What sort of Social Explosion?

If austerity increases the likelihood of social upheaval and politics is crucial in determining this, it is also obvious that political factors determine the character of the reaction. Is the reaction even progressive?  The very title of an academic study that addresses this question gives pause for thought – “Right Wing Political Extremism in the Great Depression”.

The authors explain that they focus on right wing parties because it is they that made the most visible progress.  Their analysis covers 171 elections in 28 countries between 1919 and 1939, mainly in Europe but also covering North America, Australia and New Zealand.  In the last election before 1929 Communist Parties had an average vote of 2.8 per cent in these counties increasing to a post-1929 peak of 4.02 per cent.  Ring-wing ‘anti-system’ parties on the other hand increased their votes from 1.16 per cent to 7.39 per cent.  The highest post 1929 vote for a Communist Party was 16.9 per cent in Germany, 15.3 per cent in France and 10.32 per cent in Czechoslovakia.  The highest votes for the right were 43.2 per cent in Germany, 25.1 per cent in Romania, 22.8 per cent in Hungary, and 18.6 per cent in Belgium. In Spain the Franco dictatorship did away with any concern about elections.

The size of the extreme right wing vote was associated with whether the country in question was on the losing side in the First World War and, confirming the findings of the first study, whether there was a longer established democratic tradition.  The study also noted the importance of the right already having a previous base of support on which to build during the economic crisis.  “The Depression was good for fascists” the authors say but “evidently, the depression was of no great help to Communist parties on average.”

Again and again they emphasise the importance of long established traditions of what Marxists would call bourgeois democracy and the institutions and political culture this entails.  Absence of this factor increased the danger of anti-system parties growing to become a real threat.  Of such a threat they say “above all, it is greatest where depressed economic conditions are allowed to persist.”

So much for the 1930s.  What about now?  A third academic study examines the pattern of workers’ protest in a much more recent period.

This study** looks at a puzzling phenomenon: that unions have increasingly engaged in general strikes in Western Europe since 1980 while economic strikes have been in decline.   The number of general strikes has risen from 18 between 1980 and 1989 to 26 in the following decade and 28 in the next seven years between 2000 and 2006.  More recent data shows another peak with 10 in 2007-2009 and 14 in 2010. The study looked at 16 countries including Ireland, which have reported 72 general strikes of which an amazing 33 occurred in Greece alone!  The countries of Greece, France, Italy, Spain and Portugal accounted for 77 per cent of the total.

This phenomenon has taken place against a background of an increase in social pacts between unions, government and bosses, known as social partnership in Ireland, a sharp decline in trade union density and fall in the number of strikes generally.  Between 1980 and 1982 an average of 16.6 working days per 10,000 employees were lost to strikes in the 13 European countries, falling to 4.5 days by 1989-1991 and 1.1 days by 2004-2006. Finally the share of wages in the economy has fallen over the period, which is taken by the authors as an indicator of declining union power.   On the other hand general strikes have taken place even in countries with historically low levels of strike activity such as Austria and the Netherlands.

The authors point to certain political features of the general situation against which this trend has developed, which might go some way to explaining what has been happening.  They point to the rightward movement of social democratic parties and the loosening of their organisational connections with trade unions, weakening the inhibitions on unions taking action against social democratic governments.  Thus, while the more right wing a government appears the more likelihood of a general strike, half those in Greece and five out of seven in Spain have been against Socialist Party governments.

The incidence of general strikes seems linked to rejection by governments or employers of a social partnership type pact and with efforts by unions in the midst of such pact negotiations to achieve agreement on one, eventually with success.  This is often in response to government threats to abandon talks or as a demand by unions to get them started.  Within the authors’ dataset pacts succeeded a general strike or threat of one on 14 of 18 occasions where both events occurred in the same year.  On 17 occasions they find that trade unions deployed strikes as negotiations were under way, mostly to press for concessions.  The issue of union inclusion in a social contract type deal appears as important as the actual content of government policy in the deal agreed.  Finally, while trade union density was insignificant in accounting for the incidence of strikes, high authority of the trade union confederation (ICTU-like body) was important.

