Inter-Asian Connections IV Workshop -- Inequalities in Asian Societies: Bringing Back Class Analysis
Associate Professor, Sociology Department
Ching Kwan Lee
Professor of Sociology
University of California, Los Angeles
Assistant Professor, Department of History
Call for Workshop Papers
Referring to the worldwide phenomenon of decreasing gaps between richer and poorer countries, but enduring socio-economic inequalities inside each, Göran Therborn (Global Dialogue, 2(1), 2011) has observed that “this amounts to a return of class” in the twenty-first century. At the forefront of the remarkable rates of economic growth in the Global South are Asian countries, from Turkey to India and China, despite the disruptions caused by recent financial crises. At the same time, Asia remains the continent with the largest number of poor people, signaling that the degree of within-country inequalities is nowhere close to declining. Although this no doubt points to class polarization, the patterns of social change in Asian societies do not easily avail themselves to class analysis of the type prevalent in West Europe and North America in a previous period.
This workshop calls for a renewal of class analysis in Asian countries from a theoretically and conceptually grounded perspective. The workshop directors invite papers that focus on formations of classes, the transformation of class structures and class-based collective action in ways that pay attention to national and regional particularities.
What are some of the processes that might inform class analytics in Asia that papers in this workshop can focus on? (1) From the west to the east, the continent is the stage for the ongoing process of proletarianization, understood in the classical sense of dispossession from the means of production. What are the roles of the state, the rural economy and migration in shaping the various paths and forms of proletarianization in Asia? (2) Asia dominates global industrial production, thanks to China but also to South Korea, India and Indonesia. Countries ranging from Turkey to Egypt, Bangladesh and Malaysia also participate in the global competition for industrial exports. This has brought along a rise of the industrial labor force at intensified levels of labor control and surplus extraction. The organization and politics at the point of production may be entirely different from previous and Western modes of industrialization. How have labor conditions in the factory been transformed, with what consequences for labor politics or cross-class mobilization in Asia? (3) A faster growing segment of laborers in Asia works in service sectors, partly boosted by the growth in tourism and hospitality, and partly by the growing demand for domestic labor. Intensified labor control is also a feature of the formal and informal service sectors. (4) But more palpable has been the rise in the ranks of informal workers (also called the precariat, the subproletariat) across Asia, who earn less, work irregularly and have fewer or no social rights compared to formal workers. (5) On the one hand, as a result of dispossession, labor protests have erupted and taken on different characteristics in different countries, but such protests have been absent in others. On the other hand, social movements for democratization and the political rifts within them are arguably based on class alliances and class cleavages, as witnessed during the ongoing revolution in Egypt. (6) An analytical axis that cuts across all of these processes is gender, in terms of labor force participation, workplace subjectivities and activism. (7) The polarization between popular classes on the one hand and the industrialists and financiers who vie for spots in the global capitalist class on the other is politically and economically mitigated by the growth of thin layers of middle classes everywhere in Asia, who albeit are the major consumers in their respective countries.
Although there are rich scholarly literatures that focus on some aspect of the above-described processes, works that scrutinize them in terms of class analytics are only recently emerging, and then only for single counties. The goal of this workshop is precisely to focus attention on class dynamics in Asian societies in terms of both convergences and comparisons with respect to the seven processes outlined above. Papers may, using case studies or comparative quantitative and qualitative data, address one or more of the following issues, and adopt various theoretical perspectives of class drawing from Marx, Polanyi, Bourdieu, feminism, etc.: the debate on class-in-itself and class-for-itself; classed and gendered subjectivities in the labor process; the effects of semi- or full proletarianization on labor protest; resistance to dispossession; the overlaps or contradictions between ethnic, national and class identities; waves of labor protest; the falling and rising impact of labor unionism; class bases of democratization movements; class compromises in neoliberal contexts, and so on.
Theoretically, this workshop calls for a renewal of class analysis. Although there is a large body of scholarship on labor in various Asian countries, the concept of class is often not used. The theoretical benefit of class analysis might be at least two-fold. First of all, labor relations can be viewed relationally, as emerging within processes of dispossession, exploitation and production. Secondly, the long-standing debate about the relation between the objective axes of inequality and the subjective (im)possibilities for collective class action can be revived in theoretically fruitful ways. Papers that address these issues would also provide empirical material for comparatives studies on class in Asia.
Ethnographies and qualitative case studies as well as works that use quantitative data for comparisons would be welcome. Workplace ethnographies, ethnographic studies of labor activism, comparative analyses of labor movements in different countries or between different periods in a single country, archival research on labor movements in the past, comparative historical studies of the class base of social movements are some of the possible methodologies that may be used in the papers.