The Future of Work: Super-exploitation and Social Precariousness in the 21st Century


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Getting off the fence on modern imperialism
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As long as class differences exist in society, there will be the need to understand them — not only as a matter for scientific investigation, but also with the goal of ending the domination of one class over another or others. In the case of earlier forms of class society, the relations of domination were visible and transparent. What was new under capitalism is that domination -- in particular, the exploitation of labor — was hidden behind contractual and market relations. Bringing to light the structure of domination therefore required the kind of complex analysis that Marx undertook in Capital.

Marx was the first thinker to view capitalist relations 1 as having developed historically, 2 as setting in motion definite global trends, and 3 as creating the conditions under which those relations would ultimately break down. This was in contrast to previous thinkers notably, Adam Smith who viewed capitalist relations as the triumphant outcome of a process whereby markets, having been liberated from previous restraints, could routinely — and presumably forever into the future — perform the functions for which they were ideally suited.

Under capitalism, in contrast to previous social orders, the market permeates every sphere of economic calculation — not only trade in goods and services, but also large-scale decisions about the organization of production and the availability of labor power. It provides the intellectual framework within which, by definition, capitalism is viewed as a whole, in all its manifestations. I put the term Marxism in quotation marks here to reflect the fact that the concept is understood in a variety of different ways, in the context of different national experiences.

What is more important than any particular version of Marxism, however, is the approach to social reality — and to political action — arrived at and formulated by Marx himself. Thus, insofar as capitalist relations have been restored in settings where they seemingly had been transcended, we are once again confronted, on a global scale, with conditions similar to those that provoked the anti-capitalist movements in the first place.

But there are several ways in which present-day conditions differ from those that prevailed before , making future transcendence of capitalism at once more difficult and more urgent globally than in the earlier period. What defines the global urgency is now, above all, the environmental crisis — the absolute limits of resource-extraction including most especially the supply of clean air, clean water, and fertile soil beyond which human survival is impossible.

The basic insight here is that it is impossible to have infinite growth on a finite planet. Since capitalism is inherently defined by the goals of expansion and accumulation, this means that the rule of capital must necessarily be overcome if the world is to remain livable. The practical requirements for addressing the environmental crisis can be worked out within a framework in which decisions about production are no longer made on the basis of profit-calculations but instead are made on the basis of long-term sustainability.

This will mean combating certain capitalist-induced assumptions as to what is desirable such as universal ownership of private cars and replacing them with socially evolved plans on how to satisfy legitimate needs in ways that do not deplete the natural resource-base. Michael Lebowitz and Rick Wolff have written about this. Both the environmental crisis and the experience of 20th-century socialism are illuminated by Marxian class analysis.

So also is the political aim of distorting, suppressing or destroying any manifestation of opposition to capitalist rule, whether a nascent revolutionary movement or an established revolutionary regime. A third major development of the past century must also be mentioned, and that is the extraordinary technological transformations that have taken place.

Some have been beneficial e. Here again, Marxian analysis is important, because Marx was acutely aware that science and technology are not neutral. The choice of where to look for solutions to practical problems is socially determined. Much of the technology developed under capitalism has been devised for such purposes as maximizing capitalist control over the work-process e.

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Seemingly benign inventions, as in the field of communications, may have unknown negative health-effects, may have disruptive impacts on human interaction, and may consume inordinate amounts of energy. The point here is that technology is a double-edged weapon. Marx recognized this, and his approach alerts us to ways in which society could collectively decide which technologies can be used to advantage or developed further and which should be rejected. What is needed is to continually develop and apply the type of critique pioneered by Marx himself.

If anything is to be rejected, it would be certain types of strategic choice made by activists or power-holders that have led to political failures. Whether or not those choices should be blamed on Marxism is, in my view, not a useful debate, because it does not affect the usefulness of Marxian analysis for understanding the broader framework within which all political activity unfolds. Whether and to what extent this is possible in any period — with all the historical changes that may occur in the social make-up and geographical placement of the working class — will be for all of us to determine.

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You say that the approach to social reality is more important than any particular version of Marxism. Yes, Marxism has different versions — Russian, Chinese, Vietnamese, etc. My second question is about this. As for the Russian version, we all know that the development model of Soviet Communism made a great contribution; what can we learn from its tragic collapse? Also, have you heard about "Sinicization of Marxism"? I would again underscore the initial point: the great value of Marxism lies in the approach to theory and practice that was developed by Marx himself.

Part of such use may be legitimate adaptation, consistent with the criteria and the goals embraced by Marx. Particular national experiences must be examined in the light of Marxist method.

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This has several implications. First of all, capitalist relations are global in scope. Therefore, any sizeable project to create an alternative system of relations will inevitably face a repressive response on the part of capitalist regimes. Second, the individuals who comprise the new leadership will inescapably embody, to varying degrees, personal aspirations as well as ways of dealing with people especially in organizational matters that reflect prerevolutionary habit.

As for the Soviet contribution to human development, my assessment is a mixed one. On the one hand, Soviet society made great material and cultural advances within a relatively short period of time, and its government to some extent provided a protective shield — including material assistance — to peoples around the world seeking to liberate themselves from imperialism.

It also, during the Second World War, bore the decisive military burden — at enormous cost and with little help from its allies — in defeating the Nazi assault and ultimately crushing the Nazi regime.


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  5. And yet the Soviet Union had negative impacts as well. Moreover, lacking any support from other governments prior to the transitory and imbalanced World War II alliance with the US and Britain , it exercised unwarranted power over the strategic decisions of Communist parties all over the world, with generally adverse and sometimes disastrous results.

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    Work relations were not transformed in ways envisioned by Marx. This whole complex of factors tended to offset whatever material benefits the system had succeeded in achieving for the people. I hesitate a bit to comment, as an outsider, on what are undoubtedly matters of controversy in China, but I take your question as an encouragement to do so, for which I thank you.

