Massive unemployment and the extension of the class struggle

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Unemployment today pitilessly mows down mill­ions of working lives, and has become the most important and marked phenomenon of social life in all countries. The months and years to come cannot but confirm this bloodletting.

Massive redundancy waves nourish this increase of unemployment, arriving on a labor market overflowing with the young generations who, a few years ago, in the industrialized countries, were still its principal source. These massive waves of lay-offs don't spare any sector of the working population: industrial workers and office workers, technicians or qualified manual workers, youngsters or adults, men and women, immigrants and non-immigrants. In this way, unemployment penetrates the whole of social life. Millions of people are struck by its blows. Millions more are threatened by it in their daily lives. Everyone suffers its press­ure.

This situation of mass unemployment which, far from being reduced in the months and years to come, will develop at a heightened pace, leads irresistibly to an absolute pauperization of the entire working class. This mass unemployment is the most acute and direct expression of the historic crisis of capitalism. It expresses in a clear and open manner its nature and its causes. The overproduction crisis, bringing with it the overproduction of labor power, is a crisis in which the capitalist relation of wage labor shows itself to be too narrow to contain all the riches produced by the labor of the past and present generations, and which therefore promises also the destruction of ‘labor power', the source of all wealth.

The most glaring expression of the historic crisis of capitalism, this massive and chronic unemployment whose gangrene has reached the whole breadth and depth of social life, is not something ‘new' in history . Before being ‘absorbed' by the death of millions upon millions of people during World War Two, it also profoundly marked the whole period of the ‘20s up until the end of the ‘30s. Contrary to all the ideas handed down and twisted by the dominant ideology, the profound demoralization, demobilization and final submission of the working class to the fascist, Stalinist or democratic brigands was not the fault of the unemployed being ‘prepared to throw them­selves into the arms of the first dictator to come along'', but was caused by the profound counter-revolution and by the betrayal of the political organizations of the proletariat which accompanied this powerful counter­revolution. Even during these years, unemploy­ment led, despite everything, to big struggles, for example in France and the USA. But the period was no longer one of revolution but of war, so that these struggles could finally be derailed thanks to the Stalinist and social democratic political organizations, a develop­ment greatly facilitated by a gigantic develop­ment of state capitalism with the policies of public works and massive rearmament.

Today, mass unemployment has made its reappear­ance, but in a totally different context. And in this situation, radically different to the ‘30s, where the yoke of the counter-revolution no longer crushes the working class, the strug­gle of the unemployed which begins to stir up threatens to accelerate the gigantic convulsions of the entire established social order. And the clumsiness with which the first slogans and the first demands of this struggle are ex­pressed should certainly not lead us to think the contrary since, as Karl Marx said, in draw­ing the balance sheet of 1848:

"In the first project for a constitution drawn up before the June days, one still finds the right to work, the first clumsy formulation summarizing the revolutionary demands of the proletariat, which was transformed into the right of welfare support. And so, where is the modern state which doesn't feed its needy one way or the other? The right to work is, from the bourgeois point of view, nonsense, a vain, pitiful desire. But behind the right to work, there is the power over capital; behind the power over capital, the appropriat­ion of the means of production, their subordin­ation to the associated working class, in other words the suppression of wage labor, of capital, and of their reciprocal relations. Behind the right to work was the June insurrection." (The Class Struggles in France)

The impact of unemployment

Unemployment is a particularly distinctive characteristic of the capitalist mode of prod­uction. In one way or another, at each stage of its historical evolution, it imposes itself as a situation inherent to the conditions of being a worker: since the appearance of capit­alism, coming out of the feudal mode of product­ion, through its subsequent development until the completion of the world market, throughout the period of decadence, the epoch of great crises, world wars and revolutions in which we live.

But if unemployment is inherent to the workers' conditions, where work takes the form of the commodity ‘labor power' being bought and sold in exchange for a wage according to the condit­ions of the market, we cannot conclude from this general truth that at all times unemploy­ment has the same significance, the same impact and the same determination on the working class, its consciousness and its struggle.

