In this period when the ideology conveyed by the ruling class tries to convince us that social classes and their antagonism have disappeared and that the only opposition from now on is the struggle between “democracy” and terrorism, it is important to take another look at social movements that remind us of what is really at stake. The more so, as certain groups or proletarian elements also defend this vision of a working class having become “non-essential” to the functioning of capitalist society. Related to this subject, we direct our readers to the two articles published in this issue on the housing and ecological questions.
The class struggle continues to arise throughout the world as the only means of resisting the worsening of living conditions, of work and of exploitation. Overall, one can cite the social movements that have continued to erupt in China, the strike of the subway workers in Buenos Aires, the struggle of Sri Lankan workers in Mauritius, an extremely violent conflict in a textile factory in Pnom-Penh in Cambodia, the teachers’ movement in Peru, and the wave of strikes in Bangladesh. In Canada, there are the construction workers in Edmonton, Alberta, who are wildcatting against the will of the union leadership and opposing the legislation regulating the right to strike in that province. In Europe, strikes have broken out in automobile factories in Romania and Russia, in the postal system in Great Britain, and in public transport in Germany. Finally, in France, a vast protest movement against changes in the regulations affecting workers retirement has erupted.
The broad-based movements that have shaken Egypt must be situated in this global context of resistance by the working class throughout the world. Nevertheless, if we highlight the movements in Egypt it is because of their massive character, but especially because they are occurring in a region, the site of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where the ruling class has contained social tensions within the opposition between radical nationalism and “democracy.”
Since December 2006, Egypt has been the cutting edge of a reaction by important sectors of the working class. These movements are exemplary in more than one way.
On the one hand, as we have indicated, they show the global dynamic of world capital, which consists of an ever-increasing exploitation of the working class. The capitalist system is a global social relation resting on the exploitation of the proletariat, the class that produces surplus-value. The generalized use of the sciences and new technologies in production propels the capitalist system ever further into that contradiction where it produces more and more wealth but less value. Viewed superficially and without an understanding of the way capital functions, this leads some to see a system which is not in crisis inasmuch as it continues to develop its productive forces, and to see an “integrated” working class, one less exploited since benefiting, in certain industrialized zones, from this production of wealth. This superficial vision results in not understanding the far-reaching evolution which is transforming capitalism, the implications of these transformations on the forms of exploitation and to a tendency to forget that the system remains based on an antagonism between two classes; indeed to fail too see that this antagonism constitutes one of the fundamental internal contradictions of the capitalist mode of production, and that the only way of overcoming that exploitation and that class antagonism is the constitution of a new society. That exploitation appears in different forms according to the level of industrial development. But, even if the form is different, the exploitation always remains the same and is no less fierce. In the industrialized zones, like the United States, Japan or Europe, the exploitation of the proletariat manifests itself by an increase in work rates, a degradation of the conditions of existence, and the extraction of relative surplus value. The rate of suicide recorded in these zones, however drowned out by an overproduction of consumer goods, as well as the use of medications and various drugs, are indicators of this deterioration in the quality of life and of the increasing pressure exerted by the system. In the so-called emerging countries - and China is a prime example - the exploitation appears in a much more open and brutal way, under forms close to that of a slave system. The Chinese “miracle” has been made possible by workers working up to 17 hours per day for starvation wages, living in the factory to be constantly available. Expropriated and famished peasants go to the cities to try to find any kind of work there. Underground parking garages are arranged as collective rooms in Beijing “to accommodate” these precarious workers, sometimes even with their families. The fantastic development of the productive forces in China goes hand in hand with the rapid enrichment of a new bourgeoisie, the brutal exploitation of workers, and the complete elimination of systems of social assistance such as the Stalinist epoch provided, which has been replaced by no other network of pensions or health care. This situation often generates thousands of very violent social conflicts, which pit workers and peasants against the forces of repression. It is thus crucial to remember that capitalist society rests on this class antagonism and on the exploitation of the one class by the other. The proletariat constitutes one of the fundamental contradictions internal to the capitalist system and the struggle of the working class is thus an unavoidable fact of life for the ruling class.
On the other hand, in spite of certain inward-looking tendencies, and the development of nationalist, religious or terrorist ideologies, into which certain segments of the proletariat without hope become mobilized at certain times, this same working class shows that it does not identify in a generalized way with these kinds of practices and that these latter do not constitute its means of resistance to exploitation. In contrast to terrorist practices, whose dynamic is that of destruction and a retreat into an “identity” community, or even into an individualist dynamic, the action of a class is a collective action, based on solidarity, and tending towards a perspective of social transformation.
The social movements which unfolded in Egypt should therefore be highlighted in two senses: on the one hand, by their massive character -- and in that, they testify to the resistance of the proletariat which appears throughout the world; on the other hand, because they unfolded in a geographical zone marked by the rise of radical Islamism, contaminated by the nearby Israeli-Arab conflict. The fact that resistance to exploitation manifests itself in class conflict, and not in an opposition between “democracy” and terrorism is something that needs to be emphasized.
