The situation of capitalism can only be understood at the global level, since it is only by grasping its totality that its real nature and dynamic can be seen. Thus it is a mistake to expect to see every aspect of capitalism expressed equally in the situation of any particular nation state. Britain does not show the devastation of the economic crisis seen elsewhere any more than it bears the direct scars of war and nor has it seen class struggle on the scale witnessed elsewhere. Nonetheless it is part of the international dynamic and the particular developments in this country contribute to the overall dynamic.
A qualitative development of the class struggle
2. Over the last two years the developments in the class struggle internationally have confirmed that the working class is once again moving towards confrontation with capitalism. The reflux in its struggle that weighed on it so heavily after the collapse of the old blocs in 1989 has been coming to an end for several years and in country after country the proletariat has struggled not only to defend its immediate interests against the ever-increasing attacks of capitalism, but also for the long-term interests of the whole class. Indeed, it is this qualitative dimension that most defines the current struggle. Against the culture of look after number one, against the racial, ethnic and religious divisions so assiduously cultivated by the ruling class, the working class has again raised the banner of class solidarity. This principle stands opposed to the whole logic of bourgeois society and contains within it the embryo of the revolutionary challenge to capitalism. In the struggle against the CPE in France, but also in the struggles in Vigo, Spain, this principle has reached a high point with the reappearance of mass, sovereign assemblies that work to unify the class and control the struggle. Here, again in embryo, are the means of the mass strike, the means of the proletariat’s direct confrontation with capitalism, the means of the revolutionary struggle for communism. But, however significant this qualitative dimension is it has to be joined by the quantitative one, by the mobilisation of the masses, if the potential is to be realised. While there have been signs of this - for example the movement against the CPE was successful when it seemed as if the workers would come out in support of it - this task still stands before the proletariat.
3. Over the last two years the situation in Britain has evolved and is now clearly part of this international development. Two years ago we identified a range of factors tending to limit the class struggle in Britain: “the experience of the two classes, the historical strength of the unions, the legacy of the defeats suffered in the miners’ strike, the effectiveness of the gradual introduction of economic attacks and the continuing ideological weight of the Labour government”. Today most, if not all of these factors carry less weight and we can conclude that the proletariat in this country has taken its struggle forwards and has played a significant role in the development of the class struggle. The struggles generally remain small in scale, with the exception of the public workers’ strike in March, and also tend to be short lived; but the signs of a growing combativity and the consciousness shown in the most important actions suggest that the period of relative calm is coming to an end.
This evolution is underpinned above all by the development of the crisis, with the attacks not only becoming more generalised, but also calling into question the viability of capitalism as a whole. The attack on pensions exemplifies this: not only does it confront every worker with the threat of the loss or reduction of their pension or of having to work for several more years, but it also puts in question the fundamental illusion held out by capitalism of a better tomorrow.
The question of war has also begun to have an impact. The war on terror, which has led only to more war and more terror and particularly to the nightmares of Iraq and Afghanistan, has helped to wear out illusions in the Labour government, with surveys showing strong opposition to the war. While this has the potential to pose fundamental questions about capitalism as a whole, rather than the policy of this of that particular government, this has not happened to any very significant extent yet.
4. The development of struggle in Britain, like that globally, is above all qualitative:
- firstly, solidarity between workers that breaches the divisions imposed by bourgeois society. In August 2005 BA workers struck in support of staff sacked by Gate Gourmet. The former were mainly white, the latter Asian. This strike was also significant because it took place in the middle of the campaigns following the bombings in London. In February 2006 Catholic and Protestant postal workers in Northern Ireland went on strike, marching together in Belfast. In the same month workers at Cottam power station struck in protest at the low wages paid to Hungarian workers at the site. In the aftermath of the council workers’ strike in March permanent contracted workers forced the reinstatement of Polish workers employed by an agency after they had taken part in the strike;
- secondly, the development of actions outside of the unions, and sometimes opposed to them. The BA/Gate Gourmet strike, several postal workers’ movements and the Cottam power workers all took the form of unofficial action and were criticised by the unions;
- thirdly, a growing level of combativity. The most significant example of this was the council workers’ strike in March but other examples include the walkout by Vauxhall car workers on the news of job cuts and the strike by police support workers in Devon and Cornwall in the face of pay cuts of up to 28%.
