Meeting on Crisis and Class Struggle in the UK – Liverpool, September 2014

liverpool

*** Discussion Paper and Minutes

A dozen of us met for three days in order to discuss the situation of crisis and struggles in the UK and beyond and about the question of how our organizational/practical efforts relate to the current phase.

Comrades came from different cities (London, Manchester, Edinburgh, Bristol, Liverpool, Paris, Stuttgart) and as individuals from different political collectives (AngryWorkersWorld, Plan C, Workers’ Initiative Poland, Feminist Fightback, Wildcat Germany, Mouvement Communiste, Ni Patrie Ni Frontieres, Edinburgh Claimants Union). Below you can find a rough summary of the debate and exchange.

We are planning to meet again around March 2015 – if you are interested in attending, please drop us a mail with some notice. In the meantime we discuss and exchange relevant articles via email-list, which is open to interested comrades. Please also write to us if you have any comments on the minutes: angryworkersworld@gmail.com

———

Part One: Minutes – General Discussion

1) Introduction: What is this meeting about

2) Scope and limitations of ‘strategy’

3) On organization

4) Future plans

Part Two: Discussion Paper by AWW and Minutes: Current stage of crisis in the UK

———

PART ONE

1) Introduction: What is this meeting about?

We first discussed the basic idea behind this meeting: there is a lack of face-to-face reflection about the stage of crisis and struggles within the anti-statist left. There is also a lack of possibility to contrast general information which we might gather from the mainstream media about austerity or struggles with first-hand local reports. During AWW meetings in different towns we experienced that certain barriers obstruct such an open process of debate and coordination: people are mainly locally engaged and make important practical experiences, but they have little exchange with people in other towns, even if they are members of national organisations (e.g. IWW, Solfed); people feel personally isolated, within or outside of academia. Online forums cannot replace face-to-face meetings, in particular if the debate is supposed to have some practical consequences.

2) Scope and limitations of ‘strategy’

There is a basic idea for the possibility of revolution:

Revolution is possible when those in power are not able to rule anymore and those who are oppressed don’t accept anymore to be ruled. In this sense any ‘political strategy’ would first have to analyse the objective constrains of the ruling class:

What is their financial/material clout in terms of redistribution? Do they have a believable vision of ‘progress’, which would benefit wider parts of the ‘middle-class’ and proletariat? Are they able to maintain a divide-and-rule strategy, which pitches certain segments of the proletariat against others? How effective is their repressive apparatus?

This analysis would have to relate to the contemporary objective conditions and subjective responses of the working class:

What are internal divisions, e.g. in terms of regional or sectorial concentrations and hierarchies within the working class? Which struggles develop a certain power vis-à-vis capital and are possibly attracting other proletarians? What are organizational forms, which emerge out of struggle which go beyond the set boundaries of companies, sectors, regions?

Against this background we discussed the use and dangers of political texts which analyse a contemporary situation, the stage of the class movement and which claim to provide some conclusions in terms of organizational proposals. We said that these types of texts tend to be written by individuals (e.g. Paul Mason “Why it is kicking off everywhere”, Toni Negri “Multitude”), but that they gain certain influence within the movement, because they fulfill the need for ‘understanding the historical moment’.

In many of such type of texts we find either, that the author is very partial and champions certain sections of the class (e.g. post-graduate unemployed) or engages in wish-full thinking in order to advertise their political project. There is also a tradition mainly amongst the ML groups to write rather stale ‘objective analysis’ in order to proclaim their vanguard position, in most cases their objective analysis is not really connected with their subjective proposals (‘the answer is always the party’). Although the ‘crisis papers’ of these parties appear as ‘papers of an organisation’, they are often written by one or two individuals.

On the other hand, opposed to ‘vanguardism’, the classical ‘council communist’ assumption that revolutionaries are mainly ‘post-(wo)men’ of the working class, in terms of disseminating information about struggles in general seems outdated with the huge flood of available information, e.g. through the internet. It seems more and more necessary to politically debate the huge amount of material and to put forward political positions: what do we think can other workers’ learn from certain struggles, what is their context, what are their strong and weak points.

On the other spectrum of ‘strategy papers’ might be texts like ‘The coming insurrection’, which seems to originate more from within the movement, but turns out to be rather bad science-fiction, rather disconnected with, e.g. wider social reality in France.

As a more positive example of papers, which try to provide analysis and organizational strategy we discussed ‘Tribe of Moles’, by Sergio Bologna. The text is also an example for the fact that although written by an academic, it origins in the interaction between ‘intellectuals’ and workers, e.g. during regular factory meetings, political assemblies. This connection is close to non-existent today.

First of all we stated that the text is messy in terms of structure, but that this is partly due to the ‘desperate’ times during which it was written: the first cycle of struggles 1969 – 1973/4 was facing dead-ends due to factory restructuring, rising unemployment, legal attempts to channel workers’ collective efforts into a new delegation system and pure repression as part of the ‘historic comprise’ of the PCI. A new wave of university occupations and ‘youth rebellion’ erupted in 1977, but either the militants of the previous cycle saw them as ‘nihilistic’ and detached from the productive sphere and factories or tried to ideologies them as ‘social workers’ (Negri) in order to launch a ‘vanguardist party’ attack on the state. In his text Bologna tries to trace the material background of this new movement and how it is connected with changes of the city, the universities and small production units/factories. He claims that on this material basis new organizational political forms can be developed, which would make a return to parliamentary politics or the vanguardist ‘(armed) political attack on the state’ unnecessary.

We first discussed that despite all the empirical details the texts bombards us with, it does not come without a deeper political theoretical background. For example to see the post-1973 crisis mainly as an ‘ideological attack’ might have been explainable in 1977, but in the long run this type of ‘autonomist’ crisis theory showed its weak points.

In relation to today we found some similarities, e.g. when Bologna writes about the ‘party system’, which all major parliamentary parties form and which becomes the executer of austerity, while at the same time the link between political power and ‘civil society’ turns more and more fragile. At the same time the social importance of the political parties has changed since then, e.g. in the 1970s it was important to be a (Labour) party member in order to get a job in the public sector – today this function and control of the parties has diminished.

Apart from the analysis of the ‘party system’ the analysis how the real estate speculation is used to redistribute money and to buffer a certain middle-class section as a social back-bone of the status quo seems still quite relevant. Last, but not least, his analysis of the 1977 movement might tell us something about how to understand the strong and weak points of the emergence of square occupations post-2008. For a general assessment of the usefulness of the ‘Tribe of Moles’ it would be necessary to know more about how it was received and discussed within the radical left at the time.

We asked ourselves about the scope of ‘anticipation’: how much are we able to foresee some general trends within short-term future class struggles and propose organizational steps accordingly? This obviously depends also on the fact that we don’t purely rely on the media, but on a solid knowledge of what is happening in various regions and sectors. Also the frame-work of how to interpret this information will have to change over time, neither capital nor the class is what they were in 1977.

As a local example of ‘anticipation’ a comrade mentioned the ‘migrant support network’ in Paris, which foresaw that school education and the use of schools by the state to control migrants will become a major issue and they were able to do concrete preparation work. Another example from tenants struggle in Poznan in Poland confirmed that as soon as issues of social struggle are detached from workplaces and proletarian existence and are framed as problems of ‘city citizens’ or ‘territory’ they tend to focus mainly on the political terrain, e.g. in negotiations with the local council.

3) On organization

We had a rather chaotic discussion about the relation between ‘day to day’ struggles of workers based on their position within the social production process and ‘political organisation’, which takes into account historic lessons, e.g. on the question of national liberation, parliamentarism.

We briefly summarized and referred to the text on organization by comrades from Unity and Struggle, which ‘solves’ this problem in a slightly schematic fashion by talking about the development of ‘advanced workers’ out of daily struggles, who then individually enter the sphere of ‘political organisation’. In many way this is a semi-Leninist understanding, which places the ‘political consciousness’ in the head of individual workers, whereas we can say out of experience, that some workers are only ‘advanced’ as long as they are in the actual situation of struggle and once the struggle subsides it reveals itself that the ‘consciousness’ was not their individual feature.

