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Gongren zhengzhi (Labor Politics) by Chen Zhouwang and Wang Shikai (review)
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As a product of industrial mass production, labor politics is closely related with the development of capitalism and state building. Since World War II, the labor movement has gradually fallen silent with the adjustment of the capitalist system. Consequently, some heavyweight Western scholars proclaim “Farewell to the working class!” However, we may yet wonder whether labor politics will disappear in the current age of globalization. What is the future of the working class?

Based on reviews of English-language literature and the interpretation of the Chinese experience, Labor Politics, coauthored by Chen Zhouwang and Wang Shikai, attempts to answer these questions. The book is divided into four main parts. The first chapter studies the history of labor politics, presenting a clear picture of the rise, decline, and rejuvenation of labor politics. The following two chapters summarize the main ideas of labor politics of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Vladimir Lenin and then introduce readers to the theoretical contributions to the field of labor politics by E. P. Thompson and other scholars. From Chapter 4 to Chapter 7, the authors comprehensively discuss the implications of labor politics by focusing on the interactions between labor and state, labor control in the production process, and the unionization of labor and mobilization mechanism. From Chapter 8 to Chapter 10, the authors take a close look at labor politics in the context of contemporary China.

Contrary to those who state that class structure has disappeared, the authors argue that labor politics is undergoing a revival in the global sphere. With the influx of transnational capital, class struggle has gradually shifted from developed countries to newly industrialized countries. As late developers, newly industrialized countries are faced with great challenges in industrial relations regardless of whether they are authoritarian or democratic. Industrial workers in these countries become the main force of the labor politics revival. Of course, the expansion of industrial conflict across geographic boundaries is only one part of the revival of labor politics. As pointed out by the authors, labor politics in newly industrialized countries is very different from that in developed countries (p. 29). First, the patterns of class struggle in newly industrialized countries are quite diverse. Second, the working class in developing countries has to deal with the interest alignment between transnational capital and national state. Third, the global diffusion of industrial citizenship increases the range of strategies the working class can use.

In China, currently the largest manufacturing sector in the world, a series of ongoing market-oriented reforms and foreign direct investment liberalizations have created a new working class. The formation of an autonomous working class is central to understanding the revival of labor politics in China. It has two origins: an internal integration of the working class and a restructured relationship between workers and the state. Regarding the integration of the working class, the authors contend that current Chinese workers share common values and possess an autonomous consciousness (p. 210). As for the restructured relationship, the authors believe that China’s workers try to ensure their civil rights by using national laws or policies, so as to externally unite the class (p. 212). In contrast to the traditional working class, which was dependent on the Chinese state, the new working class exists as an independent group, with some autonomy in state-society relations.

From global and historical perspectives, Labor Politics presents a clear and focused picture of the development of labor politics. However, the authors’ focus on the revival of labor politics in newly industrialized countries results in their ignorance of the difficulties the working class in China encounters.

First, while the authors correctly point out that the new working class can exist only as a group of people who possess a similar socioeconomic status, the formation of their class identity should also be based on a shared experience of social conflicts. In China, the capital-labor relationship begins in foreign-invested enterprises. As a result, the capital-labor conflicts in these enterprises are at their most intense in today’s China. Because private enterprises in China are small and have little influence on formal public policy making, capital-labor conflicts in private enterprises are frequent but mild. Large...


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