Prospects and the “decisive element”

Submitted by AWL on 30 September, 2014 - 6:12

On average workers' real wages fell 8.2% between 2008 and 2013. The median (middling) worker lost £2000 a year. But for many workers it has been much worse.

For the 18-25 age range, the average drop was 14%; for 25- 29, it was 12%. Public sector wages have fallen by 15%.

Overall price inflation over the last five years has been 19.0% (RPI); 16.4% (CPI). But the income required for a defined minimum living standard has risen, during the period of tiny or zero pay rises since 2008, by amounts ranging from 33% for a couple with an infant child through 28% for a single person to 17% or 18% for other households. A significant number of households must have suffered a real decline in living standards of the order of 20% or 30%.

Even nominal (cash) wages, measured by average weekly earnings, have actually fallen during 2014. Benefit cuts and rent rises have doubled the impact of the downward pressure on wages, particularly for young people.

Between 2008-9 and 2012-3, households privately-renting increased from 14% to 18% of the total, and outstripped social renting. The impact of the Thatcher government's thorough scrapping of tenant protections legislated after 1965 consequently increases.

The number of owner-occupiers, after soaring under Thatcher, has now decreased since 2008. Those lucky enough to be able buy a home face a market where in some areas prices rise in double digit percentages in a matter of months in some areas.

Capitalism is impoverishing the many and giving rich rewards to those who own property. We will take up the demand popularised by Thomas Piketty for a wealth tax, which should include a tax on real-estate property.

Since trade union organisation, for all its weaknesses, has not collapsed under the blows of the slump, a backlash against the wage squeeze is inevitable — sooner or later, more explosively or more gradually.

The backlash may take the form of a rash of more local and sectional battles, rather than more and bigger one-day cross-union strikes, or two-day such strikes. Simmer as well as explosion can change the terrain for our intervention in the labour movement, and open up better possibilities for battles on other issues such as cuts, jobs, privatisations, and contracting-out. But we can't know for sure.

We do know that, in Gramsci's words: “The decisive element in every situation is the force, permanently organised and pre-ordered over a long period, which can be advanced when one judges that the situation is favourable (and it is favourable only to the extent to which such a force exists and is full of fighting ardour); therefore, the essential task is that of paying systematic and patient attention to forming and developing this force, rendering it ever more homogeneous, compact, conscious of itself”.

Only with the specifically revolutionary socialist “fighting ardour” which Gramsci called for — which means, in practice, ardour about seeking conversations, promoting ideas, pursuing discussions, reading and circulating our Marxist literature, educating ourselves and helping others educate themselves — can we make a real difference.

Trade union membership increased slightly in 2012, and decreased slightly in 2013. There has been a small rise in union membership in the private sector, though in the public sector, which accounts for the majority of union members, both membership and even union density fell in 2013 (to 55.4%). This happened although the union “wage gap” (the estimated wage advantage of being unionised) is higher in the public sector (19.8%) than in the private (7%).

This is a less bad result that we might fear given the pressures of the slump and the sluggishness of the union leaders. It surely means that union organisation is not so weak as to stall a pay revolt if some confidence develops in the rank and file.

The task of rebuilding and rejuvenating the trade union movement at all levels remains acute. According to the latest report (by Loughborough University academics, based on 2011 survey data), the total number of workplace reps remains around 150,000, and thus has fallen a bit more since the 1979-80 peak than total union membership (by 60%, cf 50%).

Between 2004 and 2011 the number of workplace reps in manufacturing fell 40%. The big majority of workplace reps are in the public sector, and often in areas where it is harder for industrial action to hit profits fast. The average age of workplace reps is 49, 55% of them are over 50, and only 1% are under 30.

Our efforts for a new “New Unionism” must combine a long-term, strategic argument for union democracy and rank-and-file reinvigoration; efforts to recruit new young people who will generally not be trade union activists when we first meet them, but can become so; an alert seizing of openings which may be created by a new pay revolt; and a continuous advocacy of revolutionary socialist politics.

Labour Party membership (according to the figures which have to be given to the Electoral Commission) was 189,531 at the end of 2013, marginally up on the end-2012 figure (which in turn was marginally down on the end-2011 figure).

There has been a net gain of about 30,000 or 40,000 members since 2010. That is significant in relation to the recent small scale of other developments on the left, but small in broad historical terms. This year's election for the Labour National Executive Committee constituency section showed a better score for what is seen as the “centre-left” than any since the 1980s. There continues to be more ferment on Labour Party conference floor and in CLPs, and much more in Young Labour, than there was pre-2010. But the ferment is still weak, and not enough to budge the leadership.

Battles against the cuts on the sharpest and most widespread front — local government services — have stagnated or declined rather than risen, despite the fact that those cuts have become more injurious. In tune with that trend, the Labour Party leadership has limited its differentiation from the Tories to commitments on the Health and Social Care Act and the bedroom tax, plus vague talk about improving wages and social equality, and committed itself to continuing Tory budget plans at least for the initial period of a Labour government.

Union leaders, from McCluskey through to Prentis, have made occasional irritated sallies of criticism; but at Labour's National Policy Forum on 21 July 2014 all the major union leaders who make speeches against cuts voted for a new Labour government to continue cuts.

