Labour Politics not as we know it: Politics of Labour in East Asia

In democratic politics, the art of the possible means the art of extending the possible, the art of creating the possible out of the impossible. It is true that the logic of realpolitik is the only logic that is effective in the state of public despair. Democratic politics has the power to bring about a political change of state and make possible what was impossible before. This is not sentimental idealism but plain realism: it can happen and it does happen. If all the soldiers refuse to fight, the war is over; if all the citizens take to the streets, the dictatorship is out of power; if all the unions strike on the same day, they are in control of industry; if all the indebted nations simultaneously abrogate their debts, International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are abolished. This is the realpolitik of democratic politics (Lummis 1997, p. 157)


In this article I want to take issue with ‘labour politics’ in East Asia. The aim is to have a critical review of labour politics in East Asia. I will try to do the job by 1) reviewing how people in social-labour movements conceive of labour politics, 2) linking what I call ‘the mysteriously rigid understanding of labour politics’ with the really existing forms of labour politics in East Asia, which I believe are flawed in many aspects, and 3) talking about ‘democracy of labour’ as perhaps a way of moving forward from this ‘dead end’ of labour politics that has been captured by a crude form of politics of capital - ‘market democracy’. I will argue that we need to release labour politics from the trinity formula of union, party and the state as much as we want to release the labour movement from a narrow economic interest-focused and workplace-based union movement. I will conclude this article by calling for a plural model of labour politics in place of a singular model of labour politics. I contend that it will be this model through which the subversively democratic power of labour can be released from the politics of capital.

Labour politics as we know it - the holy trinity of union, party and the state

‘Why would you do that?’ I often asked this question, regarding entry into labour politics, to progressive activists in one Southeast Asian country, when interviewing them about how to revitalize the labour movement and effectively challenge neoliberal globalization. With few exceptions, the issue of ‘political mobilization’ of workers followed the discussions about national alliance building of trade unions. Most of them rightly pointed out the contradictory mode of the existence of trade unions – ‘with and against’ capital. Unions are against capital in the sense that they seek to improve the interests of workers, and this often comes only at the expense of capital. However, unions are also not free from capital, as they are formed by and for employees, who could not exist as such without the pre-existence of capital in the end. Those activists I interviewed would conclude by asserting the urgency and necessity of a working class political party, whether operating legally or illegally, but in any case with the understanding it would be relatively free from and independent of direct influences of capital. The ultimate aim of this political party is then to take power of the state, either electorally (as in the case of Chile) or forcefully through popular mobilization (as in the case of China and Russia). 

The answers from the activists to my question can be summarized in two points: 1) engaging in ‘politics’ is important as every problem labour faces can only and ultimately be resolved politically and 2) political parties and then the state have been (!) central in some cases of successful experiences of political mobilization of workers. The first answer is reasonable as it recognizes the ultimately political nature of the social system. However, my question goes to the second part: why they would do ‘this’ (building a political party to take the state) in order to achieve ‘that’ (political mobilization of workers). For me, taking ‘doing things politically’ to mean ‘acting through parties and the state’ is a serious matter of discussion. For liberals, it is a matter of a common sense that it is only through ‘parliamentary politics’ that the labour movement can express its concern in and beyond workplaces in a legitimate way. Anything outside of this would be regarded not as politics. In this framework, the political or political actions are equated to politics, more specifically parliamentary politics. On the other hand, for many radicals, nationalization of resources, lands and means of industrial production are still regarded as the way to independent and autonomous development that is not necessarily capitalist. The state is regarded as the most effective vehicle of doing so, and for the working class, political parties are the ultimate means to taking power of the state. Thus what they need to do is to establish a political party which steers politics in favour of the interest of the working class.