At the same time the text by Unity and Struggle seems to reflect the US context, where the working class is more segregated and ‘communities’ play a bigger role – so a connecting political organization seems more pressing. While talking about ‘advanced workers’ might sound unpleasant, we would also think that a network of militant workers’ is necessary – is this just a verbal difference?

The comments on AWW text (‘Thoughts on organisation’) by a London comrade hint towards the same problem: ‘supply-chains’ are not the only basis of workers’ organization, the organization has to take into account wider social issues, e.g. in the case of the conflict in Ukraine. Comrades of AWW briefly responded by saying that they don’t see ‘supply-chains’ as the basis of workers’ organization, but the wider proletarian existence, which reaches from direct collaboration within the production process, to the links built by labour migration, the social connections between work-places and universities etc.

Another issue which the London comrade’s text raises (though only implicitly) is that there are such things as “basic communist positions” that we don’t have to keep validating over and over again. In the case of the Ukraine war we know that nationalism is always against the interests of the working class and there’s no reason not to say it. In the discussion people said: We don’t have to prove that it’s the case by examining class composition in Ukraine/Russia in detail. Similarly, we can say that we “know” that engaging in parliament is a waste of time – we don’t need to examine every electoral campaign (and referendum) to convince ourselves that it’s the case. There can be “historic gains” based on the worldwide experience of the working class.

A recurring criticism of workers enquiry is the privileging of particular workplaces and sets of workers, often at the exclusion of others – a hangover from valorising factory gates and ignoring housewives. AWW responded by saying that we need to do more work to dispel this idea, and that the engagement in ‘politically interesting’ jobs is not wholly objective, although it can be explained by looking at what tendencies of workers’ concentrations are forming and why concentrations are important.

A comrade brought up the question whether the ‘political form of communist/revolutionary organisations’ is equally determined by changes in the social production process as more immediate forms of workers struggles are. We briefly discussed the relation between a ‘skilled industrial basis’ and council communist ideas or the fact that the classical CP was a bridge organization between ‘democratic struggles of a declining peasantry’ and a small industrial working class and that as soon as the peasantry got proletarianised most of the CPs turned into ‘mainstream’ parties.

In some senses even organizational forms of small collectives like wildcat Germany might be based on a material basis of the past, e.g. the fact that ‘proletarian’ political activists were able to be unemployed for longer periods of time or the fact that the movement had many independent material resources, such as social centres. Similarly, wildcat UK was dependent on ongoing struggles to engage with, as soon as struggles died down after the miners’ strike the group shrank and mainly produced ‘texts’. Today, for groups like Mouvement Communiste the main focus seems to be to find other comrades with ‘similar political positions’.

We discussed whether to say that ‘there is no workers’ power without emancipatory content’, might be helpful. The basic assumption behind this phrase is that only if workers overcome gendered/racial barriers between them and individualistic behavior, they will have social power; only if they emancipate themselves from social hierarchies during struggle will they have power. Therefore ‘politicos’ don’t have to tell works from the outside what workers are supposed to do with their power, it already has a content. At the same time we find many examples where workers use their immediate collective power not in order to break down barriers, but to defend them, e.g. against employment of migrants. Here a more long-term perspective would be necessary – how is this different from a ‘political perspective’?

We talked at length about the experience (of three of us) of having been organized within The Commune, a libertarian communist organization and our problems to convince other comrades that a deeper understanding of the composition of the working class is necessary – which was denounced as sociology. In some senses the pluralist approach of The Commune prevented a deeper discussion. At the same time a pluralist formal approach attracted (individual) people who are isolated in their towns, which is a good thing. A ‘proletarian exchange’ about concrete conditions and struggles within a ‘politically pluralist’ frame-work might be helpful, but The Commune was not that place, the exchange was mainly about ‘historical positions’.

Comrades from Workers’ Initiative (IP) talked about their union and how it is organized. The 800 or so members, most of them part of work-place based ‘commissions’ (which is a formally/legally recognized shop-floor level union structure) are mainly connected through a newspaper, which is produced three times a year and which contains largely work-place reports, and a general meeting every two years, which is attended by around 80 delegates. In some cases, according to shop-floor conditions the IP comrades suggest that workers don’t form a commission, due to danger of dismissals. Most of the time workers’ commissions approach Workers’ Initiative either when they are threatened with job cuts or when they are unhappy with the way the existing unions in the company deal with things. Although there are many anarchist activists in the (leadership of the) organization explicitly ‘political’ topics, which ranges from the war in Ukraine to the abortion question, are not discussed or appear in the paper. The organisation is largely based on friendships, which develop during struggle.

Finally AWW comrades reported about their political work in two London warehouses, the problems of day-to-day organization after a overtime strike – see summarizing paper which has been circulated. We contrasted this experience with the SI Cobas situation in Italy, where a bigger organization of militants strategically and with considerable efforts in terms of number of miltants and resources supported rather minoritarian strikes in order to bring about a larger dynamic. This worked initially, when the strikes produced victories in terms of wage increases, but the fact that only small numbers of workers went on strike and the strikes depended on blockades led to the current impasse: the state repression came down hard, militants are banned from certain cities, militant workers have been sacked.

In the end we did not manage to discuss some conclusions concerning the very different political approaches and experiences:

a) of being active in very explicitly political collectives, like wildcat or Mouvement Communiste

b) of engagement in bigger ‘syndicalist organisations’ like Workers’ Initiative or similar work, such as in the Claimants Union Edinburgh

c) of participations in ‘platformist’ political groups like The Commune

d) of explicitly political organizing efforts in concrete workplaces, such as the AWW warehouse inquiry

Neither did we manage to feed-back the debate about organization to the initial debate on ‘strategy’ based on the analysis of current ‘class composition’. This was partly a time issue, partly due to the fact that such a conclusion does not seem to evolve organically out of ‘exchange’ – it might need a more prepared input.

4) Future plans

We asked ourselves how we could make this circle more accessible to comrades from other class struggle groups, who are interested in an open space for reflection.

We agreed to produce a pamphlet or text, hopefully useful for the debate within concrete disputes, about the current stage of both anti-cuts and ‘low wage sector’ struggles – given that from a proletarian perspective these two sides have to be addressed together in order to ask the question of power. We will discuss the structure of the text via email-list and a draft at the next meeting.

—————

PART TWO

Current Stage of Crisis in the UK

Comrades of the AWW had prepared some rough frame-work of political questions/thesis for the debate and exchange of our local experiences. The text below is partly their input, partly notes from the discussion (minutes of discussion below each point). We were not able to discuss all points in depth.

In terms of the input in general it was criticized that to describe everything as being ‘in crisis’ might disguise the normal working of, e.g. the repressive state apparatus. It also leads to the wrong opposition between ‘crisis’ now and the Golden Age back then. The focus on the UK might wrongly suggest that the crisis is a national phenomena. We also questioned whether some of the points, in particular on the housing market, are not quite specific to conditions in London, where the housing market is way more stretched and more people are in precarious mortgage debts.

*** Discussion-Points on Crisis

1) The financial crisis: they have spent their financial firepower for a boom that does not take off

2) The housing bubble crisis: the UK economy is squeezed between housing price bubble, international wage and low investment levels; the announcement of interest rate hikes is a political attack

3) The re-structuring / productivity crisis: partly surface level of a profit and investment blockade, partly an ideological attack to justify the wage freeze

4) The crisis of the UK within the state system vs. EU: an expression of the conflict between the UK’s need for financial autonomy and its economic dependency

5) The crisis of nationalism: despite the election success, UKIP will have difficulties to apply ‘nationalist’ politics both externally vis-à-vis the EU and internally against EU-migrants

6) The crisis of representative democracy: the austerity regime requires a ‘party-system’, which undermines the trust in the political class and the ‘elite’; at the same time the erudition of ‘legal rights’ and mediation undermines the integration of the proletariat as ‘citizens’

7) The crisis of the deep state: in the conflict of having to enforce and being subjected to austerity the administrative and repressive organs produce scandal after scandal (black-listing, Stephen Lawrence etc.)

