In Internationalist Perspective no.29, we saluted the social movements of November-December 1995 in France, and asserted that they indicated the end of a period of downturn in worker's struggles (1984-1994), that they were the sign of a new combativity on the part of the working class. For us, to speak of a "new period" is essentially a matter of pointing out the break with the social apathy which had characterized the downturn in the class struggle in the recent period. It is not a matter of short term prognostications of a generalization of class struggle, nor of a spectacular renewal of working class combativity.
Nonetheless, the term "new period" could lead to confusion because to many it is indicative of a fundamental shift, a transformation, in the historic course. For us, there is no question of asserting the opening of a "new historic period of class confrontations," with a perspective of the outbreak of generalized social conflicts. Rather, for us, the struggles of Autumn '95 are inscribed in the historic course opened up by May '68. The struggles of Autumn '95 interrupted a phase of relative calm, and reactualized the notion of solidarity between diverse sectors of the working class; they showed that the power of collective action was not dead within our class, basically expressing the appearance of a change of attitude within the working class, a new combativity.
Ten years of downturn in struggle, of peaceful acceptance of austerity policies, thus came to an end. A new will appeared within the working class, breaking with its previous paralysis. The Autumn '95 struggles made clear that capitalist exploitation was the same everywhere. They occurred as part of a series of social movements throughout the world; they thereby indicated a general current of determined opposition by the international working class to the austerity policies dictated by the bourgeoisie, pointing up certain hesitations within the ruling teams of the bourgeoisie itself. This basic assertion of a new state of mind within the working class does not mean any kind of triumphalism, but rather simply indicates the opening of a new situation, one favorable to the development of the class struggle.
In our analysis of December 1995, on the basis of the French example, which was the most radical expression of the ongoing movement, we emphasized three aspects in order to grasp the change which had occurred: a rejection by the workers of the austerity policies imposed by the bourgeoisie; a renewed combativity within the working class; a scepticism towards the the political discourse of the ruling class. However, these positive elements in our analysis must not obscure the weaknesses still present in the movement, in particular the tailending of the unions, and the difficulty in developing a truly autonomous class movement. In 1996, there have been no social jolts, no new massive struggles. However, throughout the year social agitation has continued in numerous countries, clearly demonstrating the non-acceptance of austerity policies by the workers. Open struggles against austerity measures have continued in the industrialized countries, while certain Third World countries have seen important social movements.
It is possible to make a long list of struggles. In France, there have been strikes at the Banque de France and at France-Telecom. In Marseille, in March, street car drivers renewed their struggle to protest against the loss of wages because of the 1995 strikes. The movement paralyzed Marseille for several weeks, forcing the bourgeoisie to threaten a lock-out. In Bucarest, Romania, public transport was paralyzed for 11 days, leading the bourgeoisie to use force against the strikers. In the US as well, the working class has engaged in struggle, one example being the 17 day strike at GM, which shut down 26 of the companies 29 factories. In Russia, thousands of miners went on strike, despite the images of repression in Chetchenia. In Great Britain, the post office, the railroads, and the Liverpool docks, all experienced strikes. Popular explosions against the rigors of abusive taxation occurred in Jordan, South Africa, Morocco, and in the working class suburbs of Teheran, Iran.
This list, which is far from exhaustive, is the sign of an unstable social situation, indicative of a movement of general discontent, of a breakdown of consensus, even if not reaching the level of the struggles of November-December 1995. These diverse struggles cannot be compared individually to the French Autumn of '95, but they nonetheless indicate a convergence, a general dynamic of rejection of austerity, even while they contain manifest weaknesses, such as control by the unions, and lack of generalization.
Some of these struggles are of particular importance. Thus, at the end of June, in Germany, more than a hundred thousand workers went on strike to protest against the proposed budget cuts of the German government. From an intransigeant position in December vis-a-vis the renegotiation of the social pact, the German employers had to agree to open up eveything to negotiations, and finally refuse to agree to a jobs guarantee. Thus, for the first time in many years, social peace is not assured in Germany.
Clearly, the state of mind within the working class has changed. This change can also be seen within the ranks of the representatives of the political, moral, and ideological order of the bourgeoisie. This, together with the rapid development in the number of the unemployed, could not fail to have an impact on the state of the class struggle. In Belgium, teachers (on strike for many months) and students, attacked the headquarters of the Socialist party on several occasions. The growing awareness of the proletarianization of the teaching body is but one more sign of the change of which we have been speaking. These confrontations illustrate the growing discredit of the ruling class, and reveal fissures in the wall of ideological mystification generated by the state apparatus. At the very least, this is indicative of a tendency which forces the bourgeoisie to react.
A new situation has also arisen in Belgium where, confronted by the miscarriage of justice revealed by the case of the paedophile, Dutroux, the working class reacted spontaneously by work stoppages and demonstrations in the principal industrial centres of the country. These reactions are important because they manifest a quantum leap in the insecurity engendered by the putrefaction of the bourgeois state, by the profound crisis afflicting the political system; they illustrate the divorce between the working class and the democratic state. It is a new situation because the working class has taken the initiative, clearly expressing its distrust of the game of bourgeois politics. Such a situation does not leave the bourgeoisie indifferent. Faced with the loss of credibility of its judicial apparatus, it needs to shed its old corrupt image, hoping for a new lease on life by appointing ‘honest judges’. The result is a series of ‘scandals’ by which -- under the media spotlight -- the bourgeoisie seeks to eliminate the ‘mafioso’ elements from the state apparatus. This well publicized operation seeks to win new credibility for the political apparatus, and to remobilize the populace behind democracy; but it also brings to the forefront populist currents ill-equipped to handle the necessities of a centralized administration of the capitalist economy.
In terms of the adaptation of the bourgeoisie to the changing conditions of the world market, what stands out is the strengthening of the processes of globalization, whereby the ruling class attempts to overcome localized resistance to the necessary alteration of the economic circuits (e.g. the establishment of a single currency for the European Community, creation of a centralized banking system on an international level, strengthening the circuits of free exchange). At the same time, it is increasingly clear that the bourgeoisie is also streamlining its measures of repression (such as the internationalization of police operations, strengthening of controls on immigration in Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland, the US). This tendency is not new in itself, but it illustrates an unavoidable reality of the crisis: the more and more manifest impossibility for capitalism at the end of the twentieth century to integrate new laboring strata into the process of production, and the preparation of the bourgeoisie for the ineluctable class confrontations.
With the Autumn '95 strikes in France, and the continuation of worker's struggles this past year, a new situation has therefore been created. It is not a situation which is characterized so much by the number of new struggles, as by the spirit of the reactions registered within the working class: reactions of refusal, of disquiet vis a vis the future of capitalist society; reactions of distrust and suspicion of the political apparatus of the bourgeoisie. The workers are increasingly faced with the necessity to resist, not just to defend their wages, but also to be able to simply have the right to the bare elements of a decent life, to literally defend their children's future.
If the struggles of the past year have opened up a new perspective, it is also clear that they have remained characterized by illusions and weaknesses. To demand a more humane system of justice or the right to work is not enough. It is capitalism, with all of its perverse effects, that must be crushed. It is by engaging in class struggle, by organizing resistance in an autonomous manner, by generalizing and extending movements of struggle to all of the workers, that our strength can really be felt.F.D.
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