Wildcat No. 69, Spring 2004, inserted poster [w69_poster_en.htm]
Fast Food. Just-In-Time. Next Job. Self-Employment Ltd.
We all live with increasing levels of stress. Fear determines what we do: the fear of being without a job, and therefore without money. Fear of being left behind; of not being able to keep up with things. Fear of being alone.
The stress we can sense is the sound of a system breaking down – a system that has made human work ever more productive. But if we are constantly producing more and more with less and less work, then how come we don't have more time? Why does the stress continue?
The substance of this social system is the exploitation of work. Wildcat strikes are like an axe blow to the roots of the system. In the common struggle against work, a new horizon becomes visible.
It is about time
Which way to the revolution please?
Capitalism has been stagnating for thirty years. For the last twenty years, the social system and people's working conditions have been under attack from above; and for almost ten years, there has been a worldwide movement denouncing the injustice of this system. Why do so many people still stay so quiet? Why doesn't capitalism finally give up and die?
Nothing is automatic
With the 'Great Depression' of 120 years ago, the end of capitalism appeared to have already arrived. But the way it vaulted over this barrier opened up a new era so impressively, that what first appeared in the overcoming of that deep crisis is precisely what today we call capitalism, i.e. the mass production of durable consumer goods such as cars, fridges and central heating systems. This meant a huge leap forward – including in the living standards of the people who produced them.
But now, the connection between the technological and social developments that capitalism seemed to guarantee has been broken before our eyes. In the last three decades, the only place where strong development is still taking place is in southern Asia.
When capitalism pushes up against barriers, then the preconditions for a radical change (Latin: 'revolution') of all this shit are produced; but capitalism will not break down 'automatically'.
Why do people still stay so quiet?
For one thing, it's because of fear over jobs, and the knowledge that other people have it a lot worse. And secondly, there are social classes that believe sinking wages and social cuts to be in their interests: not only bosses but economic advisors, department managers, high-earning television news reporters, and politicians and functionaries of every kind, who bluntly and aggressively demand the sharpening of social inequality. In Germany, the Schroeder government is determined to push through tough reforms on behalf of this so-called 'top third'(in reality, they clearly make up less than a third of the population).
Meanwhile, it is no longer only construction workers who are actually being set up in competition with workers on Ukrainian wages. The German car industry threatens workers with Czech and Spanish wages, and VW has managed to use this threat to significantly undercut the in-house contract for the first time, with its 5000 x 5000 model. Software departments are now set up in competition with programmers in India. Many people live under the threat of a worse life; but what is lacking in all the uproar – aside from reforms that leave the whole structure intact – is imagination about how things could be different. It is for this sole reason that the 'domination of the ideological sphere by economic advisors' exists.
What comes after the anti-globalisation movement?
Following the autumn 1999 protests against the WTO meeting in Seattle, a global movement entered the stage for the first time in history. In Seattle, workers and members of youth movements, unionists and anarchists fought side by side on the streets. It happened again during the World Economic Forum in Genoa in summer 2001: refugees; people from squatted social centres; workers: and the power of the state hit back – hard. Since then the movement has lost its real momentum, but it still breaks out again here and there: for example, when millions of people worldwide marched against the Iraq war; or at the demo in Berlin on 1st November 2003, against the government's social policies. The movement against neoliberalism has fulfilled its ideological aim, in that neoliberal ideology has been discredited; but it has not reached its political and social aims: Iraq was bombed and occupied; inequality is on the increase; more and more people are dying of hunger around the world. Market relations are becoming more prevalent and more intense in everyday life, and the result is frustration and de-politicisation. Many 'star politicians' are quite happy with the situation, because their analysis and advice is reaching the ears of the powerful.
In this context the revolutionary current, which was mostly just a splash of colour at mass events such as the World and European Social Forums, might have a chance. More and more people know that capitalism is never going to turn into a vegetarian shark. But in order to seize this chance, it is no longer enough to talk about 'anti-capitalism' and 'social questions', and aside from that to continue practising the same politics as before. A revolutionary current has to relate to the fact that society's impasse, described above, has begun to be broken: in Italy, France, Poland, Britain, etc., strikes and actions are underway that are self-organised; that push things through by themselves, outside of institutional mediations. Even in Germany, the wind has changed in the last few months.
The motor of history is not 'technical progress' - but class struggle
Up until now, capitalism has stood out precisely for its ability to productively overcome 'natural' social and technical barriers. It seems to embody an unstoppable development, conquering the whole world with blood and iron, but also enabling a material improvement in the living standards of generation after generation of the exploited. Up to now, the destructive exploitation system has drawn its legitimacy from this: it is the means by which those in power have been able to claim to have a purpose in history, and they present themselves as the representatives of that purpose. Thus, massacres are justified, since otherwise 'we' wouldn't be 'where we are today'.