This stance is based on a certain interpretation of history, i.e. historical experiences of the labour movement utilizing political parties and the state to solve problems faced by workers. It could be based on a romantic idea of the vanguard parties of former socialist countries or persistent workers’ (unions’) influences over the political parties in some small but welfare-oriented countries of Scandinavia, or the 19th century social democrats’ experiences of western Europe in its heydays of democratization and subsequent emergence of the welfare state in the 20th century, and finally the ongoing experiments of labour parties and pan-socialist political alliances in some developing countries such as Cuba, Venezuela, South Africa and, to a lesser extent, Korea. The ultimate difference between more and less radical versions of this story lies in the extent to which ‘the state controls capital’. In spite of slight differences between opinions of people and organizations, all are pretty much the same. There is the holy trinity formula of labour politics: union, party and the state; and the state is at the centre of social reform, moderate or revolutionary. This is the basic framework of what I call the singular model of labour politics.

We have become very accustomed to the idea that the state institution is the ultimate form of doing things politically, through which people can challenge the socio-economic domination of the ruling elite. At a glance it seems to be an obvious and self-proving matter. However, it developed through a particular history of struggle and it also left a lot of unresolved contradictions behind. This trinity formula is a mere reflection of the reality that we try to overcome – the separation between economy and politics (with a transmission belt of parties in between). Furthermore, it developed on the basis of particular social composition of labour which was very different from the way in which labour is socially mobilised for capitalist production and reproduction in contemporary capitalist society.

Labour politics does not mean doing politics. Labour politics is about ‘making things political’ rather than about ‘doing politics’. Furthermore, making things political does not necessarily mean doing things through the state. Although politicization is often taken this way, doing things through the state is no more than an important moment of doing things politically. Political parties, whether operating within or against the existing political structure, are also a moment of labour politics. In other words, labour politics cannot and should not be reduced to either political parties or the state. The reason why we conceptualize labour politics in this way is largely because this is what politics is usually about. The trinity formula of union, parties and state, is the origin of many problems in labour politics such as statism, the dichotomy between the economic and political, liberalism and prevalent nationalism. I argue the trinity formula cannot be an ultimate remedy for the politicization of the working class.

The statization of labour politics and containment of democracy

As I mentioned above, I see there to be a problem with the link between political mobilization, political parties and the state: why is this link taken for granted? Why do questions regarding political mobilization become questions about ‘political party’? Why does this question again become a question of the state? I contend that these unnecessary equations in this singular model of labour politics are contributing to the subjugation of labour politics to capitalist politics in cases of capitalist development, or to state politics in case of ‘socialist’ countries.

The ‘state as we know it’ is not something capitalists can use in capitalist society and proletariats can use in communist society. It is the capitalist state. The form of the state that we know has been shaped within capitalist social relations and its functions also have developed within this particular form—functions such as mobilizing, allocating and reallocating resources among the population through social welfare and taxation, regulating and protecting labour, introducing protections for socially marginalized groups of people, and setting up rules of engagement in economic competition. Therefore, it is inevitably a risky business to imagine new and different functions of the state on the basis of the current form of the state that is inscribed in our mind. 

In capitalist society, the labour-capital relation has to be presented as a technical relation in which labour exchanges its commodity labour power for a money wage. This is the basis of what Marx called the ‘abstract rule’ of capital. In this way, unequal class relations are presented as technical relations between different sources of revenue. This is presented as non-class relations in a liberal framework, or presented as class relations only in terms of economic and quantitative form, rather than relations of conflicts and struggle on the basis of unequally given social power. This is the basis of the trinity formula in modern economics (land, capital and labour) as well as the ideological basis for individuals as a basic social unit in liberalism. Once this is established, the domination of capital becomes abstract domination that requires direct and extra-economic force only in exceptional cases. 

However, historically two challenges occurred in the historical process of forming this supposedly ‘abstract rule’ and these challenges marked the development of the particular form of the state which we often mistakenly take as the ahistorical form of the state. These were the democratization movement and labour movement in the 19th century. Both had radicals and moderate reformists in them. Reformists aimed at realizing the ideal of equal labour-capital relations without, however, destroying the essence of the relations; while on the other hand, radicals aimed to destroy the relations of exchange between capital and labour because they believed that there is no such thing as equal relations between capital and labour. Despite conflicts and factions between them, they were two major forces that demanded more social and political rights for ordinary people.

