China’s working class drives capitalist development

The heroic and inspiring struggles of China’s working class will only lay the ground for new and improved exploitation methods – unless, that is, the struggle turns political – and socialist.

“I do the same thing every day,” said one employee at the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China, where more than ten workers have committed suicide. “I have no future.” Many, perhaps most, workers will know exactly how he feels. But to the bourgeois mind, it’s all an impenetrable puzzle. There was something criminally stupid and sickeningly idiotic about the reaction to the suicides of Terry Gou, the billionaire founder and chairman of the company, which makes electronic parts for the likes of Apple and Dell. According to a report in Bloomberg Businessweek (7 June), Gou said that he had no idea why the suicides were happening. “From a logical, scientific standpoint, I don’t have a grasp on that,” said Gou. “No matter how you force me, I don’t know.” Another worker interviewed at the factory might have given the hapless Gou a few clues: conversation and human interaction on the production line is forbidden, bathroom breaks are kept to ten minutes every two hours, and workers are yelled at frequently and fined for breaking the rules. According to a report in the Daily Telegraph (27 May), the pace of work in China is so intense that 50,000 workers a month burn out. When the workers go home at night, their hands continue to twitch and mimic the motion of the production line. Overtime last year was an average of 120 hours per month per worker, bringing their weekly hours up to 70. And yet Gou continues to apply his mind in vain to the intricacies of science and logic in search of an answer to the mystery of the suicides. While the search goes on, the company installed netting around outdoor stairwells of dormitory buildings to prevent people from jumping. It’s nice to hear that they care so much. The desperate measures taken by the poor souls at Foxconn have succeeded, however, in making things slightly better for the workers they left behind. Foxconn has since boosted wage levels by 30 percent and promised further 66 percent rises from October – conditional, of course, on worker performance.

A slightly happier story of worker revolt comes from the Denso car parts plant in China’s southern province of Guandong. A 21-year-old worker, who had never been on strike before, told the Observer’s Jonathan Watts (4 July) that she was worried, yet excited and determined when the action began. “We started our shift at the normal time, but instead of working we just walked around and around the workshop for eight hours. The managers asked us to return to our jobs, but nobody did.” The next day this was repeated, the corporate union begging the workers to return to work. Again they refused. There was no chanting, no speeches, no violence. Nervous of a crackdown from the ruling ‘Communist’ Party, the workers have acted very cleverly. Nobody is named as a leader or organiser, leaflets are used to make demands instead of computers or mobile phones, which can be traced to individuals, and, on the day of the strike, the frustrated management had to push for the official union to organise a vote so that there was someone to negotiate with. But a quiet and dignified determination not to work until the demands for improved pay were met won the day.

This struggle, and many more like them, along with a fall in the numbers in the reserve army of labour, have improved the bargaining position of workers in China, and wage levels are now predicted to be on an unstoppable upward trend. The “spate of strikes has thrown a spanner into the workshop of the world,” says The Economist. There are lessons here for all workers, and other groups in southeast Asia and the rest of China have not been slow to learn them. If the factory down the road or just across the border has won 50-odd percent or more pay rises, and improved conditions, why not us? Labour disputes in China were 30 percent higher in 2009 than a year earlier, and Guangdong alone saw at least 36 strikes between 25 May and 12 July, according to the Economist. Several cities have raised the minimum wage by up to 20 percent. Chinese labour costs have tripled in the decade after 1995 (although this was offset, for the capitalists, by a fivefold increase in productivity). And the example is beginning to spread, not only throughout China, but throughout the rest of the southeast Asian region too, especially in Vietnam and Cambodia and Laos – regions with reserves of cheap labour, and which capitalists have been eyeing up, along with inland areas in China, as possible alternative locations for their businesses if the Chinese workers get too ‘bolshy’.

