Working through the Past

Working through the Past, written by Teri L. Caraway, Maria Lorena Cook, Stephen Crowley

Cornell University Press, 2015

276 Pages

Price: £ 79.95

ISBN: 978-0-8014-5351-9

Book reviewed by Maximiliano E. Korstanje, CERS, University of Leeds, UK



Working through the Past is one of those books which gather 10 interesting chapters authored by different voices that focus on the intersection of authoritarian legacies and worker unions. At some extent, methodologically speaking editors Teri Caraway, Maria Cook and Stephen Crowley discuss to what extent social scientist should speak of “authoritarian legacies“ to signal the institutional labor relation forged during authoritarian regimes that somehow persisted up to date. In democracies, the conflict between workers and businessmen is redeemed by different stages of negotiations in which case the struggle of interests reaches on a dead-lock. In case of strike, the state should intervene to obtain a consensus building. Not only this sum-zero game reinforces democracy but determines the influence of unions in democratic life. In authoritarian legacies things go in the opposite direction.  The point is that for many voices, strike even wildcat strike opens the doors for the necessary interaction to foster democracy. Those nations whose rights to strike was frowned, by the orchestration of different instrument, developed democracies of low-quality that led to weaker worker unions (Caraway 2015; Lee 2015). As Caraway puts it,

          “One of the ironies of Suharto regime´s industrial relations ideology, HIP, was that it encouraged unions to pursue economic unionism but delegitimized the main weapon that workers had for pressuring employers in the workplace-the strike. Referring to the national ideology, Pacasila, and borrowing from organic static and revisionist ideas, HIP philosophy stressed harmony in the workplace”. (Caraway 2015: 38)

One of the most troubling aspects of unions in contexts of totalitarian governments lies in the restrictions imposed to negotiate with capital-owners. On one hand, authoritarian government did their best to prevent unions to take direct participation in politics. On another, in other cases they endorsed to control unions, in a paternalist way. Like in Communist nations, worker unions were intervened by government and controlled in a way that prevented their autonomy. On the introductory chapter, editors explore the ebbs and flows of authoritarian legacies to form ideologies that today limit the power of workers. Teri Caraway in chapter 1 discusses the influence of Suharto regime in Indonesia and its negative effects over unions to affiliate the whole portion of workforce. The fact is that political parties are not interested in endorsing to worker unions and vice-versa. This dissociation is conducive for status quo which is formed during the Suharto Regime not to lose their legitimacy.  The second chapter examines the divergent paths of two different models Korea and Taiwan, but in fact both converge into a weak union force. In Taiwan, labor parties are formed by ethnical disputes between mainlanders and Taiwanese. While in Korea the process of democratization paved the pathways for the formation of a labor party, their resistance to communism undermined a fluid dialogue between union leaders (educated in left-wind theories) and officialdom (more prone to capitalism). In Taiwan, the ethnic conflict played a vital role for cementing the possibility for the rise of labor party. A model of led-intervened policies in unions took room in Philippines, as it was discussed through chapter 3 by J. Hutchison.  

Labor leaders constructed a strong network with unions that prevented strikes in order for securing governance. Like in many cases during the book, authors emphasize on the limitations of authoritarian regime to accept strikes as well as their overt rejection to adopt worker´s benefits as in capitalist societies. Four, fifth and sixth chapters deal with the role of unions in communist countries as Poland, Russia and Yugoslavia. Unlike other countries as Argentina or Brazil which kept stronger unions in spite of their authoritarian past, communism has largely coopted the union leaders in order to diminish any political opposition. These types of state-backed labor policies were of paramount importance to configure powerless unions, restricted to impose their view to governments. Last but not least, the restant chapters allude to the Spanish World in Latin America, a region of the world that suffered many bloodshed coups that imposed fear in lay-citizen to take part of politics. In whatever the case may be, this book offers a fertile ground to expand the current understanding how labor is organized by the pressure of undemocratic regimes. Though it is organized in a clear way, and gives 10 path-breaking chapters, the main argument rests on shaky foundations. Editors believe that democracy seems to be the best of possible worlds. It is truism that the prosperity of US rested in its capacity to create fluid dialogue with worker unions, and a dynamic economy where competence balked “extractive institutions”, as in other authoritarian countries. As Korstanje (2015) amply showed in his recent book A Difficult World, democracy is far from being the panacea we have been told. In fact, there is a clear correlation between democratic countries and capitalism but it does not correspond with a good sign.   