8) The crisis of war: the internal and external ‘anti-jihad’ proxy-war is an extension of the war against terror deeper into society, but it also reveals a) the limitations of the army interventions, both in terms of military victory and post-war social stability and b) the failing ability to ‘integrate’ a migrant population at home

9) The crisis of privatisation: the crisis of the state apparatus is extended into its outsourced parts, the recent scandals (Atos, Capita, Serco) express the limits of the ‘lean’ state

10) The crisis of austerity: the problems with the implementation of the universal credit are emblematic; they cut working class income, but they don’t save money due to costs of implementation and re-structuring of the benefit system

11) The crisis of the ‘middle-class’: the problem for a social transformation is not so much the ‘elite’, but the middle-class

12) The crisis of reproduction of the working class: we are in a historically unique situation where a drastic drop in working class living standards is not accompanied with sudden visible rise in unemployment

13) The crisis of the low wage sector: the main internal threat for the status quo and the main challenge for the ruling class to channel discontent from below into a dynamic for restructuring; trade union and left campaigns might help them to achieve this

14) The crisis of struggles: the current silence is an expression of the fact that the different segments of the working class have fought their battles alone and that no segment provides an answer to the question of how to overcome the boundaries

15) The potentials for re-composition: breaking the sectorial boundaries at the points where concentrations of low-wage workers meet the old ‘core work-force’ and ‘public services’

16) The crisis of the left: the class composition of the left works behind their backs and pushes them further towards dialog with state power, ideologised as ‘electoral tactics’ or ‘common ground’ politics

17) What is to be or could be done? We can mainly appeal to the revolutionary milieu to a) abolish the facade of their particular organisation and reflect critically whether their activities contribute practically and theoretically to what we can still term as ‘workers autonomy’ and b) engage in a collective inquiry of the weak spots of capital, workers’ conditions and already existing collective steps below the surface

—–

1) The financial crisis: they have spent their financial firepower for a boom that does not take off

We look at the crisis in financial or economic terms, meaning, looking at the margins for redistribution and social integration; They had to bail out the banking system in order to maintain the trust in the pound as international currency and London as a trading place, which accounts for a major share of UK GDP, but the wider economy slid into recession; The subsequent effort of general economic stimulus has generated GDP growth; by summer 2014 it became clear that they have spent their firepower for this ‘boom’ (zero-interest rates, quantitative easing, low international value of the pound, state incentives such as the buy to help scheme etc.), but the boom does not lead to a ‘take off’:

– despite slight increase in tax revenue from property and land deals the budget deficit does not shrink and the state has to borrow more money; the taxation of businesses has been reduced and underemployment and low wage jobs result in low income tax; in the tax year so far, the government has borrowed £32.4bn, £9.4bn more than at the same point last year according to the Office for National Statistics data

– despite a prolonged period of low relative international value of the pound and despite state incentive for export industry the trade deficit did not diminish; the trade in goods deficit – imports minus exports – widened to £10.2bn from £9.4bn in June; in this scenario certain projects of restructuring, e.g. fracking/shift to shale gas, in order to deal with the trade deficit will obtain a larger political significance

– while the ‘help to buy’-scheme resulted in growth of mortgage lending (£1.1bn of loans offered, supporting purchases worth £5.65bn), similar schemes to boost productive investment, in particular for small and middle-sized industries actually witnessed a decrease in bank lending; internal investment was matched by a decline of FDI into the UK, which dropped 19% to $37bn (£22bn) from $46bn in 2012

– despite relatively low unemployment (73% adult employment rate nearly tops historical record of 1974), wages decrease further; real-terms fall of 10% in average wages since 2008 would increase to more than 12% if a 27% fall in self-employed incomes is taken into account; the small rise in consumer spending is mainly based on savings and debt; this is the background of, e.g. the current change in pension regulation, which ‘allows’ pensioners to withdraw bigger sums of cash from their pension fund

Discussion: A comrade questioned the actual success, in government terms, of the Help-to-buy program.

2) The housing bubble crisis: the UK economy is squeezed between housing price bubble, international wage and low investment levels

The real estate sector is highly intertwined with the financial system and significant for tax revenue and GDP and housing property still one of the main factors of social integration of the working class since the onslaught of industrial restructuring in the 1980s; these are the main two reasons for why it is difficult for the state to deflate the housing bubble; at the same time rising house prices and rent levels push up the reproduction costs of the working class; the pattern of long-working hours for low wages and low capital investment is sustained; critical voices within the capitalist class complain about the fact that the period of increased unemployment post-2008 was not used productively – that companies hired to early instead of increasing output with smaller workforce; not being able to change profit and investment rates, the state is forced to squeeze household incomes even more, e.g. through announced rise of interest rates to cool down the housing market

– GDP growth depends still largely on house price increase on low mortgage rates, so they don’t want to choke this dynamic off, but they are also aware of over-heating, e.g. IMF warning and bank stress-tests in summer 2014; the government had tightened the borrowing criteria for mortgages, but the number of mortgages further increased, UK house prices hit a record high in July 2014

– in this scenario the inner-conflicts concerning fiscal politics heat up, expressed e.g. in the first non-unanimous vote of the Bank of England Monetary Policy Commitee on interest rate increase since three years in August/September; in September the governor of the Bank of England has announced a political attack by saying that interest rates will rise months before workers see a real-terms pick up in their pay

– in order to keep direct wages relatively low and UK companies competitive on an international level the state pays an increasing amount of (housing) benefit; the number of housing benefit claimants in work rose from 650,561 in May 2010 to 1.03 million by the end of 2013; this increases the budget deficit

– a hike in interest rates will put more pressure on working class people in debt; the Resolution Foundation thinktank estimates that the number of households struggling to pay the mortgage would double to 2.3m by 2018 if the Bank raised rates from 0.5% to just under 3%; while post-2008 slump the government reached out to their ‘social back-bone’ of property owners by guaranteeing mortgage interest rates payments, e.g. in case of unemployment, it is unlikely that they will able to repeat this;

– the degree as to which the value of the Pound depends on international markets could be seen during the sudden 1% slump in September as a consequence of a Scottish referendum poll result; in order to grasp the full impact of a possible devaluation of the Pound we would have to understand more about the composition of UK foreign trade (e.g. roughly 40 per cent of food and energy resources are imported) and the composition of the average proletarian household basket

Discussion: We compared the rent/house ownership situation in the UK with the conditions in France and Poland. In France (or at least Paris), even on a minimum wage mortgage payment seems more viable than paying rent, once you are able to come up with the advance payment.

3) The re-structuring productivity crisis: partly surface level of a profit and investment blockade, partly an ideological attack to justify the wage freeze

Six years after the crisis, bailout and ‘unsustainable recovery’ the political class agrees that the ‘productive sphere’ and export sectors of the UK need substantial re-structuring. Although on the level of wages, corporation tax, international transport position the UK now figures as a ‘low-cost’ manufacturing country within Western Europe, but the ‘productivity’ is comparably low. Work-intensity on a low investment level has increased considerably, in this sense the announcement that ‘workers have to work harder in order for wages to rise’ is an ideological attack. A more thorough analysis of the productive fabric and investment trends in the UK would be necessary, in order to understand both the deeper reasons for the crisis and the potentials for a re-composition of the working class.

We are only able to provide a random list of sectorial shifts, e.g.

– there has been a significant investment and job growth in the energy sector during the last decade; due to international dependency and increasing production costs of oil alternatives like fracking become politically significant, so does current EU approval of UK revamping of nuclear power

– there has been a significant growth in terms of revenue for the aerospace sector; further shift of the automobile sector towards export, while Uniparts Automotives goes bust with 1,200 job losses and Tata Steel announces further redundancies

– it is difficult to assess the actual state of the ICT (computer hardware and software) sector, which is supposed to employ  1.3 million people in the UK; every economic news is full of reports of new ‘Silicon valleys’ in the North East of England, parallel to the news that a new ‘IT/Tech bubble’ emerges on the global scene, after real estate seemed over-heated; Bristol report (see attachment gives over-view on local composition)

– increased global and economical importance of the education sector, many more international students are coming to the UK, while UK universities send their representatives to bigger campuses in the world for collaboration purposes; all this mainly dealt with as commercial interactions

– increase in employment in logistics sector by 13 per cent since 2011; significant changes in transport infrastructure (cross-rail, London Gateway etc.)

