In early June the Office for National Statistics issued the official government figures for 'industrial action' in 2003, highlighting a record low in the number of strikes. Some commentators pointed out that the early 2004 figures for 'working days lost' were more in tune with the rest of the decade, and that, so far, this is up on the 1990s. The ONS, however, made sure that all media outlets could compare the 1990s' yearly average figure of 600,000 with 7.2 million for the 1980s and 12.9 million for the 1970s. Drawing attention to such statistics is intended to feed the idea that the struggle between classes is dead. We are being asked to believe that Margaret Thatcher's dream has come true and finally "there is no such thing as society", no class conflict, just individuals and their families.
Ever since the beginning of workers' struggles the capitalists who exploit them have tried to obscure the reality of class society, the struggles between classes with opposing interests. Marx once quoted a letter from Disraeli in which the new Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer said "We shall endeavour to terminate the strife of classes which, of late years, has exercised so pernicious an influence over the welfare of the kingdom" (Marx to Joseph Weydemeyer, 3/5/1852). Yet the 'strife of classes' has stubbornly remained at the centre of capitalist society, resistant to all the bourgeoisie's words and deeds.
In the 1950s sociologists said that the working class had been 'bought off' with cars, washing machines and TVs; in the 60s they said that workers had become 'bourgeoisified' because of the advent of package holidays, consumerism and the general fear of nuclear war. Despite the extent of struggles in the 70s and 80s the propagandists of the ruling class still found reasons to show that the working class somehow had a stake in its own exploitation, with such things as the sale of council houses (now often with central heating) putting ex-tenants into the property market. In the 1990s the continuing decline in manufacturing industries along with the rise of the 'cyber economy' was offered as further proof that the working class was a thing of the past.
The clash of class interests
Yet the fundamental reality of capitalist society has not changed. More than 150 years after the Communist Manifesto capitalism now covers the face of the world; the role of the state has become utterly central to the bourgeoisie's attempt to manage the economy; imperialist war has given rise to a continuing series of catastrophes unimaginable to any previous society: yet the basic capitalist relationship remains the same. The working class sells its labour power to the capitalist class, and the capitalist class does everything it can to maximise the surplus value that comes to it, that is, the value created by labour which is over and above what is required for the workers' wages. In the process of capitalist production the interests of worker and capitalist are in opposition - the latter wants to intensify the rate of exploitation, while the former needs the material means to survive in a crisis-ridden economy.
There are many obvious examples of the clash of class interests. It is commonplace to hear of the high-paid executives who are munificently rewarded for laying off thousands of workers. Or take the international phenomenon of pensions: the funds that workers have expected to draw on are disappearing while their bosses generously prepare for comfortable retirements. These inequalities, and more importantly the fact that capitalism increasingly can't afford to fund pensions at all, is not only a demonstration of the bankruptcy of the system, but shows once again that it's the exploited class which has to pay for the crisis of the exploiters' system. Attempts in Britain to minimise the pension crisis only show the scale of the problem. A recent survey of 200 major companies revealed that the average deficit in each pension fund was "only" �280 million. Many companies could supposedly eliminate shortfalls with less than 10 months profit, but there's no evidence that this will ever happen.
Tony Blair constantly trumpets the strength of the British economy, in particular low inflation rates and declining unemployment, and these claims are also made in order to obscure the reality of class contrasts. As far as the unemployment figures are concerned, most of the Tories' administrative measures to keep the numbers down are still in place and the real figure could well be more than two million higher than the official one ; no one has any real job security; and also, today, families often need two or more incomes coming in, where one was adequate 25 years ago. But most significantly any 'success' in the economy has been financed by debt. The attempt to keep the inflation rate low partly stems from its importance as a factor that stimulated the struggles of the 1970s. Similarly, the reason that they want the unemployment figures to look healthier is because the threat of job losses lay behind many of the struggles of the 1980s.
Response to massive attacks
Because of the depth of capitalism's economic crisis it can only temporarily postpone the effects it will have on the working class. Revolutionaries would be the first to admit that changes in economic indices can't automatically be translated into expressions of class struggle, but workers do respond to attacks on their material conditions of existence. As Engels put it in The condition of the working class in England, workers are driven to struggle "because they feel bound to proclaim that they, as human beings, shall not be made to bow to social circumstances, but social conditions ought to yield to them as human beings"; workers "must rebel so long as they have not lost all human feeling". The question is not whether the working class struggles, but understanding what are the circumstances in which its struggles are restrained.
One of the most important obstacles to the development of workers' struggles is the overwhelming individualism of capitalist culture. Problems are experienced as individual misfortunes, with, possibly, individual solutions. Despite two hundred years of workers' class struggles, militant solidarity with those who share real common interests is undermined by social atomisation. This aspect of capitalist society is further exacerbated by the period of social decomposition into which the bourgeois order has plunged. As we say in the 'Report on the class struggle' in International Review 107: "the effects of decomposition�have a profoundly negative effect on the proletariat's consciousness, on its sense of itself as a class, since in all their different aspects - the gang mentality, racism, criminality, drug addiction, etc - they serve to atomise the class, increase the divisions within its ranks, and dissolve it into the general social rat race".
Also the factor of unemployment has had some negative effects on the working class because "The process of disintegration created by massive and prolonged unemployment, particularly among the young, by the break up of the traditional combative concentrations of the working class in the industrial heartlands, reinforces the atomisation and the competition among the workers (...) The fragmentation of the identity of the class during the last decade in particular is in no way an advance but a clear manifestation of the decomposition which carries profound dangers for the working class" (ibid).
The threat of unemployment can also hold back the development of the class struggle when workers only see it as an individual problem and are weighed down with worry about how they're going to pay the bills or deal with their debts if they haven't got a job. This concern should not be underestimated when trying to understand why the official strike figures are even lower than those for either of the two world wars.
Trade unions preserve divisions within the working class
But if the lack of a sense of class identity undermines the ability of workers to act as a class, for those who do see the need for a collective struggle there is the ever-present danger of the unions.
In Britain in particular many unions have made a point of distancing themselves from the Blair government. Some have cut off funding to the Labour Party, others are questioning its usefulness and there is widespread unhappiness expressed with government policy - at home and abroad. For those who want to struggle the unions appear to be a possible vehicle for expressing discontent; and the unions put forward initiatives that can draw in militant workers, even though they don't really advance the development of confidence or solidarity in the ranks of the working class.
For example, over the last fifteen years the rail unions have staged a sporadic series of one-day strikes and other limited actions. Recently they took up the question of pensions, divisively deciding to settle for some workers while going ahead with a tube strike. On the other hand, in May there were a series of unofficial actions by firefighters across the country in solidarity with workers suspended in Salford. Also, where last year there was a lighting strike by staff at Heathrow, action is threatened at airports this summer firmly under the control of the GMB union which has made a point of going through all the official pre-strike procedures of balloting etc.
But despite the lack of a sense of class identity, and the union traps lying in wait for workers who want to struggle, the working class has certain factors on its side.
Most importantly the imposition of massive economic attacks, in particular the dismantling of the 'welfare state', contributes to a sense in the working class that it has interests in common with others who work for wages and have no control over any of the decisions that affect their conditions of life. Also, the proliferation of wars across the globe is a stark demonstration of the only direction in which capitalism can go. If a basic class solidarity is needed in the development of the class struggle, the expression of solidarity with those caught in imperialist conflicts is a sign of the development of class consciousness.