Big brother in the warehouse
For all the supposed ‘success’ of the British economy its real position is actually very fragile. As we showed in a recent article in WR (283 and 284, ‘Britain can’t escape the world economic crisis’), after you’ve stripped away the government falsification of statistics you’re left with a state reliant on debt, an economy increasingly incapable of funding adequate pension provision, unemployment increasing, personal debt still growing and no prospects for improvements stimulated by growth anywhere else in the world economy.
On the day of the general election there was a report from ABN Amro, one of the City’s biggest banking groups, which confirmed that “the UK economy is set for a dramatic decline” with “a chain reaction of higher unemployment and tumbling house prices, with an estimated 500,000 jobs lost from the retail, manufacturing, and construction sector by 2008”. Such a forecast is in continuity with existing trends and proposed state policies. Since Labour came to power in 1997 more than a million manufacturing jobs have gone, according to the latest official figures. And it’s not just in manufacturing, as Gordon Brown aims to cut 84,000 civil service jobs over the next three years. And don’t have any illusions that the IT sector has potential: IBM’s recent announcement that it will be cutting 13,000 jobs across Europe is just the tip of the iceberg. And don’t except the state to leap in and protect pensions: a recent survey showed the extent to which companies would just lay workers off if they were forced to pay into pensions.
There is no ‘booming Britain’, as the ruling class well knows. The £8.7 billion net public sector borrowing in May is the highest figure ever recorded. The budget deficit is one of the clearest indicators that Britain’s position is based on debt rather an underlying economic health.
The working class has to pay
One of the fundamental problems facing the British economy is that of productivity. For example, the loss of 6000 jobs at Rover was partly because cars could be produced quicker and cheaper elsewhere, but also because internationally there are 30% more car factories than the world needs (see article on Rover in WR 284).
To be more competitive on the world economy, a national capital only has limited options. Britain is opposing EU restrictions on the hours that can be worked, but longer hours produce a decline in quality. It can try to keep wages down. It’s significant that Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, has said that “the 120,000 eastern Europeans who had arrived in Britain since 10 more countries joined the European Union in May 2004 had kept the lid on wages” (Guardian 14 June). It’s difficult to know whether he’s exaggerating the overall impact of workers coming from abroad, but it does show the way that the ruling class thinks.
Capitalism will try anything to get more out of workers. “Workers in warehouses across Britain are being ‘electronically tagged’ by being asked to wear small computers to cut costs and increase the efficient delivery of goods and food to supermarkets…
New US satellite- and radio-based computer technology is turning some workplaces into ‘battery farms’ and creating conditions similar to ‘prison surveillance’ according to a report from Michael Blakemore, professor of geography at Durham University.
The technology, introduced six months ago, is spreading rapidly, with up to 10,000 employees using it to supply household names such as Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Boots and Marks & Spencer” (Guardian 7 June).
Not only can a computer give workers orders telling them where to go and what to do, it “can also check on whether workers are taking unauthorised breaks and work out the shortest time a worker needs to complete a job”.
This is only the beginning. “Other monitoring devices are being developed in the US, including ones that can check on the productivity of secretaries by measuring the number of key strokes on their word processors; satellite technology is also being developed to monitor productivity in manufacturing jobs”.
The report claims that “Academics are worried that the system could make Britain the most surveyed society in the world” - it already has the largest number of street security cameras. What worries academics is not necessarily of any concern to our exploiters. So the future looks more and more like the world of Orwell’s Big Brother in 1984: in the pursuit of productivity no holds are barred.
It also gives a context to the remarks of Works and Pensions Minister, Margaret Hodge, when she said that there were jobs in Tesco that would meet the needs of Rover workers who had lost their jobs. Forget your skills and experience, and be prepared to be tagged as you’re moved around the store in the most productive way possible. For the capitalist state it doesn’t really matter, as long as you can be taken off the official count of unemployed.
Class against class
Against the idea that there’s ‘no such thing as class’ anymore, that everyone has a ‘stake’ in society, it’s still quite clear that, in capitalist society, there’s a working class subject to a class of exploiters. The ruling class, for all its many divisions, has a view of what it wants and how it’s going to get it. It wants to fight against all the pressures on its economy, and the intensification of workers’ exploitation is one of its main weapons.
However, in contrast to the capitalist class, the working class is only beginning to struggle again in defence of its class interests. Indeed, many workers do not have any sense of being part of a class. Life is lived as an individual, as part of a family, as a worker employed in a particular industry or by a particular company. This is one of the main questions facing the working class: understanding the reality of class society, where the interests of the working class are in conflict with the interests of capitalism. Anything that divides the working class must be overcome, anything that unites workers or contributes to the development of relations of solidarity needs to be encouraged.
The ruling capitalist class is not slow to defend its interests at every opportunity. The working class needs to appreciate that the defence of its interests bring it up against its exploiters, their state and their apologists.