– behind the current ‘price war’ in the retail sector we can see squeezed wages in food production and logistics, but also a deeper connection between retail and real estate bubble (retailers as major land owners and speculators) – expressed in current Tesco scandal (first scandal about un-used land holdings; second scandal about false profit announcements in order to boost share prices)

Discussion:

We discussed about the actual character of the ‘productivity gap’. While in the 1970s the lower productivity rates in the UK in relation to the rest of Europe might have been based on working class militancy, today it seems more due to low investment levels, compensated for by longer working hours. While UK manufacturing always refers to Germany as the ‘productivity miracle’, there as well, most productive investments have been made in ‘production surveillance’ (of workers and production flow), rather than more productive/automated machinery. Increase in productivity (wage cost vs. output) has been achieved through casualization. At the same time we see the back-drop of casualisation, even in their own terms, when, e.g. in the warehouse due to the high turn-over people who have been trained on the job for specific tasks (forklift, specific computer programs in the office), leave or are sacked fairly quickly.

In France the ruling class equally talks about the ‘low productivity problem’, while the individual work-load, particular in the public sector, has increased considerably (e.g. the work of employees in the post office, who have to perform more and more tasks of ‘customer service’).

We discussed the usage of technology not only in terms of immediate ‘productivity increase’, but as a weapon against workers militancy, such as ticket machines replacing ticket offices in the London Underground. Currently, technology as a weapon seems less a weapon, given that mainly the bosses take the initiative today, e.g. replacement of cash-out tills with self-check-out is not due to mass militancy of supermarket workers. We discussed the claim that nevertheless automatisation is a weapon in class war, given that workers’ jobs are cut, while management jobs, which could similarly be automated, are saved. This claim was disputed, given the examples of, e.g. mass redundancies of middle-managers on the shop-floor of German manufacturing during the ‘lean production’ phase. Also warehouse jobs are much less automated then they technically could be, just because labour is cheap. A comrade working in an IT department also said that the announced large-scale rationalisation of programming work did not take place and much of the work retained quasi-artisanal character.

More detailed shop-floor interviews would be necessary to contrast the general overview on sectorial shifts. Sheila Cohen produced a small books with workers’ reports (bus drivers, Royal Mail) on the impact of restructuring some years ago (unfortunately not available online). Comrades from Poznan plan to have a series of these types of shop-floor interviews in the near future.

4) The crisis of the UK within the state system vs. EU: an expression of the conflict between the financial autonomy and economic dependency

The political conflict between the ruling class in the UK and the bureaucracy of the EU is mainly based on the tension between the need of autonomy to maintain the financial position of the UK and the growing economic inter-dependence in terms of production chains, trade and labour markets. The representatives of the state know that the state deficit is only financeable due to quantitative easing and a national fiscal policy independent from EU regulations, while most banks and industrial companies largely depend on EU trade, which makes up 40 % of UK export and sustains 4 million jobs in the UK. Staying in the EU is therefore backed by manufacturing associations and trade unions.

Against this background we can also interpret the ‘Scottish question’ as an expression of aggravating unevenness in regional development, e.g. in terms of infrastructure investment, tension between largely England based finance and ‘Scottish’ manufacturing/rent capital. The popular support of independence to significant degree sign of discontent with arrogance of austerity of the central state.

Discussion:

We first stated the fact that increasing regional disparities bring forward two types of regionalism: regionalism/nationalism of richer regions, which wants to get rid off poorer parts, which they are supposedly forced to subsidies; and poorer regions nationalism, which blame that the rich areas funnel all the wealth towards themselves.

While we can say that this dynamic exists all the time, the question would be why there is a current upsurge in regionalism, a la Scottish Independence. The comrade from Edinburgh reported from local debates. First of all, there is the common view that London as the financial centre is too dominating, e.g. in terms of concentrating infrastructure expenditure. But similar tendencies exist within Scotland itself, when e.g. the Highlands mainly voted for ‘No’, because they don’t feel part of the Glasgow and Edinburgh based Scottish elite. Although similar sentiments towards London exist in the North-East of England, this does not produce ‘regionalist’ projects – in Scotland the ‘catholic working class’ heritage is part of the mobilization.

In any case, the Scottish referendum made everyone in the political class happy, because people ‘engaged in representative politics again’. The SNP won around 30,000 new members during the last weeks and publications like Commonwheel reached with 10 to 20,000 copies, trying to refer to an Occupy-type of ‘more democracy’. Ideas of a ‘second-tier’ parliament (peoples’ assembly) were raised, at the same time the Lega Nord (Italian fascists) were also participating in some of the mass gatherings in Edinburgh.

In this sense the main winner is the political class, even though the streamlined reports in the British media and the joint-front of business and public figures against independence has been phenomenal and unseen since the miners’ strike.

We discussed the recent Red Cap movement in Britanie, France and the Forconi movement in Italy in relation to Scotland. The Red Cap movement for more regional power happened against the background of workers’ struggles against company closures. These protests were channeled by the regional bourgeoisie, which want to evade central state taxation. These types of workers’ protests didn’t happen in Scotland in the recent past.

5) The crisis of nationalism: despite the election success, UKIP will have difficulties to apply ‘nationalist’ politics both externally vis-à-vis the EU and internally against EU-migrants

Given the general dependency on low wage migrant labour and EU trade UKIPs nationalism stands on weak ground. The labour market is still significantly segmented, direct competition between UK born workers and EU migrants intensifies, but is still not socially dominant. Even Cameron has to use false statistics on jobs taken by EU migrants in order to play the nationalist flute.

UKIP contradiction: with growing election success and political responsibility the party will reveal its mainstream character and class composition (composed of three different political tendencies: conservative Tory and new young Thatcherites in the leadership, disgruntled working class ex-labour as voters); their blue-collar tax politics actually target the 30,000 to 40,000 income bracket; UKIP is against the EU agency workers directive (equal pay after 12 weeks), saying it would kill small UK businesses. It would be necessary to analyse to which extent the 4.9 million small businesses in the UK depend on EU trade / migrant labour in order to assess whether UKIP would be able to represent them politically. Statistics claim that three quarters of these small businesses “don’t export”.

An example of the segmentation of the labour market from our warehouse: all directly hired new permanent workers are UK born (these are 9 pound jobs), whereas EU migrants first have to work for the agency for a substantial time (on minimum wage), hardly any UK born workers apply for or stay in the agency job. In order to maintain this division on the shop-floor and to keep the migrants in low paid jobs the state has to continue putting ideological and material pressure on them (recent changes in benefit entitlements). The ideological target are still eastern Europeans, although, e.g. those coming from the new EU states of Romania and Bulgaria account for only 16,000 of the 68,000 rise, with the bulk of the increase coming from western European countries such as Italy.

Discussion:

We can say that unlike after the crisis in, e.g. 1929, the international trade and production intertwinement has not dwindled after the onset of the current crisis in 2008, which so far limits the material basis of nationalism. This does not mean that nationalist parties do not gain influence, such as in Poland – where at the same time the local working class largely depends on migration and the remaining small peasants on EU subsidies. The main dynamic behind Polish nationalism is the mistrust towards a) the old ‘communist elite’, which is seen to be still in administrative power and behind the general (real estate) corruption and b) the Russian influence, as seen during the Ukraine conflict.

In terms of the success of UKIP it might be fruitful to re-read about the anti-ECT (European Community Treaty) referendum and mobilization in France in 2005. Although actual back-up from the ruling class is not given, UKIP will have to go for a referendum concerning EU membership – which is the main cohesion of the party.

In contrast to UKIP the FN in France still contains a core of committed fascists, which manage to operate within the general shift of the party towards conservative populism: the FN got 5 to 6 million votes and has significant influence within the trade union CGT – another difference to UKIP, which has no organized basis within the trade unions. The fascist core within the FN is still able to organize direct violence against migrants, e.g. in Calais, while the conservative populism also appeals to segments of second-generation migrants, e.g. Paris has seen anti-African demonstrations by mainly Chinese community, backed by small businessmen, after incidents of robberies.

We discussed the differences between the direct threat of violence by organized fascists/racists and the (sometimes not less directly violent) institutional racism of the mainstream parties. In Germany the social-democratic party used racist attacks in order to push forward their agenda of anti-migration laws and the state actively controls/supports the fascist underground – see NSU scandal.