5. The quantitative level of struggle remains low: 2005 saw the lowest number of days lost to strike actions since records began in the late 19th century. The only large-scale struggles in recent years have been the two by local government workers in 2002 and 2006. However, they give an indication of the evolution of the situation. In 2002 the one-day strike was completely dominated by the unions and was essentially a manoeuvre to contain the anger of the working class. The strike this March seemed superficially very much the same in that it was called by the unions and controlled by them. However, the number on strike seems to have been greater and it seems to also have been animated by a more combative spirit, with solidarity being shown between workers – such as that with Polish workers penalised for participating in the strike. This suggests that this time while the unions were still trying to contain the anger of the workers they were less in control. Historically, the working class in Britain has not been the most volatile, due in part at least to the ability of the bourgeoisie to manage the factors pushing the class into struggle on the one hand and to contain and derail the struggle once begun on the other. Today, as we have seen, it is becoming harder to manage the attacks on the working class and there is a real potential for the development of the struggle, including a significant increase in its scale.
6. All of this increases the importance of the unions in defending capitalist order. The history of the working class in Britain, where the creation of the unions was the product of an intense and prolonged struggle and marked a step forward for the whole working class, means that they continue to have a weight on the working class beyond the numbers who are actually members. Nearly a century after they ceased to be a weapon in the hands of the workers this legacy has not been shaken off and the idea that the unions defend the workers remains deeply rooted in many parts of the working class. After 1989 the unions first worked to renew their position with the workers, staging a number of manoeuvres which, for all their modesty in comparison with the larger and more spectacular manoeuvres in other countries, were nonetheless effective. While supporting the election of Labour a deliberate distancing between the two began, which has developed further since, for example with some unions ending financial support for Labour while others campaigned against its ‘move to the right’. This put the unions in a position where they could ‘defend’ workers against the government if necessary. In the face of the solidarity being developed within the working class today, the unions have responded with calls for fake solidarity. One union leader, after criticising the Heathrow workers for staging an illegal strike, called for the legalisation of solidarity strikes – after appropriate consultation and voting had been completed of course. The leftists have a role to play, in particular by turning every struggle into a struggle for union rights or against a particular government policy.
7. A further aspect that poses difficulties to the working class has been the questions of unemployment and of changes to employment. The Resolution on the International Situation notes that during the 1980s unemployment tended to play a negative role, increasing the atomisation and demoralisation of the working class, especially the younger generations. This weight still exists today and can lead to the fatalistic acceptance of the blows of capitalism, or even to the hope that one boss will be better than another. However, the deepening of the crisis makes it more difficult for the bourgeoisie to hold out such hopes, thus leading the issue of unemployment to prompt questions about the nature of capitalist society as a whole rather than just about individual survival within it. The spontaneous walkout by Vauxhall car workers on the news of job cuts was an indication of such a change, while the fact that it was very short-lived shows the road still to be travelled.
Workers in employment experience widely varied conditions that risk polarising full-timers against part-timers, contracted against non-contracted, agency staff against permanent staff and so on. However, the generalisation of attacks on the terms and conditions of work raises the possibility of solidarity developing across all such divisions, as was that case at Cottam power station where permanent contracted staff struck in support of un-contracted, temporary workers.
9. Underneath the developments taking place in the class struggle today is the dynamic towards a new confrontation with the ruling class, that is, towards the mass strike. This is not an immediate perspective, not least because the level of struggle is far below what is required. But this is not the decisive aspect at this stage. What is pointing towards the mass strike is not the numbers involved but, as the Theses on the Student Movement in France in IR 125 say, the means. While the struggle against the CPE was the high point and showed these means most clearly, in many of the struggles seen today the political means that are being used – solidarity between workers in one, going outside the unions in another – are evidence to a lesser degree of the development of those means in embryo. Looking at the general evolution of the situation – the deepening crisis and the question of war (we can recall the latter was a significant factor in the general dynamic that led to 1905) we can see a maturation of the conditions for larger scale struggles. We cannot predict the exact rhythm of this evolution but we must be prepared. Just as 1905 seemed to grow from very little, so today the evolution of the situation and the subterranean development of consciousness that is a feature uniting the minority moving towards communist positions and the wider numbers moving into struggle, makes the rapid appearance of larger and more politicised struggles a real possibility.