The labour movement has so far failed to radically criticise this view of history, postponing such a standpoint until some future time. Social democracy said: You must make sacrifices and build up the economy, so that your children and grandchildren will have better lives. Stalinism said: We need to kill a few million kulaks so that, in fifty years' time, we will have built-up communism. Both of these had the development of industry as preconditions; and both were big fans of assembly-line production.
Capitalism and socialism
Although we talk about 'capitalism' – in this poster, for example – it is perhaps a misleading term, since what we are referring to is not some closed system. For clarity's sake, and since we are not talking about a thing, but rather about a social relation, it would be more precise to talk about 'capital'.
The transition from feudalism to capitalism was not a revolution, as bourgeois written history would have us believe: in fact the rulers, following that transition, were the same as before, with only a few of them a head shorter than they had been. Feudalism had reached crisis point for both sides. The serfs fled to the cities, and the landlords also fled: from direct dependency on their serfs into more fluid exploitation of them, through waged work. They were now only concerned with multiplying their riches, which increasingly took the form of money. The rebelliousness of the former serfs and servants had not led not to freedom, but only to a new class relation; to a new form of subjugation.
Capital is a social relation over which there is a constant struggle. Nevertheless, a great many things arise from this relation that we can touch with our hands – above all, machinery. The main characteristic of capitalism is the production of the forces of production themselves. Up until now, capitalism has been first and foremost the agrarian revolution: rural economic productivity has increased enormously, which created a surplus of labour force in the countryside. Throughout the entire history of capitalism, people have fled from the villages to the towns, from the fields to the factories, from the 'south' to the 'north'. In the last 25 years, this migration has far outweighed the valorisation possibilities for capitalism; the migrants are besieging the world's metropolises with huge rings of shanty towns; and there is a worldwide crisis of the city.
The capitalist development of agriculture is destructive: the use of chemicals and profit-orientated gene manipulation; the theft and reduction of cultivated plants and animal species by agricultural corporations; the worldwide plundering of biological resources, and the extinction of plant and animal species… The politics of agricultural economics are criminal, with agricultural subsidies destroying food production in other countries, and so on. Today, a small percentage of humankind could produce enough food for everyone to live on, but despite this people die of hunger. The insanity of this economic system is obvious.
As soon as people can read and write, socialism is surpassed
All ideas of socialism start from the premise that the factories should be placed under workers' control, and circulation organised through (state) planning. All other matters are postponed until the 'next historical stage'. Even anarchist utopias remain 'socialist' at their core, because they want to 'fairly distribute the necessary work' – which immediately begs the question of which institution is to administer this distribution. Alienated labour remains alienated labour, even if it is 'only' for four hours a day! Socialist ideas have always been bound up with the state, and the official labour movement has always tried to fight its way into the state. Only anarchist and a few left-communist currents have been anti-state, and they remain peripheral phenomena.
In developing capitalist societies in which farmers are no longer the majority, the communist parties are disbanding and becoming social-democratic parties (in Italy, for example, the PCI became the DS). Social democracy itself then jettisons its poor utopianism and publicly declares its support for capitalism (e.g. in Germany, the 'Godesberger Program' of the SPD).
All of the 'revolutionary' movements that came to power in the twentieth century became development dictatorships, from the Soviet Union to the 'young nation states'. They had the objective precondition that development seemed to be possible for everyone – an idea that capitalism's thirty-year crisis has put an end to. The precondition, from the point of view of the people, was that they believed in the state (to direct the development) – which the worldwide revolutionary movement from 1968 onwards put paid to; and which the events of 1989 confirmed. And in this historical process, the people and their ideas also changed. No-one believes, any longer, that the state will make our lives better; or that nuclear power represents a safe energy source; and there are struggles worldwide against large-scale projects whose effect is to disenfranchise.
How are people to take their lives into their own hands, and be able to overthrow everything? Where is the power to do this supposed to come from? This is not a question of how we win the power, but of how we can destroy it. But the question must be asked.
Workers can change a lot when they collectively decide not to do something: when they strike
Oppressed and exploited people have always defended themselves. In this sense, the Communist Manifesto was right: history is the history of class struggle. But it is only in the capital relation that a class that can overthrow everything emerges for the first time; not simply replacing rulers and dividing up the work differently, but ending the domination of people over people and abolishing work.
