In the USA, the country always cited as an example of unstoppable growth and of an economy which has almost ‘wiped out unemployment’, 18% of the population, around 36 million people, live below the poverty line. Insecure, part-time and underpaid jobs have become the norm and there has been a continuous fall in workers’ living standards for ten years. In Britain, the industrial heart of the economy is more and more diseased, as can be seen with the crises at Rover, Ford and Harland and Wolff. All the official blather about how the ‘Internet economy’ will create loads of alternative jobs can’t change this.
Obviously, our rulers don’t forget to supplement their claims about the ‘end of the crisis’ with a mention of the ‘inequalities’ that still unfortunately weigh on society, stemming perhaps from the excesses of ‘liberalism’ or ‘globalisation’, or from the wars and dictatorships that seem to be so hard to get rid of, especially in the world’s poorest regions, like Sierra Leone. But not to wor like Sierra Leone. But not to worry: we are regularly told that the solution to all this lies in the citizens of the world calling for more democracy, more ethical foreign policies, more restrictions on the World Trade Organisation, the cancellation of third world debt, etc etc. Amid all these noble causes the workers’ struggle against lay-offs, wage cuts or speed-ups is mentioned – if it is mentioned – as just one protest among many.
In this way, the ruling class, its state, its media, its humanitarian ideologues, do all they can to hide the central contradiction in this society, i.e. the fundamental conflict between capital and labour, between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The struggle of the working class is replaced by a ‘citizens’ movement’ in which all different classes and interests are mixed up. The struggle against capitalism and its state is replaced by a form of protest that supports the state, that politely asks it to be more democratic in the face of the world’s injustices.
But there is a reason why the bourgeoisie spends so much time telling us that the class war is over, insisting that the working class has disappeared, or calling on it to dilute itself in the inter-classist mass of the ‘citizens’. The reason is that the ruling class is well aware that the greatest threat to the capt the greatest threat to the capitalist order is still posed by the working class when it struggles for its own interests.
Despite all the drivel about the ‘new economy’, ‘post-industrial society’, and the rest, not only does the working class still exist, but it remains the class which produces the essential of all social wealth. It’s the exploitation of workers’ labour power that generates capital. And since capitalism is in a state of advanced decay, it can only keep itself going by constantly driving down the living and working conditions of the working class. The absolutely inescapable contradiction between the survival of capitalism and the interests of the working class can only get deeper.
This contradiction is being expressed today through a gradual development of workers’ struggles. Even if these movements are still dispersed, even if they are normally controlled and defeated by the unions and the political forces of the left, they correspond to a growing discontent. In Germany, in Britain, in France, we have seen a number of such struggles. In the USA, the demonstrations by the New York transit workers in November-December 1999 (see Internationalism no. 111, the ICC’s paper in the USA) was a typical expression of the strengths and weaknesses of the working class today: on the one hand, a r today: on the one hand, a real militancy, a refusal to accept sacrifices without any reaction, a will to gather together and discuss the needs and methods of the struggle, and a certain distrust towards union manoeuvres; on the other hand, a lack of self-confidence, a lack of determination in overcoming the union obstacle, in coming out in open struggle and trying to organise its extension to other sectors.
The mobilisations in Norway at the beginning of May saw 88,000 workers in transport, building, food, hotels and ports come out on strike to defend wage levels as the left-wing government attacked social budgets. In this case, the bourgeoisie was well able to control the rising discontent, particularly through a division between a union hierarchy which signed an agreement with the government and a union base which, at first, challenged it, only to sign a new version slightly less unfavourable to the workers, but still a real attack. Nevertheless, what was significant about this movement is that, despite its much-vaunted oil reserves, the Norwegian bourgeoisie is still forced to attack the working class head on, provoking a real militancy in the class and the biggest strike movement since 1986.
The workers’ struggles we are seeing today are still a long way from forming a significant barrier to the attacks of the bourgeoisie. The failurs of the bourgeoisie. The failure of the Rover and Ford workers to react on their own class terrain to the threat of devastating factory closures underlines the current difficulties confronting the working class. But workers’ struggles are like the old mole; they prepare the ground for the outbreak of much more massive movements in the future. What’s at stake in the development of the class struggle is the capacity of the working class not only to defend itself, but also to become conscious of the force it represents in society, of its historic responsibility to overthrow capitalism and begin society anew.