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  • Globalisation, labour and development:a view from the South
  • Ronaldo Munck (bio)

The 'new' international labour studies (NILS) of the 1980s have been largely superseded by the globalisation and labour problematic which, arguably, translates the original NILS project into a contemporary idiom. An understanding of Karl Polanyi's 'double movement' has been important in that transition. But do we not also need a clear grasp of Karl Marx's analysis of capital accumulation and its impact on labour? And, has the era of globalisation done away with the 'law' of uneven and combined development? Finally, in the new flat world we inhabit, can we really articulate a 'view from the South' or is that just an anachronism? Taking stock after 30 years of international labour research this piece points to some possible avenues for further research on globalisation, labour and development from a subaltern perspective.

Labour studies

In the early 1970s a new labour movement began to emerge in South Africa to challenge the apartheid regime. As Eddie Webster describes it 'at first, sociologists were ill-prepared to explain the rapid rise of a militant labour movement in a country such as South Africa' (Webster 2004: 258). Eurocentric theories of trade unions and their stages of development were not particularly helpful and nor were the dogmatic Marxist accounts based on notions of trade union economism. As Webster puts it, 'To understand and explain the rise of labour a new generation of sociologists stepped outside the classroom' (Webster 2004:260). Thus in South Africa a new type of labour studies was generated (in large part due to the enthusiasm and expertise of Eddie Webster) based on critical engagement with labour organisations and the pre-existing body of knowledge around labour. [End Page 205]

Following similar revivals of critical labour studies in South-East Asia and in Latin America a definable research strand calling itself the 'new international labour studies' (NILS) emerged in the 1980s with its own bulletin (the Newsletter of International Labour Studies) and book series (Zed Books Labour Studies Series). The main impetus behind this emerging problematic was the wish to 'mainstream' Third World studies as we might put it today. That is to say, the study of labour in India, Latin America or South Africa was seen to be as important as what we then called 'metropolitan' labour studies. In the West we had the discipline of industrial relations within which workers played a fairly circumscribed role. For the rest of the world the study of workers came under the rubric of 'social movements', itself within the rather exotic category of 'developing countries' studies. We had not heard of globalisation then but we did understand that the world was one in which capital accumulation occurred on a global scale and all workers came under its sway albeit through different labour regimes.

The NILS represented a revolt against the marginalisation of Third World workers in a paradigm which assumed collective bargaining and an order where regulated negotiations were the norm in mediating the capital/wage-labour conflict. They were also resisting the compartmentalisation of 'area studies' whereby the 'Latinamericanist' or the 'Africanist' worked in watertight compartments (see the pioneering study of Seidman 1994). Thus there were early 'South-South' crossovers and a realisation of the coloniality of academic power (Quijano 2000) prevailing. So to some extent this was a move to 'provincialise Europe' and bring the majority world into the picture. But there was also a keen interest in exploring early European labour history and the making of the working class. In Latin America in particular the new labour studies was heavily influenced by the studies of EP Thompson and more generally the cultural materialism of Raymond Williams. The attention to bottom-up history, cultural forms and gendered patterns of work were part of the mix that went into the making of the new international labour studies and perhaps justified the label of 'new' at that time.

The NILS did not, in my opinion, become a new paradigm as Robin Cohen (1980) had hoped it would despite the emergence of a book boldly proclaiming its existence (Munck 1988) and the ongoing work of Peter Waterman (1998). There are several...


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