But, interestingly, this is not generally seen in the bourgeois press, including the papers so far quoted, as a bad thing. This might surprise those who are used to seeing wage demands and union organising closer to home ritually denounced as silly, greedy, selfish, and so on. This is the standard liberal line of being against all wars, and in favour of all progressive movements for change, as long as they took place in the past, or are happening in another country. But there are also sound, pro-capitalist reasons for welcoming the strikes and the pay rises. The capitalists and their representatives in the press will probably have been led to these reasons more by their practical involvement in the world and their nose for profit than any deep understanding of theory. But for those of us familiar with Marxian theory, their pronouncements were entirely predictable. Look at the history of China through Marxian lenses, and the motivation behind Western capitalists’ cautious welcoming of Chinese wage struggles will become clear.

China’s textbook development
The standard view portrayed in the capitalist media is that, once upon a time, China experimented with communism. When it realised what a ghastly mistake that was, the country came to its senses and converted, at least partially, to the standard, Western, free-market system – the only system that works, as all right-thinking people know as a matter of common sense. So much for the fairy tale. The truth is somewhat different. In fact, the story of China is pretty textbook – if the ‘textbook’ we take is Karl Marx’s Capital.

Looking at China today is very much like looking back in time. The capitalism currently flourishing there is pretty much indistinguishable from the capitalism of Victorian England that Marx and Engels spent so much of their lives analysing. The historian Tristram Hunt, in his entertaining biography of Engels, compares a passage from Engels’s The Condition of the Working Class in England, written in 1844, with the testimony of a Chinese migrant worker in Shenzhen in 2000. They are indistinguishable from each other, and the story is the same as in the relevant sections of Marx’s Capital: 12-hour days, overtime with shifts sometimes going on for 40 hours at rush times, ‘accidents’ and loss of limbs due to the pace of work and inadequate provision for human need, no breaks for meals, low wages, the exhaustion and crippling of the human body as a sacrifice to the altar of profit-making. How did China get to this depressing state of affairs? And where is it heading in the near future? Well, let’s turn to the textbook. In abstract, Marxian terms, the recent history of China’s development goes something like this.

China’s period of state-led primitive accumulation and capitalist industrial development began under Mao (a period falsely called ‘communism’ in mainstream accounts, but differing in particulars, not in substance, from what has happened historically in all the advanced capitalist nations). This development was, in capitalist if not human terms, an enormous success. However, like all capitalist development, sooner or later it ran into barriers to its further expansion. It needed, in particular, to increase labour productivity, reform and improve the productivity of agriculture, and attract foreign capital. Reforms under Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, culminating in the massacre at Tiananmen Square, aimed to move the state-capitalist economy to a more market-based system, while at the same time destroying many of the working class’s (and peasantry’s) customary entitlements to the means of living (the destruction of the Chinese working class’s moral economy, perhaps we could call this, following the process described in EP Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class). This created a free labour force – free in the double sense of free to choose an employer, and free from the ownership of, or any entitlements to, the means of production or living, and hence free to starve or live in grinding poverty if you choose not to enter the labour market on capital’s terms. Further reforms in the 1990s then sought to integrate Chinese capitalism into the world market, opening China, and particularly its vast reserves of cheap labour-power, to exploitation by foreign capital.

With the creation of and access to the this free working class, global capital could then embark in earnest on the strategy of extracting ‘absolute surplus value’ – this means, in the absence of any customary or legal or moral limits to the working day, the capitalist class sweats the working class to produce as much profit as possible. The workers are made to work more and more for less and less. This was successful in China for a while – and was indeed hailed as an economic miracle by Western apologists for slavery. And a miracle it was – not only were there bumper profits to be made for the owners of capital, but the influx of cheap goods into Western economies helped to keep a lid on the value of labour power, and hence Western wage demands.

