Fuel price protests: It’s not only the working class that is hit by the crisis

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In response to rising fuel costs there have been many dramatic and well-publicised actions across Europe. Truckers came to London in convoys, blocked a main road and went to lobby Downing Street. Welsh hauliers threatened to blockade ports and refineries. In the Netherlands a huge truck was parked outside parliament and hauliers across the country wanted drivers to beep their car horns in solidarity.

In France truckers drove go-slow convoys to block major roads. Farmers and taxi-drivers have blockaded fuel depots with their tractors and cars, and fisherman blockaded a number of ports.

Fishing fleets from Belgium, Italy, Portugal and Spain have not gone to sea for varying lengths of time, in protest at fuel costs and static fish prices. In Madrid fishermen gave out 20 tons of free fish.

Across Europe there have also been protests by farmers at the low cost of milk, which have involved feeding milk to calves and using it as fertiliser.

The often spectacular stunts have been given much coverage in the media throughout Europe. Unlike the minimal reporting that workers' struggles get, these campaigns found a prominent place in news bulletins and plenty of pictures in the papers. In some respects the message was simple: everyone knows that the cost of petrol is rocketing up, and it's even worse for these people because their very livelihood depends on it. With fish and milk prices staying relatively low, you can see incomes declining in the face of growing inflation.

A motley crew

When workers demonstrate or go on strike, because their wages are falling further behind increasing inflation, or because of attacks on jobs, pensions or working conditions, there's not so much space available in the media, particularly if workers are giving an example that will inspire others. When hauliers, fisherman or taxi-drivers take action the only people who can emulate them are those who already have their own lorry, boat or cab. All the actions mentioned above are from groups of people who have a distinct position within capitalism.

In contrast to the capitalist class, that employs millions, and owns factories, plant, office blocks, technology, and transport etc, and the working class, that only has its labour power to sell, there are many intermediate social strata that are neither one nor the other.

These strata between the working class and the bourgeoisie, the petty bourgeoisie, will maybe own property (farm, shop, studio, workshop etc) or vehicles (boats, lorries, taxis). Typically they will be self-employed, and possibly employ small numbers. They do work, but unlike the working class they own their own means of production. They do own property, but don't live mainly off the surplus value from wage labour.

The petty bourgeoisie is in a conflicted position "Through the small amount of capital it owns, it shares in the conditions of existence of the bourgeoisie; through the insecurity of its existence, in the conditions of the proletariat" (Engels, ‘The Prussian Military Question and the German Workers' Party'). Farming, for example, shows a wide range of different social positions, from the mega agribusiness that's run like any industrial corporation to the tenant farmer living in a tied cottage. In between are those with big ambitions to take on more workers and those who are worried about losing their farms. Some ‘farmers' also have to work for wages for part of the year; among the truckers, others are former proletarians pushed into becoming ‘owner-drivers' in order to deprive them of many of benefits that accrue to employees or to disperse class solidarity. At this level the line between the petty bourgeoisie and the working class gets quite blurred.

In general, however, the intermediate strata are "eternally tossed about between the hope of entering the ranks of the wealthier class, and the fear of being reduced to the state of proletarians or even paupers" (Engels, Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Germany). The petty bourgeoisie is a politically unstable class - not that you can really describe such a motley aggregate of individuals as a class - that follows the lead of either of the two main classes in capitalist society. It can follow but can't act as an independent force.

If you look at the 1917 Russian Revolution you can see how many from intermediate strata were inspired by the working class struggle, even to the point of creating forms of organisation based on the example of the workers' councils. In the 1930s, however, with the working class having been defeated, it was clear that the petty bourgeoisie was one of the mainstays of fascism.

Working class struggle provides a perspective

The actions taken over the rise in oil prices show that the petty bourgeoisie are feeling the pinch. The campaign has caused some governments to juggle with taxes and subsidies, and others to do nothing. What's important is that under the pressure of a deteriorating economic situation some from the intermediate strata want to do something. It has tended to be dramatic, and very reliant on getting a positive response from government, but at least they have acted, rather than just passively accepting things getting worse.

Over the last five years the struggle of the working class internationally has been slowly developing, with questions of solidarity being posed on many occasions. At the moment this struggle is not widespread enough to have a major impact on those outside the working class. However, as it develops, the working class will be able to show that it has not only forms of struggle to offer, but a perspective for a different sort of society. The petty bourgeoisie tend very much to accept the ideology of the ruling capitalist class, but in their recent actions they have shown a response to the growing economic crisis that is hitting all sectors of the population without prejudice. In the future, when the working class shows signs of organising its struggles more massively, and in an increasingly more united manner, then significant numbers from the intermediate strata can begin to recognise the social force that can take on the system that impoverishes them. Car 2/6/8