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Restructuring Labour, Restructuring Class Formation

Comments on Interview with István Mészáros

by Sam Gindin, Packer Chair in Social Justice at York University.

In his interview, István Mészáros raises important issues about the significance of the combined tendencies toward a decline in the weight of manufacturing in overall employment, the intensified commodification of labour (casualization), and the emergence of the public sector as ‘the leading edge in the labour movement.’ These comments merit additional reflection.

The neoliberal shifts in the nature of employment raised by Medhi in his questions represent more than material defeats for the working class: they also impact dramatically on class fragmentation and class formation. Three dimensions of this seem especially important with regards to understanding the present impasse of labour: the radical changes in the ways in which workers, especially organized workers, gain access to consumption; the internal stratification of the working class; and the determination of capital and states to commercialize, and not just privatize, social services.

Access to Consumption

The relative decline in the weight of unionized manufacturing workers in the economy does not in itself account for the decline in this sector’s leading role. It is, I think, important to see that the development of neoliberalism did more than attack workers; it also included particular structural changes that supported the internalization of certain neoliberal values, with implications for class formation and class resistance.

While real wages of workers in Canada and the U.S. have generally grown very slowly (if at all), the private consumption of working class families has in fact continued to grow. The stagnating wages have been overcome by more family members working longer hours, and through increased borrowing. At the same time pressures to reduce social consumption have undermined the legitimacy of taxes, while the threat to public pensions has led workers to depend more on private savings, mutual funds, and the success of the stock market. What all these response have in common is that workers who formerly looked to collective solutions - struggles on picket lines, in the street and electorally - now increasingly address their material needs through individualized solutions.

None of this was of course inevitable; it reflected one of the consequences of the economic and political defeats we suffered over the past quarter century. In the absence of left alternatives, neoliberalism structured working class options towards mechanisms that reinforced individual discipline and negatively affected the formation of working class consciousness, expectations, and collective capacities. In general, it is this, and not the inability to consume, that the left must address if it hopes to revive the liberatory potential of the working class. (The unequal distribution of consumption is a different problem and is addressed below).

Class Stratification

We spend a great deal of time – for obvious reasons – on the neoliberal impact on the class divisions of wealth and income. We need, however, to speak more to the divisions that have emerged within the working class itself. The ‘reserve army’ is no longer just the unemployed but the legions of casually employed. Relatively well-paid auto workers are disciplined by the warning that layoff may result in finding other employment, but at jobs with drastically lower wages and even worse reductions in benefits. Low-paid service workers are vulnerable to resentment against the privileges unionized workers seem to have; nor can most of these workers make up for their already low wages through working harder or longer and going into debt as discussed above – the barrier may be that corporate ‘flexibility’ denies them regular hours or, as in the case of single mothers with small children, there are no husbands and sons to increase the working hours and no collateral on which to get cheap loans.

Class solidarity can hardly be a natural development in such a context. Nor is it likely to emerge – at least to the extent required in today’s harsh climate – out of the more unionized sectors trying to organize the unorganized in order to maintain their own collective bargaining standards or to strengthen their institutions through increasing the number of dues-paying members. If a breakthrough in solidarity does come, it can only arise out of some combination of a revolt amongst those who were formerly the most exploited, and a corresponding new understanding amongst relatively stronger sections of the movement. Such a new reorientation will require moving from viewing ‘organizing’ instrumentally (what does it do for me?) to seeing it as part of building a working class with the capacity to act independent of capital (how does it fit into class power?).

The Public Sector as the Leading Edge?

The potential for public sector unions leading the next stage of the battle lies in their acting on the specific ways in which they are different from private sector unions. In the private sector neoliberalism meant an intensification of the competitive logic that was already in place; in the public sector it means imposing a commercial logic where a different logic, based on social needs and equality, had a significant degree of legitimacy. In the private sector, restructuring could quite easily hide behind market dictates; in the public sector, restructuring more clearly involves class-based choices (in spite of claims on the part of states that ‘the market made us do it’).

The neoliberal restructuring of the state therefore raises political issues that, while affecting the working class as a whole, immediately and most directly impact on state workers. The question is whether the public sector unions will respond to the restructuring they face in traditional union terms (make the best accommodation possible) or open up the potentials in the more explicitly political nature of the restructuring. To the extent that they identify their own struggle with the larger attack on working class needs, they may in fact come to be the ‘leading edge’ of the struggle. But, again, this will require more than an opportunistic appeal to the importance of social services. It will mean articulating and mobilizing around a counter-ideology that is both radically democratic (the issue is not just more expenditures, but how we provide the services involved and include affected communities in these decisions) and radically anti-capitalist (we can’t really defend and build on social services unless we are ready to challenge not just the present nature of the state but the private sector it is ultimately based on). All this is necessary to understand Mészáros's assessment, being raised again today, of 'socialism or barbarism?'. •

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