June 24th, 2020

Running Horse


In her 2007 book, Against the Law: Labor Protests in China's Rustbelt and Sunbelt, sociologist CHING KWAN LEE paints an intricate portrait of the two segments of the Chinese working class that have most acutely experienced the country's changing political economy: laid-off and retired workers in China’s industrial rustbelt, and young migrant factory workers in the export-oriented sunbelt.

From the preface:

"Although unemployment and exploitation can be found in many places and at different times, peculiarities of China’s postsocialist conditions have engendered features of labor politics that defy conventional categorization. First, the law, fledgling legal institutions, and the rhetoric of legal rights are central to labor protests throughout China, even though very few workers actually believe in the effectiveness of the regime’s ideology of law-based government. Second, leading to the formation of neither a national labor movement nor representative organizations, the several thousand worker protests that erupted every year throughout the 1990s took the prevailing form of localized, workplace-based cellular activism. With workers blocking traffic in the streets, lying on railroads, or staging sit ins in front of government buildings, these demonstrations presented a palpable threat to social stability, at least in the eyes of the national leadership. What must be emphasized, however, is that workers’ cellular activism has thus far rarely escalated into large-scale, coordinated, cross-regional unrest.

What, then, is the nature of working-class agitation in this period of marketization and globalization? Above all, I have found that the communist regime’s strategy of accumulation, in the form of what I term 'decentralized legal authoritarianism,' both generates the impetus for and places limits on working-class protests in this period of market reform. This larger political economic context of reform shapes not only collective mobilization by workers but also popular rebellion in general, and therefore is a key to understanding the institutional foundations of China’s economic dynamism and sociopolitical tensions."

Link to the publisher's page.

  • "Labour strikes in China are always launched by unorganized workers rather than by trade unions." Feng Chen on China's quadripartite wage setting system. Link.
  • "This chapter investigates the role of social networks during China's most dynamic period of urban protest (1919–1927) in Shanghai." A 2007 book chapter by Elizabeth Perry. Link. See also: Perry's groundbreaking 1993 book on Chinese labor politics in the early 20th century, and her 1980 analysis of peasant rebellions in Huaipei from 1845–1945. Link and link. ht Julian G.
  • Meg Rithmire reviews regional approaches to Chinese political economy, asking: "How have local governments differently interpreted and implemented national reform policies? What explains different decision-making regarding investments and growth strategies? And how have different local growth strategies beget different socioeconomic consequences?" Link.
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August 19th, 2019

Tennis Court


Energy production and political institutions

The role of labor (with some notable exceptions) has been relatively marginal in debates over how to decarbonize the economy. But given the growing number of clean energy jobs (and some recent labor news), it is reasonable to predict that any large-scale shifts in the nature of energy production will be accompanied by large-scale shifts in the nature of energy work and the labor relations that define it.

In his 2011 book Carbon Democracy, Columbia University professor TIMOTHY MITCHELL explores the political history of energy production. The wide-ranging study spans history from the industrial revolution to the Arab Spring, and charts the relationship between carbon-based energy production and various forms of governance. Among the arguments at the core of the book is Mitchell's identification of the emergence of democratic labor institutions within the structure and position of coal mines during industrialization—a position that was weakened in the transition to oil.

From the book:

"Between 1881 and 1905, coal miners in the United States went on strike at a rate of about three times the average for workers in all major industries, and at double the rate of the next-highest industry. The rise of mass democracy is often attributed to the emergence of new forms of political consciousness, and the autonomy enjoyed by coal miners lends itself to this kind of explanation. There is no need, however, to detour into questions of a shared culture or collective consciousness to understand the new forms of agency that miners helped assemble. Strikes became effective, not because of mining's isolation, but because of the flows of carbon that connected chambers beneath the ground to every factory, office, home, or means of transportation that depended on steam or electric power.

Changes in the way forms of fossil energy were extracted, transported and used made energy networks less vulnerable to the political claims of those whose labor kept them running. Unlike the movement of coal, the flow of oil could not readily enable large numbers of people to exercise novel forms of political power."

Link to the book preview, link to a 2009 article that preceded its publication.

  • For more on labor dynamics in industrial Britain, see Robert Steinfeld's 2010 book Coercion, Contract, and Free Labor in the Nineteenth Century, and Suresh Naidu and Noah Yuchtman's 2012 paper on coercive contract enforcement in coal and other industries. Link to the first, link to the second.
  • A 2012 review of Mitchell's book by Matt Stoller: "Globally, the switch from coal to oil was a fight about labor. You can’t understand modern democratic or third world political structures without understanding energy, and particularly, coal and oil." Link.
  • A book on the role of Mexico's oil fields in labor disputes during the Mexican revolution, by Myrna I. Santiago. Link.
  • A Next System report by Johanna Bozuwa imagines a network of democratically-run energy projects as the core of a "just transition." Link.
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