    I would add that the trajectory of Chinese thinking in these matters has had a global impact, in terms of advancing or inhibiting prospects of revolutionary change in other parts of the world. What happens in China thus affects all of us. My response to your question will necessarily be schematic, but I hope it will be useful for purposes of discussion. Although I have never been to China, I was introduced to the Chinese Revolution by writers who conveyed the vast scale of its achievements. At the same time, however, there remained an enormous cultural gap between the upper levels of the party leadership and the popular base.

    On the other hand, it proved impossible, even for Mao, to put in place the kind of participatory structures that would have enabled the masses to routinely and systematically guide the formulation of policy. The idea that culture needed to be transformed had a precedent in revolutionary Russia, but Mao carried it further. However, because of the lack of democratic structures, the process was one that consisted essentially of unleashing the fury of the masses and then, when the process had burst too far out of control, suppressing it. In this sense, both the initiation of the Cultural Revolution and its termination were initiatives taken entirely from above, reflecting the continuing absence of effective structural links — mechanisms of accountability — between the leadership and the base.

    These include: 1 integration of the Chinese economy into global financial markets, 2 the proliferation of foreign-owned corporations in China, 3 the extremely harsh working conditions in these enterprises, leading to alarming numbers of worker-suicides, 4 the reintroduction of fees for health services, 5 the consequent rising inequality, and 6 the fostering of a consumer culture including a mass market for private cars. As you see it, "What is needed is to continually develop and apply the type of critique pioneered by Marx himself.

    So my question is, has the working class in the USA realized its lofty historic mission? What is the influence of Marxism on US workers today?

    Do they use it as their weapon for self-liberation? This question needs to be approached first at a general level, and then at a specific national level: first at the level of the capitalist system as a whole, and then at the level of the particular history of the United States. The role of gravedigger is one that the working class can potentially play.

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    But capitalist power, as Marx already recognized, is global in scope — even though as he also observed the primary sites for workers to organize politically are within their respective national territories. We have already noted how capital, whether through the market or through political intervention, can continue to affect societies where socialist revolutions have taken place, and which are thus beginning to move out of the capitalist system.

    We should not then be surprised to see that capital can also cause changes, within the regions in which it remains dominant, in the geographical distribution of various occupational sectors. In the second phase, by contrast especially since the s , the proportion of manufacturing activity that remains in the imperial centers has been greatly reduced, as corporations have moved significant parts of their operations to the formerly colonized regions of the world in Asia, Africa, and Latin America , where wages are lower and where environmental regulations are less strict.

    In some of the former colonized countries, there have indeed been movements that have challenged capitalist power, with varying degrees of success. But such efforts are made difficult by various combinations of 1 severe restrictions on working-class organizing, 2 the instability of employment sometimes, as in the Persian Gulf states, because the workers are foreigners without citizen rights , and 3 the vulnerability of any initially successful working-class forces — e.

    At the same time, the increase in manufacturing activity in the neocolonial regions reflects a huge reduction in the number of well-paying working-class jobs in the imperial centers.

    The Future of Work: Super-Exploitation and Social Precariousness in the 21st Century.

    Although this may lead to discontent in these centers, the affected workers are typically less able — compared either to earlier generations or to workers in poorer countries — to organize on their own behalf. We thus find a somewhat contradictory situation in which workers are at once in a worse condition and yet at the same time less prepared to respond to it politically.

    But this is obviously a situation in which unexpected reversals in a positive political direction can take place. These, however, will depend on some particular mix of experiences or characteristics at the level of the individual, of the workplace or neighborhood, or of the wider culture. In the case of the United States, the obstacles to class consciousness have on the whole been more severe than in other countries, although there have been moments of intense struggle. The US working class has been particularly weakened by the long history of racial divisions, stemming from the institution of slavery.

    Who, then, will be the gravediggers of capitalism? All these developments, combined with the environmental crisis and with conditions of perpetual war, have modified the options available for challenging the rule of capital.

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    There is still a common class-basis to the rule of capital and therefore also to any movement opposing capital and seeking a socialist alternative. The basis for such opposition may still be understood as the working class, which as Michael Zweig has shown remains a majority of the population in the US, as elsewhere. But given the displacements and the internal divisions I have mentioned, its political expression will have to develop along new paths. In the first place, the overcoming of capital has become, more than ever, an international project.

    Although initial challenges will still take place within particular countries, they will not survive without international solidarity. International awareness can draw strength from an understanding of the ecological dangers, which know no borders. The fossil fuels that are burned in one place affect carbon levels worldwide; the ice-melting that occurs in one zone affects sea levels everywhere.

    The Future of Work: Super-exploitation and Social Precariousness in the 21st Century The Future of Work: Super-exploitation and Social Precariousness in the 21st Century
    The Future of Work: Super-exploitation and Social Precariousness in the 21st Century The Future of Work: Super-exploitation and Social Precariousness in the 21st Century
    The Future of Work: Super-exploitation and Social Precariousness in the 21st Century The Future of Work: Super-exploitation and Social Precariousness in the 21st Century
    The Future of Work: Super-exploitation and Social Precariousness in the 21st Century The Future of Work: Super-exploitation and Social Precariousness in the 21st Century
    The Future of Work: Super-exploitation and Social Precariousness in the 21st Century The Future of Work: Super-exploitation and Social Precariousness in the 21st Century
    The Future of Work: Super-exploitation and Social Precariousness in the 21st Century The Future of Work: Super-exploitation and Social Precariousness in the 21st Century
    The Future of Work: Super-exploitation and Social Precariousness in the 21st Century The Future of Work: Super-exploitation and Social Precariousness in the 21st Century

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