The working class is more than a collection of people who are having a hard time. It is collective and interdependent on a worldwide scale, and its very collective nature is the precondition for capitalist productivity: it produces the capital. This is in marked contrast to peasants and slaves, who were also many, who were also exploited, who also fought against it, and organised heroic uprisings; but they were isolated producers, through whose work the rulers exploited the 'riches of nature'. Today, workers are in the majority worldwide, not farmers and peasants. Fewer and fewer people work directly on the land – and even those that do are mostly (rural) workers.
The working class embodies the possibility of the abolition of all classes: of communism. And the working class can only be understood in the context of this tension, and only as a process – it cannot be defined sociologically (“who belongs to it, and who doesn't?”). Capitalism has always asserted that it has overcome its class character – but as long as people have to do waged work, there will be class antagonism. And these days – in which someone who was a 'housewife' yesterday is 'unemployed' today and perhaps, tomorrow, working in an office; and the day after that sitting at a supermarket checkout, or standing at a factory assembly line – people's position in terms of class relations is far more telling than their respective job. What was that about 'professional pride', again?
All social institutions have arisen from class struggle, and all of them have to be revolutionised: prisons, schools, factories and universities; town and countryside. Gender roles and the division of people into categories such as 'healthy' or 'sick' also arise out of the valorisation of (wage) work. Political concepts that want to abolish capitalism, but that 'initially' want to leave the factories, cars and social relations, etc., just as they are, are not revolutionary but exactly the opposite.
Having for many years totally neglected the 'terrain of proletarian struggle', there is now an increase in discussion, within the left in Germany, about 'social questions' and the 'working class' again. As a rule, those who employ the former kind of terminology tend to mistake the 'working class' for their representatives (works council representatives and union functionaries), and to maintain that their 'civil society' dreams of a minimum income and minimum wages are revolutionary demands. Meanwhile, those who prefer the latter term tend to go on about ideology and, following years of deconstructing supposed identities, are now celebrating the comeback of the cult of the proletariat and Leninist 'workers' politics'.
There are a number of things we might say in opposition to this: that there is no 'workers' identity'; that the working class is not a finished subject; and that its main need is to stop being a working class. It does not have a historical mission, and no far-off aim to reach – it is about the here and now. 'Communism is the real movement,' wrote Marx and Engels in The German Ideology. We don't stand outside of this as strategists but are part of the class composition, which is different today from what it was in Marx's time, or what it was at the beginning of the twentieth century. The question of the revolution is also a different one now to that of the time of the Paris Commune. Today, the question is one of a liberated society without work. There is a massive surplus of productive know-how within humanity, which capital no longer valorises.
Historically the structural power of the working class has expanded throughout the rises and falls of the class struggle. The world economic crisis of the 1930s showed that workers could no longer simply be relegated to the position of unorganised proletariat; and the world economic system after 1945 was an acknowledgement of this, i.e., the attempt to integrate the working class into exploitation through the welfare state, unions and, effectively, a minimum wage. The worldwide class struggles of 1968 and beyond shattered this arrangement: in these struggles, everything was questioned: wages, work, the rejection of wage divisions, gender roles and careers, etc. At the centre of this economic, cultural and social crisis of the reproduction of the working class was the crisis of work; and the challenge was so radical that that crisis has lasted to this day: it is structurally determined – evoked and characterised – by the working class. Globalisation, where it has actually taken place, has led in the last thirty years – faster than ever before in history – to the working and living conditions of workers coming into line with each other through struggle (while, at the same time, large sections of humanity are excluded from all development, and the gap between rich and poor gets wider). The largest migration flows in the history of humanity have not crushed the demands of the workers, but have spread them even wider.
The crisis in the relations of exploitation has become sharper and taken many forms in the last decade, at every level of capitalist domination, right up to the decline of hegemonic power within the capitalist world system. The USA has failed to overcome its permanent crisis through war – quite the opposite: it has even intensified it ('the crisis of war'). The same has happened within the national arena: with the attempt to push through a tough crisis-management programme, the states, the unions and the parties have lost the last bit of credibility that remained to them.
In these circumstances, those who sit at a table with representatives in order to discuss the social question make stooges of themselves. Away with historical costumes ('the working class and its party')! Where struggles happen today, be it in Argentina or France, such concepts have long since been superseded: people are organising themselves, and no longer allow themselves to be treated like children. In Italy in December 2003, the old 'worker aristocracy' and the young precarious workers joined together to organise wildcat strikes: we have to look to processes like these in Bolivia, Nigeria, China, Poland and in our midst, learn from them, and join them.
Spring 2004, insert to Wildcat magazine, #69