A motion from a constituency activist said: “We recognise that the cost of living crisis is inextricably linked to government’s self-defeating austerity agenda. That is why we will introduce an emergency budget in 2015 to reject Tory spending plans for 2015-16 and beyond and set out how we will pursue a policy of investment for jobs and growth.”

The sole speech against the motion, from Ed Balls, consisted exclusively of him reading out a list of those who had withdrawn their amendments in favour of the so-called “consensus wording”.

All the representatives of all major trade unions voted with Balls against the motion — and against their own union policies. (We're told the media and entertainment union BECTU voted for the anti-cuts motion).

Decisive for revival will be a socialist force with “fighting ardour” which argues boldly for expropriating the capitalists, taxing the rich, etc., and which digs deep into the unions to revive them and to rouse them to demand working-class policies, in the Labour Party and in broader struggle.

We combat a strong neo-liberal hegemony, but one with fissures and openings.

As we wrote last year: “Neo-liberalism... intensifies competitive imperatives for both firms and workers; increases social inequality and luxury consumption by the rich; increases insecurity for working-class people; and increases dependence on the market in daily life and reinforces the dominant hierarchies of the world market, with the US at its apex. The ruling-class hegemony which Gramsci wrote of is today organised as much through market transaction mechanisms, shaping people to see life as 'an investment', as through parties, media, schooling, etc.

“[Since] the outset of this crisis in 2007-08 some neo-liberal dogmas have been discredited, but... there is currently no move to a new regime”.

We have to look at this question from three angles.

• The fundamental contradictions of capitalism not only remain, but are being sharpened. Class inequality, capitalist dictatorship in the workplace, and imposition of erratic and inhuman market mechanisms on working-class people, are all increasing. At the same time the working class is growing dramatically in numbers on a global scale, and maintaining its numbers in the earlier-industrialised countries. These fundamental facts make a resurgence of working-class struggle and socialist politics inevitable sooner or later.

• Neo-liberalism remains hegemonic. There is mass disaffection with the established leaders of neo-liberalism; but still neo-liberalism sets the perceived horizons of social and economic possibility.

In the June 2014 Euro-elections, six years into the new great world capitalist depression, the parties of mainstream neo- liberal orthodoxy sank from 75.6% of the vote across Europe in 2004 to 62.4%. Most of the drop came between the 2009 election (which came just after the financial crisis of 2008 had segued into debt crisis for several European states) and 2014. In some countries harder-hit by the crisis, such as Greece and Spain, left-wing forces gained.

But mostly the hard right gained. It did that with largely neo-liberal economic programmes which included relatively little social demagogy. It gained by offering not social alternatives but a seductive scapegoating side-narrative which appealed to basic feelings of identity and territory.

The hard right was able to do that because the official left has been utterly wretched, and because the radical left has too often been cowed. Too often radical left activists are submerged in detailed campaign or trade union work. Too often our public profile is mediated through catchpenny campaigns and “fronts”. Too often we opt for bland and limited messages for fear that more radical ideas will isolate us.

Likewise, the previous weaknesses of the left have been a factor in the turn for the worse in the outcomes of the Arab Spring of 2011. In Tunisia, and to a smaller extent in Egypt, secular and democratic and labour movement forces remain weighty, but the dominant sequels so far are the imposition of a new military-based despotism in Egypt; the degeneration of the Syrian opposition; the seizure of power across large parts of Syria and Iraq, from the borders of Turkey almost to the borders of Iran, by the Sunni ultra-Islamist ISIS; and the sharpening across the region of Shia-vs-Sunni and other sectarian tensions.

• Ruling-class hegemony builds on structural traits of capitalist society, such as commodity fetishism, but in every specific form is always an activity, not just a condition. It is an activity mediated through specific groups of what Gramsci called, interchangeably, intellectuals or organisers, and groups always with some degree of autonomy within or from the ruling class. It is always a mixture of elements somewhat at odds with each other.

Neo-liberalism has penetrated deep enough that people live it and take part in constructing it, as well as submitting to it. But that does not mean that it is all-overwhelming.

In the 1960s, sociologists wrote that in consumer capitalism working-class people had become more atomised and gave more time and attention to watching TV, buying consumer durables on credit, commuting, etc. It was accurate. Yet elements of that consumer-individualism could be and rapidly were converted, after 1968 especially, into an individualism embedded in raucous working-class militancy.

Neo-liberal individualism can convert similarly. It is not solid and coherent enough by itself to quell class struggle.

Equally, since ideology is fluid, constantly under construction, and criss-crossed by contradictions, an eruption of working-class revolt does not at all mean that conservative strands lose all grip. That depends on ideological and political struggle.

And that, in turn, depends on our “fighting ardour” for specifically revolutionary socialist ideas.

The ideological struggle is the decisive area where organised revolutionary socialists can apply leverage which also changes the political and economic struggle — if we develop enough verve, assertiveness, and outgoingness.

The key to being able to do that, in turn, is vigour in self-education sufficient to develop in each of us the spirit of Voltaire's motto: “écrasez l'infâme”.