Wednesday, June 30, 2010
First of all, the reviewer is quite right to say that the power of organised labour has not been completely "broken", but it is a misunderstanding of the book to think that it says otherwise. Were that my contention, the passages in the book dealing with union resistance to New Labour, even acknowleding that there continues to be a trade union movement at all to speak of, wouldn't make a great deal of sense. I suspect that the only context in which it is likely that such a state of affairs would actually come about would be under fascism. There are degrees, however. The reviewer is right to say that union density hasn't reached the lows of the 1920s, when it reached just 23%, but unionised workers currently represent less than a third of the workforce, a fall from a peak of 55% in 1979. It is true that this is partly because the workforce has expanded, but the inability to reproduce past rates of organisation is part of the problem - and I suggest that it is in part due to the recomposition of the working class and the defeats that I mention in the book. The recomposition of the working class, by the way, did not just entail a shift from manufacturing to services. It was a spatial recomposition, with production increasingly shifted to geographical areas with lower rates of unionisation, both in the UK and internationally - think of the shift in production from the 'snowbelt' to the 'sunbelt' in the United States, for example. It is true, as the reviewer says, that manufacturing has not always been the vanguard of the working class, and that the sharp falls in manufacturing employment doesn't doom working class organisation. But the rate of organisation that has persisted in manufacturing has not been reproduced in the service economy - as yet. And I certainly don't suggest that "the basic social contradictions" (ie, class conflict) have somehow disappeared with the shift from manufacturing - quite the reverse.
The militancy of the working class, moreover, has experienced a precipitous decline, with days lost to strike action reaching an historic nadir in 1998. During the 1920s, when union density was historically very low, the lowest number of days lost to strike action was 1.17m in 1927 - this, a year after a record high of 162.2m in 1926. In 1998, the number of days lost to strike action was 282,000, and this in a decade in which the number of strike days rarely exceeded a million. In the 2000s, the figure increased somewhat, but still remained historically low, peaking when New Labour picked a fight with a group of public sector workers. The figure of 900,000 strike days lost in 2004 was at the time considered unusually high, because it doubled the figure from the previous year. The loss of more than a million days in 2007 was also unusually high for the last decade. Last year, less than a half a million days were lost to strike action, in the middle of huge job losses. Would it not be fair to say that, to some degree, relative to its previous condition, the British ruling class succeeded in breaking the power of organised labour?
Secondly, I do maintain that neoliberalism as a class project was overwhelmingly "successful in its own terms". The attack on the working class, some of whose effects I discuss above, enabled a new spurt of accumulation by suppressing wage claims, permitted successive rounds of efficiency 'downsizing' and 'rationalising' (because of the reassertion of "management's right to manage"), produced new systems of work discipline and organisation that increased the rate of exploitation, enabled/compelled social democracy to adapt to neoliberalism, and opened up new avenues for profitable investment in previously socialised sectors either through full privatisation or private finance initiatives. The result is that profit rates in the advanced capitalist countries, while never recovering to their historically anomalous pre-1973 levels, did improve dramatically on the lows resulting from the systemic global crises in 1974-5 and 1980-2, and a new period of growth - centred on south-east Asia - was initiated. In the UK, that period of growth was interrupted only once before the credit crunch, with the 1991-2 recession. In global terms, there have been localised, and sectoral crises, but there hasn't been the kind of systemic, global crisis of capitalism seen in the mid-70s and early 1980s until the collapse of Lehman Brothers. This is not to say that neoliberalism didn't throw up its own problems, perpetual instability and the constant requirement for state intervention to shore up finance among them. Nor does it imply that the pace of neoliberal accumulation wasn't shaped and constrained by continued opposition - New Labour's battles with the PCS union show that it has been. But it does suggest that neoliberalism succeeded in its principal aim of restoring profitability by increasing the rate of exploitation.
While I'm on this subject, one aspect of this story that I don't give due attention to in The Meaning of David Cameron is imperialism, and the war against the global South which enabled a hugely increased rate of exploitation outside of the core capitalist economies, thus enhancing profit rates without necessarily resulting in stronger growth or robust rates of investment inside the core economies. Obviously, the narrative's focus is mainly on the United Kingdom, but a large part of the recovery in profit rates for British capitalism was due to Brittania's ability to hang on the coat-tails of the American empire. That is an aspect of the neoliberal assault that you may wish to bear in mind when reading The Meaning Of....
Thirdly, I referred to neoliberalism as a "hegemonic" project, but I did not foresee that this would be a controversial point. I think I'm using the concept of hegemony in its conventional marxist sense, first popularised by Plekhanov and taken up by Gramsci. It accounts for the way in which ruling classes in bourgeois democracies achieve the acquiescence of workers to their rule which, though the threat of force always lies behind it, is not merely coercive. Gramsci noted that mature capitalist democracies are not usually susceptible to sudden, catastrophic revolutionary assaults because behind the armed forces of the state lies a robust, complex civil society bloc that is capable of conserving the status quo. The rulers didn't merely have the armoury of the state to rely on: they had hegemony. A hegemonic bloc is one that incorporates fractions from multiple classes into a particular mode of class rule, not merely by winning them over in the battle of ideas, but by at least appearing to meet the interests of the incorporated groups at some level. In this context, I note that Thatcher, though she admired Pinochet, acknowledged that she could not import his methods to the UK. It would be "inappropriate", she said. Hence, it was not enough to defeat organised labour, nor was it possible to create a "police state" as some alarmed critics claimed - she had to produce a constituency favouring her policies, ostensibly benefiting from them, that extended well beyond the ruling class. The hegemonic bloc created by neoliberalism comprised high finance, internationally oriented services and manufacturing industry owners, a section of the professional middle class, most of the petit-bourgeoisie and a segment of workers. This doesn't mean that the ruling class got everything its own way. There remain counter-hegemonic forces, which are not negligible. But that is the normal state of affairs in a hegemonic regime.
Lastly, when I wrote of Cameron benefitting from a "taboo on class politics",this was in a context in which I pointed out that the majority were unconvinced by Blair's "the class war is over" spiel, that most still identify as working class, that class is still the crucial motivator in voting behaviour, and that Cameron provokes a class hatred which Labour has sought to capitalise on. So, my argument isn't rebutted by pointing out that class hatred helped deprive Cameron of an overall majority. The "taboo" I speak of doesn't really operate among the majority of people, but among the intelligentsia, politicians and the commentariat. For example, the sociologist Huw Beynon has pointed out that just when a record number of people registered the view that there was a class war taking place in Britain, social scientists, historians and other scholars were coming to precisely the opposite conclusion. Such shifts in intellectual culture profoundly shape normal political discourse, in that its products are then filtered through the capillaries of the capitalist media, pundits start to echo its conclusions, and the majority of elected politicians who worry about being demonised by the media soon learn to obey its norms. The New Labour politicians who expressed anxiety and embarrassment over the party's 'class war' strategy are an example of what I am talking about.
Now, I think the reviewer's overall concern is that I may be doom-mongering, offering a stilted perspective that oversells the achievements of neoliberalism and thereby precludes the possibility of working class resurgence. But as I have sought to outline, that rests on some profound misunderstandings of what I have written. Empirically, the situation of the working class and the Left is difficult, but there is no reason why this can't be reversed, provided the problem is given due recognition.