joan Sangster, (p.15) Dreams of Equality: Women on the Canadian Left, 1920s–1950s (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1989).

(4.) Wallace C. Peterson, Silent Depression: The Fate of the American Dream (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1994), 30–34.

(5.) Robin Hahnel, Panic Rules: Everything You Need to Know about the Global Economy (Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press, 1999), 5.

(6.) Giovanni Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power, and the Origin of Our Times (London: Verso, 1994), 25.

(7.) Mandel noted that the theory originated with Karl Kautsky, Leon Trotsky, and Charlie Van Gelderen. Ernest Mandel, Long Waves of Capitalist Development (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 1.

(8.) Ibid., 8.

(9.) Paul Krugman, End This Depression Now! (New York: W. W. Norton, 2012), 42–43.

(10.) Paul Krugman, The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008 (New York: W. W. Norton, 2009), 90–91.

(11.) “But who can now use the words of socialism with a straight face?” (ibid., 14).

(12.) John Kenneth Galbraith, The Great Crash of 1929 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co, 1988), xii.

(13.) Ibid., xii–xv.

(15.) Robert Barbera, The Cost of Capitalism: Understanding Market Mayhem and Stabilizing Our Economic Future (New York: McGraw Hill, 2009), 5.

(16.) Ibid., 9.

(17.) Murray Smith, Global Capitalism in Crisis: Karl Marx and the Decay of the Profit System (Halifax: Fernwood, 2010).

(18.) Mandel, Long Waves, 10–11. David Harvey maintains that Marx was “infuriatingly ambivalent” in his writings on this issue: “Marx also stated that overproduction does not call forth a constant fall in profit but periodic over production. … and that Adam Smith’s argument that the fall in the rate of profit from an overabundance of capital is not correct. The transitory overabundance of capital, overproduction, and crises are something different. Permanent crises do not exist.” David Harvey, The Limits to Capital (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1982), 191.

(19.) Ernest Mandel, The Second Slump, trans. Jon Rothschild (London: Verso, 1980), 178.

(20.) Alex Callincos, The Revolutionary Ideas of Marx (London: Bookmarks, 1987), 139.

(22.) Ibid., 99.

(23.) Ibid., 98–99.

(25.) Ibid., 325.

(26.) David M. Gordon, Richard Edwards, and Michael Reich, Segmented Work, Divided Workers: The Historical Transformation of Labor in the United States (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 29.

(p.16) (27.) Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, “Finance and the American Empire,” in American Empire and the Political Economy of Global Finance, ed. Leo Panitch and Martijn Konigs (London: Palgrave, 2008), 43.

(28.) Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, The Making of Global Capitalism (London: Verso, 2012).

(30.) Andre Gunder Frank, Crisis in the World Economy (New York: Homes and Meier, 1980), 12.

(31.) Ibid., 21.

(32.) E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York: Pantheon Books, 1963), 12.

(33.) Herbert Gutman, Work, Culture, and Society in Industrializing America, 1815–1919 (New York: Knopf, 1976); David Montgomery, Workers’ Control in America: Essays in the History of Work, Technology, and Labor Struggles (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979).

(34.) Tony Judt, “A Clown in Regal Purple: Social History and the Historians,” History Workshop Journal 7 (1979): 66–96; Melvyn Dubofsky, “The ‘New’ Labor History: Achievements and Failures,” Reviews in American History 5 (June 1977): 249–54; Melvyn Dubofsky, The State and Labor in Modern America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994); David Brody, “The Old Labor History and the New,” Labor History 20 (Winter 1979): 511–26; David Brody, “Reconciling the Old Labor History and the New,” Pacific Historical Review 62 (February 1993): 1–18; David Brody, Workers in Industrial America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980).

(35.) The literature on these subjects is too deep to adequately summarize in a footnote. Among the representative works are Alice Kessler-Harris, In Pursuit of Equity: Women, Men, and the Quest for Economic Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003); Bruce Nelson, Divided We Stand: American Workers and the Struggle for Black Equality (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991); and David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (New York: Verso, 1991).

(36.) Jennifer Luff, Commonsense Anti-Communism: Labor and Civil Liberties between the World Wars (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012); Elizabeth Tandy Shermer, “Counter-Organizing in the Sunbelt: Right-to-Work Campaigns and Anti-Union Conservatism, 1943–1958,” Pacific Historical Review 78 (February 2009): 81–118.

(37.) Fernand Braudel, “Histoire et sciences sociales: La longue durée,” in Écrits sur l’histoire (Paris: Flammarion, 1969), 41–83.

(38.) Ingo Schmidt, “European Capitalism: Varieties of Crisis,” Alternate Routes: A Journal of Critical Social Research 22 (2010): 71–86.