In issue 279 of World Revolution we wrote an article (1) criticising the false alternatives to the crisis of capitalism posed by the activists present at the ‘Beyond the ESF’ event, which ran alongside the ‘official’ European Social Forum in October last year. This event, organised by the WOMBLES, attracted a wide range of ‘anti-capitalists’ from around the world with the promise of a “part conference, part direct action [and] part celebration of self-organised cultures of resistance”. Unfortunately, as we wrote at the time, anyone looking for discussion and clarification at this ‘carnival of the oppressed’ would have come away from the meetings disappointed. Behind all the talk about ‘new social movements’, all that was on offer was good old fashioned reformism wrapped up in new packaging.
In preparation for the demonstrations and meetings that will take place in July at the G8 summit in Scotland, we would like to return to one of the questions posed at the ‘Beyond the ESF’ event, the question of “precarity”.
What is Precarity?
Precarity is just another term for job insecurity or casual labour. Neither are new concepts for the working class, just facts of life within capitalism that generations of workers have been forced to experience. As our Spanish section wrote in response to ‘anti-globalisation’ activists there, “precariousness has always been part of workers’ existence. The existence of an important layer of the population needing work and therefore the means to procure its existence (what Marx & Engel’s called the ‘reserve army of labour’) is not only a consequence but a necessity, a pre-condition, of the capitalist economy itself” (‘Questions & answers about the casualisation of labour’, ICC website). This insecurity invades every area of workers lives making them the “class of precariousness” (ibid)
From the late 1960s onwards, following the end of the period of reconstruction after the Second World War, capitalism has been in deep crisis. Increases in job insecurity, or more accurately mass unemployment, are a product of this crisis. Incapable of masking successive waves of lay-offs or integrating new generations of workers into the productive process, the state is forced to use a variety of measures to keep labour costs to a minimum. Increasing the amount of temporary and part time workers is one way of doing this.
However, for those ‘anti-capitalists’ who were present at the ‘Beyond ESF’ events, and will certainly be present at the forthcoming G8 demonstrations, precarity is a product of something else, something new: neo-liberalism and globalisation. The WOMBLES, for example, state this very clearly: “the new economic experience is one of precarious work and work in the informal economy for large sections of our populations, and can be seen as dynamic occupational practice under neo-liberalism” (from the programme for Beyond ESF). For them, “precarity is fast emerging as the central social issue in heavily flexiblized Europe. Job precariousness and associated social anxiety are spreading all over Europe” (ibid).
This suggests that it is only certain right-wing governments in specific countries that are to blame for the problem of precarity - those nasty neo-liberals who emerged in the early 1980s and are behind ‘globalisation’ and the multinationals. But all governments, including those on the left, in all countries, “have been developing the use of such contracts under preposterous names such as ‘insertion contracts’, ‘replacement contracts’, etc. In Spain, the process of casualisation was begun by the socialist Gonzalez government with the whole series of measures that it began to impose in 1984. The leading proponent of casualisation in Spain is the public sector. ‘Left wing’ regional and town councils have carried this out on a large scale” (‘Questions & answers…’).
The reality is that job insecurity is not a ‘new economic experience’ for workers. The speed of the attacks may have increased but this just a reflection of the speeding up of capitalism’s crisis. The idea of a job for life has disappeared; capitalism is no longer able to offer a perspective for the future. Therefore the real question remains how we, the working class, can respond.
How do we respond to precarity?
We say the working class deliberately, because it is the only revolutionary class within capitalism, the only social force capable of providing a perspective for the future. Precariousness, as we have shown, has not created a new type of worker, despite the claims that some ‘anti-capitalists’ make about the ‘changing working class’. These ideologists like to stress the difference between older, privileged workers with ‘permanent’ contracts, and those younger workers without any ‘security’ at all – the ‘precariat’. In reality, “The aim of all this ideology about the ‘new composition’ of the proletariat is to sow divisions and conflicts within the proletariat’s ranks, to the great rejoicing of the capitalists” (ibid).
Like any other attack on its living and working conditions, the working class can only struggle against the capitalists’ efforts to impose increasingly insecure job contracts by using the weapons at its disposal – the weapons of unity, self-organisation, and solidarity. In another epoch of capitalism, the trade unions could be instruments in this struggle, but this is no longer the case.
This is not, as the Precarity Network suggests, because they are hierarchical and bureaucratic organisations, still less because they only defend the interests of the ‘secure’ workers. It’s because they don’t represent the interests of the proletariat. Since capitalism became a decadent system, incapable of providing reforms, the unions have become part of the state, co-managing exploitation and sabotaging workers’ struggles from within. This also applies to those ‘rank and file trade unionists’ who argue for casual workers to be integrated into the existing unions. These are the same organisations that helped “underwrite these measures against permanent workers and helped to develop casualisation” (ibid).
But the biggest illusion spread by the ‘anti-capitalists’ around the question of precarity is the idea of setting up a “network of struggle”, which “can begin posing serious alternatives to capitalism [and work towards] creating a new world in the shell of the old” (‘What are social centres?’ available at: www.wombles.org.uk). This network is supposedly being built right now, through the establishment of ‘social centres’ in various towns, usually in squatted buildings.
In our view, this idea of creating the new world in the shell of the old is just an anarchist version of the gradualist, reformist vision that once took hold of the old social democratic parties. It is one thing to find a place where you can hold political meetings, provide literature and other resources to aid the process of discussion and clarification. It is quite another to claim that the very act of squatting, or conducting experiments in communal living, constitutes a challenge to the present system. In fact capitalism is perfectly capable of recuperating such efforts – the 70s were replete with examples of local councils institutionalising similar neighbourhood initiatives. And with illusions like these, it’s not surprising that the political level of much of the discussion that takes place at these centres is extremely low. The dominant mood is usually the kind of activism that is radical in appearance but leftist in content (it’s no accident, for example, that the nationalist Zapatistas are so widely admired and emulated in these circles).
This dead-end activism was very evident on Mayday when the Precarity Network occupied a London branch of Tesco, which it targeted because “it is at the forefront of exploitative work practices on a global scale, paying new supermarket employees below minimum wage (rising to only just above minimum wage after several months), cutting Sunday pay (so Sunday becomes a normal working day), etc.” (euroMAYDAY: London Report! available from: www.wombles.org.uk). We won’t ask the obvious question: why not target Sainsbury or Waitrose as well? But how does giving out ‘London for free vouchers’ to bemused shoppers accompanied by a samba band, then fighting the police, challenge precarity? Workers need to lose much more than their chain stores before exploitation will end. Stunts like this don’t build solidarity as the Precarity Network claims, but reinforce the status quo. Where was the working class in all this? Did the activists involve the low paid Tesco workers?
The working class today is faced with the urgent need to rediscover its class identity. This doesn’t mean denying the real changes that have taken place in the conditions of exploitation over the past 30 years or more; but the chorus of theories that claim to have discovered a ‘new’ subject of social transformation fixate on these changes to undermine the essentials, the things that haven’t changed and are the most important things to reaffirm: that the working class is still the exploited class in this society and still the only subject of revolutionary change.
(1) All the ICC articles cited in this article are available from our website: www.internationalism.org.