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Message-ID: <7CB8BAE370E@faculty.iss.nl>
Date: Mon, 22 Jun 1998 13:08:54 GMT+0100
Reply-To: Forum on Labor in the Global Economy <LABOR-L@YORKU.CA>
Sender: Forum on Labor in the Global Economy <LABOR-L@YORKU.CA>
From: "P. Waterman" <waterman@ISS.NL>
Organization: Institute of Social Studies
Subject: Re: Eric Lee's book on Internationalism
Comments: To: jpmonteiro@mail.telepac.pt
In-Reply-To: <358D4C44.B73EE80F@mail.telepac.pt>

From National Place to Electronic Space: Labour's New International Arena

By P. Waterman <waterman@ISS.NL>
22 June 1998

That's funny, Joao, I don't think we can revive internationalism by going back to Marx, but I also thought Eric's was a great book. I have recently reviewed it within a much longer article. Let's see if the section on Eric is short enough to append here. Although longer than the usual Labor-L mailing, I hope it will be considered relevant enough to justify this immediate and general availability. I have only edited for clarity and comprehension:


1. Real virtuality welcomes new internationalists

Eric Lee's little book on electronic labour internationalism is a remarkable piece of work. The book includes a historical overview of labour internationalism, an account of the rise of international labour communication by computer, an overview of the technology, information on the best electronic sites and experiences, and a conclusion on problems and prospects. It is also the best technical handbook on any kind of `alternative' international computer networking I have read. Lee's book, moreover, provides us with a link between internationalism in the `real world' and in `virtual reality'. Manuel Castells (1996), some light years ahead of most of us, refers to the second as `real virtuality', and recognises it as an increasingly central terrain of international democratic struggle. This is recognised by the highly computer-conscious Korean labour movement, which is translating Lee's book for local use.

Eric Lee runs the most-sophisticated labour site on the Web - and one that gives those with internet access further access, via the usual touch-and-go linkages, to the wider world of electronic labour internationalism. At the moment of writing I am consumer-testing his Labour Start feature for use as my homepage (what first comes up on your screen when enter the worldwide web). Lee is evidently the right person (a cosmopolitan), at the right time (end of millennium) and right place (cyberspace). He has experience in US socialist movements, in the International Federation of Worker Education Associations, and as a self-educated computer professional (within an Israeli kibbutz). He gives a lively and erudite account of the rise and fall of the old labour and socialist internationalism. He stresses as major reasons for its fall 1) world wars, 2) communism and 3) fascism. I find this explanation over-political. I would rather stress, as already suggested, 1) the changing nature of capitalism, 2) the equally changing structure of the working class(es), and 3) the rise and rise, over two centuries, of state-nationalism.

2. Alternative histories with alternative implications

Lee's useful account of the rise and rise of the labour nets is marred marginally, for me, by his sanctification of Charles Levinson, one-time General Secretary of the International Chemical Workers Federation. Levinson may have been one pioneer of international labour communication by computer (ILCC), but his role was quite literally unremarked by myself at the time and, I am sure, unknown to many of the others involved in this effort. There were such others, both at the core of the national and international union organisations and on their periphery. It is, of course, to our discredit that we did not know or take account of Levinson's efforts, but this must have been because of his institutionalised base and address. My own reading of the short history of ILCC is as follows. There were some major initiatives from within the international union organisations in the 1970s-80s. These failed because the attitude of these organisations towards information was that of bankers rather than broadcasters. The project took off at the international labour and union periphery in the 1980s, at the instance of those involved in `the new labour internationalism'. Neo-liberalisation undermined this independent effort, and the two streams merged in the 1990s. Lee's work is an emblem of this coming together, but it does not identify the tensions between the streams, which now flow through the project as a whole. But, then, Lee is centrally concerned with union networking whilst I am with 1) the necessary dialectic under globalisation between labour and NSM networking, and 2) the new attitudes and messages necessary and appropriate to the new networked medium.

Lee's evident enthusiasm and enthusiasms do not lead him into any left computer utopianism. His last chapter, The New Internationalisms, deals with all the obstacles to effective labour presence on, and use of, the net (money, equipment, language, training, etc.). He then considers ideas and experiments being promoted by webmasters (no post-macho netweavers here) within the most-advanced national and international union movements (international councils of workers in specific TNCs, an International Labour University). He continues with `three crazy ideas' (178): an international on-line labour press, an online archive, discussion group and journal, and an early-warning network on union rights. These are not crazy ideas at all: they are simply new to the international union organisations, since these or similar facilities are well-established in or around the women's/feminist, ecological, human rights and other such movements. Lee does not end with a revolutionary internationalist proletariat rising from the ashes. But he certainly declares that `the international has been reborn' (185). Lee's words, as this review may have already suggested, are still a considerable way beyond a complex and contradictory labour reality.

3. Newer! Faster! Cheaper!...Different?

We might start by considering the judgement of Mark Poster (1995) on cyberspace and the public sphere. Poster says of cyberspace that it is less like a hammer (something for doing something to something) than like Germany (a peopled, cultured community). I would argue that it is both things - although I might have chosen a country with less blood and iron in its history. But cyberspace is additionally a utopia, a non-existing but desirable place and still to be created future. Within the institutional core of the labour movement, email, the internet, the worldwide web, are still primarily seen as Newer!, Faster!, Cheaper!, More-Effective! means to old union ends. In the subaltern spirit of `countervailing power' (Levinson again) they customarily say, `if employers have them, we should have them'. Even whilst engaged in a major labour conflict, receiving massive international electronic coverage and political support, the Maritime Union of Australia had little or no information about, or links to, such on its well-designed website. Most national and international union websites continue to remind me of those union journals guaranteed to bore the pants off anyone but their editors. They are thinking in terms of one-way, top-down information rather than those of a multi-directional, feedback culture. They still have little idea of the new meanings, feelings and attitudes possible or necessary if labour is to even defend itself against a globalised and networked capitalis (GNC). If and where they do provide support or links to other social movements or campaigns, their sites can hardly be said to be spaces for broad, creative and open consideration of an alternative global future.

Even if the alternative ILCC people of the 1970s-80s have merged with the institutions they once criticised and challenged, I do not see this as a major problem. We really should now, I think, dispense with the left's programmed responses to its repeated or permanent (self-)isolation: `sell-out', `betrayal', `bourgeoisification', `bureaucratisation' and `social democrat' (as an epithet, of course, not as used by my good self). On the one hand, there is always the possibility for the recreation of a periphery - particularly in the infinitely expanding and flexible space offered by the ether. Self-peripheralisation is, under the new networked capitalism, different from self-marginalisation or self-isolation. It is a strategic option, a privileged position from which one can both look out and be seen. And, on the other hand, in a rapidly-changing world, that escapes the railway-line and steam-train categories of the traditional left, there are those individuals, groups or tendencies within the core of the old international labour organisations, who are learning from the new social movements (NSMs). In so far as the old institutions are increasingly penetrated by or porous to the non-institutionalised, working from within can be just as (or almost as?) subversive as working from without.

Lee's own work is, as suggested above, a place where labour core and periphery meet again - as they will whenever they recognise a community of fate greater than the distance or attitudes that separate them. I am talking here about both Lee's book and his website. In so far as the new internationalisms are communicational and cultural ones, Lee's book actually surpasses the masculine and labourist borders within which he has constructed it. Utopians will feel quite comfortable here.

`Communication is the nervous system of internationalism and solidarity' (Jose Carlos Mariategui, Lima, c.1923)

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