The avalanche of unemployment across the world is unprecedented since the 1930s Depression.
In the USA, unemployment has officially gone up to 8.1%, the highest level since 1983. In the UK it's gone up to 6.3%. In France and Spain recently there have been some of the highest monthly increases since records began: Spain now has the highest rate of unemployment in the EU - 13.9% or 3.2 million. In former economic powerhouses the picture is no different. In Germany the jobless rate is 7.8%; in Japan (which has already been in recession for some years) the unemployment rate jumped to 4.4% last November, the biggest increase for almost 42 years. In ‘booming' China, the official rate is very similar, 4.2%.
These bland figures don't tell us that much in themselves:
- in terms of the real number of unemployed. In Britain, the official number of unemployed is around 1.9 million, but it is well known that these are ‘massaged' figures which deliberately fail to tell us about all the workers who have simply given up looking for work; those who are taking sick benefits rather than the dole; those who are forced to take precarious and low paid jobs, sometimes more than one at a time...
- or in terms of the real, day-to-day sufferings of the unemployed and their families, and the brutal increases in exploitation that all this implies for those ‘privileged' enough to keep their jobs.
We are facing a global unemployment pandemic, and the prognosis, as more and more of the bourgeoisie's economic experts admit, is not one of a short ‘downturn' followed by a booming job market, but of a long, painful slide into an economic slump comparable in scale to that of the 1930s.
Is resistance futile?
Faced with the factory, shop or office simply shutting its doors, fighting back seems, at first sight, to be hopeless. And when you're thrown onto the dole, you can get demoralised by the sense of isolation and the daily grind of finding enough to live on.
Is there any solution, or are we facing the prospect of becoming a desperate mass like the ancient ‘proletariat' of Rome, which was kept alive by state handouts of bread and kept diverted by state-sponsored circuses?
Is the class struggle going to be undermined by the economic crisis itself?
Some argue that it is pointless to expect a reaction from a working class that is anyway losing its sense of identity and its traditions of struggle. They say that the best we can hope for is a more effective policy from the ruling class: a Keynesian ‘New Deal' based on state intervention, or, if you listen to extreme left groups like the Trotskyists, a more radical programme of nationalisations spiced up with a bit of ‘workers' control'.
Crisis brings clarity
But the crisis and the surge in unemployment don't only bring despair and hopelessness. They also bring clarity: they undermine all the bourgeoisie's propaganda about how well capitalism functions and how, if we just work hard enough or save carefully enough, we can have everything we need. We've worked, we've saved, we've made sacrifices, sometimes even accepting wage cuts to keep the firm going, like the £50 a week cut accepted at construction equipment firm JCB last October when they went on a four-day week. Yet the plants still close, and the companies go under.
The crisis also makes a mockery of all the claims that this or that country is doing well and even offers a way out of the crisis. For years we have been told that the ‘leaner, meaner' British economy is stronger than it has ever been, and now we are finding out that its policy of deindustrialisation and reliance on the financial sector is making it one of the world's most vulnerable economies faced with the current financial storms. We were also told that the Chinese and Indian economies, with their ferocious rates of exploitation, could operate as the locomotives pulling the world economy out of the mire. And now we learn that they too are sinking, which is hardly surprising that their economies are geared to cheap exports to the west, which is the epicentre of the world recession.
And above all, the crisis demonstrates that the capitalist system, which has for so long arrogantly claimed to be the only one that could possibly work, does not work at all, that producing for the market brings with it the saturation of the market, that producing for profit brings about a fall in the rate of profit, that the whole anarchic mess can no longer serve the needs of humanity. Because there is no reason for people to be thrown out of work, for factories to close, for welfare services to be cut, except that these measures are dictated by production for profit rather than production for need. The crisis therefore can provide the most powerful evidence that a new society is both possible and vitally necessary if human beings are to feed, clothe and house themselves and live a really human life.
From self-defence to revolution
But this new society will not simply drop out of the clouds. We are not talking about a new religion of change from on high, whether that change comes from God or Barack Obama. We are talking about a change that needs to be fought for, organised for, a change that requires an open challenge to the present world system and those who run it - in short, a social revolution.
A social revolution can only be made by those ‘below', those who have least to gain from the preservation of the existing order. But those below will never advance towards making a revolution unless they forge themselves into a force that is capable of defending itself today, of fighting against every encroachment made by the capitalist system - every factory closure, every benefit cut, every wage reduction, every attempt of the bosses and the state to repress this resistance and victimise those who take part in it.
How can we fight back?
Only by starting from the fundamental proletarian principle that an attack on one is an attack on all. To fight against all these attacks, it is necessary to build up a balance of forces in our favour; and this can only be done if we try to spread our struggles as widely as possible. If one workplace closes, or hundreds of workers are cut from its workforce, those faced with losing their jobs need to appeal to those still at work or working in nearby or linked workplaces and draw them into the struggle, arguing that ‘if it's us today, it will be you tomorrow'. If the workers remain isolated outside the gates of the workplace in question, or even if they occupy it and just sit tight, their isolation will eventually wear them down. But if they spread the response to other workers, if they organise mass meetings and demonstrations, they can force the bosses and the state to take notice, and sometimes to shelve their redundancy plans or moderate their attacks. We caught a clear glimpse of the ability of the working class to do this in the recent oil refinery strikes. Ignoring all the rigmarole of the trade union/legal rule book, hundreds of workers walked out on the spot in solidarity with other strikers, held mass pickets and discussed in general meetings where decisions about the conduct of the strikes were taken.
Neither are the unemployed condemned to remain locked up at home. In the 1930s and again in the 1980s, unemployed workers formed their own committees to oppose evictions, to demand increased benefits, and to join in with the struggles of the employed workers. In the oil refinery strikes, many unemployed construction workers joined the pickets and mass meetings. In Greece at the end of last year, employed and unemployed workers fought side by side in the street demonstrations, and occupied public buildings (including the headquarters of the official trade union federation) to call for general assemblies open to all proletarians.
Of course there is no cast-iron guarantee that such struggles will win their demands; and in any case, sooner rather than later the pressure of the crisis will force the ruling class to renew and increase their attacks. But it is through such struggles that the working class can reassert its dignity, rediscover its identity, become more and more conscious of its power - a power that can both paralyse the machinery of capitalism and create the foundations for a new society where everyone can work together for the satisfaction of humanity's needs.