If segmentation plays an important role in structuring, and controlling, labor in America today, then it's to the history of the present patterns of segmentation within the workforce we have to turn if we're to discover when and how effective ruptures in the system can occur.
Let's return for a moment to Chris Harman's Zombie Capitalism and his account of imperialism and the role it played in capital's early phase of "primitive accumulation." Remember that Harman makes this term unique to the period when capital was seeking to expropriate the property and raw materials it needed to both overthrow the previous social-economic regime, feudalism, and establish itself more permanently in its dominant place over labor.
The control of labor must be an important concern in the capitalist system because it is the exploitation of surplus labor that serves as the basis of profit. And the drive, or desire, after profit, is the engine of the entire system. Labor has to be not merely made to rely on wages (through which the extraction of surplus labor is accomplished), it has to be kept under social control as well. Like the Assizes and paternal laws of feudal states, an entire legal and juridical framework had to be constructed that reflected the needs of capital. And beyond this, an entire network of secondary social relations--beside but attached to the primary systemic relationship of exploiter-exploited, capitalist-worker--had to be put into place.
During the 16th and 17th centuries when imperialism began to siphon wealth from other parts of the world to feed the nascent capitalist system in specific European countries, slave labor was developed as an important "outside" source of surplus labor (profit), while at the same time the externalization of labor in the colonial "workhouses" of Africa, Latin America, and the West Indies became a way to hold in check the systemic tendency of the rate of profit to fall. This allowed the early capitalist powers of Britain, France, the free Dutch states, and even to some extent Germany (while there was no direct involvement, the German economy profited second-hand from the systemic arrest of certain downward pressures), to develop at a much more rapid rate than otherwise would have been possible. The division of certain parts of the globe into "civilized" and "colonised" zones not only represented an early large-scale segmentation of labor in the system, it of course provided the historical basis for the political divisions that remain to this day: developing and developed, Third World and First World, indebted nations and creditor nations, etc.
Much like capital is able to compress time through technology and other labor-saving methods, it was able to abolish temporarily certain trends within itself through slavery and to speed up the overall early development of the system. Furthermore, although slavery was carried over from previous times, new specific uses were found for it within capitalism. Just as many feudal ties were replaced with new ones at home, especially through enforced urbanisation and the growing power of the merchant classes, the European capitalist powers grounded many new financial and legal relationships around slavery in the colonies abroad. That brings us to the crucial part of our account.
The one area of the system that is missing in Harman's historical analysis of early capitalism is America. Britain quickly became the focus of many of the new technical, methodological, and legal innovations necessary to capital's development. For various reasons, both social and material, Britain was the center of industrial development: even new technologies worked out in other countries such as Switzerland and France were first applied on a large scale in Britain. As British industrialisation really got going, the pressure to siphon more and more value in the form of surplus labor from the American colonies increased. This meant increased pressure on slaves and slave labor. Through the organization of exploitation in the plantation system--even extending to the appointment of some slaves over others--the early segmentation of labor in the colonies began to take shape.
At the same time, America could be regarded as the first area under European imperial control that developed its own independent capitalist economy on a considerable scale, and thereby began to transform the relationship between coloniser and colonised. As Harman points out, the trouble with maintaining the power of imperialism to arrest systemic trends such as the falling rate of profit was that the colonised zones began to develop their own internal economies, and as the whole set of relations that make up capitalism emerged in each colonised place (at vastly different rates and in vastly different ways), they were brought into the system as a whole. Externalization became internalization. And the systemic trends that cause major structural crises began to be felt once more. By the mid 18th century, wealth increasingly had to be extracted from America through additional means: raised taxes, corruption, and finally the imposition of sudden, inexplicable levies (the Tea Act of 1773 for instance). This led to rebellion and local movements for independence that organized themselves around economic issues--that is, the demands of colonists became deeper and more serious.
Today's Segmentation: Carry-Over v. Establishment
Much of the events described occurred in response to economic trends of which the actors were unaware. But that doesn't prevent the trends from operating. They're material facts. One doesn't have to be aware of one's class role in order to play it either--even the objectified, "real-world," "pragmatic," "practical" arguments of capitalist political economy admit to this aspect of the social situation. But an institution like slavery is not just the inevitable result of inexorable economic forces. Besides the plantation system, a whole host of laws had to be passed and enforced to keep the system of free exploited labor running, and running with ruthless, often deadly efficiency. Blacks were defined as less than a whole person, as less than human in fact. Furthermore, once the colonies had "detached" politically from European control, slavery remained an important source of surplus labor (of profit) in the American economy, and the entire offical apparatus of definition and control was carried over under the new government.
