by Andrew Kolin*
The task at hand is to place the political economy of repression within the contours of U.S. history and sketch in broad terms how, over time, repression is the product of dynamic and fixed relations between capital and labor. The goal of Political Economy of Labor Repression in the United States (2017) is to represent how capital is able to repress labor given essential prerequisites. By identifying how capital and labor interact, it is possible to outline the main features of repression. The intent is not to write a comprehensive history of capital-labor relations, instead it is to select specific points in time that best illustrate how capital represses labor. While this book makes use of important histories of labor, these histories do not address the book’s central themes, how a political economy of repression is produced and reproduced within institutional frameworks often overlooked in standard histories of labor.
Labor historians often overlook how capital-labor interactions are structured in terms of the production and reproduction of repression, ignoring the bases of repression, grounded in and expressed through institutional exclusion. They also overlook how labor repression can be overcome due to the contradictory nature inherent in a political economy of repression. The first step in outlining the possible liberation of labor from a political economy of repression is to consider the historical conditions that produce the repression of labor in the United States.
There are notable exceptions to this neglect of class relations in the context of institutional arrangements. This book’s emphasis is on key historical moments that illustrate how labor repression developed in terms of two key variables: first, a dependent variable that operates as institutional exclusion as capital assumes and works to maintain control over the state and the economy, and second, an independent variable, in key historical moments where one can measure the intent of labor repression in terms of the rise and fall of American capitalism.
The dependent variable appearing as institutional exclusion generates various forms of covert repression. For the repression to be covert, it would be built into the functions of the state and the economy in which capital has achieved hegemony. This dependent variable of institutional exclusion occurs as capital achieves a monopoly of ownership over the means of production. In so doing, ownership serves to legitimate the use of covert repression of labor in the workplace. In addition, excluding labor from a primary role as a decision-maker in the state results from elite ownership of state power, which in turn, justifies policies and actions, which recreate the oppression of labor. Frequently omitted from labor histories is this dual institutional exclusion, which makes it possible for elites to monopolize the resources of power, and in so doing, dominate labor. Expressions of overt repression, such as degrees of force and violence operating outside institutional frameworks, are the most visible forms of social control of labor.
Specific events dictate the usefulness of covert and overt repression. In comparing the present to the past, capital has been successful in utilizing with a greater degree of effectiveness covert rather than overt repression, especially in the latter part of the 20th century and the start of the 21st century. A qualification in assessing the use of covert and overt repression is the extent to which labor acknowledges its institutional exclusion, seeking to organize labor so as to be in a better position to achieve limited demands. This means that capital-labor relations and repression are not a zero-sum game. Capital and labor both understand at times the necessity of forging alliances. In specific historical moments, capitalists understand it is to their advantage to seek collective agreements with labor as a means of economizing the use of repression. For labor, it is not a matter of choice. Organized labor seeks inclusion, it seeks to collaborate in order to acquire short-term gains. Having achieved institutional exclusion from decision-making, capital maintains the upper hand in framing collaboration to its own advantage. Whether capital-labor engages in collaboration or labor segments engage in outright conflict in open antagonism is often determined by the economic cycles of American capitalism.
This is not to say there are no limits to labor repression expressed as collaboration and conflict between capital and labor. The inherent contradictions in how capital seeks to repress labor present possible alternatives. To identify alternatives to labor repression is to identify the built-in limitations inherent in a political economy of repression, thus identifying how labor would liberate itself from the dictates of capital. Discussing how labor could create economic and political democracy can include an examination of why repression is essentially self-destructive. Repression of labor by capital contains the seeds of its own destruction. Since the various means utilized to repress labor always out of necessity have to be reproduced, in this process of reproduction, the repression is never finalized and complete. In reproducing repression, labor, in combination with the appropriate historical circumstances, can work toward its liberation. So while the goal is to describe the production and reproduction of labor repression, such repression is always in contradiction to the social needs of labor, that is, the liberation of labor from the domination of capital. This inherent possibility of labor’s liberation is built into the limits of a political economy of repression.
* Andrew Kolin is professor of political science at Hilbert College