6) The crisis of representative democracy: the austerity regime requires a ‘party-system’, which undermines the trust in the political class and the ‘elite’

With crisis and end of neoliberal fluidity the question of ‘elite’ and ‘corruption’, comes to the fore; in the UK mainly in the form of revolving doors between political class and finance sector; at the same time the economic frame-work compels all leading parties to be stream-lined on the main questions: austerity will have to continue, migration has to be curbed, the security laws have to be rushed through.

While representative democracy is reduced to a fassade on the top, the social integration of the proletariat as ‘citizens’ or bourgeois subjects wanes at the bottom: zero-hour contracts, agency work, self-employment undermines long-term commitments to the ‘growth of the company’; the crisis of the pension system and the NHS a commitment for long-term ‘public contribution’; with the cuts in legal aid and drastically shrinking number of cases at the labour tribunal etc. also the legal mediation between proletarian citizen and institutions loses grounds. Already weakened trade union representation of ‘individual members’ will be further undermined if the Tories change the strike law…

In this scenario, how is the social mediation of conflicts and the integration of proletarians as ‘citizens’ take place? The right-wing came up with the ideology of the Big Society, which was supposed to guaranteed material reproduction despite the cuts and social integration/control, but as it looks like, this has little relevance today – due to underfunding of local administrations which would manage the voluntary work-force? The left-wing answer was representation and integration through the ‘community’, which has turned increasingly into a mixture of external reprisal (‘muslim community’) and inner decomposition (‘gentrification’, NGO funding cuts).

Against this background it is understandable why every political representative from the left to the right, ‘yes’ to ‘no’, agreed that the Scottish referendum, regardless its outcome, was a wonderful proof of democracies vitality and mass participation.

Discussion:

A comrade referred to Guy Standing’s book ‘The Precariat’, in which he describes the existence of precarious workers as exclusion from citizenship. At the same time formal citizenship still divides the precarious working class in the UK. UKIP refers to the decline of the ‘respectable working-class’ and offers some ideology of being British citizens, whereas the ‘precarious working-class’ does not have political representation.

A comrade stated that the political integration of the working class was part of the post-war pact, but that it only included the white-male working class. We discussed whether to describe the situation post-WWII as a ‘pact’, ‘deal’ or ‘settlement’ would actually grasp the situation. The notion of a deal is a bourgeois notion: two subjects sit down and agree on a contract. The situation might have been presented like this by the official representatives (trade union, capitalists), but that does not reflect the relation between working class and capital. There is no subject, such as the white-male working class, which would have made a deal with capital – though there was a general social condition which was based on a gendered labour market and shop-floor. We discussed whether there were conscious organized acts by white-male workers to ‘bring about this situation’. We referred to historical research on this question by Johanna Brenner.

7) The crisis of the deep state: in the conflict of having to enforce and being subjected to austerity the administrative and repressive organs produce scandal after scandal

The austerity, social struggles and crisis of democratic representation has brought to the fore the question of the ‘deep state’, a structure, which exists behind and beyond the democratically elected government (NSA in the US, NSU-intelligence connection in Germany, police-fascist connection in Greece etc.); in times of intensified social conflicts the role of the ‘deep state’ (or ‘state’!) becomes more important, at the same time the austerity measures hit it in its heart: in the UK police, prison, army budgets and personnel are cut, some of their functions outsourced to private players.

In this light, how do we interpret the numerous recent ‘scandals’ within the repressive apparatus: the black listing scandal, which revealed links between the police intelligence operations and the research funded by construction developers; the Stephen Lawrence case; the News of the World case, where police investigators and journalists shared ‘secret matters’; the systematic police collusion in the Rotherham and Tory/Westminster sex abuse cases.

Are these and other ‘scandals’ signs of an inner corruption and an expression of the ‘top hierarchy loosing control over certain units’? Or are they outcome of a more systemic change in a situation where the boundaries between state police and private security business become more blurry and equally the boundaries between police operations and ‘social policing’ through other state institutions (community wardens, school teachers etc.)? These cases have severely shaken the ‘public’ reputation of the police force, it is no wonder that the state now has to engage in an intensified round of fear mongering.

Discussion:

We first questioned whether the current scandals are actually a new development – referring back to similar incidents of state/private sector collusions in form of the ‘Economic League’ in the 1970s, the infiltrations during the miners’ dispute or the troubles in Northern Ireland. Someone questioned the relevance of the deep-state to anti-statists anyway – it’s not as if we need more reasons to be anti-statist per se. Another comrade replied that it provides further reasons to back up an anti-statist position when arguing with other people.

The NSA scandal has revealed an extension, which goes beyond the cold war ‘two block’ intelligence conflicts. The term ‘deep state’ might not be helpful to grasp quite different dynamics. While in Italy, the ‘state within the state’ (Propaganda Due) was a semi-autonomous force within the apparatus, the NSU scandal in Germany or the NSA mainly shows that the state administration acts in close collaboration with the political class. Even though this might not seem to make such a difference for revolutionaries with a general anti-state perspective, it would nevertheless be important to assess to which extent the state acts as a conscious cohesive force, e.g. when supporting the fascist underground – in particular once we see that many anti-fascists try to use the ‘democratic state’ and its representatives against the fascists.

8) The crisis of war: the internal and external ‘anti-jihad’ proxy-war is an extension of the war against terror deeper into society, but it also reveals a) the limitations of the army interventions, both in terms of military victory and post-war social stability and b) the failing ability to ‘integrate’ a migrant population at home

In times of austerity and crisis of social integration the state will rely more and more on proxy-wars, both externally, in order to back up its own army operations or to cover them politically in times where the mass of people would not back a ‘war’; and internally, by trying to operate via community middle-men and infiltration, rather than large-scale police operations, which might escalate things.

How do we assess the actual influence of a) the war in Syria, b) IS amongst the ‘Muslims’ in Europe; the numbers of young men who went to Syria (and there is a significant difference between going to Syria and fighting for the IS) range between 500 and 1,500; per head ‘war migration’ is said to be higher in Belgium; what is attractive in going to a backward region and fighting for a rather non-emancipatory force? In The Economist they gave a sociological stereotype of a ‘jihadi’: young, male, only recently turned to religion, not of the poorest members of the community, rather bored post-graduates.

On a general geopolitical level we can state that the basis of ‘sponsored Islamism’ is the attempt to bolster the position of rent capital in the gulf states, while ‘institutional Islamophobia’ is the ideological framework for the militarization of the borders of the European labour market.

Politically organized ‘islamophobia’ did not get major boost after Rigby, IS beheadings or Rotherham: for the EDL demo in Rotherham around 1,400 EDL and NF members attended, but started to beat each other and EDL demo stewards up. For the following demonstration in London only 400 members showed up.

Compared to the ‘war on terror’ (what about high-times of IRA activity?) the current state campaign target much wider circles, e.g. several thousand checks on school students, compulsive ‘de-radicalisation’ programmes, ASBO against ‘Islamist street preachers’ etc. A comrade who teaches English to migrants had to attend a two hour ‘look out for radicalisation’-briefing; At the same time the Tories seem to have difficulties to convince the coalition partner and some technocrats of, e.g. the passport withdrawal measure;

Also the collaboration between military and secret service is of different quality: the army planned to train and equip (and probably collaborated with) anti-Assad forces, many of them close to the fundamentalist camp (the UK Taliban effect); in the UK the secret service keeps an eye on the ‘middle-men’, but don’t seem to interfere, e.g. WSWS claims that the secret service knew all perpetrators of UK terrorist acts (London bombs, Rigby) before they acted; in a ‘proxy-war’ situation (arms for Kurds etc.) the secret service will play a bigger role and so do private players (see current dispute over BT involvement in US drone operations)

All that happening at a time of general new mobilisations within the NATO, e.g. The new rapid task force stationed at the eastern border, part of 10,000 strong joint expeditionary force JEF, where the UK is also a driving force asking other members to ramp up their military budgets etc. – while announcing army personnel cuts and a recruiting crisis for reservists at home; It is easier to explain why Cameron tries to play the military leader: to compensate for Scotland embarrassment and to back the Pound with sounds of sabres. But how do we explain the hesitant approach of the British political class towards military intervention in Syria and Iraq: they actually have no immediate interest to end the war there? lack of military prowess of a 6th rank military nation in terms of expenditure? due to fear of the political impact at home? fear of financial turmoil?