The impasse facing British imperialism
9. Over the last two years the difficulties facing US imperialism have developed into a crisis. Iraq has descended into an increasingly uncontrollable and barbaric hell. In Afghanistan the Taliban are regaining control in many regions. In both, the ‘democratically elected’ government is all but powerless and isolated in its capital. The US military, far from reducing its numbers in Iraq has had to increase them, resulting in the death of yet more soldiers. Divisions have developed in the American ruling class; and following the defeat of the Republicans in the mid-term elections in November, Donald Rumsfeld, the architect of the war in Iraq, was immediately dumped. However, the crisis will not be so easily overcome. The Democrats may have won the election but it is far from clear that they have any idea of how to get US imperialism out of the impasse it is in.
10. After the collapse of the eastern bloc in 1989 the British ruling class developed an independent strategy based on an effort to steer a course between the US and Europe, playing one off against the other when possible. Initially in the conflict in Yugoslavia, in particular following the bombing of Kosovo, it had some success. But at the same time, it came under increasing pressure from both sides, notably from the US through its intervention into the situation in Northern Ireland. Faced with the offensive launched following the destruction of the Twin Towers in 2001, Britain aligned itself more closely with Washington, joining it in the invasion first of Afghanistan and then of Iraq. However, it did not do this because it had decided to throw in its lot with the US but in order to continue to pursue its independent strategy in the new situation. It was a recognition that the point of equilibrium between America and Europe had shifted under the impact of the storm whipped up by the US. Today not only has this tack to the US failed, but the whole strategy is also in crisis and there are serious divisions in the British ruling class. A number of factors have contributed to this situation.
11. Firstly, in Iraq Britain has been drawn into the impasse. From the pretence that its presence was benign it has become clear its forces are no different to the Americans. They are equally involved in the violence, equally unable to venture out unless heavily armed, equally unable to resolve the situation. The British bourgeoisie has contemplated the break up of Iraq and has changed its approach to support the criticism of Iran in order to limit its regional ambitions.
12. Secondly, it has also been drawn into the quagmire in Afghanistan. Britain has continued to participate despite its humiliation by the US during the invasion in order to try and keep a presence in the region. Today it is engaged in the most serious battles since the Korean war and has been unable to contain the situation in Halmand province, effectively being forced to surrender control of some parts. Its forces are over-stretched and taking casualties, leading to increasing disquiet in parts of the military.
13. Thirdly the bombings in London in July 2005 drove home the failure of Britain’s strategy. The issue for the ruling class was not the dead and maimed but the fact that its policy had rebounded on it, revealing its failure and exposing it to the attacks of its imperialist rivals. Essentially, its attempts to play a role beyond its real power and global position had blown up in its face – a point readily driven home by its rivals with their accusations about “Londonistan”. This suggests that the British state was not behind the bombings and it is possible that its rivals had some prior knowledge and merely stood by and watched.
In the aftermath the ruling class used the bombings as one more pretext to further strengthen its state apparatus, to inculcate fear in the population and to demonise part of it, leading to an increase in attacks and official harassment of those deemed to be ‘Muslim’. However, at the imperialist level it gained nothing. Whereas after 9/11 the American bourgeoisie was able to launch an offensive that for a time drove the world before it, the British ruling class failed to gain the initiative, despite some attempts to do so in Afghanistan and Iraq a few months later.
14. The full extent of the weakening of British imperialism was exposed by the conflict in the Lebanon during the summer. Although not a traditional area of British interests, Blair sought to use the conflict to present Britain as a central player by posturing as America’s loyal ally, refusing to condemn even the most blatant of the atrocities committed by Israeli imperialism, and talking grandly of bringing peace to the region. In fact, Britain was excluded by Washington, in alliance with France, from the negotiations to end the conflict; and Blair was left a pathetic figure in his office, waiting for the call to take part that never came. Britain’s weakness on the world stage was laid bare for all to see. The fundamental significance of the Lebanon conflict for British imperialism was that it confronted it with the reality of its status as an imperialist power and marked another stage in the historic decline of British imperialism. Half a century ago the Suez conflict confronted Britain with the fact that it had become a second rate power; today it is confronted with the fact that it has become a third rate power.
