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Capital-in-Crisis, Trade Unionism and the Question of Revolutionary Agency

Shaun May

The entry of the capital relation into its epoch of structural crisis forms the basis for the development of the author’s conception of revolutionary agency. Drawing on the work and achievements of both Marx and Hungarian socialist thinker István Mészáros, May relates the emergence and deepening of the structural crisis to the decline of trade unionism as the traditional and universal form of organization deployed economistically by workers against capital. In the relationship between the «defensively-structured», universal, trade union form and the growing contradictions of the global capitalist system, May seeks to unearth the possibility of a higher form of agency which is more adequately adapted to address the immediate and long-term objectives facing millions of people today worldwide in the age of capital’s «destructive self-reproduction». Looking back in order to look forward, he also subjects the form of agency within the Russian Revolution to a critique which relates it directly to the conditions prevailing in Russia at the time. In so doing, he questions its supposed validity as a form of revolutionary agency for the struggle to put an end to the global capitalist system today.

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Chapter 8. The Organization of the Proletariat under Cyclical and Structural Forms of Capital’s Crisis


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The Organization of the Proletariat under Cyclical and Structural Forms of Capital’s Crisis

The emergence of capital’s structural crisis is altering the outlook of the trade-unionized proletariat. The ‘militancy’ of the 1960s into the 1980s has become impacted by defeats, anti-labour legislation and the decline in trade union membership. At the root of the effects on the consciousness of trade-unionized workers is the supersedence of the cyclical and conjunctural by the structural and enduring form of capital-in-crisis. The ghost of ‘militancy’ continues to haunt the trade unions despite the fact that conditions have moved on beyond the phase of capitalist development characterized by the expansion and accumulation of the post-war (1945) period.

The current phase of consciousness (characterized by caution, reluctance, circumspection and even cynicism arising out of the limits imposed by capital’s growing structural crisis) has emerged as a result of the termination of the previous, historically lengthy phase of cyclical crises. The old methods of ‘militancy’ of the post-war period are now approached with a political ‘ambivalence’ and are identified as an ‘ideal’ which delivered results in the past but today are ‘unrealistic’, etc.: ‘We are in different times’ is an oft-heard refrain.

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