The unemployment of hundreds of thousands throughout Europe at the end of feudalism, when serfs, peasants and artisans were torn out of their previous conditions, losing their means of work and subsistence through the arrival and development of machinery and manufacturing - this did not have the same significance and the same impact as the unemployment which imposed itself with the advance of mechanization and of big industry in this historical period extending roughly from 1850 to 1900. This period certainly saw a permanent unemploy­ment, constantly augmented by the pauperization of the peasants and artisans, but on a much more limited scale than at the beginning of the 19th century, since unemployment was limit­ed to certain corporations or industrial bran­ches, due to the passing and contingent crises limited to these industrial branches.

With the First World War, the generalized and permanent crisis of the entire capitalist mode of production, sparing no country, corporation or industrial branch, gave rise to another kind of unemployment within the working popul­ation. This unemployment, the characteristics of which are peculiar to our epoch of decadence, is more different again than were the previous forms of unemployment from each other.

The unemployment given birth to by the shudder­ings of the world crisis of capital tends first of all to become permanent. Leaving aside periods of war in which the workers, like the rest of the population, are occupied with either killing each other or with produc­ing the arms necessary for the massacre, massive unemployment dominates the workers' conditions: from 1920 to 1940, 20 years of generalized unemployment in all the industrialized countries. The immense butchery of the Second World War, with its 50 million dead and more, and the employment of those hands which hadn't been maimed during the post-war recon­struction of a world ravaged by destruction, merely allowed the question of unemployment to be postponed for a dozen years, hardly more. From the end of the ‘60s on, unemployment made its reappearance as a fundamental question. And it could only be contained and limited to young people throughout the ‘70s through economic escapism - the inflationist policy of generalized debt which marked the ‘years of illusion'.

Today, the crisis assumes its full dimensions, imposing itself, and new waves of unemployment, in a literally explosive manner.

It's under these conditions that the question of unemployment acquires a different significance for the development of class consciousness and the class struggle, a very different significance to that prevailing in the last cent­ury.

Last century, the consciousness which could be determined by unemployment within the working class could only be very limited. Never, in this epoch, did unemployment appear to be an irreversible situation. Unemployment is very cruel for the working class whenever it strikes, but the period itself was totally different. Capitalism was constantly overturning the cond­itions of production. From each crisis it drew new energy, emerging reinforced to contin­ue its triumphal march across the world. It was the epoch of colonization, during which hundreds of millions of people emigrated to­wards gigantic continents: America, Africa, Asia. Alongside the massive emigration of the populations of Europe, the social origin of the unemployed - serfs, peasants, or artisans - permitted the bourgeoisie to use this mass of the unemployed to put a general pressure on the whole working class, its conditions of work and existence, and on its wages; often enough the unemployed were used by the emp­loyers as ‘blacklegs' and strike-breakers. Even if we are dealing with an unemployment produced by a crisis in a key industrial branch, the mutual exclusiveness or else the opposition reigning between the different branches of industry made the impact of unemp­loyment on the whole working class and its consciousness very limited. Moreover, the existence of an ‘industrial reserve army', with the resulting pressure on wages, didn't play a particularly positive role in the unif­ication of the class and the development of its consciousness. Apart from the great crisis of 1847 which spared no category or sector of workers, and the Luddite movement during the very first developments of mechanization, the unemployed and unemployment in general did not play a particular role in the advancement of the class struggle of the last century.

This situation changed radically with the beg­inning and uncontrollable advance of the decadence of capitalism. The unemployed, in their immense majority, are no longer peasants or artisans, but workers or employees who over generations have been integrated into industrial production. It's no longer one category or one particular corporation where the workers are victims of unemployment, but all of them, as is the case for every town, region or count­ry. This unemployment is no longer conjunct­ural, but irreversible, without a future. This unemployment which concentrates within itself all the characteristics of the decadence of capitalism and is one of its principal manifestations can't help but determine, with­in the working class, qualitatively different reactions to those of the last century.

And so, in the aftermath of World War One, in Germany for example, the unemployed were often in the avant-garde of the revolutionary move­ment. Whereas the unions of the last century did not include the unemployed in their ranks, again in Germany, or in Russia, with the work­ing class advancing towards the international revolution, we find a strong proportion of the unemployed in the revolutionary organizations.