Discussion:

We first questioned usefulness of the term ‘proxy war’ to describe the current situation in Iraq and Syria. The term was coined during the cold war, when the US and Soviet Union supported two camps. The current situation is not based on two clear camps, although, e.g. the rivalry Iran and Saudi Arabia in the region is decisive.

When asking who from western Europe goes to fight in Syria: a mainstream study in France interviewed 120 men who participated in the war in Syria, and came to the conclusion that there are three main groups: a) ‘the idealists’, who see Syria in similar terms as people might have seen the Spanish Civil War; b) ‘the delinquents’, who have been in conflict with the French law and who have been ‘politicised’ in prison; despite all its secular attitude, French prisons are systematically segregated on religious and race lines; c) ‘the mercenaries’, who mainly go for material and commercial reasons;

We see parallels, e.g. to the situation in Ukraine and during the Yugoslavian war, where European fascists/nationalists fought in different camps and used the war in order to vamp up their coffers.

The fact that the secret police knew the perpetrators of terrorist acts beforehand and has a close watch on possible ‘radicals’, does not mean that they are able to control them as tightly as they would like to – we should not overestimate their efficiency.

In France we can see a slow growth of ‘Islamophobia’, while at the same time Sarkozy, similar to Blair, was one of the supporters of the institutionalization of the ‘muslim community’ and their political middle-men. The comrade from France also maintained that the question of ‘communities’ is not purely a question of lack of economical integration, it is partly a cultural question, e.g. in the case of (self-)isolation of the Chinese community.

Although the Rotherham scandal in the UK has not boosted the EDL, at the same time the ‘multi-culti’ leftist defense a la Owen Jones, who just blamed the cops and administration for the sex abuse cases might backfire. It turns a blind eye on the specific male culture within the Asian community, and more specifically, within gang structures. What would be a criticism, which does not play in the hand of the EDL? There are voices from within the ‘community’, e.g. Women against Fundamentalism, but apart from that we have little insight on how such a criticism can be developed.

9) The crisis of privatisation: the crisis of the state apparatus is extended into its outsourced parts, the recent scandals (Atos, Capita, Serco) express the limits of the ‘lean’ state

The state’s attempt to outsource public services to private enterprises in order to ‘cut costs’ and to increase market pressure on public sector workers has met its limits – and is in the spotlight of UK’s ‘anti-corruption’ sentiment. We can only speculate about the reason for the current series of serious failures of these outsourcing efforts: a) these companies operate within a public sector which is undermined by austerity cuts and although they are formally independent enterprises, in the day-to-day operations they depend on a fragile public sector collaboration; b) they suffer from under-investment and are subjected to current ups-and-downs of the market, which affects their operations; c) their own workers’ are less willing to work more for less in a situation where they are surrounded by public sector colleagues which still better conditions and public status; d) necessary cooperation between ‘public’ and ‘private sector workers might be hampered. The current scandals are a serious crack in one of the cornerstones of the austerity regime.

– Atos was not able to stem the work-load of the disability benefit tests themselves, they had to sub-contract NHS units; the public campaign seriously damaged their company reputation

– Capita has been given the contract by the British armed-forces to take on the recruiting of new reservists, a crucial task in the army re-structuring, but failed to reach the set recruitment target

– Serco was officially investigated due to the claim that they had over-charged for their ‘electronic-tagging’ contract

– G4S was in the public spotlight for allegations of mis-treatment of people locked-up in their detention centres; massive increase in ‘prison troubles’

– The management style of Bridgepoint equity firm, which owns Care UK came into public criticism through the Care UK strike

– We can add other recent ‘privatisation plans’ which are crucial for the state’s budget policies, but might end up creating trouble, e.g. plans to sell the Eurostar share or further entry of private postal companies (TNT) to undermine Royal Mail

So far the left has mainly criticized the outsourcing to these companies on a moral ‘anti-privatisation’ level. It would be good to analyse more closely the cracks between ‘public and private sector’ and the workers’ condition and experiences within these companies.

10) The crisis of austerity: the problems with the implementation of the universal credit are emblematic; they cut working class income, but they don’t save money due to costs of implementation and re-structuring of the benefit system

We have seen the problems of public sector job cuts in a situation, where ‘private’ companies engaged to take over these jobs are not much more efficient. We witness a similar tendency when it comes to benefit cuts, where the implementation costs of the bedroom tax or the universal credit seems to eat away much of the ‘savings’. Some liberals and leftists point out these weak-spots in order to offer ‘better’ solutions (citizen income etc.); we should try to understand the reasons for why have these difficulties in order to find cracks for future resistance: much of the benefit changes are supposed to be implemented by public sector workers who are in the line of fire themselves; the actual difficulties to implement, e.g. the Atos benefit tests or the bedroom tax (due to lack of alternative flats) have encouraged people to question it, the numbers of individual appeals are rising. All this does not mean that the cuts themselves are not getting severe, and we can see how they are more and more blatantly framing the low-wage sector:

– in relation to the universal credit the TUC claims that the first payment in case of unemployment would only come after five weeks, which will put more pressure on people to keep any job

– the further benefit changes for EU migrants (plan to limit benefit to three months from November 2014 onwards) will have a similar effect

– we should also discuss the increase in what we can call ‚systemic irregularities’: the purposeful barriers they put in people’s way to claim benefits, e.g. working tax credits

Discussion:

We discussed the situation in an anti-cuts group in Liverpool, which currently focuses on library closures. The struggle to keep libraries open runs danger to get trapped in some kind of ‘big society’-solution, where the ‘citizens’ are supposed to run these type of services voluntarily. We asked ourselves whether referring to the cuts of public services in terms of ‘cuts of the social wage’ is useful. On one hand it would show that these cuts and the general attack on wages are part of the same attack. On the other hand the concept of the ‘social wage’ extents the wage fetish: the fetish that the relation between workers and capital is one of ‘individual contracts of exchange’. The working class has no individual asset in libraries or swimming pools, the state extracts takes a share of total profits in order to pay for them. We face the situation of e.g. library closures not as a mass of ‘social wage receivers’, but partly as dispossessed proletarians, partly as workers who run the library, partly as middle-class people who might also have an interest in libraries. We cannot smooth over these differences easily, e.g. by concept construction.

11) The crisis of the ‘middle-class’: the problem for a social transformation is not so much the ‘elite’, but the middle-class

The current leftist discourse focuses on the ‘elite’ and their composition. For our debate about the instability of capitalism it will be more important to understand the condition and composition of the social back-bone of the system, the ‘middle-class’. While general capitalist development in the UK has done away to a large degree with an ‘economically independent’ middle-class (shop-owners, small entrepreneurs), it has increased the number of a ‘property-based’ middle-class (land-lords, share-holders etc.) and a ‘professional’ middle-class (consultants etc.).

– Income: The government continues to appeal to the social strata of ‘property’ owners: the tax and budget policies clearly favour people with savings, (multiple) house property and private pensions. Given the further stratification of income, ‘being middle-class’ is also increasingly defined by how much other people’s labour one is able to command (private cleaners, other personal services)

– Profession: The austerity measures have fucked off certain segments of the professional middle-class, such as teachers or GPs; at the same time the NHS restructuring gave the leading strata of GPs new powers; it might be similar in the higher education sector, where on one hand university staff is subjected to cuts, at the same time the current ‘global expansion drive’ of the UK education system offers enough scope for compensation

– Business: The territory of self-employment / small businesses is vast and difficult to grasp; while income of self-employment has decreased considerably, the figure of the start-upleader has seen a status-upgrade (in 2013 a record figure of over 500,000 small businesses were formed – coinciding with a record number of personal insolvencies, though) and might find a political backing (UKIP)

– Entrepreneurial: If we take Paul Mason as a barometer than the creative precarious class is currently finding to itself in a mixture of ‘career protest’ (Occupy), gentrification agents (Hackney), green-tech business and possible party-political representation (Green Party)

– Political: we saw it after the riots and see it currently in the governments attempt to deal with the ‘jihad’-question – the strengthening of the position of ‘community leaders’. If we take the reaction of Ferguson rioters towards their Black community leaders as a hint, then their influence might be diminishing the more they are seen as part of the establishment

12) The crisis of reproduction of the working class: we are in a historically unique situation where a drastic drop in working class living standards is not accompanied with sudden visible rise in unemployment

We are in a historically unique situation, in the sense that never before in times of peace there has been such a significant drop in living standards of the working class as witnessed since 2008, which was not accompanied (and explained through) a sudden rise in unemployment. Or to put it differently: never before the working class had accepted such drastic wage cuts while at the same time ‘jobs’ were available. The main reason behind this is the segmentation of the labour-market and shop-floors and a wider atmosphere of ‘social insecurity’ (debts, experiences of or news of ‘cuts’, precarious residence permission).

