For decades the British state has shown both determination and skill in the management of a declining economy. Britain has gone from being the strongest capitalist power in the world, able to penetrate every market across the globe with the products of its manufaecturing industry, and impose economic policies on all its rivals, to a second rate position where it relies on the financial and service sectors to stave off economic catastrophe. In response to the perpetual problems of the economy the ruling class has been able to impose repeated measures of austerity on the working class, attacking its conditions of life and work and make workers pay the price for the crisis of their exploiters' system. And when workers in Britain have fought against capitalism's attacks the ruling class has generally succeeded in limiting the working class' response by disorientating and dividing it. In short, the British bourgeoisie has mastered the art of crisis management. However, it remains the management of the crisis, not its resolution. The ruling class undermine workers' struggles; but it has not been able to impose a decisive defeat. The crisis continues. The class struggle continues. Managing the crisis
The government claims to have turned the economy round. Figures for inflation, unemployment and growth of GDP are routinely cited. Public spending has increased by about 5% per year in real terms since 2000, with substantial proportions going to health and education. The level of debt is growing, but it is still lower than many other European countries. In 2003 the European Commission declared that "The British economy has weathered the global weakness rather well" (Guardian 9/04/03).
However, the 'health' of the economy is only relative. The European Commission report identified four weaknesses "Low productivity, the large number of working age people claiming sickness and disability benefits, poor quality public services and regional and socio-economic unemployment blackspots" (ibid). The first is very deep-rooted: in 1870 real GDP per worker in Britain stood ahead of both the US and Germany; in 1938 it was still just ahead of Germany but substantially behind the US; in 1992 it not only lagged behind the other two but was below the average of the OECD as a whole. Today it is slightly ahead of the OECD average but still substantially behind America and Germany. The decline in the productivity of British capitalism is over a century old and the increase in the rate of growth in recent years is not a result of increasing productivity but, fundamentally, of greater exploitation of the working class.
Attacks against the working class
"Through the 1960s and 1970s, unemployment and inflation crept up steadily�By the late 1970s, it had become widely recognised that the United Kingdom's wage and price fixing institutions were too insulated from market forces, and the outmoded industrial relations and vocational training systems were handicaps to achieving better economic performance. A radical change in policy orientation was introduced by the new government in the early 1980s. The UK government's new policy approach to durably raising human resource utilisation and living standards emphasised a stable macroeconomic environment and well-functioning markets. Within this broad orientation, significant reforms have been implemented to improve the efficiency of markets, was well as to enhance the skill, knowledge base and innovative capacity of the economy" (OECD survey, 1996). In practice "raising human resource utilisation" has meant longer hours, lower pay, greater job insecurity and cuts in benefits to force workers to accept unacceptable jobs. The OECD report said that: "the United Kingdom has seen a very marked widening in wage inequality, a growth in temporary jobs, a sentiment of less job security and a growing divide between 'work rich' and 'work poor' households". The Labour party has continued on the same path. "Academic institutions and think tanks have produced considerable evidence showing that inequality has grown during Blair's seven years in office�the top half of the population now owns 95 per cent of marketable assets, compared with 93% in 1997. The richest 1 per cent has seen its share of national income double from 6.5 to 13 per cent over the past two decades. And, most astonishing of all, the top fifth in the earning scale pay a smaller proportion of their income in tax (34 per cent) than the bottom fifth (42 per cent)" (The Observer, 29/8/04). "�Poverty has grown significantly over recent years and by 1999/2000, between 13 and 14.5 million people in the United Kingdom - around a quarter of our society - were living in poverty" (Poverty: the Facts, Child Poverty Action Group, 2000). The health of the economy rests on the greater poverty of the working class. Today's situation is not the same as that of capitalism's ascendance in the 19th century, despite all the arguments about the similarity of the growth rates, since in the 19th century the working class benefited from the growth of the economy.
The struggle of the working class
Back in the 1970s and 80s the working class in Britain tried to defend itself against capitalist attacks, playing its part in struggles waged by the working class around the world. But the ruling class made its attacks gradually and against particular parts of the working class. In the eighties the Tories went on the offensive while Labour and the unions protested against Thatcher's 'heartlessness', and claimed they would be different in government. Workers' struggles were isolated with a fog of phoney sympathy and empty rhetoric. Back in power in 1997, Labour picked up where the Tories had left off. Because they no longer even pretended to talk of socialism or the working class, Labour was perfectly in tune with the ruling class's main themes after the collapse of the USSR and its domination over eastern Europe. This was used to prove capitalism as the final form of human society, and to feed the development of the ideology of 'look after number one' that undermined the very idea of collective struggle and even of the existence of the working class.
Today the official figures for the class struggle are at an all time low. And, while there has been an increase in the number of strikes and the number of workers taking action in the first part of 2004, there is no comparison with the 1970s and 80s. And, despite media warnings of chaos and disruption, in particular with the recent threats of action by fire fighters and BA staff, the bosses seem unperturbed, ending those two disputes without any strikes.
However, the ruling class is far from complacent. Internationally there are signs of the working class feeling its strength once more through large-scale actions, such as those in France and Austria in the spring of last year (see the 'Report on the Class Struggle' in IR 117). In Britain the evolution has been far less obvious, but in actions such as the unofficial strikes by the fire fighters earlier in the year there is a sense of the working class beginning to probe the defences of the bourgeoisie. This puts the recent disputes in a new light. Both the fire fighters and the BA workers have taken unofficial action in the last year and have demonstrated a sense of class solidarity - for example, fire fighters in one part of the country came out in support of those in another. Such an example, even though very small, worries the ruling class. By stage managing a new dispute it has reinforced the grip of the unions and demoralised those workers who were prepared to strike. The same sense of solidarity was expressed at the end of August. Workers employed in building the new Wembley stadium mounted a picket in support of 200 workers who had been sacked when they fought attempts to force them to work longer hours and weekends..
Such struggles show that the working class remains a force within capitalism that the ruling class must take account of. Most importantly, the working class still has the potential to end capitalism.