By profoundly and indiscriminately penetrating all the ranks of the working class, unemployment creates a situation common to the whole working population, in which all the barriers of category, corporation, factory, locality, region and nation disappear, in order to show up what the entire working class has in common - its situation, conditions, interests - thereby pushing aside all specificities in the face of the conditions and perspectives which the crisis of capitalism imposes. It's a situation in which the working class becomes conscious that "it doesn't suffer a particular wrong, but every wrong." In this way, even outside periods of open struggle, the development of generalized unemployment acts to upset, like the joker in the pack, all the little measures through which the bourgeoisie and its states, try to tie down and slow up the class, without even daring to hope that they can stop it al­together. It tends to rapidly dissolve the entire corporatist spirit transmitted and cul­tivated by the unions for years.

Not only does unemployment tend to dissolve the corporatist spirit, but in the same movement it faces the entire working class with fundamental questions which urgently call for fundamental solutions.

In order that the social revolution be possible, Rosa Luxemburg had already declared at the beg­inning of the century: "The social terrain must be laboriously ploughed over, so that that which is at the bottom appears on the sur­face, while what is on the surface is buried deeply." (The Mass Strike, the Party and the Unions)

Mass unemployment, generalized, chronic and with no way out, is in the process of carrying out this work. There is nothing more powerful to today than the development of unemployment to profoundly dash all the illusions of the past, to bridge over separations and bring to the surface all that unites the working class in the face of the generalized crisis of capital­ism.

Unemployment and the question of state capitalism

We have affirmed here the fact that, in our epoch, the development of unemployment has played and will play an extremely important role in the development of class consciousness and in the class struggle in general. In the introduction to this article, we also said that even in one of the blackest periods of the workers' movement, in the ‘30s, one of the last surges of the working class before being mobilized for the Second World War, was based on the struggle against unemployment. It must be understood that at this time, the smashing of any revolutionary perspective by the great wave of the counter-revolution and the react­ionary work of the parties who had betrayed the proletariat didn't permit the working class to trace a revolutionary perspective, so that all its struggles ended in defeat. That's the essence of the question.

But to get a better grasp of what distinguishes our period even within this period of decadence, and in particular what makes it differ­ent from the ‘30s, we must take into consider­ation the immense development of state capital­ism which accompanied and facilitated the drag­ging of the working class into the war.

During the years which preceded the Second World War, the different national states eng­aged all their economic resources, disregarding the debts they ran up, in order to finance pub­lic works and massive armaments build-ups under the direction of the state. By the eve of the war, these projects had soaked up a large part of the unemployment. Thus, in the USA for example:

"The gap between production and consumption was attacked from three sides:

1. Based on growing debts, the state carried out a series of vast public works (...)

2. The state raised the mass purchasing power of the workers:

a) through introducing collective labor ag­reements with minimum wage guarantees and the limitation of the working day while at the same time strengthening the position of the workers' organizations, the unions;

b) through creating unemployment insurance and other social measures in order to prevent a further fall in the living standards of the broad masses;

3) The state attempted, through a series of measures, such as the limitation of agricultur­al production through subsidies, to raise the agricultural income high enough so that the majority of farmers could again achieve a middle class income." (Fritz Sternberg, The Conflict of the Century)

One must not on the other hand forget that this intervention of the state meant at the same time an extremely powerful enmeshment and policing of the population. To continue with the example of the USA, we ,can point out: "It was one of the most decisive transformat­ions in the American social structure, that under the New Deal a complete change (in the situation of the unions - ICC) took place. Under the New Deal, the formation of unions was encouraged through all means (...) In a short space of time between 1933 to 1939 the number of union members more than trebled. It was now more than double what it had been during the best years of prosperity before the crisis. It was greater than at any previous moment in American history." (ibid)