– If we see it as a ‘historically new situation’ then it is not surprising that one of the main divisions within the working-class is one between generations (not necessarily of age, but between people hired 10, 15 years ago and those who are hired now). The pay gap between younger and older workers has risen by more than half since 1997, with those in their 50s in 2014 earning 2.6 times more than workers aged 18-21

– This generational division is more concretely expressed in divisions between permanent and temp workers; in-house and outsourced workers; British-born and newly immigrated workers

– The cuts in public services and the increase in wage differences have resulted in an extension of the ‘informal sector’ or commercialization of relationships in the form of a ‘share economy’ (flats, cars, services such as child care / elderly care); these ‘informal’ reproductive (labour) markets are often framed by hierarchical ‘community structures’ and a come-back of (patriarchal) conservative values (self-employed muslim child-minders in Stoke Newington; land-lords of certain communities)

Discussion:

The discussion was mainly based on experiences from working in the Edinburgh Claimants Union. First of all, the low unemployment rate masks the large amount of underemployment and the fact that many people are forced to sign off or are sanctioned. The various work-fare programs don’t seem to work, the private sector does not want to contaminate their work-force with unmotivated doleys and the charity sector has become under political fire of the anti-work-fare campaigns. Nevertheless, the threat of work-fare still seems to work – may be left propaganda how bad things are partly play into the hands by helping the state to build up pressure.

There is a similar situation when it comes to the introduction of the Universal Credit, which has only been implemented in a dozen job centres or so. Also the ‘job match’-online program does not seem to be as effective as they had thought. But here regional differences and differences between job centres seem considerable. People are put under considerable pressure to let the job centre check their activity on the ‘job match’ site. In other situations the job centre agents are over-whelmed by the amount of applications people send them as proof of their job search and ask them to stop sending emails to their account.

In Germany work-fare programs such as the 1-Euro jobs don’t work either, the main state strategy to push people into low wage jobs is wage subsidy. The other main legal change which pushes people into bad jobs is the change of tenants rights: now you can be kicked out of your home if you miss one month rent payment. In France they have extended work-fare programs, mainly within the public sector, which partly led to replacement of formerly ‘skilled’ positions with ‘unskilled’ people on work-fare, such as in basic teaching jobs.

In Poland there is hardly any unemployment benefit, so also the pressure is less, e.g. you have to sign on only every two months. This might change slightly after they have introduced a bonus system for job centre employees, which is an incentive for them to get you into a job. Otherwise, low benefit payments also express themselves in the fact that many people don’t pay rent, e.g. up to 40 per cent of (unemployed) people in public housing don’t pay rent (regularly?).

While the welfare cuts frames the low wage sector and the pressure on the older core work-force is less due to a large reserve army, but through casualised/agency workers who do the same job for worse conditions. In the warehouse in London this is aggravated by the fact that the temp-agency office is on the company premise, so people can see how many people come in and apply.

In Germany at Mercedes in Stuttgart around 1/3 of the work-force is employed through a contractor, they earn 8 Euro an hour, which is much less than the core workers, but they stay because they work for ‘Mercedes’. It also means that they have something to put on their CVs and there is the illusion that the employment might lead to a permanent job.

13) The crisis of the low wage sector: the main internal threat for the status quo and the main challenge for the ruling class to channel discontent from below into a dynamic for restructuring; trade union and left campaigns might help them to achieve this

One of the main outcomes of the 2008 crisis was the extension and consolidation of the low wage sector. The situation in the US might give us a clue about the current fragile state of the status quo: factions of the ruling class realize that socially and economically the massification of low wage is not sustainable, that a new wage hierarchy within the working class is needed in order to create motivation and to defuse discontent, but also in order to force individual capitalists to not purely rely on long working hours for peanut pay. The ruling class demand for a hike of minimum pay is combined with demands for a re-structuring of ‘work-force qualification’. These ruling class concerns are met by trade union and leftist campaigns, which function factually as a mediation between proletarian discontent and state regulation. We know very little about the actual relation between these campaigns and the few ‘hard struggles’ of workers against the minimum wage.

– The relation between long working hours and low wages: first of all it is interesting to note that ‘wage cuts’ since the 1980s have less been compensated by debt, but by working longer hours: between 1980 and end of 1990s the US population grew by 25 per cent, total hours worked by 46 per cent; this questions the common view of an ‘indebted surplus population’ as the main form of proletarian existence

– Since two, three years the phenomena of the ‘working poor’ has entered the focus of wider political discourse, e.g. in mainstream media reports. We can note that the media gives most attention to the ‘post-graduate working poor’, clearly saying that they deserve more, or at least more than their ‘low skilled’ manual working neighbours.

– Obama kind of supports current initiatives to demand a higher local minimum wage (‘If I would work at McDonalds, I would join a trade union and want to see more Democrats around me for support’) and officially backs an increase of the minimum wage on a national level to $10/h. In the UK Labour just announced that they stand for a minimum wage increase to £8/h by 2020 (sic!). In Germany the introduction of a general minimum wage is a recent political move (€8.50/h from 2015)

– Various bigger corporations (Nestle etc.) and local institutions (Camden council) have decided to pay their core staff the ‘living wage’. The trade unions present these examples as a role model behaviour for their various campaigns (‘Britain needs a pay rise’ etc.). We don’t have any major insights in US campaigns like ‘$15now!’ in Seattle, which are sold as major working class successes by the UK left, but we heard that the campaign was well funded and based on a kind of ‘simulation’ of workers’ protests and electoral politics – but that many workers who took the campaign for face value and stuck their neck out were left hanging dry.

– In comparison to the well-funded and coordinated trade union campaigns on the ‘political arena’, the actual small ‘hard struggles’ for higher wages seem to get less backing, e.g. the strike of outsourced cleaners and porters at Ealing Hospital (the GMB did not facilitate coordination with strike-breaking staff at other hospitals etc.). The ruling institutions like to present themselves as benevolent at a time economically suitable for them, they don’t like a situation where workers try to enforce things themselves.

– We need a list and deeper analysis of ‘hard struggles’. So far they seem to happen mainly in those areas which are in the public spotlight (cleaners at SOAS, Ritz cinema workers) or attached to waning trade union influence (RMT cleaners).

Discussion:

We started discussing about the attempts of trade unions to address the unemployed / low wage sector through ‘community unions’, e.g. in the case of UNITE in Liverpool. Comrades described the community branch as a front organization for the Labour party (or mediated through Peoples’ Assembly and TUSC, which operate within the UNITE branch), with a top-down approach, e.g. if you are unemployed and pay lower membership fees to the union you don’t have any voting rights and no union representation in a (legal) dispute. In Edinburgh UNITE community union offered 3,000 pounds grant to the Claimants Union, but asked them, e.g. to put the UNITE logo on their placards.

The introduced minimum wage in Germany is a farce, it sets a very low wage barrier, at a time where there are small struggles of lowest paid workers, e.g. protests by Hungarian butchers working in the meat industry.

The Amazon strikes or disputes are interesting, in the sense that other people now know about the working conditions in one of the modern low wage companies. At the same time the focus on ‘bad conditions’ at Amazon ignores the fact that compared with the situation at other companies are not really better. For example in the new Amazon warehouse near Poznan workers get company transport, which is necessary for the company to hire enough people in a 80 km catchment area. The local companies and temp-agencies complain that Amazon ‘sucks in workers’, also by paying them slightly more than the minimum wage, which is paid by most agencies in the area: Amazon pays 13 Zloty, the minimum wage is around 10 Zloty an hour.

