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Labor Studies Journal 27.4 (2003) 113-114
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After Capitalism: From Managerialism to Workplace Democracy. By Seymour Melman. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001. 527 pp. $35 hardback.
Global Capitalism versus Democracy: Socialist Register 1999. Edited by Leo Panitch and Colin Leys. New York, NY: Monthly Review Press, 1999. 354 pp. $25 paper.
These two works, sharing a Marxist approach but differing widely in foci, methods, styles, and implications, demonstrate the power and relevance of non-dogmatic Marxism for understanding the context of labor's current struggles. To the internationally diverse contributors to Socialist Register 1999, globalization constitutes a new form of world capitalism, while Columbia University professor emeritus Seymour Melman detects in capitalist evolution the glimmerings of a post-capitalist workplace democracy.
The Socialist Register 1999 articles define globalization and assay its components, including assessments of international finance, the so-called weightless economy, shareholder capitalism, and the changing role of the state. The various chapters identify the effects of globalization on families, the working class, and their unions and parties. Case studies apply these themes to Germany, Latin America, Cuba, East Asia, Britain, and Sweden. Topics receiving especially incisive treatment include "flexibility of, but not for, workers" in the new economy; the commercialization and potential reform of media; and the "theatricality" of democracy reduced to "shallow electoralism." The book resolutely insists that states, far from disappearing or even necessarily declining, remain central to globalization.
The emphasis on theory rather than immediacy ensures this book's continuing relevance as intellectual guidance for labor movements seeking to operate at an international level or effectively in national and local arenas. Essays contrasting this volume's critical approach to other theorizing help readers clarify their own views on globalization, as do critiques of centrist "third way" strategies.
Labor educators might desire more emphasis on changing labor processes and on popular movements and local resistance to global neo-liberalism. [End Page 113] Melman's examination of the forces within capitalism leading to worker empowerment and economic transformation offers a useful complement to those omissions.
After Capitalism advances Melman's impressive career research agenda, tilting more toward data than theory. Roughly half the book is devoted to analyzing state capitalism, characterized by a "permanent war economy" dominated by profit and power drives by corporate and state/military elites. Melman argues that the burdens and deformities of American managerialism are not dissimilar to the irrationalities that doomed the Soviet system.
More interesting to labor educators is the author's contention that the alienation of state capitalism is increasingly checked by various "processes of disalienation" whereby workers "combine decision-making with producing, collapsing hierarchy, diminishing exploitation and inequality, and mutual decision-making as the model for governing work in place of predatory competition for profit/power accumulation without limit." Analogizing to the transition from feudalism to capitalism, he believes that these modifications of the organization of work will cumulate to open an exit from capitalism to a new economy of workplace democracy.
Melman is not naïve; he recognizes as shams management-sponsored schemes of employee "empowerment" and worker ownership. But he presents detailed information on multitudinous disalienating moves toward worker democracy: union bargaining on broad aspects of work organization, the growing unionization of professionals, the success of cooperatives and kibbutz enterprises, small business networks and labor-sponsored investment funds, and other community-based and alternative development initiatives. Melman may not be correct in interpreting these disparate trends as hopeful indicators that a viable democratic economy is in the works. At the least, his voice redresses the imbalance of pessimism and neglect of alternatives in a public sphere controlled by interests hostile to the possibility of workplace democracy. Like Socialist Register 1999, After Capitalism broadens and enriches our political dialogue.
A. B. Cochran
Agnes Scott College