The perspective of mass unemployment

One cannot grasp the decisive impact of unemp­loyment on the social situation of the industrialized countries if one isn't clearly consc­ious of the fact that, far from being conjunctural, it is irreversible. Neither can one do so without having understood that, far from being at its height, it's still only at its beginning. Before responding to the question ‘Will unemployment continue to develop, and if so, how?', we can consider what conditions would have to come into being in order simply to maintain it at its present level. Even when counting on a recovery of the world econ­omy which today is already running out of steam, the OECD, which never shies away from optimistic affirmations, concluded in 1983, in its report on economic perspectives:

"In order to maintain unemployment at its pres­ent level, in the light of the expected inc­rease in the working population, 18 to 20 million jobs would have to be created from now ‘til the end of the decade. Moreover, 15 million additional jobs would be needed if we want to return to the unemployment level of 1979, when 19 million people were out of work.

This would amount to creating 20,000 jobs daily between 1984 and 1989, whereas after the first oil shock, between 1975 and 1980, the 24 member countries haven't managed more than 11,500 respectively." (OECD Report 1983)

So we see already that any return to the past is impossible. And in relation to the present situation, we can say that:

"There are already more than 2.5 million unemp­loyed in France according to official figures, 2.7 million in Spain, 3.2 million in Britain, 2.5 million in West Germany, and in the world's leading economic power, the USA, 8.8 million. Already 17.1% of the active population is unem­ployed in Holland, 19.3% in Belgium, 25% in Portugal, according to the same official fig­ures." (Manifesto on the problem of unemploy­ment, Revolution Internationale, May 1985)

There you have the simple, clear and terribly tangible result. Unemployment accounts presently for 10 to 12% on average of the active population of the industrialized countries. It is irreversible, and worse still, the new recession now looming will in the coming months and years sweep an even greater mass of people into the pool of unemployment.

In the last issue of this review, we already noted this acceleration:

"With the slow-down of the recovery, these last months have witnessed an upswing of unemploy­ment: 600,000 additional unemployed for the EEC in January, 300,000 alone in West Germany which, with this progression, beat its own rec­ord of 1953 with 2.62 million unemployed." (‘The dollar: the emperor has no clothes', IR 41)

The evolution of unemployment is all the more rapid, its consequences all the more serious and profound, for more and more being directly nourished by redundancies. When unemployment was still expressed principally by the diffic­ulty of the young generations to find jobs, its evolution wasn't necessarily coupled with a fall in the numbers actively employed. Today this is the case. This growing augmentation of the mass of the unemployed and its corollary, the diminution of the wage-earning population, has at its direct consequence the quasi-bankruptcy of all the unemployment insurance funds. The growing number of benefits to be paid, and a drop in the number of contributions from wages, renders any system of social insur­ance or support impossible. The unemployment insurance schemes, to the extent that they exist - which is only the case for a small num­ber of countries - were never a present from the state. The payments made as indemnities to the temporarily unemployed stem from oblig­atory contributions taken directly from wages. In situations where the rate of unemployment is low and the periods of unemployment are short, such a system can even prove itself to be financially ‘worthwhile' for the state which administers it, like any insurance system. But this becomes quite impossible in a situation of crisis and massive unemployment. In situations such as today, while contributions increase unceasingly, the payments are reduced to next to nothing for shorter and shorter periods, and the funds are constantly in the red, with a growing deficit.

To conclude this rapid survey of the perspect­ives of unemployment, we can affirm:

- unemployment will become more and more mass­ive in the months and years to come, with the unemployed becoming the most important category of the population. The great period of unemp­loyment looming ahead of us, and which began a long time ago with what was called youth unemp­loyment, has nothing conjunctural about it; it is irreversible. It is the most direct and most crying expression of the historic crisis of capital, of wage labor and their reciprocal relations;

- all the insurance and security schemes are not for the future, but a thing of the past. Capitalism cannot digest mass unemployment. The unemployed cannot expect any presents from the state. They'll only get what they win themselves. In other words, if capital, even with its welfare assistance and massive state intervention, can no longer through its judic­ial, social and economic laws ensure a link between the forces and the means of production, between the commodities produced and the needs of society, these means of production and of subsistence still continue to exist, and through their struggle the unemployed can and will continually try to snatch them from the hands of capitalism.