 Terrorism seems to be the organization of strikes by other means. To understand better this, readers should go directly to XIXth century where US was dwelled by thousand millions of European migrants.    This incipient workforce was subject to many deprivation and pain. The benefits given by state and corporate capital-owners to unions were a desperate attempt to discipline terrorism.  This will be explained better in next.

The industrial revolution and industrial capitalism were prerequisite for workers to think in terms of collective organizations. The US American Federation of Labor was founded in 1886. One of the main strengths was the power of negotiation with the owners of capital. James Joll explains that at first anarchists were depicted as dangerous by the ruling class press and the politicians who did their bidding in Gilded Age America. The United States government waged chronic war against unions beginning at the end of the Civil War And continuing until the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s. The first syndicalists that defied the state were labeled as terrorists. These workers professed a nonnegotiable fight for oppressed classes, which have been relegated by the capitalist aristocracies (Joll, 1979). At the end of WWII the American ruling class achieved a double capitulation domestically and abroad. The famous Marshall Plan worked as a catalyst to undermine the ever-growing worker demands in Europe, while the CIA consorted with gangsters and former Nazis and Fascists to subvert and terrorize workers, their unions, and their political parties (Hogan 1989; Ganser 2005; Kurku 1997). At the same time, legislation such as the 1947 Taft- Hartley Act restricted the political activities of unions and blunted workers' only weapon against exploitation the strike. The problem of communism seems not to be the anti-capitalism values it represents, but its potential effects on workers, a threatening influence that would jeopardize the American economy. Paradoxically, the mass-migration produced by the industrialization of Europe gained a considerable attraction for new-born countries as Argentina, United States and Australia that, in the division of labor, served as supplier or raw commodities. In US, these new in-comers not only brought strange customs but also what American elite considered “radical ideologies” as communism, socialism and anarchism. This type of anarchism was pretty different than the original established in the country from its foundation. Instead of accepting the liberty as the main value, it appealed to foster the “collective struggle” for the well-being of a majority. Individualism was not an option for European anarchism. In the same token, James Joll argues convincingly that its roots may be traced to the works of Godwin, Blanc, Proudhon and Bakunin. Their criticism against the state and the hegemony of law paved the way for the advent of a new movement, which postulated the egalitarian nature of human beings. One of the most troubling aspects of states is that many groups are subjugated under its unique power—its monopoly of force. By reducing government to only small units, formed by families, the anarchists thought the problem of asymmetries would be resolved. Joll adds that anarchism came from the advance of capitalism and industrial organization. Centered on the premise that production should be based on the work, and not loans, countries as Russia, Germany, and Italy witnessed the upsurge of a new movement that takes from worker’s discontents its own strength. Because of the violence wide-spread at the streets as well as the attacks to important politicians and Police in US, these new anarchists, far from being accepted by American thinking, were marked as “terrorists”. These acts, deemed terrorism, served the state by giving a rationale to ban anarchist activity. Although the workers adopted the discourses of anarchists to make sense of their struggles against capital holders, states labelled strikers as anarchists bent on destroying public order. Eventually states recognized unions as legitimate, but in the United States not until the 1935 Wagner Act. In parallel, a second wave of activists opted for organizing the “Unionization” in America cementing the possibility to create what specialists know as “anarcho-syndicalism”.


Joll goes on to acknowledge that,

 “The anarchists, too, were divided among themselves; some were anarcho-syndicalists and placed their hope of revolution in the action of the workers union which would take over the factories. Others were communist anarchists and disciples of Kropotkin, who saw social revolution coming about through the formation of local communes which would then join in a federation” (Joll 1972, 166).


