“The condition of the working class is the real basis and point of departure of all social movements…A knowledge of proletarian conditions is absolutely necessary to be able to provide solid ground for socialist theories.”
One notable feature of recent global resistance to austerity is the absence of the Left. There have been momentous strikes and protests across Europe, the Arab world, and even America as governments make the poor pay for the economic crisis with cuts, unemployment, and wage crunches. This will certainly continue. The capitalist system, as Marx pointed out, breeds class struggle. But this does not guarantee that the Left will respond effectively to grow its influence and membership. Resistance doesn’t necessarily build the infrastructure of the Left.
The Spanish resistance
We find evidence of this in the recent protest movement in Spain, which began with the occupation of the Puerta del Sol square in central Madrid on May 15, and quickly spread across Spain after police attacked the Madrid and Barcelona camps. These protests directly confronted the capitalist system: banners in the Puerta del Sol proclaimed ‘right to a roof’, ‘Spain is not a business, we are not slaves’, and ‘we are not products.’ But the protestors by-passed the Left. In the recent local and regional elections the Izquierda Unida (Left Unity) gained just 1 percent nationally at a time of massive youth anger and upheaval. Evidently the protesters looked at the left and did not recognise themselves in it.
The Spanish protests were largely made up of students, the young unemployed, and precarious workers. They warned political parties, including the Left, to stay away. This hostility to any form of permanent political infrastructure is a feature of many emerging youth movements. Rather than appeal to ‘traditional’ political parties and slogans, the Spanish protestors drew their energy from the spontaneity of the Arab revolutions.
Pundits have noted that Spain is not a dictatorship like Mubarak and Ben Ali. But the theme of a generation trapped and ‘sold out’ with no real political choice is common to both movements. Opposition to unemployment and austerity were precipitating factors, but the grim inevitably of elections favouring either the centre left Socialist Party (PSOE) or the centre right Popular Party (PPP) also inflamed the Spanish protests. Of course, this is hardly unique to Spain: the hollowing out of democracy across Europe means the choice is similar, a choice of different brands of neo-liberalism.
Likewise, poverty and unemployment in Spain may not be comparable to the Arab world. But the crushing of expectations of youth and graduates in the wealthiest corners of Europe has its own dynamic. Job security and social mobility might have been taken for granted by their parents’ generation, but this generation faces unemployment and precarity. The job situation in Spain is particularly bleak: the unemployed account for 21 percent of the entire Spanish workforce, the highest in Western Europe, rising to 43.4 percent for under-25s. And this does not even include students looking for work.
If the problem is especially acute in Spain, it is comparable across Europe. In Italy, youth unemployment is 29 percent nationally; in the poor south, it approaches Spanish levels. In the Irish Republic it nudges 25 percent. Even in the UK unemployment among the under-25s tops 20 percent.
Unemployment is skyrocketing and the process of marketisation has accelerated during the crisis, but political discourse remains imprisoned within the framework of neoliberalism. Europe desperately needs a Left that can provide a serious opposition to this on the streets and in the workplace. But with the partial exceptions of Germany, Ireland and Portugal, the situation is fairly dire. The New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) in France, launched with much fanfare, has been eclipsed by other sections of the Left but rejects appeals for unity. In Italy, the radical Left is in disarray and resistance bypasses it. The British situation is no better, with sectarian rivalries re-emerging in competing anti-cuts campaigns and terrible results in the May elections across Scotland and England. Even hopes for a Labour revival failed to materialise, with disastrous losses in its Scottish heartlands.
There is no lack of willingness to resist: in Britain, the student movement brought hundreds of thousands into action and half a million joined the TUC demonstration on March 26th. The problem is absence of direction, signified by a Left that does not represent popular anger. People do not recognize themselves in the Left, which, far from appearing as integral to resistance, appears to intervene from the outside into the movement. Many young activists express a fear that the Left seeks only to ‘cannibalise’ rather than build, while in large parts of Britain, and in many of the campaigns against the Con-Dem attacks, the Left is simply absent. These concerns should be addressed with due respect.
The last global social movement comparable to today opened in 1968. The section of the Left that grew did so because it propelled itself into the movement: the first step was putting oneself alongside those fighting. Only then could a dialogue about the rights and wrongs of ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’ begin. The Left cannot put conditions on joint action; we must always fight alongside the oppressed to win their support on their terms.