Within the general struggle of labor against capital, the struggle of the unemployed against the situation imposed on them expresses trans­parently the nature and the perspective of the workers' struggle: the subordination of all wealth to the satisfaction of human needs - even if, as Marx said, "Revolutionary demands are expressed in clumsy formulations." There is nothing astonishing about that to the ext­ent that unemployment contains and expresses the whole condition of being a worker. A situation in which the working class touches the roots of its own condition faced with a world whose anachronistic laws come to light with this immense overproduction, which engend­ers nothing but misery, degeneration and death, whereas it could free humanity from an immense burden.

It is in this context that the humanitarian propagandists, in whose mouths the word ‘solid­arity' takes on the meaning of begging for charity, reveal their reactionary nature.

Their solidarity and ours

The exploitation of the notion of ‘solidarity' to serve ends which have nothing to do either with the needs of the workers' struggles, and even less with the perspective of the emancipation of the working class, is nothing new.

We've seen it at work these last years in the work of corporatist isolation taken in hand by the different unions, and in particular in the miners' strike in Britain. With the develop­ment of unemployment this necessarily takes on a caricature form, which at least has the advantage of throwing light on all this hypoc­risy and ineffectiveness.

Ever since the social insurance systems began to reveal their bankruptcy, their inability to face up to, or at least hide, the most acute aspects of the condition of unemployment, the appeals for solidarity ‘against the social dis­ease' have not ceased. The state, to begin with, levies new social insurance taxes on wages - naturally in the name of ‘solidarity'; charit­able institutions appeal for gifts. The unions, old and new, when they are not trying to mobilize workers behind nationalist campaigns along the lines of ‘produce German, French, etc', are appealing for ‘work sharing'.

To begin with, the new social taxes or the raising of the old ones doesn't solve anything and can only have a very limited impact on the conditions of the unemployed. With the const­ant increase in unemployment, the hiking of these contributions becomes an endless spiral, grinding down the wages from which already several people often have to live. In fact, they are not ‘contributions' and still less a ‘gesture of solidarity', but a levy on the crisis of capitalism imposed on a working pop­ulation which already amply suffers and takes the lion's share of supporting the unemployed, since the unemployed are not on the planet Mars but in the families of the workers. When they are alone, their situation rapidly becomes unlivable.

As far as the ‘gifts' and other ‘charitable gestures' are concerned, their ineffectiveness in relation to the immensity of the problem speaks for itself. This business of ‘solidar­ity' through ‘charity' takes us back many years, to the ‘30s:

"Society was engaged to resolve its local prob­lems through an increase of its charitable works. As late as 1931, President Hoover was of the opinion that:

‘The maintenance of a spirit of mutual assist­ance through voluntary gifts is of infinite importance for the future of America...No gov­ernment action, no economic doctrine or project can replace this responsibility imposed by God on the individual man or woman towards their neighbor' (Address on unemployment relief, 18 October 1931).

However, less than a year later, ‘The respons­ibility imposed by God' revealed its impotence. The funds of the state and of local support were exhausted. The radicalization of the workers as much as the masses progressed rapid­ly: hunger marches, all kinds of spontaneous demonstrations, even looting became more and more frequent." (Living Marxism, no. 4, August 1938)

Of all these approaches calling for solidarity in order to face up to the question of unemployment, there remains to be considered the one preached specifically by the unions, the famous ‘work-sharing'. For a hell of a long time now the unions, especially the social democratic ones, have tended to polarize the attention of the working class around the ‘struggle for the 35-hour week'. The basis of the union ideology which preaches this ‘job sharing' is a certain vision of the present crisis. In their ideological work, these unions defend the point of view that the present crisis which gives birth to mass unemployment is merely a conjunctural crisis, a changeover period leading to a new expansion of the world economy or the rule of new technologies. It's in this bright perspective that they call on the working class to accept their derailment and a mythological future.

