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Book review

John Crump: Nikkeiren and Japanese Capitalism. RoutledgeCurzon

Nikkeiren is the Japan Federation of Managers’ Organisations, the rough equivalent of the Confederation of British Industry. Here former Socialist Party member John Crump traces its history in the second half of the last century, against the background of developments in Japanese and world capitalism and working-class resistance.

After defeat in the Second World War, Japan was under US occupation, and the occupying authorities were at first not prepared to countenance a strong organisation of employers. This was because they did not wish to see a powerful Japanese capitalist class in the short term, especially one linked to militarism and companies that had profited from the war. But in 1947 General MacArthur, head of the Allied Powers, prohibited a general strike called by public sector trade unions, which clearly showed on which side of the class struggle the occupiers stood.

Nikkeiren was founded in 1948, as part of a reassertion by Japanese capitalists of their control over the workforce, and spent its first decade helping to establish a clear ‘right to manage’, becoming involved in a number of bitter industrial disputes. For instance, in the dispute with power workers in 1952, it undermined the union by encouraging companies to enter into regional negotiations, and in other ways supported class solidarity among the capitalists, such as helping to spread the cost of anti-strike measures. In other disputes, it helped in the formation of company unions and persuaded rival employers not to take advantage of the difficulties of the firms where strikes were taking place. Crump depicts its role in this period in dramatic terms:

One could do worse than think of Nikkeiren as pro-capitalist Bolsheviks who shared many of the authoritarian assumptions, belligerent attitudes and manipulative practices of their Communist Party opponents. The difference was that Nikkeiren’s leaders were resolved to consolidate the power and privileges of the existing ruling class, whereas the Communist Party sought to supplant them and become the dominant and privileged class itself.

The 1960s saw an economic “boom”, with sizeable wage rises (though lagging behind the growth in productivity). Nikkeiren urged employers to keep wage increases as low as possible - not that they needed much encouragement. Inter-union rivalries, and the growth of unions prepared to stop their members from ‘disrupting’ production, helped in this. Strikes continued to occur, of course, though on the whole employers were less confrontational than previously. But 1974 saw an economic crisis, resulting from a massive rise in oil prices, with a growth in unemployment. Nikkeiren supported increased resistance to wage demands, so that workers rather than capitalists should pay for the economic difficulties. This hard line continued through the 1980s, a period further marked by cooperation between Nikkeiren and the trade unions.

Then in 1992 a drastic economic downturn arrived, essentially caused by ‘overcapacity’ (e.g. Nissan had the capacity to produce 2.3 million cars a year, but could only sell 1.5 million). There were now fewer industrial disputes but increased unemployment, and greater insecurity for those in work. In 2002 Nikkeiren merged with another employers’ organisation, partly because there was no longer such a need for a capitalist club that dealt specifically with ‘labour problems’.

Besides its narrative of a half-century of Japanese capitalism, Crump’s book is concerned to examine how capitalist dominance is maintained. He identifies coercion, manipulation and mystification as three techniques employed at various times. Coercion was particularly to the fore in the 1948-60 period, when militant unions were deliberately smashed. Manipulation involved the promotion of compliant unions, setting worker against worker, and playing on their sense of insecurity. Mystification included the claim that there was a distinctively Japanese way of running capitalism, and hence pushing the view that workers had a stake in ‘their’ country. In fact, as this book amply demonstrates, capitalism in Japan has run on lines little different from those elsewhere.

There is one noteworthy aspect of Japanese capitalism: despite its relative poverty of natural resources, it has (as noted above) often been plagued by overcapacity - a sign that it is just part of global capitalism. And as Crump says:

“the productive resources located in the poorly endowed corner of the globe called Japan illustrate that there are no technical impediments to the world as a whole equipping itself with the means to satisfy the needs of all people.”

While his book does not itself present a case for Socialism, it certainly reveals a lot of what is objectionable about capitalism.