But again, the limitless drive to accumulate capital always hits up against real-world limits in the end. In the case of the extraction of absolute surplus value, the limits are real and obvious enough. There are only so many workers on the labour market, and those that are working can only work so many hours in the day without collapsing or dying. Capital, dead labour, can live vampire-like only by sucking the blood of the living. By sucking the workers dry, it destroys the basis of its own life – yet still it can’t help itself. Even if it wanted to, or began to feel moral pangs about its own behaviour, the external force of competition drives it on regardless. Enter into this picture, then, the working class itself. Unless these human beings are to meekly put up with being crippled and tortured for ever, with being beaten down into a position worse than that of slaves, worse than that of the most maltreated beast of burden, then working-class resistance is inevitable. The working class itself, then, begins to demand a limit to its own exploitation – a shortening of the working day, an increase in wages, an improvement in working conditions, and so on. Although this will, in the short term, eat into the profits of capital, and hence be bitterly resisted, in the long term, this is in the interests not just of the workers, but of the sustainability of capitalist development itself.

In fact, more than that, it drives capitalist development forward. As working-class gains are generalised, the capitalist again opens up an offensive, this time not in the direction of open, naked, unashamed, brutal exploitation, but with the more subtle and veiled technique of ‘relative surplus value’ extraction. This means that, with wages rising and profits slipping, it becomes economic for the capitalists to invest more in machinery and technology. This enables them to extract more profits not from sweating, but from improved productivity – producing more stuff in less time with fewer workers. Technological development, then, hailed by the capitalists as the fruit of their own genius, is driven by the struggles of the working class. And what should be an advance and a benefit for humanity and a cause for celebration becomes little more than a tawdry counter-attack in the class war. And the working class’s own heroic and inspiring efforts to carve out a life worth living merely lays the ground for their future, more sophisticated, exploitation.

And that’s why capitalists, even those who haven’t read their Marx, can come to welcome the demand for higher wages.

Disastrous consequences
What the mainstream press misses or downplays is the potentially disastrous consequences of this development for humanity. The first is that, as well as exhausting the worker, the development of capitalism also threatens to destroy the environment. China is facing a serious environmental crisis, including pollution and the exhaustion of its soil, which are a threat to itself, but also the emission of evermore greenhouse gases, which is a threat to us all. Rising wages also give rise to a consumer market, which in turns drives further capital accumulation, urbanisation, and pointless and wasteful and environmentally damaging consumerism. There is also the prospect of another devastating world war. This is pointed out in a very good and prescient series of articles in issues 14 and 16 of the libertarian Marxist journal Aufheben (see As the development of an internal consumer market and urbanisation proceed, a possible outcome is that China will move from its current position as a mere workshop at the service of global capital accumulation, to a centre of accumulation in its own right, and hence a competitor to the United States and Europe. This would of course mean that Chinese capital would develop needs and interests of its own, which in turn could easily lead to inter-imperialist conflicts over oil and other raw materials. Indeed, some argue that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were pre-emptive moves on the part of the US to win strategic control over such things from China from the start.

There is an alternative, of course, to such doomsday scenarios, and it’s one that the ruling elites are very well aware of, in China as elsewhere. This is how the Economist put it:

“As students of Karl Marx and of history, China’s party leaders will know that labour movements can begin with economic grievances and end in political revolt. By concentrating people in one place, Marx argued, factories turn a crowd of strangers into a ‘class’: conscious of its interests, united with each other and against the boss.”

And a working class organised politically could take the initiative out of capital’s hands and develop instead in a socialist direction. The Economist doesn’t mention such a possibility and probably wouldn’t take the prospect that seriously anyway. Perhaps it will be proved right to do so. But it’s where socialists place their hopes nonetheless. As a 20-year-old strike leader at a Honda plant in Foshan, Li Xiaojuan, quoted in the Guardian (30 June), says, “we must not let the representatives of capital divide us”. Workers in this country could do worse than follow developments in China very closely, and imitate their very fine example. The struggles must, however, turn not only political but socialist if our efforts are to do more than merely lay the ground for a new round of capitalist exploitation – or worse.


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