2. What is the origin of these conflicts?
In the ‘60’s, in Egypt the bulk of industry had been nationalized by Nasser. But, during the ‘90’s, following the pressures of the IMF, Mubarak began a policy of privatization. The sector most affected was the textile industry, with 58 % now private. Recently, a new wave of privatizations has taken place. It was essentially wage demands that were at the heart of the recent strikes, and more specifically the failure to pay the promised bonuses linked to the profits made by those enterprises linked to the state. More generally, threats linked to these privatizations adversely affect wages, job levels, and working conditions, and were a direct cause of the current social movements.
The movements began in December 2006, with a strike in the Mahalla Al-Kubra textile mill. The workers occupied the factory and the police intervened. A significant element was the call for solidarity put forward by the workers to other sectors of the class, and to the population at large. The result of that call was not long in coming: 20,000 people encircled the factory, the police retreated, and the strikers prevailed. This first movement, both in its outcome, and in its dynamic, indicated to other workers the path of resistance and instilled confidence in the rapports de force that could be established. This led to the mobilization of tens of thousands of workers in the textile industry in Alexandria and in the Delta.
But, if the consequences of privatizations in the textile industry constituted the reason for these conflicts, other sectors linked up to this dynamic. Still in December 2006, workers in the cement plants at Helwan and Tura went on strike, as did the workers at the Mahalla auto plants.
What is completely remarkable in these claims is that overall they exceed the partial claims. They concern all the population and aim at a general improvement of the conditions of existence.
Following the start of this strike, the workers of Kafr Al-Dawar organized a strike in solidarity with the factory of Mahalla and the workers of the flour mills of the South of Cairo published an official statement of support for this strike and marked their solidarity by a short work stoppage. Last January, the truckers went on strike, spontaneously supported by the conductors on the Cairo metro, to which we must add other public sector workers. Everywhere, demands for wage increases and better working conditions were at the heart of the struggles.
If the movements began in December 2006, the wave of social agitation has not stopped. This September, the 27, 000 workers at the textile plant at Ghazl Al Mahalla went back on strike, the second strike in a year at that company. Once again, the demands basically concern wages: the workers are demanding the payment of the bonuses linked production quotas. But these demands went beyond that: they included the demand for the freedom of five strike leaders; for the resignation of the trade union committee and the factory management; the demand for the inclusion of bonuses as a percentage of one’s base pay; the increase of bonuses to include food and housing; a demand for a minimum wage, for a provision of transportation for workers living far away, and finally a demand for an increase in medical care. What is striking in all these demands is that they go way beyond what are usually considered “partial” demands. They concern the whole of the population, and seek a general improvement in living conditions.
Following the start of that strike, the workers at Kafr Al-Dawar organized a solidarity strike with the Mahalla workers, and the workers at a flour mill south of Cairo put out a communiqué in support of that strike and marked their solidarity with their own short work stoppage.
Currently, the authorities claim to see, behind all this agitation, the destabilizing hand of the Muslim Brothers. The Egyptian ruling class is thereby using an already well-known ideological tactic: trying to cover up the class origin of the opposition by tying it to religious or terrorist movements. But, what is exemplary is that the Egyptian workers have clearly refuted this charge of manipulation by the religious opposition and, on the contrary, have reaffirmed the class nature of their movement and their demands.
After six days on strike, The Egyptian government agreed to virtually all the demands of the strikers. The members of the strike coordinating committee who had been arrested were freed, and the workers won an agreement that they would be paid for the days that they were out on strike. According to the BBC, the government feared that the strike would spread to other industries. (BBC News, September 25)
3. What to say about these movements?
Beyond the specific demands, it is necessary to emphasize the much more general tendencies present in the dynamic of all these struggles.
Of course, these movements contain the usual weaknesses that we can find elsewhere in all the great movements that we have recently analyzed (Argentina, Oaxaca, the anti-CPE movements in France). These weaknesses are primarily the result of maintaining illusions in partial demands (to ask for another governmental policy, to create better trade unions, etc.). But these weaknesses result from the zigzag process and historical development of proletarian consciousness that is always situated in a contradictory movement between refusal/rupture related to the current mode of functioning of capital and the difficulty of articulating perspectives outside the global capitalist social relation.
Again, we see that the economic situation is a powerful factor in the process of revolt of the exploited class, that it can constitute the element that unleashes struggles, but that political consciousness remains a determinant element with respect to the articulation of perspectives within these movements.
4. In conclusion:
The social movements that are unfolding throughout the world, even in zones where opposition tends to crystallize into religious or nationalist extremism, demonstrate that capitalist society is built on a fundamental antagonism between the classes and that no transformation is possible within that system itself. The capitalist mode of production rests on a basic contradiction: it needs the existence of the proletariat to produce surplus-value and thus to ensure its survival, but, at the same time, that exploited class is led to struggle and to destroy the bases of its exploitation, i.e. capitalism itself. All those who see the working class as a class “integrated” into the system, or as a “non-essential class”, even if they have indeed grasped the profound transformations that give capitalism and its social classes a new “face,” have not been able to integrate these transformations into a coherent theory that accounts for the continued operation of the law of value and its class contradiction, at the very foundation of this mode of production. And for us, who are convinced that political consciousness is not the prerogative of the Party or of revolutionary minorities, the world working class learns by its struggles what constitutes the bases of the functioning of society, and the perspective for its transformation.
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