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How the Great Swing Left Turned into the Great Swing Right

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The history of the world since the Industrial Revolution can be divided into two periods. One runs from 1800-1980. The second runs from 1980 to the present day. In the first period, the world became increasingly leftist, and pro-worker. Labor parties and socialist parties ruled the political landscape. In the second period, the world became increasingly conservative. In the United States, the working class is increasingly right-wing, MAGA, and pro-Trump. This is being echoed by populist anti-immigrant working classes in most of the rich industrial nations. Why has the world shifted from moving steadily left to moving steadily right?  


Before 1980, workers were in the process of successfully obtaining benefits and rights. In the nineteenth century, most of the labor force was non-union. Strict right-to-work laws limited workers powers severely. There were exceptions for very skilled workers. There were exceptions made during political crises when this politician or that politician would need the support of the working class to carry the day. But generally, union rights were few and far between. They were reserved for the most skilled and irreplaceable workers, such as printers and fur workers. The rest of the working class had to count on the tender mercies of their employers. Between 1870 and World War II, the legal climate began to change. More and more workers received the right to unionize. With union membership came union pay and union working conditions. Wages and standards of living improved significantly during this period.


With the rise of unions came the rise of union political power. Many countries had workers parties, parties with names such as “The Labour Party”, “The Socialists” or “The Social Democrats”. In the United States, the Democrats became the party that stood up for the rights of organized labor. With the rise of union political power came new government programs that benefitted workers. Most industrial nations implemented national health care plans. Nearly every industrial nation instituted social security and income security for the elderly. Governments created housing programs for the poor. Many countries offered free child care. Nearly every government implemented unemployment insurance accompanied, in some cases, with legal limits on employers’ rights to fire. In the balance of power between workers and management, the advantage shifted decisively towards workers.


This trend began to be undermined in the 1980’s. Union-management laws were rewritten to favor companies rather than organized labor. Union membership dropped precipitously as a result. With lower rates of union membership, left-wing political parties lost a lot of their support at the ballot box. In many European countries, elections have become contests between centrists, business conservatives and the far right. As governments became more conservative, government welfare provisions were cut back. Funding was cut for health care systems and public housing. Laws favoring workers were rewritten in the interest of “labor market flexibility”.\


The table below provides statistical evidence of these trends. The table lists union density figures for various industrial nations. Union density is the percent of the labor force that belongs to a union. This is a standard measure of working class strength.

Union Density: Percentage of the Workforce Belonging to Unions

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Virtually every nation in the table shows a dramatic increase in unionization between 1900 and 1950. Mid-century trends are more varied. However, 1950 and 1980 generally show the highest levels of union density in the table. Between 1980 and 2018, every nation saw a drop in union membership. In some cases like Sweden, the drop was relatively mild. In other countries like Britain or Australia, the rate of decline was calamitous. 2018 figures were generally higher than those in 1900. However, there was a clear decline in worker strength between the current era and the middle of the twentieth century. Right wing conservatism rose as left wing unionism became increasingly an exercise in futility.


Why was there a great swing left followed by a great swing right?

The Great Swing Left: Why Did Countries Become More Pro-labor 1800-1980?

The Great Swing Left was powered by industrialization, economic growth and labor scarcity. This argument was made by the Industrial Relations Theorist, Adolph Sturmthal, in the late 1960’s. Sturmthal did not predict the Great Reversal after 1980. However, his characterization of the earlier period is pretty much on target.


The Industrial Revolution engendered a dramatic increase in the rate of economic growth that has continued unabated up through the 21st Century. To be sure, there were booms and busts; the growth was punctuated by recessions and depressions. However, the long-term tendency was for continuous increases in absolute levels of GDP per capita and with it, rising levels of economic activity.


With rising rates of economic activity came declining rates of unemployment. Preindustrial economies were economies with vast reserves of unemployed or marginally employed workers. As economic development occurred, more and more jobs were created. More and more workers were used to fill these jobs. As the demand for labor increased, the number of surplus unemployed workers decreased. Countries moved from a condition of labor surplus to a state of labor scarcity.


Labor scarcity is the number one factor promoting union strength. Union bargaining power comes from labor’s ability to win strikes. Unions win strikes when they can pull their workers off a jobsite and the employer lacks the capacity to find non-workers to do the job in their stead. If management can not find replacement workers, they have no option but to bargain with the union on the union’s terms. If management can find replacement workers, then the union has pulled its workers off of the jobsite for nothing. The striking workers lose their jobs to the replacement workers; the union loses big time. Everything depends on there being no extra workers who can replace the strikers. When the economy is sluggish and there are lots of unemployed workers, there are likely to be plenty of volunteers to replace any given set of strikers. Strikes in the first half of the nineteenth century often failed because of the availability of surplus workers. As the economy heated up, more and more of these extra workers were absorbed by other employers. When the employer was looking for unemployed workers to replace his strikers, he was not likely to find them. Rising industrialization provided greater and greater negotiating power for the working class.


Labor historians and other industrial relations professionals will recognize the previous analysis as being a vast oversimplification. They would note that high levels of worker skill can prevent employers from finding replacement workers. They would also note the role of government and community support for the strikers. All of this is true. However, the supply of surplus labor went down dramatically in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Skill levels remained much the same. Government support was on-again/off-again depending on the regime.


