Saturday, 31 January 2009

A year of discontent?

The misery and discontent caused by the recession continues to mount up. In France, a general strike ground the country to a halt. In Greece, farmers have been blockading the border with Bulgaria and the main Athens-Thessaloniki highway. In Merseyside, 1,150 workers lost their jobs as Littlewoods closed its contact centre in Liverpool and cut jobs at other sites around the region. Iceland's coalition government collapsed under the pressure of the crisis.

And these are just the headline-grabbing stories. With world economic growth at its worst level in sixty years, and a vast number of companies - from Ford, to Shell, to Sony and Nintendo - announcing losses, ordinary people are facing layoffs and redundancies in almost every sector.
All indications suggest that the recession is set to continue through 2009 at least and that, whilst governments and business groups squabble over the best way to revive big business and stimulate vast profits for the propertarian class, conditions for ordinary people will only worsen. As well as vast layoffs and soaring unemployment, hiring has all but ceased, and repossessions and bankruptcy are increasing exponentially.

The dogma of capitalism and the free market is imploding before our eyes. Those responsible for this crisis are openly betraying the truth behind the myth: that market discipline is reserved for the working classes, who must reap the whirlwind as those who sowed the wind expect - nay, demand - to be bailed out by the government intervention so decried in times of boom. The full effects of market deregulation have been laid out before us, the lie of its saviour power deccimated by the light of fact.

We are faced with a year of discontent, one which has already demonstrated the potential to generate the kind of industrial action that dominated and defined the late seventies and early eighties. Here in Britain, oil refinery workers across the country have staged wildcat strikes in solidarity with workers at the Total refinery in Lindsey, ostensibly over Italian contractor IREM bringing in its own workforce to build a new desulphurisation plant at a time when the local economy is suffering. Almost immediately, this was picked up by the right-wing press - and the far-right BNP, who have joined the protests - and trumpeted as vindication of the anti-immigration message they've been blasting out for years.

In truth, there is nothing anti-immigrant about these protests. The British workers are angry, especially given the tight competition for skilled work here in the UK, that IREM has drafted in Italians ahead of locals to do the job, and they have every right to be. The local economy is suffereing, and joblessness rising, in the wake of the downturn and this act - motivated by globalised economics and cost-cutting, not "multiculturalism" or similar right-wing strawmen - only serves to make things worse. However, the anger is directed at the company behind the move and not the workers themselves. Alan Nelson, a lifelong trade-unionist partaking in the strikes in Lincolnshire, was quoted in The Independent as saying that "there have been no problems between the lads whatsoever," and that the concerns arise because "there is a lot of unemployment around here, especially in our industry. This has nothing to do with xenophobia at all." The Guardian quoted John Cummins, at a Cardiff picket, voicing a similar sentiment;
I was laid off as a stevedore two weeks ago. I've worked in Cardiff and Barry Docks for 11 years and I've come here today hoping that we can shake the government up. I think the whole country should go on strike as we're losing all British industry. But I've got nothing against foreign workers. I can't blame them for going where the work is.
However, the strikers are inadvertently promoting the nationalist take on the story by using Gordon Brown's own words, from the 2007 Labour Party Conference, against him. "British Jobs for British Workers," originally coined in a speech about equipping the long-term unemployed for skilled jobs and reducing unemployment amongst the British, not discriminating against migrant workers, has now been appropriated by the likes of the BNP. As their support increases with the strain of the recession and the continued re-hashing of the media myth that migrants have as big a role in our economic woes as big business and the financial giants, the use of that slogan - even in its original sense - by the protesters will only exacerbate matters.

The nationalists are trying to project the image of a struggle that pits the "white working class" of Britain against the "multicultural" big-business "globalists" and the "invading army" of migrant workers. In truth, though, this is not the case. The article in The Independent also quoted unemployed steel erector Tim Wood, who said "foreign workers are welcome to come if it is to fill a skills gap but this is just exploitation of cheaper European labour." This comment, like those above, offers a glimpse of the true nature of this struggle, as does the walkout in August by workers at a new nuclear power station in Plymouth. This strike, against the employment of Polish workers over British at lower wages, was joined by some of the Polish workers in question. Migrant workers are not here to undermine British jobs and wages, but to escape exactly the same economic hurdles in their own countries, and the employers are exploiting both groups. The problem is an economic one faced by the working class as a whole, and by offering only division along national lines the BNP and their counterparts present no credible alternative to this problem.

That is why now, more than ever, a strong, united, and credible working class movement has to take the lead in speaking out against both the perpetrators of the present crisis and those who would cynically exploit it for their own gain.

We are not faced with problems for the British caused by immigrants, as the right would have us believe, but with a crisis faced by working class people across the globe as a result of the deregulation of the markets in favour of big business. Those of us who believe in the right of the working classes to be free from the control of both state and capital now face a battle on two fronts.

We need to make greater efforts towards organising the working class for its own defence, both within the trade union framework and in the wider context of radical-left class solidarity. In doing so, we must revive the activism and passion of the labour movement to the levels evoked by the miners strike of 1984-5 or the actions of the Liverpool Dockers in the 90s. Only by reversing the decline in union membership and activity and standing together in unity can we hope to face the struggle ahead with any real chance of victory.

At the same time we need to rise up and speak out against the moves by the nationalists of the far-right, such as the British National Party here in the UK, to capitalise on the discontent generated by the downturn and draw racial division and resentment out of an issue rooted in class and economics. We need to win the war of ideas by actively and openly refuting their myths, oppose all pandering to their agenda by government, and - as a great many did in Liverpool today - match their numbers on the streets in protest.

We are now faced with a year that could potentially define our future. If we sit back and do nothing, then either the incumbent economic order will right itself and assert an even tighter stranglehold upon the working classes of all nations, or we face the prospect of a nationalist government that is not only committed to "reversing the tide of non-white immigration and to restoring ... the overwhelmingly white makeup of the British population" but also overwhelmingly authoritarian and unflinchingly intolerant of dissent. If we are to have a greater choice than that between neo-fascism and unrestrained capitalism then clearly we need to organise and mobilise before it is too late.