While we should learn from the positives of the seventies, the Left also needs to face new realities about employment. The Western working class has undergone a structural adjustment. Precarious employment has been a reality for most under-40s for well over a decade in Southern Europe. This recession has seen some 2 million workers in Britain forced into part time employment, often against their will, with the subsequent loss of benefits. Part-time workers now make up more than a quarter of the workforce. There are now some 1.5 million agency workers in the UK: the number doubled in ten years to 2006. After Japan, the UK has the largest number of employment agencies in the world. Casual employment and unpaid labour (sometimes dubbed internships, sometimes as job experience) is common from the media to retail giants.
Trade unions organize just 19 percent of Spain’s workforce, which is weak compared to Britain. However, there is no room for complacency. Union membership in Britain’s private sector, at one in six, is comparable to Spain. More than half of the public sector is unionised - but as the cuts bite with little effective action, what state is this formally organised section of the working class really in?
Clearly, we cannot simply read-off the fighting morale of unions from membership statistics. A cursory glance at British working class history shows that spikes in militancy do not necessarily, or even usually, stem from the most organised sectors of the workforce. Upsurges like the New Unionism, the Great Unrest, the strike wave of the mid-1930s and the insurgence of white collar and public sector worker in the 1970s began with agitation among previously unorganised or ignored sectors. There exist some 200,000 union reps or shop stewards but these are often consumed in individual case work. Weak bargaining power and years of social-partnership with neoliberal governments has, coming on top of the defeats of the 1980s, created a passivity which has to be overcome.
Some union leaders, like Len Mccluskey and Mark Serwotka, have caught on to the dangers and are attempting to connect with political campaigns like UK UNCUT and Coalition of Resistance and to build up a younger, activist layer of trade-union reps and organisers. Others, like Dave Prentis and Paul Kenny still seem to focus on getting Labour returned to office, at local and national level.
Changing times, changing strategy?
Learning lessons from continental Europe, where many nations have taken united strike action against austerity, will prove invaluable in combating the Con-Dems. So far, the general strikes in Europe have been limited to one-day actions, with the exception of last autumn in France where a militant minority tried to spread continuous strikes but were stifled by the leadership of the main union federation, the CGT. Much of the fighting morale for these general strikes came from outside the ranks of organized labour - students, school students, the young unemployed and precarious workers - who gave the political movement confidence. In Portugal, where organization and confidence in the private sector is low, they helped organize blockades of bridges and transport in order to spread the one day general strike, receiving widespread support.
June 30’s coordinated strike, planned by four public sector unions, is a welcome development for the movement in Britain. Everything needs to be done to build it, to turn the day into a festival of resistance for all those fighting austerity and cuts. Hopefully it can be a stepping stone to a general strike.
But it is only a one-day strike. The biggest unions - Unison, Unite and the GMB - are not involved, and it does not involve the private sector. Tory and Lib Dem attempts to play off private and public sector workers must be rejected and defeated but simply concentrating on public sector workers won’t help do that. Unfortunately, where the left has a presence in the unions it is overwhelmingly in the public sector - too often we are cut off by age and position from the low paid, younger workers, who are disproportionally non-white.
With these sectors, we must promote a change of attitudes. Public sector workers on full-time contracts need to break down barriers with temporary and part-time colleagues, which will require considerable courage as the Con-Dems and layers of management seek to set workers against each other.
The union machine, to be an effective force against austerity, must confront the question of precarious employment and the stratification of the workforce in an honest and open manner to give an effective lead. On 30 June what will NUT reps say to supply teachers or even supply teaching assistants? How will the UCU relate to the growing number of lecturers denied permanent contracts? Will agency staff be asked to strike and assurances given they will not be victimized or punished for doing so?
Cameron and Clegg fear united resistance - the ruling class know that imposing the cuts depends on dividing the workforce. The Left must seek to impose its own solutions against this, a message of unity and solidarity. But this will require a change of attitudes on the Left: to break with a narrow focus on the public sector unions, whose formal channels can contain resistance as well as provide impetus, and make aggressive inroads among youth, students, the precarious and unorganised or barely organised private sector workers. As our socialist precursors in Britain realised - and as our allies on the continent are beginning to grasp - a successful social movement depends on organizing the unorganisable.
Originally published on International Socialist Group website. Chris Bambery is the author of Ireland's Permanent Revolution and A Rebels Guide to Gramsci, and is a member of the International Socialist Group.
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