There's an essay of Gramsci's, on 'Americanism and Fordism', which attempts to draw out what is modern and rational in the cocoon of batshit pseudo-science and moralism that went by the name of Fordism.
We may think of Fordism as being to do with mass production, high productivity and thus relatively high wages, with Taylorist assembly line methods being used to break down tasks and speed up completion. This is the image that is most current. But in fact, it is much more than that. Fordism is about the political and ideological domination of workers by their employers. It is about moral regulation and demographic rationalisation. When the boss doesn't just want to know what you are doing on the shop floor; when the boss wants to know about your family life, your sumptuary propensities, your sexuality, what sort of music you listen to - that is Fordism proper. That is the Fordism of northern US industries, but also of southern textile towns.
In this era, the political and ideological domination of bosses in the workplace is a lot more subtle than this, and a lot less to do with hands on regulation of workers' lives. There are, of course, insidious forms of surveillance and control. A worker can be fired for tweeting the wrong thing, Facebooking a diss of an annoying manager, blogging a view that brings alleged disrepute to the firm. But generally speaking, the employer can rest assured that other processes guided by the state will ensure that labour power is reproduced in a satisfactory way. One way to look at this is to say that the most irrational, paternalistic elements of managerial culture have been expunged, although anyone who pays close attention to managerial doctrine would be hard-pressed to say that pseudo-science has decreased its grip.
Nonetheless, forms of political and ideological domination continue to be very important to the production process. Forms of ideological domination would include, the accumulation of knowledge of the production process and its careful distribution among only select groups of employees, the maintenance of bureaucracies involved in keeping information on employees and any ongoing issues they have (the HR department in any large corporation), the deployment of professional and occupational ideologies (often in the context of training), and so on.
Political domination in this context is the way in which workplace authority is exercised, the organisation of the resources in the workplace to secure cooperation, obedience and even consent. This can take the form of junior managers pulling people up for excessive toilet breaks, at the most trivial level, and disciplinary cases at a more serious level; but it can also take the form of more consensual practices such as workers facilities, incentive payment schemes, scented blocks in the toilets, a small amount of extra tartar sauce for the cafeteria fish-sticks, and so on. Practices which one might assume to be 'economic' in the sense of being geared toward raising productivity, might also have a more 'political' function in helping consolidate the authority of the managers, ensuring orders are treated as legitimate, and thus preventing breakdowns in the flow of production, union militancy, or at its most extreme, forms of politicised rank and file insurgency.
So, this is an observation about Gramsci's observation that 'hegemony begins in the factory'. I take this to mean not just that the workplace is the cellular basis from which the fabric of a hegemonic bloc can be constituted, but rather also that the hegemonic practices and strategies that shape the wider society tend to be condensed and reflected in the workplace too. Hegemony 'begins' in the workplace, but only because the workplace is where the most fundamental social antagonisms that structure the entire social formation are concentrated most visibly. I think this particular relationship of the workplace to hegemonic domination is actually demonstrated in Mark Rupert's excellent book, Producing Hegemony, about the Fordist system in the post-war United States. And it occurred to me that this might actually be a more pressing matter than we realise when it comes to class struggles, particularly since the fact of class struggle itself means that such domination can never run smoothly, that it is always something that is having to be constructed, that the preferred mode of domination may be resented or contested not just by workers but by middle managers and so on.
in the Volkswagen plant in Chatanooga
, Tennessee, cannot be attributed in any simple way to employer opposition. The bosses have a strong hand if they decided to use their rights to engage in union-busting, precisely because of their established forms of political and ideological domination. That VW agreed to remain 'neutral', declining to use their strong hand, suggests management were as close as management ever gets to being in favour of unionisation. This is probably because for a large multinational manufacturing firm, having a union act as a mediator between managers and workers is not necessarily a bad political strategy. It often improves productivity and efficiency.
In this case, though, the wider hegemonic strategies of the Right (involving anti-union campaigns, local political elites, GOP politicians, and so on) achieved what management chose not to attempt to achieve, precisely by linking in to opposition within the plant among not just a section of junior management, low-ranking supervisors and so on, but also the better paid, skilled workers. It was the latter who organised anti-union campaigns inside the plant - sections of the workforce itself, vehemently opposed to any union presence, more so than VW management!
Union mishandling played a role in this, of which more in a moment. However, to grasp how they fucked up so badly, it is necessary to see how they were fighting on a terrain that was far more structurally loaded against them than they perhaps realised. The real question is not why unions fuck up in their bureaucratic, back-room way, but why workers were so available for the Right. This sort of outcome cries out for a neoliberalism-in-their-souls form of analysis.
Part of the explanation is the fact that VW's hegemonic regime was already working comparatively well. Wages were relatively 'high', conditions were better than anything most workers in that region were likely to see, the company offered good car deals which is not insignificant, and so on. The material situation offered spaces in which the Right could insert its narrative - you risk losing these comparative advantages if you sign on with UAW, because UAW will cause the plant to go bust, just like in Detroit, and they'll give away all your money to Democrats while doing so. There was even a basis for a classic reactionary-populist strategy, since the union had a recent history of making big concessions to employers, and its agreement with management demonstrated a commitment to keeping the company's cost advantages intact: UAW's conniving with management shows that they don't care about ordinary workers the same way that Grover Norquist does.
But, of course, and this is one place where UAW seem to have gone badly wrong, the Right understood that workplace class struggles condense and reproduce the tendencies of established by struggles outside the workplace. They mobilised; they sought a 'community' response, in a state disproportionately dominated by Republican-voting white evangelicals, who see unions as an auxiliary of the Democratic Party and thus of gun control and abortions. The Right fought a battle through popular opinion, mobilising entrenched common sense assumptions in a field of struggle much wider than the workplace or a few media outlets. UAW, by contrast, seem to have fought a narrow campaign, resisting the urge to get involved in community organising, politicise their campaign, raise 'divisive' issues or talk about anything other than how great their relationship was with VW management. Their approach to organising was not just bureaucratic and top-down, not just tactically conservative, but actually oblivious of a large part of the fight.
Hegemony begins in the workplace, alright. One side won because they understood this; and the other side didn't.