Sunday, 29 April 2018

On New Terrain: Book Review

Dear Colleagues,

I had previously reported on the latest publication from veteran scholar-activist Kim Moody, On New Terrain: How Capital Reshaped the Battleground of Class War. I'd promise to post a review of the book that I've written for the British Journal of Industrial Relations, which is below. Below also is an excellent interview with Kim by Left Voice Magazine.

Having read the book thoroughly for the review, I would wholeheartedly recommend that you buy a copy. If you are interested in the future of organised labour, and what may impede or accelerate this, you won't regret it.

As co-founder of the rank-and-file media, educational and organising initiative Labor Notes, and leading intellectual of the United States (US) labour movement, Kim Moody has come to represent through books like An Injury to All (1998) a critically important barometer of the state of the ‘official’ labour movement and of sources for the generation of new forms of workers’ political and industrial mobilisation and organisation. For those engaged in activist education in the United Kingdom (UK) Moody’s analysis at a global, comparative level of significant change in production regimes through analysis including Workers in a Lean World (1997) has helped shape educational approaches to critically analysing the failure of the neo-liberal era of New Labour and labour movement leaders to arrest trade union decline, thus engendering the need to explore a new broad-based radicalised form of worker’s organisation through social movement unionism (SMU). For Moody SMU is "deeply democratic, as that is the best way to mobilize the strength of numbers in order to apply maximum economic leverage. It is militant in collective bargaining and in the belief that retreat anywhere only leads to more retreats-- an injury to one is an injury to all" (p.121).

In his latest book Moody revisits the need to re-examine the failure of traditional political alliances to assert the interests of organised labour within the context of recurrent transformation in the composition of the working class precipitated by unprecedented change in the organisation of capitalism in the US. As such the central aim of the book is to present capitalism as having entered a new phase in the recent era, in which the restructuring of the working class consolidates new terrain for a renewed upsurge of labour and social rebellion.

The book is structured in three parts. The first examines the effects of lean production, new technologies and the rise of flexible working from the early 1980s and the resultant industrial and occupational restructuring of the US working class. Part two moves on to examine the arguable shift in the terrain of class conflict through corporate processes of merger and acquisition, but most notably via the ‘logistics revolution’ required to support global supply chain infrastructure. The final section of the book explores the potential for a radical class politics in the US which provides an alternative to the ‘big money’ influences of the Republican and Democratic Parties. Here, Moody argues, that a confluence of organising potential in the workplace combined with urban-based mass working class political activism is key to generating a socialist-appealing body of politics outwith conventional party machinery and that will “go beyond conventional social democracy.”

It is the second part of the book which is its arguable strength, and certainly from the perspective of trade union activists and organisers (like myself) dedicated to examining how the landscape of capitalist political economy derives new, thoughtful opportunity to generate diverse forms of politicised workers’ organisation. It is in this section that Moody argues, for example, that the fixation on the rise of precarious work and the rise of the ‘gig economy’, not least from an organising perspective, ignores bigger change (and as witnessed in the UK and across industrialised economies) in the relative decline in living standards of an increasingly heterogenous working class set against increases in productivity derived from new production regimes. He concentrates on this using data illustrating how wages of working class adults have stagnated, remaining below their average level in 1972, with share of total national income going to the top 10% shifting from 35% in 1982 to 51% in 2012. The extreme forms of income inequality in the US leads Moody to state that, “this makes the United States more unequal economically than any other European nation, even though inequality has grown there as well”.

The significance of the approach is an argument, not necessarily new, or original, that the failure of the Democratic Party to address the parlous state of labour, both economic and political, has created a vacuum in which radical, socialist alternatives have increasingly gained legitimacy and status. Similarly, this section of the book carefully exposes the over-reliance in the national and global logistics supply chain of a relatively low-paid, ethnically diverse labour force inviting vulnerability to disruption through spontaneous direct action, or the deployment of crafted labour movement strategy to generate leverage, as in the UK case of UNITE’s Industrial Hub initiative. As Moody writes, “The vulnerability of logistics systems and supply chains is increased by the fact that for the most party their reorganization and tightening has meant that on average each supply chain employed in the production of a final commodity has seen a reduction in the number of suppliers, making the task of organizing them somewhat simpler and the impact of direct action in any one ‘node’ in the chain more effective.

Thus, whilst the readership of this book will include those interested in political economy, labour geography and labour studies, it is a critically valuable resource for labour educators and organisers also.

In saying this however, it’s important to acknowledge that whilst the UK economy mirrors that of the US in many ways, the relative under-development of the logistics network, which Moody acknowledges, is one.  Nevertheless, Moody’s cogent analysis helps explain the UK’s ‘new terrain’ laying the basis for new forms of worker’s organisation, and the more traditional, having organising success amongst groups notably comprising migrant workers across service industries from cleaners to Uber drivers and Deliveroo couriers.

Whilst the strength of the book is a careful surveying of the US economy politically and industrially across the 20th century, a critical weakness broadly, but more specifically in terms of crafting authentic labour movement organising and education practice, is the absence of coverage of the implications of climate change on production regimes, and the response of organised labour. The burgeoning literature of ‘climate solidarity’, and activity including that of the UK Fire Brigades Union (FBU), has meant that it is an issue we ignore at our peril.


Moody, K. (1997) Workers in a Lean World: Unions in the International Economy. London. Verso

Moody, K. (1998) An Injury to All: The Decline of American Unionism. London. Verso

In Solidarity


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