Although the use of slave labor was no longer able to arrest trends in the system as a whole, its effect more locally was to segment part of the labor force for employment at the most menial, repetitive and work-intensive tasks. Picking cotton, or other crops, requires long days and the repetition of the same actions again and again. It is mentally as well as physically debilitating. It allows little time for activities outside work, and it hardly provides the worker with many opportunities for intellectual freedom. One can see how the segmentation of blacks as day laborers and tenant farmers continued well after the abolishment of slavery, under the influence of the Jim Crow laws and white terror organizations.
In official accounts of the civil rights movement, Jim Crow laws are often depicted as legal and "traditional" facts only, as "carry over" from an incomplete reconstruction of the South. It's surprising the extent to which this follows the line of reasoning offered by the laws' racist supporters while they were still in operation. But their primary effects were economic, and brutal. They prevented blacks from working in many industries, and along with racist terror campaigns, they acted to continue the limiting of one part of the labor force in the modern South to the most menial, back-breaking and dangerous work. This also meant that blacks had little chance of organizing as a labor group and little incentive to do so. The continuation of part of this form of labor segmentation in the Southern states, altered (to some extent) from its racial definitions, can still be seen today in "right to work" laws that represent little more than open resistance to organized labor.
It's interesting to note how conscious the supporters of the Jim Crow laws were of their economic dimensions, in spite of all the denials and recasting of support along "defense of tradition" lines. Often in the history of capitalism when a new period, or new "enunciation," of capital is reached--such as that represented by the emergence of the American economy from its role as a source of surplus wealth for Britain during the age of "primitive accumulation," to its own early independent expansion--the old forms and segmentation of labor are maintained, but with more conscious control and organization on the part of the capitalist class. So the movement from an industrial to a postindustrial economy has also meant that any pretense of government or business neutrality on issues of labor organizing has been abandoned. Regulations designed to structure collective bargaining and other labor relations in factories have been declared invalid by courts for application in the "service sector," and where this has not been possible, they've simply been ignored by authorities. It's unclear exactly what WalMart may not do to its workers. Perhaps they can't boil down their corpses to sell as soap--not quite yet. The point is that there are both official and unofficial rules by which people live within the system, and these often change as a new "enunciation" of capital is reached, a disorienting and disturbing experience for workers.
In the '40's and '50's, large numbers of black workers moved from the South to take advantage of employment at new factories in urban areas in the Northern states. It's a little discussed fact today in America, but througout the '50's and '60's, and right up until the economic crisis of the 1970's, there was a thriving black working class in almost every big city north of Tennessee and east of the Mississippi River. The fact that this labor group was reduced well before white working class people began to feel the squeeze of offshoring and union busting in the 1980's, is often lost in contemporary American politics. By the mid-70's many industrial firms were moving or planning on moving to the Southeast, where most blacks who had moved north were unwilling to return, and where "right to work" laws protected corporations from the demands of labor. A new plantation system was established in the Southeast within which workers were considered "free agents," much like the newly freed slaves of a hundred years before had been considered "freshly minted citizens." Of course in both cases the structures of the system assured that segmentation and exploitation would continue relatively uninterrupted.
The City: The Global Landscape of Segmentation
Almost everybody today lives in a city. If they don't live in one, they're dependent on the economic organization of city-life for their livelihood. Even in a developing country like Brazil, more than 80% of the population lives in big cities. The percentage of urban dwellers drops somewhat in China and parts of Southeast Asia, but the trend (with the exception of some workers being sent by recent government decree back to their farms in China), is in the direction of city-life. One can decry the trend on ecological or political-economic or even traditionalist-nativist grounds, but it is a fact of contemporary life, a seemingly irreversible fact of the global spread of capital. As it becomes easier and easier to invest in industrialised, and postindustrial, forms of capital, it also becomes more and more profitable to concentrate workers in highly organized ways. The overlapping energy, transportation, delivery, education, telecommunications, and political grids of cities are a perfect fit. While it may have been possible to spread out production and supply lines in the early days of capital's development, the contradictory pressures of "globalisation" are all in the direction of concentration.
