Polanyi in Guangdong

Eli Friedman’s article on labor insurgency in China, focusing on migrant laborers, employs Karl Polanyi’s model of countermovement to describe the strike actions and theorize the political effects they’ve had. Why? What could Polanyi’s grid of understanding that was devised seventy years ago in Europe tell us about what is happening today in China? Well, it turns out not much, except to make his theories perhaps even more reterritorializing than they were in the context they were introduced.

Part of this conservatism no doubt derives from the demands of academic publishing, where the m.o. seems to be that when theories associated with great men are applied to contemporary problems, bountiful insights result. But it’s also political choice–one that’s been gleefully made by the likes of Harvey and Arrighi, who, to varying degrees, not only take up Polanyi’s framework but endorse his highly conservative cultural conclusions as well.

To Friedman’s credit, and very much unlike Harvey, in at least one respect he recognizes that Polanyi’s insistence that sovereign regulation is the countermovement is a proposition that today is both technically unlikely and politically undesirable, or at least he knows that very few are gauche enough to aver such undisguised nationalism as the solution. So, Friedman shows empirically that the state consistently sides with employers in labor disputes. But he also adapts Polanyi’s model by differentiating between what he calls the insurgent moment and the institutional moment, the former representing the instances of rebellion and militancy and the latter representing the insurgency’s formation into stable (political) entities. In doing so, he maintains the essential verticality in Polanyi’s formulation while making it possible to name organizational forms that stop short of the national state.

Which of course introduces all sorts of other problems, leads him to tautologies, and forces him to conceive of workers’ struggles only as lack. Specifically on the last, he claims that the moment of institutionalization is blocked, particularly the state’s attempt at “appropriated representation”; that is, preemptive efforts–legal and otherwise–by the state to anticipate and address workers’ grievances by granting the employment rights, in the form of contracts, social welfare, and (limited) collective-bargaining rights, in hopes that the granting of such rights will lessen the inclination to strike.

But it’s not just that the state is being cooptive. (Friedman, it should be noted, is a contributor to Jacobin, a journal oddly obsessed with cooptation for a publication whose politics are left-Keynesian to begin with.) The workers themselves don’t seem interested in fulfilling his institutional moment, which he posits as lack, though whether that’s of will, desire, or representation is not clear. And in the end it doesn’t matter: by not concerning himself with the strikes themselves and focusing on institutionalization, he assures us that the strikes are prepolitical and because they get “stalled out” at institution-making they fail to form an intermediary level, a labor union, that is the teleology of countermovement. In so doing, he leaves out a whole series of factors: the constitutional uselessness of the ACFTU, the official union, which the workers insist on bypassing; the migrant networks and alliances that acted as a substrata for the strikes; the contagious effects the strikes have had; and more. One doesn’t need to be an infantile spontaneist to see that there are politics at work here.

Perhaps this is too harsh. Friedman does strain a bit at his own model when he compares 2007 strike at Ascendent Elevator with the 2010 Honda strike. He notes how both that events refused the official representation of the ACFTU and institutionalization more generally, but the latter progressed pressed further along that path. Which is to say, he hints at an analysis that transcends the framework he theorizes. But he ends up affirming his theory nonetheless, because, one gets the feeling, he’s invested in the progressivist model of struggle and development.

This shouldn’t, if one goes back to the beginning and to Friedman’s inspiration, be a big surprise. No amount of tweaking can rid Polanyi’s work of its utter conservatism. Nations and unions can both be new shelters from the capitalist storm, ones that displace current lines of exploitation but nonetheless act as the foundation for new ones, perhaps centered on less objectionable subjects.

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