14) The crisis of struggles: the current silence is an expression of the fact that the different segments of the working class have fought their battles alone and that no segment provides an answer to the question of how to overcome the boundaries

Post-2008 we saw a succession of struggles limited to certain segments of the class: Visteon occupation and struggles in other ‘private’ companies which were hit hard by the first wave of credit crunch; followed by public sector workers mobilisations, once the bail-out cost hit the state budget; student university occupations happed parallel, but organizationally separate; the riots were the final exclamation mark. Since then probably more ‘small scale’ struggles took place, many of them harder fought and with more workers’ participation, but they did not enter the wider proletarian attention.

– The most recent public sector workers strike and the possible wage dispute within the NHS take place in the centre of austerity re-structuring (e.g. gap of around £2 billion in NHS funding for the fiscal year ending in 2016), but they addressed only the pay question, not the political question of job cuts and outsourcing. While the RCN (nurses union) might back a pay strike, at the same time they support plans that patients will have to pay for NHS services

– Various strikes against casualisation either remained limited to a certain skill group (e.g. electricians strikes on infrastructure sites against self-employment), did not manage to bridge the gap between permanents and temps (e.g. Hovis and Tilbury Docks strike against zero-hours recruitment, strike at ARGOS distribution centres or SOAS temporary lecturers dispute, recent London tube strikes), or are confined to the legal arena (e.g. current mass cases against zero-hours at Sports Direct)

– many hard fought struggles remain single events (wildcat strike at Scottish gas plant during Independence campaign, Tyneside Safety Glass dispute) or need moralistic media attention in order to reach the wider public (Care UK strike)

– Struggles in the housing sphere showed various cases of temporary successful prevention of evictions (Kilburn Unemployed Workers, Liverpool, Nottingham), but once the individual groups agree on common work they focus on more symbolic actions (e.g. mobilisation fort he MIPIM real estate fair in October)

Discussion:

The Liverpool anti-bedroom tax group offered a drop-in service, but was confronted with the fact that many people just used the service individually, which did not lead to much more collective strength. They tried to counteract this by setting up a formal membership structure, more like a union. The LCAP model seems good, but difficult to implement, also because you deal with the most vulnerable people. An RMT organizer helped to mobilise for an anti-bedroom-tax demo in Liverpool, which was attended by surprisingly many people, around 2,000. Few months later the RMT tried to use this momentum for their ‘politics’ (?), which contributed to the dwindling of the mobilization.

15) The potentials for re-composition: breaking the sectorial boundaries at the points where multi-national concentrations of low-wage workers meet the old ‘core work-force’ and ‘public services’

Many struggles touch upon ‘common questions’, even a strike for higher wages can obtain a more political and general dimension in times when state and capital want to enforce a ‘permanent pay freeze’. Similarly, strikes, which question the concrete wall of the minimum wage or question the division between core workers and temps or outsourced staff. But just the fact that many problems are ‘common problems’ now does not mean that struggles develop an attraction and become reference-points of other workers. What is necessary in order for struggles to become focal points? First of all they have to show that they are powerful enough, which in most cases would require to go beyond given contractual divisions amongst workers or even beyond the legal prescriptions of the labour and industrial dispute laws.

– the ‘privatisation’ or outsourcing drive, which forms essential part of the state’s strategy to solve the problem of both budget deficit and workers’ rigidity has met various structural impasses; so far these have mainly appeared on an objective level (e.g. ‘mis-management, exceeding costs); it will depend on the proletarian subjective response to break the low-wage cage and barriers between ‘public/private’ sector work-force, which divides a work-force which has to cooperate practically on a daily level

– many of the disputes at these boundaries affect ‘public services’ (care work, transport etc.); while the answer of the mainstream left is re-nationalisation without further content, strikes in these areas can lead to a politicization: what is the relation between the proletarian interest as ‘wage workers’ and the wider proletarian interest as people depending on ‘services’ – this relation will have to overcome the rather inter-class category of ‘service-users’; one small example of the potential described above might be the ‘off campus’-protest which forged an alliance between striking cleaning staff at London university campus and students, which went beyond mere show of ‘solidarity’

– in the end it will remain largely on the question of power: the left largely focuses on workers’ struggles and situations where they can play a role of supporters, there is little engagement with conditions of potential mass power due to workers’ concentrations (there is a political silence around the conditions in the remaining large manufacturing and distribution centres); we have to break the discourse of the ‘working poor’ (which in the end is the perspective of state politics) with the focus on the socially productive character of the working class

16) The crisis of the left: the class composition of the left works behind their backs and pushes them further towards dialog with state power, ideologised as ‘electoral tactics’ or ‘common ground’ politics

We can see largely two trends: the traditional Trotskyite left still manages to channel the politically organized ‘anti-austerity struggle’ (bed-room tax protests etc.) into statist waters (TUSC, Scottish referendum), while the ‘undogmatic’ middle-class left (with Paul Mason, Occupy leaders as symbolic representatives) attach themselves via ‘common ground’ to the Green Party (citizen income etc.) or attain advisory positions (UK-Uncut). These are not primarily ideological decisions, they represent the material basis of reproduction of these two main tendencies within the UK left.

The Trotskyite left as individuals and organisation materially depends largely on their positions within the ‘guaranteed’ public sector and the trade union apparatus, which pushes them into defensive politics. Their position is based on a working class internal division sanctioned by the law, so they take the defense of the ‘legal rights’ as a starting point.

The material foundation of the ‘undogmatic’ left is much more based on ‘potential social capital’ and precarious conditions (Paul Masons post-graduate creative class). They depend more on temporary funding, freelance income etc., which leads to the tendency of wanting to professionalise political work (state or NGO sector funding, activist journalism etc.). Their position is more socially isolated, so the connection between ‘individual activist and the rest of society’ and their own need for ‘more stable income’ is created by, e.g. ‘guaranteed income demands’. Also from an historical point of view the ‘middle-class liberal’ politics a la Green Party (30 per cent membership increase last year, 70 per cent increase of ‘youth members’) is their representation, the link forged through concepts like ‘guaranteed income’ (see relationship between sections of the Autonome in Germany with the Greens 1980s with Gorz as the ideological father-figure, or Italian social centre-left going into the electoral sphere 1990s – where Negri played Mason’s ideological role).

The revolutionary milieu exists in the shadow of these two political and material tendencies. The most genuine elements of the milieu try to weather the storm by ‘anti-political’ direct action solidarity activities (SolNets, IWW), an understandable response of mistrust towards ‘statist politics’, but finally insufficient when it comes to detecting tendencies which could break through the material divisions within the class and the trap of political representation. In the long run this ‘apolitical’ position will fall on our feet: a debate which puts the daily proletarian experience in context of an historical critique of the ‘state’ (also in terms of ‘the law’ or ‘the formal trade union’) will be fundamental.

(At this point it would be good to have a feedback of the Plan C meeting)

Discussion:

We had a more random exchange about developments within the left, a broad conclusion being that there is a kind of reemergence of syndicalism (SI Cobas in Italy, interest in the IWW) and ‘neo-Leninism’, which formerly breaks with the Trot type of notion of party, but claims that a political organization is necessary for focusing and leading the dispersed struggles, e.g. through guaranteed income demands.

17) What is to be or could be done? We can mainly appeal to the revolutionary milieu to a) abolish the facade of their particular organisation and reflect critically whether their activities contribute practically and theoretically to what we can still term as ‘workers autonomy’ and b) engage in a collective inquiry of the weak spots of capital, workers’ conditions and already existing collective steps below the surface

This process would not require the break from exiting organisations (IWW, Solfed, Plan C) but forums of debate and militant research beyond ‘activist networking’ and beyond the parasitic form of academia.

A wider mass publication, which reflects critically on current struggles ‘from the inside’ and analyses their material context would be the first priority.

This process should lead to a collective proletarian intervention in future ‘Occupies’, turning likely re-emergences of occupations of universities or other ‘public spaces’ into proletarian spheres.

Advertisements