Threatened by continuous struggles, the state was now increasingly engaged in stabilizing the reproduction of social relations. The state found difficulty in identifying itself with ‘capital’ or the rich in general, as far as it attempted to complement the reproduction without provoking further challenge from the working class. Economic rule needed to be as economical as possible. Political enforcement for the immediate interests of the elites needed to be minimal so that the apparent reality of unequal class relations would not appear clearly. With this historical need, the ‘modern’ state based on citizenship emerged. In accepting compromise with the citizens, who aspired for democracy, largely through organizations of industrial workers, the state managed to translate unequal class relations into relations of equal citizenship without regard to their places in capitalist class relations. With one person one vote, liberal representative democracy was created. Capital relations now appeared to be politically equal relations between citizens who share universal citizenship without giving any formal clue of class difference.

In doing so, the state established the basis on which it could appear to be autonomous from capital. However, with their political rights established, workers did not stop asking for their share of the pie in economic development and for more social rights. The labour movement did so by pursuing the singular model of labour politics. Universal citizenship could be demystified if not really reducing social inequality. Although the workers movement was not as radical as before, the growing political power of the working class, now with its political parties with increasing votes from the member of the industrial working class, made urgent the call for more social rights. This led to the emergence of the welfare state that strengthened the autonomous image of the state and indeed completing the imaginary but real separation of the politics from capital relations of social domination. 

More ‘social rights’ to decent living were able to compensate for the shortfall in political citizenship, which formal political rights was not enough to complete. Many think this was ‘economic democratization’ achieved by labour politics but it was only partially the case because labour remained nonetheless a commodity, whether protected or not protected. The irony was that labour was increasingly protected but at the same time work was becoming a ‘commodity’ more than ever before with commodifying livelihood.

The singular model of labour politics has been successful in mobilizing workers’ votes by participating in liberal political processes. However, labour had to pay a lot and this cost later appeared too high when labour politics with the singular model stopped functioning for the sake of the ordinary working population. More rights were guaranteed only insofar as organized labour endorsed the state as the sole vehicle of the reform, and labour or social democratic parties as the sole political tool to push the state to implement the reform. Perhaps the greatest damage to labour politics was done by ‘conflating democracy with liberalism’ (Mcnally 2006, p. 271). Democracy no longer meant ‘rule of the people’ but rule of the state whose leaders were occasionally elected by the people. Labour had to allow what was originally a lot more subversive democracy (rule of the people) to be reduced to ‘electoral democracy’. Contrary to many liberal arguments, this was not a ‘natural’ consolidation of democracy, but a peculiar form of the consolidation of democracy resulting from this particular historical development that labour politics with its singular model could not prevent. Democracy stopped being an organizing principle of social relations in all areas of society. It rather became a ruling principle of state politics. This was the moment of expulsion of politics from other dimensions of social life.

In workplaces, labour turned itself into an appendage to capital in labour process as unions concentrated on getting more economic compensation in exchange for political struggle at the workplace level. In the society as a whole, labour became deeply integrated into capital relations through widely spreading consumerism and increasing commodification of livelihood. While the union ‘representatives’ were retreating to workplaces to secure the economic interest of their own members, political parties were being increasingly integrated into liberal ‘politics’. The increasingly clearer division of labour between union, party and the state brought each of the elements of the trinity formula their own lives: union becoming more concerned about economic issues, parties containing themselves within liberal representative democracy and the state becoming more bureaucratic. When capital decided to overcome the economic crisis of the 1970s by preventing the state from being the vehicle of economic justice, we even experienced backward development that was later consolidated into neoliberalism and ‘market democracy’, the crudest form of liberal democracy, which allows democratization only to the extent that it secures the rule of the market.

Politics of social-labour movement and plural model of labour politics

Labour politics in a wider sense is to make apolitical things political. For instance, labour politics does not leave the decision about a living wage to the ‘market’ but tries to distort the market as much as possible on this particular matter, to the extent the power of labour can be exercised collectively for this purpose. A wider sense of labour politics is taking democracy as social movement as its supreme tool of pursuing ultimate democratization that involves breaking down the boundary between the economic and political in social life. On the contrary, a narrow labour politics conceives of democracy as a state system within which labour politics needs to be placed to influence other institutions in the system.