So what do these three academic studies tell us?  Firstly that austerity and persistent economic depression increases the likelihood of a social backlash against austerity.  The remarkable relative passivity of Irish workers in the face of significant attacks on their living conditions may therefore not continue.  On the other hand the way austerity is imposed is important, with an emphasis on tax increases as opposed to expenditure cuts perhaps reducing the likelihood of resistance. However the key factor, which is emphasised in each study, is the political conditioning of the working class through a long tradition of bourgeois democracy.

None of the studies investigate exactly how this works but it is obvious that having the ability to vote against governments imposing austerity in periodic elections is valued greatly by working people.  It can and is plausibly put forward as an alternative to specifically working class action.  Put forward by the state, bosses and the bourgeois parties and accepted by a working class bereft of any experience or knowledge of the possibility of having their own alternative.  The Irish workforce grew enormously from 1989 to 2007, by 92 per cent, but under a regime of social partnership with a political and capitalist class exposed regularly as venal and corrupt.  Partnership played its part in making this corruption acceptable.  Inevitably the corruption infected the unions.

Independent initiative and consciousness disappeared and the passivity that has been such a feature of the recent years of austerity was learned over the last two decades by many workers with no experience of anything else.  This is what is meant in Ireland by bourgeois democracy, the subordination of independent working class consciousness under the leadership of a trade union bureaucracy and populist politicians that was all the stronger because for so long it appeared to deliver increasing prosperity.  That tradition bears down heavily as an enormous weight now the boom years have evaporated and the foundations of that prosperity have been blown away.

The low level of strike activity in the Irish State in the years just before the crash and after it is shown in the graph above.  The huge spike in 2009 reflects the one-day public sector strike in November of that year.  In retrospect it signalled the victory of a government policy which sought to divide workers employed in the public and private sectors and to blame the former for the state’s perilous finances.  This victory was pushed through with union agreement in the Croke Park deal which eschewed defence of state services valued by the working class in favour of defending the basic pay levels of its existing workforce.  This signalled entrenchment of division in the working class and tacit acceptance of the austerity agenda.  The rules of bourgeois democracy allowed working people to legitimise austerity further through a general election and an Austerity referendum.  All three of these demonstrate how effective bourgeois democracy is in imposing austerity when it so cruelly exposes the working class’s lack of a social and political alternative.

The studies show that no amount of militant action can substitute for this alternative.  As we have seen, general strikes, which often play such a prominent role in the demands of the left, are in themselves not the workers alternative.  Just think about it.  Greece has recoded 33 general strikes between 1980 and 2006, far more than any other country in Europe, yet if ever there is a working class in Europe suffering because of the crisis it is this one.  If ever the truth of Marx’s judgement of strikes received confirmation – that unions “ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, but not with the causes of those effects” – it is in the Greek experience.

This, of course, does not mean that we must reject the strike weapon or the tactic of the general strike.  It is simply to confirm that these weapons of class struggle are not in themselves the alternative, or rather they are only steps and tactics in their creation.  Too often in the programme of the left they appear as events that will somehow spontaneously create the organisation and consciousness necessary for the creation of a truly permanent and conscious workers movement committed to socialism.  An unconscious faith in spontaneity appears at the heart of organisations that otherwise believe themselves to be wedded to building a fully conscious revolutionary movement.  Doubly so – that austerity will lead to militant resistance and that this will spawn the socialist alternative.  The building of the social and political power and consciousness of the working class are the crucial challenges that are bypassed.

This is often expressed in the view that the mass of workers will learn through action, which is true only in so far as it goes.  The point is that every action has a perceived purpose and, as we have seen, often what is a most militant action is wedded to quite limited, if not reactionary,  purposes – a general strike to demand a social pact, a public-sector wide strike to protect the Croke Park deal?  The ideas that workers fight with and for are crucial, if not decisive, not the tactics and methods of the unavoidable class struggle which they must engage in if they are even to think of a socialist alternative.  It is the creation of the conditions for the development of a revolutionary consciousness, which can utilise the various tactics of the class struggle, that must engage Marxists and not hopes that activity in itself, however militant, will solve this task.  The evidence we have looked at shows that this just doesn’t happen.

*Alan de Bromhead, Barry Eichengreen and Kevin H. O’Rourke, University of Oxford, Discussion Papers in Economic and Social History, Number 95, February 2012).

**“Unions Against Governments: Explaining General Strikes in Western Europe, 1980-2006”, John Kelly, Kerstin Hamann and Alison Johnston, Centre for Advanced Study in the Social Sciences, Working Paper 2011/261.

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