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  • Eddie Webster, the Durban moment and new labour internationalism
  • Rob Lambert (bio)

An alternative to neo-liberal globalisation

The struggle for an alternative to self-regulating global capitalism, commonly described as neo-liberal globalisation, needs to be contested both at the level of ideas (theory/ideology) and strategy (movement/politics). Firstly, a vision of an alternative model of economy, politics and society, grounded in democratic social regulation has to be forged. Harvey refers to this as 'thought experiments' - painting fantastic pictures of a future society (Harvey 2000:49). Secondly, realising such a vision depends upon imagining and struggling for a new kind of global social movement, which creates active, globally coordinated civil societies, driven by the desire for a more humane, just way of working and living. Defining the role of unions within such a movement is contested, with some arguing that unions have become an obstacle to the realisation of such a movement (Waterman 2009).

The obstacle at the centre of this dual challenge is the disempowerment of civil society, in varying degrees, across the globe.1 Consequently, citizens mostly sense alternatives to corporate dominance is not feasible, given their power consolidation through the mutually reinforcing policies of national states and global institutions such as the World Trade Organization, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Domination is solidified through the hegemony of neo-liberal ideology where markets are viewed not as social and ideological constructs, but rather as deriving from natural laws of individualism and competition, which are perilous to ignore (Huberman 1968:204). Such an ideology legitimates radical change in three spheres: the way corporations function, the organisation of work, and privatisation of public assets. This discourse is grounded in a particular [End Page 26] market conception of restructuring manifested in Darwinian mergers and acquisitions, often producing factory closures and relocations to cheap labour havens. Lean production work restructuring via downsizing, work intensification and casualisation complement these organisational and spatial shifts. Privatisations (corporate acquisitions) mark the public sector resulting in a similar reorganisation of work.

There is a shadow side to the share market driven 'efficiency dividends' of restructuring: the scenarios reveal the destruction of persons, families, communities. Market 'necessity' strikes fear into the mind and being of workers as they confront either job loss or adverse changes in conditions such as work intensification, longer hours, changing working time arrangements and casualisation (Lambert and Webster 2004a, Lambert and Gillan 2007). As a consequence, insecurity pervades their daily existence, corroding personal identity and purpose (Webster et al 2008). Stressed and sometimes irretrievably fractured family relations and degrees of withdrawal from society reflect this psychological decline (AMWU 2006:7).2 None of these impacts is considered by an ideology quite without pity or human compassion.

Surely movement building and resistance is fanciful in such circumstances? How can psychologically scarred, disempowered, fatalised victims, who have, in varying degrees, withdrawn into private inner selves, act to transform their predicament? This reality, which characterises much of contemporary global society, defined apartheid South Africa in the early 1970s, when Edward Webster returned from studies in the United Kingdom. This article considers the consequences of his relationship with Richard Turner and student activists in Durban, which 20 years later influenced the evolution of a New Labour Internationalism (NLI) in the Global South. Webster's intellectual life has always been shaped by restless 'thought experiments'; indeed, this defines his being. Questions which thus arise become research issues. This article traces how Durban in the 1970s shaped his intellectual engagement with the NLI, an initiative which reflects an intense struggle for a new kind of global movement under the wintry conditions of neo-liberalism.

The Durban moment

In its essence, political conditions in early 1970s South Africa did not differ markedly from the limitations now imposed by contemporary neo-liberal globalisation. Social movements were repressed and civil society [End Page 27] disempowered during the 1960s and, as a consequence, movement capacity to impose change appeared fanciful. Yet thinking what then appeared impossible spawned a new movement power within a decade, forcing the apartheid regime to the bargaining table despite its repressive security apparatus.3

This utopian discourse became influential in student and worker politics when...


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