In Europe, both anarchism and communism fought together to defeat monarchy, but their interests contrasted in US. Certainly, anarchists found a new source for their ideas endure. By about 1920, America was facing an industrial stage, accelerated by the mass migrations from Europe initiated in former century. The anarchist ideology met a new basis for their claims, beyond the acts of terrorists. Even though the first strikes were bloody and violent, with the passing of years anarcho-syndicalists were legally accepted in societies which not only needed the masses to work, but also sublimated their protests into reified forms of negotiation that for better or worse accelerated the reproduction of capital. Their formerly attributed terrorism was commoditized into negotiations and legally circumscribed strikes. Worker unions, by the support of anarchists, won not only fewer working hours (8), but also vacation pays and many other benefits. However, the most important achievement was the legal right to strike. At the time, the state vested in the monopoly of force, expulsed terrorist groups its main ideological core was accepted to serve as the cornerstone of capitalism. If we contend that “modern tourism” emerged at this early stage as a result of what unions did manage to achieve for workers, then we must accept terrorism played a crucial role in such process. Let us remind readers that modern tourism surfaced by the combination of two contrasting tendencies: the technological advance that shortened the points of connection, invention of new machines, and the wage benefits or working hour reduction, proposed by syndicalists. In this respect, modern tourism would not be possible without the direct intervention of the first anarchists, most of them labeled as terrorists. This means that tourism (or mobilities) is terrorism by other means. Whether first terrorists who launched to terrorism were disciplined by the state, their forms of violence were mutated to another more symbolic way of protests, the strike. Capitalism owes much to worker unions, more than thought. Whatever the case may be, tourism has extended to the globe (Naisbitt, 1995), as the well-being of industrial societies have advanced. The evolution of tourism, as a mass industry, came from a combination of economic factors, much encouraged by worker unions, such as working hour reduction and a rise in the wages. However, the history of tourism ignores the burden industrialism and technological advances brought by workers. Anarchism not only flourished in industrial contexts, exploiting the worker resentment against owners, but also improved their working conditions. Once workers abandoned the violence and activism, they were awarded with leisure and other luxuries consumptions. To the extent that a strike is considered a legal mechanism to present certain claims, while terrorist attacks are discouraged, seems to be a matter that specialists do not examine properly. A closer view reveals that there are similar processes in both, a strike and terrorism. As the vaccine is the inoculated virus to strengthen the body’s immune system, strikes are process of dissent and discord that mitigate the negative effects of conflict. After all, strikes are merely the collective effects of workers withholding their labor. There is nothing violent or threatening about them, except to those who depend on other people’s work to sustain themselves—i.e., the owners of capital. In their struggle with workers, the ruling class uses as one if its weapons the construal of strikes as taking consumers as hostages. Whenever passengers are stranded at an airport or train stations because of problems between owners and unions, the sense of urgency facilitate the things for stronger ones. Businesses and terrorism organizations are not concerned about the vulnerability or needs of passengers. The latter one are manipulated as means for achieving certain goals. In a world designed to create and satisfy psychological desires, consumers as holders of money, are of paramount importance for the stability of system. The threat that represents the consumers and the derived economic loses are enough to dissuade owners from the worker’s claims. In these types of processes, typified by law, State not only takes intervention mediating between both actors but also is in charge of leading negotiations.


Although this matter has not received sufficient attention in scholarship, strike and terrorist attacks had four commonalities,

a)   They need for surprise effects to cause damage in the government.

b)   The other, weaker, is hosted following an instrumental or mean-as-goal logic.

c)   The insensibility to the “OTHER” suffering.

d)   Negotiations imposed by means of extortion.  


What do feel international tourists when they are stranded at airport because of a sudden strike?. It is safe to say that tourism is the maiden of Empires, so, first-world travelers may be targets of attacks when they are abroad, as the current literature suggests. More often, tourists and the tourism industries act as logistical agents in deploying capital exploitation and imperial control. When tourists suffer harm, so-called terrorists (dissidents) get the blame. At a first glance, tourists are “workers” who earned their money enabling a pact to a third person (owner). Their power of consumption situates them as privileged actors of tourist system. They are target not only to strikes, at homeland, but also of terrorist attacks abroad.


Reviewed by Korstanje Maximiliano E
University of Palermo, Argentina
CERS, University of Leeds, UK



Ganser, D (2005) Nato´s secret armies, operation GLADIO and terrorism in Western Europe. London, Frank Cass Publishers.

Hogan, M. J. (1989). The Marshall Plan: America, Britain and the Reconstruction of Western Europe, 1947-1952. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Joll, J. 1979. The Anarchists. Cambridge, Methuen.

Korstanje M. E (2015) A Difficult World. Examining the roots of Capitalism. New York, Nova Science Publishers.

Kurku (1997) “Trapped in a web of covert killers”. Covert Action Quaterly. (Winter), 6.-12

Naisbitt, J. (1995). Global Paradox. London, Nicholas Breadly Publishing.


ISSN: 2254-2035