Paul Mason's book sets modern day stories of trade union struggles in the developing world against those of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The parallels pull the reader up short: these are the conditions of production experienced by people who make the goods we buy.
Don't believe the economists. These goods aren't cheap because investment capital has sought out low wage economies to efficiently allocate resources and improve people's lives. These goods are cheap because of the vigorous control of the length of the working day, intensity of the production process as well as no regard for health and safety.
In China today workers are maimed without compensation, work without employment contracts for 12 hours a day without a break and are subjected to violence. And as the conditions of production manufacture cheap garments, computer components and plastic flowers so they also make the conditions in which the workers live. In Germany in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries workers provided their own libraries, theatres, choirs and gymnasiums as well as the bread and butter needs of creches and cremations. In today's Bolivia tin miners strike for 55 extra teaching posts to be created in local schools. In Gangxia West the working class slum tenements pulsate with life in the evening, despite the 12 hour working days.
Mason is happy to let the stories, and the characters in them, speak for themselves. He eschews theorising and is content to gently lead the reader to agree with his observations: that the working class movements are more successful when led by the working class and the struggles across time and geographical space have has much to do with gaining dignity as improving material conditions of life.
What strikes me as a contrast in the stories is the internationalism of working class movements in previous conflicts: something that seems absent today, modern communication technology not withstanding. In his afterword Mason refers to the globalisation of the messages of NGOs and environmental movements, but where is our age's Tom Mann? The following quote from the opening chapter may tell us,
"The Chinese industrial workforce is now the biggest in the world. In the years since Tiananmen Square managemnt styles have been draconian in the knowledge that every act of resistance can be labelled as a "threat to social order" and severely punished. Shenzhen's workers are to global capitalism what Manchester's workers were 200 years ago. What they do next will shape the century."