Since the collapse of the Eastern bloc the ICC has argued that British imperialism is caught in a contradiction it cannot resolve. In seeking to play an independent role and to continue to punch above its weight, it must play the US off against Europe, but more and more the reality has been that it is caught between these powers. We have seen this contradiction sharpening for years and reiterated this in the resolution adopted at the last WR congress when we wrote: “The danger of the tack towards the US lies in the fact that it makes the British ruling class more vulnerable, not just to pressure from the US but to reciprocal pressure from its European rivals. The perspective is thus for the contradiction to continue to sharpen” (point 12). This was correct but it was a situation that could not continue forever: at some point the situation would demand a qualitative change in strategy. This point has been reached and it has provoked a deep division within the ruling class.
15. These divisions became increasingly clear during the year, growing from a concern to pressure Blair to correct his strategy to the attempt to get rid of him in the early autumn, following which he had to confirm that he would be gone within the year.
The conflict in the Lebanon led to a storm of criticism from within the ruling class, while the media for once showed something of the reality of war in the 21st century. In the aftermath the head of British armed forces publicly criticised government strategy and called for a change of direction. This is an unprecedented event and should have led to the dismissal and humiliation of the general; but far from this Blair was forced to pretend that he agreed and the general remained in post.
The scandal over loans for peerages has been used intermittently as part of this. Today it has been revealed that dozens of MPs have been interviewed, some after being arrested and there is growing speculation that Blair himself will be interviewed, while the police have hinted that they have very strong evidence and are preparing a case that may lead to prosecutions.
However, Blair has shown himself ready to defend his position and it is clear that he is not isolated in the British bourgeoisie. Thus the perspective is for continuing divisions within the ruling class in the period ahead.
16. One feature of the current campaigns is that they have shown that the British ruling class has been quite deeply affected by the phase of decomposition. In the Theses on Decomposition adopted in 1990 we identified a general tendency towards a loss of control by the bourgeoisie: “The absence of any perspective (other than day-to-day stop-gap measures to prop up the economy) around which it could mobilise as a class, and at the same time the fact that the proletariat does not yet threaten its own survival, creates within the ruling class, and especially within the political apparatus, a growing tendency towards indiscipline and an attitude of ‘every man for himself’” (IR 62). That this has affected the British ruling class is particularly significant given its historical stability and renowned intelligence.
This indiscipline has found one expression in the functioning of the Blair government, which has been marked by informalism, cronyism and the replacement of the traditional methods of the administration. This aspect was highlighted in the Butler inquiry, which criticised the tendency to take decisions without records and to ignore official reports. However, while this expressed the concern felt in parts of the ruling class about the lack of discipline, the methods used to put pressure on Blair actually fuelled this tendency. Thus, during the Butler inquiry the security service breached its own rules when it set up a website and published confidential documents that contradicted the government’s claims about Iraq and weapons of mass destruction. Today, the loans for peerages scandal has led to the arrest of senior politicians and may yet see Blair interviewed and potentially even arrested and charged.
17. In the period ahead the British ruling class will continue to defend its interests as much as possible. However, the days when Britain could aspire to actually control events is long past, and today it is as dependent on the actions of the greater powers as any other country. This means above all seeing what happens in the US, given the growing difficulties of continuing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the outcome of the mid-term elections. There is no dramatic alternative path open to the US, just a realisation that the current path is leading nowhere. The British bourgeoisie is in a similar situation in that there is a recognition that the imperialist strategy has to change but an absence of any well-defined plan. The next two years are likely to be a period of uncertainty for the British bourgeoisie, although it would be a mistake to underestimate it.