These slogans about ‘work sharing' aren't so new. During the ‘30s even, the IWW[1] put forward similar orientations for action:

"The unemployed unions of the IWW were of the opinion that charity cannot resolve the quest­ion of unemployment, and that's why it was necessary to send the workless back to work, shortening the working day of all workers to four hours. Their policy was to make ‘indust­rial strike pickets' to impress the workers at work." (Ibid)

It should be said straight away that such act­ions never lead, even minimally, to the desired results. On the contrary, one couldn't dream of a better way of setting one part of the working class against another. And indeed, behind all these masquerades of solidarity, that's fundamentally the only goal the whole bourgeoisie and the different set-ups which belong to it through their ideologies and their actions are willing to consider the problem of the unemployed. As long as they can be dealt with as the ‘needy' and as people to be ‘helped' they are prepared to take account of a certain ‘necessary solidarity' to the extent that it's the working class which pays.

All of these slogans have not succeeded in mobilizing very much, being greeted with suspicion if not outright disgust. And it's easy to understand why. But this failure to mobilize the mass of the unemployed, who find themselves in such a dramatic situation, is in a certain sense the bourgeoisie's victory. A victory without glory or style perhaps, but a victory nonetheless. In the present situation, it's better for the state and the unions to gain small victories than to achieve big victories at great gatherings, since the risks and what's at stake are immense. With the unemployed, these risks are doubled since, beyond the fac­tories and offices, they are difficult to con­tain in the traditional union structures and, in the face of the pressure of their needs, the flabbiness and the traditional demands of the unions are ill-adapted.

It's happened once in history that the bourg­eoisie made the error of gathering the mass of the unemployed, believing itself to be creating an army easily manipulated against the rest of the working class. It quickly got its fingers burned, and isn't prepared to repeat the same mistake. That was in 1848 when, as Marx rep­orts:

"Alongside the mobile guard, the government decided to rally round itself an army of industrial workers. A hundred thousand workers, flung onto the streets by the crisis and the revolution, were enrolled by Minister Marie in so-called National Ateliers. Under this grandiose name was hidden nothing else than the employment of the workers on tedious, monoton­ous, unproductive earthworks at a wage of 23 sous. English workhouses in the open - that is what these National Ateliers were. The provincial government believed that it had .formed in them a second proletarian army against the workers themselves. This time the bourgeoisie was mistaken in the National Ateliers, just as it was mistaken in the mobile guard. It had created an army for mutiny." (The Class Struggles in France, Moscow Edition)

It's in this way that every gathering of the unemployed in demonstrations or in committees is a force to be reckoned with. Gathered mass­ively, the unemployed are directly led to become conscious of the immensity of the prob­lem they face, and the banality of the union speeches. Not only do the unemployed, when they are mobilized, become conscious of their strength, but also of the links uniting them to the whole working class, in relation to which they do not form a separate entity.

From this point of view, there is only one struggle of the working class. Over a period of years the question of unemployment has thus been particularly present, a determining factor in the struggle. The only difference today is that the unemployed threaten to break their isolation and are refusing to accept their fate. Does this mean they should conduct a separate struggle to that of the whole working class? Certainly not. Basing oursel­ves on past experience of the struggles, we can say that the causes of their defeat lay precisely in corporatist, regional isolation, of which the unions are champions. Today the workers' struggle is showing every sign of enlarging its social scope with the appearance of the struggle of the unemployed; and this enlargement can and will contribute towards breaking down all the separations which, until now, have been shown to be poison for the whole working class. We must therefore strug­gle with all our might against the new separat­ions, opposing the workers to one another. These were used by the unions yesterday to lead the struggles against redundancies to defeat, and they are trying to introduce the same thing into the general struggle against unemployment.

If the unemployed in their struggles are unable to count on the active solidarity of the workers still with jobs, they won't be able to make the state back down. The same is true if the unemployed, in one way or another, don't extend their solidarity to the employed work­ers in struggle.

This extension of the class struggle, which is still in embryo, not only contains the possib­ility of creating within society a balance of forces favorable to the working class in the defense of its immediate interests. The exten­sion and unification of the working class makes it possible to outline a perspective which will finally free the horizon from the ravages of the historical crisis of capitalism.


[1] ‘Industrial Workers of the World' - a ‘revolutionary syndicalist' organization at the beginning of this century. For a history of its degeneration and decline, see Internationalism no. 43

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