The trinity formula of union, party and the state played a major part of building a democratic state. However, state fetishism has again played a major role in containing democracy within a ‘politics’ that reproduces its self-image in separation from the economic and thereby providing a false boundary between the political and the economic.

How about labour politics in East Asia? At a glance, ‘labour politics’ in East Asia presents a very pessimistic perspective. From the most developed to the least developed countries, from ‘socialist’ to high-tech capitalist countries, labour politics seems to be largely, if not completely, subsumed to the existing power structure. Most attempts to overcome this problem are unfortunately based on the revival of the singular model of labour politics.

Most labour leaders in Indonesia are not free from this old concept of labour politics, as they understand labour politics as getting into ‘politics’ by doing politics.  

The fall of Suharto (1965-1998) in 1998 has restored formal democracy. However, with few exceptions, it did not lead to much active participation of either the existing labour movement or organizations of grass-root people in ‘politics’. Oligarchic elites still dominate the politics featuring a ‘decentralised monopoly’ of power and money politics while the military and other old interests remain as strong political figures (Hadiz and Robison 2005).


In Indonesia: the urgent task of forming a wider democratic alliance to overcome ‘market democracy’ is overshadowed by many individual attempts to establish their own political parties on the basis of their own union federations.


Indeed, Indonesia has a strong tradition of progressive social movements throughout the colonial period and in the aftermath of the independence. These movements could often re-emerge even under the suppression of the Suharto regime. But these movements seem not to have taken best advantage of democratic spaces created by the fall of Suharto to create new spaces of politics. Quite to the contrary, union leaders are casting about for more effective ways of entering the existing realm of party politics, using their dissident political careers under the Suharto regime for post-Suharto political success. On the other hand, radicals, criticizing these individual approaches of former union leaders, are discussing the necessity of political parties that aim to nationalize core industries. However, in these discussions, the old line of arguments based on the trinity formula still works as the bible. The urgent task of forming a wider democratic alliance to overcome ‘market democracy’ is overshadowed by many individual attempts to establish their own political parties on the basis of their own union federations. In doing so, the subversive power of labour whose potential may have an opportunity to be realized in a more democratic social conditions is being contained within the existing ‘politics’ where the old oligarchy has an absolute dominance. Labour politics is at risk of being subsumed to the politics of capital in Indonesia.

Perhaps the worst example of this narrow understanding of labour politics and a possibly worst-case scenario of labour politics in East Asia’s recent history can be found in the current political turmoil and labour’s involvement in it in Thailand. The military coup in 2006 faced surprisingly little resistance from the traditional big players in social movements. This showed the impotence of progressive social movements whose political mobilization has been blocked by repeated military coups in the last few decades. It also signalled a backward development featured by collusion between the major force of social movement, including labour unions, and the conservative wing of the ruling class whose interest was not very well secured by the new ‘democratic’ government of Thaksin Shinawatra that pursued ‘market democracy’. Soon after the coup, actors in social movements had to decide among the lesser of two evils. Most of those involved in labour politics had no choice other than joining the People’s Alliance for Democracy, backed by the conservative ruling class, or the newly emerging group of capitalists who reduced democratic development in Thailand to ‘market democracy’.

Labour leaders who were not capable of mobilizing a different labour politics surrendered themselves to the existing power relations of politics and by doing so they seem to believe they are gaining something politically. The Thai example shows the current problem of labour politics in East Asia. This is not merely a problem that can be reduced to lack of a political party of the working class. Thai labour leaders understood labour politics as labour in politics rather than politics of labour, so that for them the only way of pursuing labour’s political interests was to participate in the old, corrupt and dirty game of politics. In so doing, Thailand’s proud history of democratization movement that led the dramatic social transformation in 1973 and 1992 has been ruined.

