The bread and circuses of the Olympics is over. The circus did a great job of – momentarily - creating a sense of euphoria and national unity, of helping us forget the growing signs that the society we live in is irretrievably breaking down. And for that very reason, there’s not much bread. Not just because the Olympics was a big disappointment as far as most local and national businesses were concerned, and will leave in its wake a major addition to UK’s already gigantic debt mountain. But because the economic crisis is continuing remorselessly, and the ruling class has no alternative but to attack our living standards at every level. In short, to make us eat less and work more.
No country on the planet is spared by recession and unemployment. In Europe the rate of unemployment has already gone past 10% and is hitting young people with particular force. In Greece and Spain it’s up to 50% - and at the same time the European bureaucrats and capitalists are calling for them to work harder, proposing a return to the 6 day week for those ‘lazy’ Greeks. Whole families are being thrown out onto the streets, are unable to feed themselves adequately, but that’s not enough: if any of them have a job, they’ve got to sweat even harder to pay off the national debt.
This is why the ruling class is more and more being obliged to talk tough and show its brutal, repressive nature more openly. If workers aren’t going to knuckle down, and even worse, if they begin to band together and resist this austerity drive, they must be shown who’s boss. This was certainly the aim of the savage slaughter of the miners in South Africa in August. In the more established ‘democracies’ like Britain, we have not yet reached the stage where workers’ demonstrations are crushed with live ammunition. But there are plenty of indications that our rulers are again baring their teeth. We’ve had our summer holiday of Jubilee and Olympic celebrations. Now it’s time to get to work. You saw all those thousands who volunteered to make the Olympics a success? Well, now get ready to work longer hours for less – or even nothing.
The make-up of the new cabinet was one sign that the style of government is going to change. Cameron and Co. used to talk green, now they are putting a climate change sceptic in charge of the environment and are going full steam ahead for airport expansion. No more concessions to ‘diversity’ – three women sacked, one of them the only ‘ethnic’ in the cabinet village. The least popular ministers – Osborne, May and Hunt, who all got booed at the Paralympics – are still very much at the core of things. All this is going to cause more problems for the Lib Dems, who seem helpless to block the coalition government’s shift to the right.
But perhaps more significant are the concrete measures of intimidation taken against minorities who are vulnerable to being isolated and blamed for the problems of the national economy. Like the homeless: squatting has been definitively criminalised, despite the huge number of buildings left unused as a result of the recession and of unrestrained property speculation. Foreign students are also being picked on as their visas are revoked: a number of smaller colleges are affected, but London Metropolitan has been selected as a test case for other universities. The logic behind this is less than clear, given the exorbitant fees that are wrung out of these students, but it seems to be part of the state’s general drive to reduce immigration figures. In other words, it’s another case of scape-goating minorities, a more refined version of the brutal expulsions of gypsies that have been stepped up in France, Italy, Greece and elsewhere. And let’s not forget those who have also been supposedly given such a new and improved image by the Paralympics: the disabled. The very firm that was sponsoring the Paralympics, Atos, has been the government’s muscle in its efforts to force thousands of people off disability benefit and get them back to work.
Another category that was painted in such glowing colours at the Olympics opening ceremony, the health workers, are also under the cosh. With new plans threatening to cut wages by up to 15% while increasing the working week and reducing sick pay, 68,000 health workers in the south west of England are being used to test the waters for further pay cuts and increased rates of exploitation across the NHS and the public sector.
The working class has learned to its cost in the past that it cannot escape harm when parts of its body – whether immigrants, the homeless, ethnic minorities, women, gays, or particular trades and sectors – are singled out and attacked. In a situation where we are all facing massive reductions in our living conditions, the sowing of divisions in our ranks can only weaken our ability to resist effectively. If we are going to defend ourselves from capitalist repression and austerity, we are going to have to affirm our solidarity and unity across all divisions.