Offshoring work today means offshoring it to an urbanised area, to someplace where all the grids, or the supergrid, already exist or soon will. The types of manufacture offshored in the earlier history of transnationals was simple and required little preinvestment. That is no longer the case. As a result, it is the city that has become the landscape where conflict is expressed, and it is often the subdivision of the urban landscape itself that best represents the segmentation of different labor groups within the system. This can be seen both in the racial and class segregation between various neighborhoods, kept in place through practices such as "redlining" (the racist apportioning of home mortgages), and in the conflicts that erupt in cities over housing: issues of gentrification, foreclosures, access to the "public commons." One of the best efforts to come out of the recent economic crisis to address many of these issues is the Right to the City coalition (http://www.righttothecity.org/home.html).
However, increasingly, official politics focuses on the issue of the influx of cheap labor from all over the world: a kind of reverse "on-shoring" of exploitable surplus labor that is going on in most First World countries. In combating the official discourse, it is important to note that seeing this trend merely in light of imperialism is now inadequate.
One can talk about the exploitation of migrant workers in the American Southwest in terms of some type of "internalized imperialism," but the analysis would be unrevealing for at least two reasons. First, the surplus labor represented by migrant workers does not arrest crisis trends like the falling rate of profit in the system as a whole the way that slave labor in the old European colonies did, or even very effectively (obviously) in the national American economy.
Second, the relationship of the migrant worker's activity to the rest of the economy is different in organizational as well as historical terms. In other words, the differences are vertical in the system as well as horizontal in time. Migrant workers are fully paid (if brutally, inadequately so), and therefore they have a way to "travel" with their labor. They can move from place to place, take up employment with different employers. Of course they can't choose to work for nobody since this is a basic part of the capitalist system in all its phases of development. But they can choose to work for capitalists in different parts of the migrant economy, traveling between industries, and thereby up and down the "economic ladder" somewhat, say from picking fruit to slaughtering chickens in a factory to machine-sewing clothes or even to working in a call center. Many "service sector" skills have been folded into the migrant's labor experience, too, and this labor in turn is folded into the economy in far more complex ways than colonised slave labor ever was. This is why calls for "immigration reform" that feature the mass elimination of migrant workers from the national economy are met with so much political resistance by capitalists from many different industries.
What they understand, on some level, and many commentators and much of the American public does not, is that today's migrant worker is really not anything like depictions in "dust bowl" era stories of farmhands traveling from spot to spot looking for the best conditions, or at least some kind of livelihood. And it is just as true that migrant work today is not merely the exploitation of cheap labor from "across the border." It is an extension of the segmented labor group also represented by the perfectly American "free agents" in the "right to work" states of the Southeast. The two parts of the national economy are mirror images of each other in both conditions and wage-quality of work. If there is still some tier-effect, the point for capitalists is to eliminate the difference at the upper end of the scale, and certainly not to get rid of those workers whose presence represents its lower levels. The natural political alliance here therefore would be between white service-industry workers in the Southeast and Mexican migrants working mostly in the Southwest, and not, as many labor organizers suggest, factory workers in the North and migrants.
Even as capital grasps the importance of using forms carried over from previous "enunciations" in a more conscious, ideological way than before, if not in a totally transformed way, the worker has to beware of falling into the trap of being too convinced by the new versions of exploitation being presented as "revolutionary." This brings us to a discussion of innovation, and its glossy contemporary expression: technology.
This turned out to be a controversial post, I received a lot of emails from readers accusing me of trying to divide people with issues of race. So, I decided to include a video with audio by the wonderfual Tony Cliff, speaking at a Marxism Bloomsbury gathering, about the necessity of solidarity in the face of attempts by the system to divide workers against each other. As he points out, that is where these contradictions, and the conflicts that follow from them, originate. Issues of segmentation are often used ideologically in this way, and it's important to face up to them, try and convince reactionary colleagues of their mistakes, and stick together. There is a lot of this going on right now in America around issues of race, immigration, religion and so forth. Cliff's comments are useful, especially where he talks about the fact that even a "vanguard" group, or a group of people who are aware, involved, struggling with labor and working class-related issues--like the issues addressed by a coalition group such as Right to the City--will face its own internal divisions. Joining the struggle is not a pass to some kind of "utopia," as Cliff points out. People disagree not merely on strategy, but on their philosophy and outlook as well. And these are often the fault lines that develop both within any advanced group, and within the working class itself. Cliff also goes over some of the ways in which this conflict can play out--there are not an infinite number of positions one can choose to take: appeasement or apportionment, sectarianism, and solidarity, are the positions that usually emerge. The images are a helpful and playful way of dramatising Cliff's remarks. Of course he concentrates on Britain, but in this case one can easily substitute "Republican" or "Democrat" for "Tory," and "Bush" or "Obama" for "Blair."