With bargaining power came institutional union power. With institutional union power came left wing political power. With left wing political power came labor governments that produced political programs for the working class. (An alternative road was for conservative governments facing a potential union threat to create political programs for the working class to insure future labor peace.)


The end result – an unprecedented period of worker power and worker well being both from high union wages and from generous government benefits.


The Great Swing Right: Why Did Countries Become More Conservative 1980-2022?


The primary cause of the Great Swing Right was Globalization. There had always been extensive trade between the Global North and the Global South. However, manufacturing had traditionally been done in Europe and North America, while Latin America and Asia had been providers of raw materials to the more developed world.  The West’s relative lock on industrial manufacturing was broken in the 1970’s and 1980’s by three parallel developments:

  1. The emergence of the Japanese automobile industry as a global center of efficient production

  2. The emergence of South Korea as the first great center of off-shore manufacturing using cheap labor

  3. The expansion of the South Korean model to China which combined the South Korean cheap labor formula with the excellence in engineering associated with the Japanese.

These developments produced the phenomenon of global commodity chains in which products are designed in the wealthy nations of the Global North but actually produced in the Global South. Latin America had a passing period of being a center for global manufacture before it was overtaken by China. There is an open question of whether Sub-Saharan Africa will be able to outcompete China in the cheap labor sector.

The globalization of manufacture undercut the power of unions in wealthy nations. It was increasingly possible for firms in high-cost production centers in North America and Europe to outsource production to Asian competitors. Outsourcing eliminated the union advantage of labor scarcity. Workers may have been scarce in Upper State New York, or in Denmark. Labor was not scarce when the entire population of China was factored into the equation. Unions were now faced with the prospect that if they went on strike, their local factory could be closed and entire production lines could be moved to China. The ability of workers to win strikes tanked.


There were still some unions that could survive global outsourcing. Service occupations were harder to move than were manufacturing positions. One could not move government workers to a foreign country. Air transportation continued to be run by nationally owned companies which served local populations. Hospitals and schools were not portable. However, these non-movable jobs represented only a percentage of the labor force. Most of the working class lost its bargaining power. Without bargaining power, fewer workers wanted to join unions. With union power diminished, their ability to support leftist political candidates was diminished.


Diminishing employment made industrial workers increasingly wary of competition in the job markets. This was particularly the case for those members of the working class who were male, native-born and less educated. Males were losing economic power to women. Men worked in the manufacturing economy which was shrinking. Women worked in the service economy which was growing. Working class males were increasingly less employed or earning lower wages than their wives – reducing their power within the family. Native-born men were subject to labor market competition from immigrants. Less educated workers were subject to economic competition from workers with advanced degrees. This trend increased the overall hostility to the educated classes as a whole. Disagreements between low-educated and high-educated workers were increased by the geographical separation of the two groups into different states and different communities within states – and by differing levels of religiosity between the two groups.


With unions being no longer economically viable, and the male working class facing threats from foreign production, women, immigrants and educated workers, the working classes of the advanced nations turned to politicians who would protect them from foreign competition, re-establish traditional gender roles, restrict immigration and would bash “know-it-all” intellectuals whose opinions were not in touch with those of “real” Americans (or “real” Frenchmen or “real” Britons).


The working class became keen supporters of conservative parties.


National politics shifted to the right.


There are other components of this change I do not address here. See the essay on this website “The Tax Revolt: An Unexpected Class Revolution” for important changes that happened within the middle class. But the transformation of the working class is what produced the Great Shift Left in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century. The neutering of that transformation is what facilitated the Great Shift Right of the Present Day.


The presence of a Great Shift Right does not bode well for the Democratic Party in the U.S., the Labour Party in Britain or for any of the Social Democratic Parties in Europe. Without a solid union base to fall back on, they are dependent on the goodwill of a “progressive” middle class. That middle class has no fundamental reason to support the left in terms of its own class interest. Its economic loyalties are dependent on the ebb and flow of issues of the day. In contrast, conservatives can argue for middle class tax cuts, attack government payments to the working class or make ethnic arguments appealing to the sense of threat faced by majority whites. A working class-middle class alliance can make for robust progressive governance. If the working class leaves the alliance, middle class progressives by themselves are unlikely to prevail in struggles for national power.


The Great Shift Right is likely to be an enduring phenomenon. Electorates may turn on conservative party governance after long periods of incumbency - particularly if those conservatives fail to produce economic growth or produce consistent foreign policy failures or simply outwear their welcome. Labor governments that failed to produce economic growth, had foreign policy failures or outwore their welcome contributed in a secondary manner to weakening of left wing forces.


But it is hard to see how enduring progressive governments could maintain themselves in power without some form of intrinsic working class strength. The best that can be hoped for is some kind of competent Conservative technocracy. Such governments have existed in the past. Only time will tell if such governments come to exist in the future.

For More Information

The Union Density statistics come from Bernard Ebbinghaus’s 2002 article in Économie Appliquée “Globalization and Trade Unions: Comparative-Historical Examination of the Convergence Thesis” and the International Labor Organization’s ILOSTAT database.

The Sturmthal argument can be found in Sturmthal, A. (1966). Economic Development and the Labour Movement. In: Ross, A.M. (eds) Industrial Relations and Economic Development. Palgrave Macmillan, London.


On globalization and labor decline, see Robert Ayres (2020) On Capitalism and Inequality: Progress and Poverty Revisited. Springer, Cham, Switzerland, notably Chapter 14.

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