The limit of the singular model of labour politics can also be found in the so-called socialist model. In this model, labour politics has been subsumed to a state politics blocking the self-mobilization of workers toward direct control over production and society. In China, it is the holy trinity that represses the subversive power of labour. Official trade unions are firmly under the leadership of the party-state and ‘socialist’ politics, even though labour relations have been already transformed into capitalist relations. Indeed it is a historical consequence of the statization of labour politics in socialist China. Chinese trade unions have been deprived of their political roles since soon after the revolution. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that is supposedly the ‘catalyst’ of the political aspiration of working people unfortunately seems to take sides with capital, foreign or domestic, in an attempt to achieve a fast modernization of the country that socialism did not serve too much. It seems true that the new development in China is capable of feeding its people with the unprecedented rate of economic growth, although very unevenly. However, people’s aspiration of political participation and true democracy to deter the increasing unevenness in development has never been met by the party state to which the revolution by workers and peasants once surrendered their power.



In China: Strikes have become once again a part of daily scenes. The fact that not a single one of them has been assisted by the ACFTU or the workers’ party loudly testifies the death of subversive labour politics in China.


Therefore desperate self-help actions taken by individuals appears in the waves of petitioners in Beijing while workers express their discontent with the new development in localized riots and wildcat strikes (Chen 2006, Lee 2007). Strikes became once again a part of daily scenes. However, the fact that not a single one of them has been mobilized by or at least assisted by the official trade union All China Federation of Trade Union (ACFTU) or the workers’ party loudly testifies the death of subversive labour politics in China. Attempts have been made, earlier in the history of the CCP, to make the ACFTU more independently able to defend workers’ interests, even if led by the party politically. Yet these attempts have been stifled and the ACFTU has been caught between its party-dependent nature and role of representing workers. Mass organizations such as the ACFTU and Women’s Federation have increasingly become state organs through which the state organized production and distribution of goods and services. Today, Chinese trade unions have stopped being a vehicle for workers to express their subversive political power. Rather they function as a transmission belt between the party and working population. 

More developed countries in East Asia are not exceptional. Most labour movements continue to experiment with the singular model of labour politics. Japan’s labour politics, largely led by Sohyo (the General Council of Trade Unions of Japan) and the Japan Socialist Party (JSP), did have some real achievements after the peak of the militant labour movement in 1960. Ironically this benefited not those workers in radical activism but most of all workers in zaibatsu (conglomerates) that introduced a world class in-company welfare system as well as employment security in exchange for better labour productivity. Moderate unions such as Zenro (the Congress of All Japan Trade Unions) and Sodomei (Japan Confederation of Trade Unions) agreed upon this Japanese style social contract. With their support, a conservative wing of JSP seceded from the JSP. JSP’s political success went well into the 1960s while Sohyo continued to be militant mostly with public sector workers. The JSP earned 145 seats (about 30% of total seats) in parliamentary election in 1962. The singular model of labour politics looked promising by then. However the long history of Japan’s political party-union alliances/division has produced very little new results since the 1970s, with the party becoming increasingly an agent of parliamentary politics with increasing compromise with moderate policies and the union becoming increasingly an agent for the interest of organized core industrial workers. New movements such as peace and anti-war movements, environmental movements, and the co-op movement were emerging, but did not have many opportunities to be integrated into or make synergic impacts on labour politics. Labour politics in Japan was no longer a major route through which working people’ socio-economic desires were politically mobilized and expressed. After Sohyo’s last attempt to revitalize itself through public sector strike in the mid-1970s, militant unionism has become severely isolated. By 1990, JSP scrapped off its project for a radical social transformation and Sohyo finally collapsed in 1989 after Rengo (Japan Trade Union Confederation) unified moderate trade unions into a confederation. The trade union then became a pillar of the social contract within and outside workplaces while political parties have increasingly become coalition partners to deliver social services through the state.

