It was the best of times, it was the worst of times
The revival of class struggle - A tale of three cities
20 April 2023
Protests against Macron's pension reform.
In the background to his
novel, "A Tale of Two Cities", Charles Dickens contrasts the revolutionary
fervour of French society with the staid reaction of English society.
Today we can talk of a tale of three cities; Paris, London and Dublin, and examine the gradual shift in working class action in the face of a new offensive against their standard of living and the common constraints that are holding back a further advance of the class.
The most dramatic elements of the confrontation are to be found in Paris and in France, more generally. Mass strikes and large battles with police have been countered by Macron by-passing Parliament to impose an increase in the pension age. Everyone understands that this is the first step in a general roll back of worker's standards of living.
In Britain the battle has focused around public services and what are essentially public service industries that have been privatised. An overall government strategy has been to keep pay increases well below inflation, effectively lowering living standards. At the start of the year, they made some strategic shifts that led to union ballots and proposed settlements, but an overall settlement has run into difficulty because many workers have rejected the deals, forcing back both the government and their own union leaders.
In Ireland it may not be evident that there has been any struggle around the cost of living. This is because collaboration between union leaders and government, operated informally in Britain and France, is a formal system of partnership in Ireland, extending back over many decades. No sooner had the news of the inflation surges been published that the union executives negotiated a paltry 6.5% increase over two years. This was sold through a combination of the carrot and stick. Workers had already experienced the difficulties of fighting both government and union leaders. The carrot consisted of side deals that, it was claimed, would protect the poorest. So, for example, the government made a number of flat rate energy payments to households to ameliorate sharp increases.
The government followed up the imposition of social peace with a real body blow - a ban on no-fault evictions was removed, seeing a substantial flood of tenants and their families forced into emergency accommodation or the streets. This led to only a limited protest movement that has, for the moment, ebbed. Tensions remain high and broad resistance to individual evictions may lead to an explosion.
These examples show differing levels of combativity, but they all face similar constraints. The opposition is led by political parties and trade union leaders firmly focused on parliamentary action, anxious to find compromise and demobilise their supporters. The socialist groups operate in this environment, often arguing for reformism rather than advocating for revolutionary change.
On the political front there has been a sharp move to the right. The strongest of the left groups in France, la France Insoumise, is very much a minority and groups further to the left are scattered and fragmented.
Pictures of battles on the streets can obscure the fact that this is a movement of organised workers based on strike action. However, unity of the union leaderships is also a limitation, as a number had already accepted changes in pension rights that have led to the current situation. Organisational limits mean that the more militant workers are on constant strike while the majority are only involved in limited action. The state can use the law and the police to restrict action, while the unions are firmly focused on more negotiations, even when the pension legislation rolled through.
Even more important in building effective opposition is the lack of a programme. The pension changes are clearly part of a wider austerity programme in France and across Europe, yet the union leaders and many socialists do not move beyond the question of retirement at 64.
At a lower level of class action, the same factors play out in Britain. The Labour leadership, having defeated the Corbyn movement, offer no support to strikers and have sanctioned MPs who attended strike pickets. The union movement has demonstrated no real unity and the majority seem willing to strike a deal for pay rises below the rate of inflation. The wider issues around the collapse of public services are discussed everywhere but are not included in the demands of the unions.
In the health sector the government hid behind independent pay boards, then offered a lump sum and a 5% pay increase to the main nursing union. Nurses have now rejected this, but the health unions are now divided. A similar picture emerged with university lecturers and teachers, with the leaderships contemplating deals that were widely unpopular with members.
Among rail and postal workers, the picture was more complex. Unions were dealing with companies that are facades for the government. They were offering pay increases, but the price was a tearing up of workers' contracts that would have accelerated the final move to private companies. As in France, organisational disunity was accompanied by political weakness. An urgently needed campaign to protect workers standards of living and head off the physical collapse of public services has not emerged.
In Ireland it may appear that the struggle has ended with the defeat of the working class. That's not the case, but decades of collaboration between Union leaders and government act to suppress workers’ voices. There is very little independent action and everyone knows that any pay claims will be overseen by former bureaucrats who are now employed by the government to police the agreements. The carrot of government emergency payments was accepted on the grounds that this would protect the most vulnerable.
Feeding the lack of independent organisation is a generalised understanding of the subordinate position of Irish capitalism. Acting as a tax haven, the state will rake in €12 to €16 billion this year. Figures like this led to the country being described as one of the richest in Europe, but the same policies, in 2008, left the country bankrupt. The shortcoming of the billion euro is that it will not be used to protect workers. It’s the low tax and low level of state spending and the subservience to imperialist interests that attracts transnational capital.
The current crisis is around housing. The policy is to throw billions at private contractors and developers to encourage more building. The result is unaffordable mortgages and rents and an assault on tenants, who have only minimal rights.
As in Europe and Britain, there is a retreat of the left and a strong bias towards reformism and parliamentary action. The latest fad is to call for a left government led by Sinn Fein. That party has nothing radical to say on this issue and the overall call is for affordable housing - that means more subsidies for the developers - rather than for public housing.
A wave of evictions has been enforced and the parliamentary opposition has failed. Yet eviction remains an emotive issue and even now any individual or local struggle against the bailiffs could lead to broader mobilisations.
Across Europe the socialist groups are in disarray. Setting unity above everything else means settling for a reformist programme and reformist tactics that lead to defeat. Calling for the full restoration of workers’ rights and the defeat of capitalism can seem utopian. However, the picture changes when workers take action. In Britain the government hoped to wait out the strike wave in the expectation that the general public would become exasperated with missing trains and cancelled medical appointments. That hasn't happened because the majority of the workforce face the same desperate circumstances that the strikers face. Instead of hostility, union leaders such as Mick Lynch of RMT are immensely popular because they are able to answer to capitalist reporters and put the case for the working class.
So, the very first outcome of the current strike wave is a sharp increase in class consciousness and combativity. This is especially the case in France, with Macron bypassing parliament to force through pension reform and also the extreme levels of state violence used to attack strikers and demonstrators. In Britain the failure of Brexit and the breath-taking corruption of the Tories fuel widespread anger. The relative silence in Ireland sits on an historic memory of oppression by imperialism and landlordism, with eviction seen as the ultimate violence against the working class.
In the absence of left victory, we often see an advance of the right and that is a strong possibility. However, this battle will not end tomorrow. The overall offensive against the working class will continue, as will ongoing defensive action on its part.
To quote Dickens, it is our task to turn a season of darkness into a season of light for the working class and for humanity as a whole. We need class combativity, trade union democracy and radicalism and the formation of a revolutionary party. The glue that can bring all these elements together is a revolutionary programme that rejects the demands of capitalism and puts the interests of the working class to the fore.