WORKERS AND OTHERS IN THE 21ST CENTURY.

Capitalism is once again in a systemic economic and political crisis with world-wide repercussions. The 21st century situation, although much changed technologically, from the 19th and 20th, is economically in many ways analogous to that of the 1930’s. The present crisis is not simply a repeat of those ‘managed’ economic downward fluctuations (recessions) which bounced around different countries during the 1970’s, 80’ – 90’s. The present crisis is one which has again been triggered in the financial sphere of capitalist economic activity, but which has its roots and origins in fundamental contradictions within the process of production, stimulated into activity by capitalist induced investments and speculation.

Once again defensive struggles are being forced upon the masses of people, by those politicians and bureaucrats managing the crisis based upon the needs of the capitalist class. Initially, these defensive struggles have proved sporadic and uncoordinated and are in general a defence of previous gains obtained under the existing capitalist system. But as the crisis deepens the defensive struggle will undoubtedly become transformed into a more general and assertive struggle over what kind of politics and society the blue-collar and white-collar working class, and other sectors deserve. For that reason alone, I suggest there is a need to seriously consider the changes in the economic and social composition of the working and oppressed classes.

When Marx consulted the population statistics of England and Wales in 1861 he discovered the following. Out of a population of 20 million, just over 1 million were engaged in agricultural production, just over half a million in cotton, woollen, flax, silk hemp and jute manufacture, just over half a million in mining and just under 400,000 in assorted metal working factories. In other words out of a working population of 4 million, just under 3 million were productively employed and 1.2 million employed as service workers. This 4 million, productive and unproductive workers, supported an additional population of 16 million, including the aristocratic elite. So in 1861 approximately 2.7 million productive workers largely supported a population of 20 million.

If, in contrast, we consider only the UK statistics for the 21st century, we find that there is around 60 million people living within its national boundaries. Of this 60 million around 26 million are actively employed in waged or salaried occupations. Of this 26 million approximately 2.6 million are involved in the manufacturing sector and 22 million in the service sector. Note the reversal of the proportions in manufacturing and the collectivised service occupations. [This development represents the creation of non-profit making production and services as an alternative tocapitalist profit-making forms.] There are also numerous small businesses, (3.7 million self-employed) many of which are former workers, who through loss of paid employment have set up their own small firms or one-person businesses.

During the 20th and early 21st centuries the manufacturing sector in all advanced capitalist countries, shrank and the public sector grew. That is not the only change. Those considered ‘economically inactive’ in the UK amount to approximately 17.4 million of which 10 million are pensioners, 2 million are students and 2.5 million involved in their own domestic family supporting activities. And of course, there are now millions of long-term unemployed. Since the primary source of surplus value is derived from the industrial and commercially-productive sectors it is interesting to note that such is the increased productivity of modern industrial technique that 2.6 million UK workers (plus the surplus-products and value extracted from workers in other countries) are supporting the 60 million UK social, political and class system.

There are a number of implications to be drawn from these figures, no matter how recent or how accurate they are calculated (or even doctored) by Government statisticians. If they are only reasonably accurate, then the bulk of the waged or salaried working class are no longer employed in manufacturing and allied trades, producing surplus-value but are employed in the state-organised service sector, where the employer is the National or local government. For this reason I doubt that the main means of struggle developed for the industrial sector – strikes – can be simply transferred to the public sector without some degree of modification and/or new forms of collective struggle devised.

And only a fraction of those in active employment, (7.7 million out of 26 million), are organised in trade unions. Nearly eight million Trade Unionists is certainly a large number, but it is a small percentage of the total population. And as yet, the trade unions are not always dedicated to solidarity between themselves and other trade unionists, let alone other workers and oppressed citizens. Even with considerable solidarity among the industrial and service sector employees, there are still a further 34 million citizens, made up of pensioners, unemployed, students and home builders, who need to be supportive – or at least neutral – in any serious disputes between the employed workers and an alliance of Industry and government.

Also from our perspective, sooner, rather than later, sections of these categories also need to be positively drawn – intellectually and practically – into the anti-capitalist struggle and the post-capitalist project. Yet in order for that to come about, a full, clear and open revelation of the mistakes of the past and a clearing up of the inherited confusions of the present needs to occur. In advance of this, the sectarian divisions among those opposed to capitalism needs to be overcome, that is if we anti-capitalists are to play a constructive role in the much needed large-scale resistance and solidarity required to resist the impositions of the economic and political representatives of capital.

A similar, but not identical situation exists in all the advanced countries of Europe, with Italy, Germany, Spain, France and Greece all having more workers employed in the service sector and non-productive sectors than the industrial. With ‘official’ unemployment statistics varying between 10% and 25% in these countries, they face the same general problems as workers in the UK and elsewhere. It ought to become clear, that what is presently obscured by the debate on sovereign debt and programmes of austerity, in all advanced countries (and is revealed by the figures) is the following fundamental social-evolutionary problem.

Irrespective of the considerable ecological barriers to further capitalist expansion, the system of capitalism, on a global as well as European scale, can no longer sustain a huge public sector and at the same time a hugely wealthy millionaire and billionaire minority. All of whom, it must be said, are presently being carried on the backs of those who continue to toil and work long hours for very little pay, in Europe and increasingly in the rest of the world. We are poised at yet another critical stage which poses the modern translation of what Marx called ‘the riddle of history’ but poses it now in a double form! In the first form – one or the other – public services or the rich – must go! In the second form – one or the other – the environment, or the capitalist system – must go.

Since modern societies need excellent public or community run services, but do not need a class of obscenely rich parasites, or environmental degradation, it is the parasites and their system which logically must go. Or to be more humanely accurate the parasites need to be detached from capital and power, capital and power abolished and the parasites returned to a life of symbiosis, and prevented from further draining the vitality of the human labour upon which they currently feed. However, for this outcome more than logically stating it is required.

The solidarity necessary among communities to achieve this end, can only come from accepting diversity among people, and also perhaps learning to even celebrate it. Increasing solidarity among all sections of the working and none-working population is a requirement for confronting the current crisis. Whilst a parallel solidarity among the anti-capitalist activists – to me it is worth repeating again – can only come from self-critical reflection on our history, overcoming elitism, dogmatic certainty and its manifestation in the symptom of sectarianism.

Crises which cause a fundamental re-examination of the nature of societies do not always result in revolutions favourable to the vast majority. During the last such deep systemic crisis, in the 1920-30’s, many workers and citizens in Europe were split into warring factions by socialist and Stalinist sectarianism. Others were fatally attracted to fascist (national-socialist) forms of revolutionary transformation. The resulting 2nd World War eliminated tens of millions of workers a few of the rich, and destroyed obsolete productive-capital thus tragically resolving that periods socio-economic crisis in favour of the rich – and by the most extremely barbaric means possible.

The present crisis has already seen the revival of this nationalist, racist and fascistic trend among political representatives of the capitalist system throughout Europe. It has also witnessed an acceptance among some workers of their divisive programmes, which blame foreign workers, rather than the system itself, for the situation the majority now face. If we are to learn from history, we need to study it critically and hopefully this time learn how to change ourselves and our tradition better to oppose and perhaps transform this right-ward drift – another of the challenges which now face us.

[see also ‘Productive and un-productived Labour‘, and ‘Re-building Class Solidarity’ ]

Roy Ratcliffe (August 2012.)

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