In Korea’s case as well, the earlier political labour movement brought some real achievements; most formal labour rights have been granted by the state and the political mobilization of workers has been legalized. However, the Korean labour movement’s attempt to combine parliamentary labour politics of the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) with the 0grassroot workers mobilizing of Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) has been a very troubled process from both sides as the party could not go beyond parliamentary politics (in the sense that all other activities tend to be utilized for electoral success) and the union is becoming more and more a vehicle for the interests of regular employees in large scale enterprises as seen in Japan’s previous experience. In the meantime, labour and peasant organizations, civil right movements, the KCTU and DLP could not stop the neoliberal offensive and the democratized state has been reoccupied by the most neoliberal party that is in line with previous military dictators (Lee’s government), through a ‘democratic’ election. Whether or not the recent split of the workerist left and social democrats from the nationalist-dominated DLP would make any difference remains to be seen, as the newly organized New Progressive Party (NPP) also shares the singular model of labour politics. One thing that would make a difference is that the NPP openly emphasizes the importance of mobilizing the more dynamic part of the working class, that is, the informal workers. Perhaps NPP’s contribution to a new labour politics depends on how far the NPP would go beyond ‘doing politics’ to create new forms of political engagement with people. 

Now it is highly doubtful that the trinity formula can be again the major vehicle to expand democracy as an organizing principle of our livelihood, not only over the politics but also all other major social areas like the economic, social, communal and domestic fields. It is doubtful not only because of the historical failure of this singular model, but because the singular model has been built upon the limited development of capitalist social relations in the 19th century type of industrial space and time. This 19th century labour politics developed on the basis of industrial workers who are organized in trade unions, which supported political parties that represented the interests of industrial workers to the state, which then could be the implementing tool for pro-workers reforms. The realm of labour politics was then evolving along this single frontline between the industrial working class and capital. 

However, the more influential labour politics became, the more integral part of capitalist politics became labour politics. While labour politics was not posing any real threat to capitalist development, capital continued to expand. The consequence was that the circuit of capital expanded and now includes the moments of production, consumption, social reproduction and the (non-) reproduction of nature (Dyer-Witheford 2002, p. 12). Class ‘can no longer be discussed in terms solely of the division between owners and workers at the point of production’ (Dyer-Witheford 2002, p. 9) and therefore labour politics can no longer be only about a group of industrial workers overtaking means of production owned by capitalists. This means many plural frontlines for the battle of subversive labour politics, which have been signalled by emerging global justice movements against neoliberal globalization.


It is important to notice that none of the elements in the singular model of labour politics can be a sole route or fast track for change. Under the expanded circuit of global capital, it is urgent to devise a plural model of labour politics vis-à-vis the traditional singular model. This is labour politics for people whose life-dimensions are all subsumed to capital on all fronts as producers, carers, reproducers, consumers and recyclers. This is about reclaiming power by creating many different power reservoirs rather than surrendering it to existing powerful organizations and institutions. This involves many different labour movements, the strategy of which reflects the socialized nature of capitalist labour. The first step would be recognizing these diversified labour movements as important parts of a new subversive labour politics. Of course it is not enough to recognize different frontlines of labour politics. We need to build up strong horizontal alliances of many different movements whose principle of organizing is democracy. The plural model of labour politics is to be able to present a universal platform for diverse social movements, not to harm the diversity of the movements, or to link these movements externally, but to allow mutual integration into one another so that uneven development at different fronts of labour politics do not undermine the movement as a whole. The task of this platform is to make the second wave of democratization not by penetrating into narrow liberal democratic politics but by widening democracy by democratizing workplaces, communities, and domestic spheres.



Chen, J. 2006, ‘Is there a Labour Movement in China?’, Asian Labour Update, Issue 59, pp. 1-8.

Dyer-Witheford, N. 2002, ‘Global Body, Global Brain/Global Factory, Global War: Revolt of the Value-Subjects’, at, The Commoner, No. 3.

Hadiz, V. R. and R. Robison 2005, ‘Neo-liberal Reforms and Illiberal Consolidations: The Indonesian Paradox’, The Journal of Development Studies, Vol.41, No.2, pp.220 – 241.

Lee, C. K. 2007, Against the Law: Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt, Berkeley, University of California Press.

Lummis, D. C. 1996, Radical Democracy, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

McNally, D. 2006, Another World is Possible, Globalization & Anti-Capitalism, Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring Publishing