The real depth of the economic crisis
18. At the international level the bourgeoisie is confronted with the relentless deepening of the crisis. While the impressive growth rates achieved by China and India seem to contradict this, at the global level their advances are paid for by retreats elsewhere. World production remains low. The development seen in China reflects the fact that capital has shifted to low-wage countries, rather than an actual overall development. The capitalist economy can only be defended through the active and continuous intervention of the state: “capitalism has kept itself alive through the conscious intervention of the bourgeoisie, which can no longer afford to trust the invisible hand of the market…What is noteworthy is the bourgeoisie’s determination to keep its economy going at all costs, its ability to hold off the inherent tendency towards collapse by maintaining a gigantic façade of economic activity fuelled by debt” (Resolution on the international situation adopted by the ICC’s 16th congress, pt.10).
19. The British economy has continued to keep ahead of many of its rivals in Europe, although not the US. The ruling class has shown that it is still able to manage the crisis, albeit in a more difficult situation that has tended to be marked by flat growth, rising inflation and hidden unemployment. Above all productivity remains low and the bourgeoisie seems unable to address this in any fundamental way. This means that the ruling class continues to rely on increasing the absolute exploitation of the working class, which can only increase the risk that this will provoke a reaction from it.
20. State capitalism has been the means to defend the economy in Britain as much as anywhere else in the world. Indeed in Britain the state has been particularly effective. The Labour government has sought to manage the economy through the adoption of counter-cyclical policies. It has increased state spending to counter the global recession in the short-term, and to smooth out the decline in the longer term. The latest OECD survey of the United Kingdom has explicitly recognised this: “An expansionary fiscal policy has been an important factor supporting demand since the global downturn; between 2000 and 2004 the cyclically-adjusted balance declined by 4½ per cent of GDP, which was only exceeded by the United States. Over the same period over half of new jobs have been created in the public sector, which has experienced average employment growth of 2% per annum (about six times the growth rate in private sector employment)”
21. In short Britain has relied on state spending and debt to sustain the economy. Government debt now stands at 42.1% of GDP. Personal debt has grown from £1 trillion two years ago to £1.25 trillion today – a 25% increase. However, it has been able to manage the housing market – which has been one of the main factors behind the increase in personal debt – engineering a soft landing rather than a sharp drop that would have had a serious impact on rates of growth. It has also created a significant number of jobs.
The government claims to have kept to its ‘golden rules’ but has done so by manipulating the figures. Its plans assume a decrease in the government deficit to balance it out over the cycle, but in the last 20 years there have only been four years of surplus (during the first years of the Labour government). This suggests that it will become harder for the government to continue to manage the economy as it has in recent years.
22. The ‘health’ of the British economy continues to be based on attacks on the working class. Increasing exploitation in work, escalating debt outside. Attacks on its future with the gradual destruction of pensions; degradation of the social wage through the erosion of health, social and public services; the continued decline of the infrastructure through lack of investment.
23. The period ahead poses a number of questions to the British ruling class:
- Will it be possible to continue to manage the economic crisis as well as it has over the last decade given the gradual worsening of the situation?
- Will it be possible to forge a new imperialist strategy in the wake of the failure not just of London’s independent policy but also of Washington’s post-9/11 offensive?
- Will it be possible to contain the divisions within the ruling class?
- Will it be possible to contain the class struggle given the necessity to continue to increase exploitation and impose deeper and more extensive attacks?
These are essentially the same questions as face the bourgeoisie internationally. And, while the British bourgeoisie may still be one of the most capable and unified parts of the ruling class, and while it may in particular have an understanding of the need to unite across other divides against the working class, it can no more hold back the continued decline of capitalism within ‘its’ nation than can the bourgeoisie internationally.
The working class too has questions posed to it. Questions of continuing to develop its struggles, of seeing itself as a class with its own interests, capable not only of fighting against capitalism but of overthrowing it and making the possible new world real. These questions are also posed at the international level and can only be answered at that level. However, unlike the bourgeoisie, this is a source of strength for the proletariat because it is an international class. Marx once commented that communism – the real movement of the working class - is the solution to the riddle of history and knows itself to be such. Today we can see that the working class is struggling to regain this understanding so that to the question confronting it - and the whole of humanity - it can answer decisively: “socialism”.