Class struggle continues to occur almost everywhere in the world, thus reflecting the increasing frontal attacks of the capitalist class on the living and working conditions of the proletariat. All the movements which have erupted lately in Greece, but also in Spain, France or Germany, as well as the Pan-European demonstration organized in September against austerity in Brussels, are a reaction against the progressive dismantling of the social security systems, austerity measures, and the loss of jobs. These direct attacks are the consequence of the unprecedented deepening of the world economic crisis that violently burst upon us in 2008. From the beginning of this new phase of crisis in 2007, it is estimated that on a global scale around 35 million jobs have been lost.
We will focus here more specifically on those proletarian reactions which have occurred during the summer of 2010 in Asian countries, primarily China, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Cambodia. These movements were marked by demands for massive pay increases as well as by violent confrontations with the police and security apparatus.
All these class movements express the fundamental antagonism between the interests of the proletariat and the interests of the capitalist class, exemplifying general tendencies existing within capitalism. Indeed, this mode of production must unceasingly try to generate more and more surplus value and ever more profit. And in this frantic search for profit, the capitalist system reduces to the maximum all its costs of production that relate to constant or variable capital. Moreover, the economic system is undermined more and more by its internal contradictions. The “sub-prime” crisis of 2008 only revealed the depth and the extent of the world-wide crisis and the fragility of the system, as well as the processes invented to assure the continuation of accumulation.
In a general way, the capitalist mode of production has always tried to reduce to the maximum the expenses linked to the “maintenance” of its workers. In this globalized economy, companies use cheap labor from poor countries when this production does not require very advanced technology and highly skilled labor. The pressure that the capitalist class exerts on these workers is especially great. This relates to wages, of course, but also affects working conditions and life in a more total way. Thus, the access to education, health care, decent housing, as well as livable working conditions, is very often partially or completely eliminated for workers in poor countries Some of the movements which unfolded in Asia and Africa show it: among the claims, we find demands for pay rises of 100%, of 300%, access to clean drinking water and to medical care, etc. But every economic sector has been the scene of class reactions, and China, in particular, has seen massive strikes in its cutting edge factories, such as car manufacturing.
Even if there is no automatic connection between crisis and class struggle, the global degradation of living and working conditions entail the potential for struggles to erupt. Not only the grim reality of capitalist exploitation but also the general and world character of this exploitation, assails the working class. Whatever the political regime, more statist or more liberal in its economic policies, the mode of production imposes its relentless law and pursues its only goal: to unceasingly produce ever-more value. Confronted by the steamroller of austerity measures, the downward pressures on wages, the unprecedented degradation of proletarian living conditions, one can envisage that workers will react through class movements.
But now let’s briefly examine some examples of such social movements.
At the beginning of July, in Pakistan, 10,000 workers from the ship demolition sites demonstrated and went out on strike. Working conditions are particularly horrible and dangerous at these sites, the day's work lasts between 12 and 14 hours, and the average wage is 3 dollars per day. It is no secret that these ships contain toxic, even deadly materials, such as asbestos, which cannot be used in the countries where there exists even a pretence of legislation, and that they will be handled with bare hands by these workers from the poor countries.
In Bangladesh, after months of demonstrations, 50.000 workers from about fifty factories of the Ashulia textile sector, in the suburbs of Dacca, went strike. One of the principal demands was a request for minimum wage increases of 300%. The conflict is still ongoing, the authorities having proposed an increase of 80%, accepted by some trade unions and refused by others.
In Cambodia, in the suburbs of Phnom Penh, at the end of July, 3000 workers in the textile sector violently clashed with the police after having stopped work. These factories produce for famous brands such as “Gap” or “H & M”. The daily wages for these workers is under $2 per day. They are protesting against both low wages and harsh working conditions.
In India, in Hanjigarh, in the Eastern State of Orissa, worker's riots mobilized thousands of workers from the refining sector. During these riots, they ransacked the offices of the refinery of the British giant Vedanta. There too work conditions were the issue.
In Mozambique, there was looting, demonstrations, and riots which spilled into the streets of the suburbs of the capital, Maputo, involving thousands of people. They protested against the abrupt increase in the price of cooking oil, corn, bread, water and electricity.
For many years China has frequently been prey to violent protest movements. In particular, these movements have mobilized workers coming from the countryside, pushed by hunger to migrate to the big cities, and obtaining work often only under conditions that are extremely precarious. In addition to large numbers of strikes, there are frequent acts of suicide by desperate workers.
China is experiencing a significant economic development based primarily on the intensive exploitation of its workers. Foreign investors were attracted towards this economy in full growth, on the one hand, thanks to the current stability of the political system and the Chinese economy, but also because China represents an enormous potential market. Economic development has had major repercussions, creating a class of nouveaux riches - and thus of consumers. But the workers have also put pressure on the capitalist class to wrest increases in wages. The many strikes that have erupted in China have demanded an improvement of working conditions in connection with economic development, whereas the majority of the strikes in European countries were more reactions to the degradation of living and working conditions.
These movements of the Chinese proletariat have often been repressed with a great violence. If this violence is only the reflection of the war between the two antagonistic classes, the capitalist class and the proletariat, the Chinese ruling class is threatened by three particular phenomena: a continuing and ever stronger competition from countries with cheaper labor like Bangladesh or Vietnam, the threat of hyper-inflation and, above all, the development of autonomous movements of the proletariat. Indeed, as in every country where the trade unions are too openly entangled in power, the proletariat tends to organize its reactions outside of the unions. The Chinese workers thus developed a capacity to launch class movements in an autonomous way.
Beside the brutal repression of the police, the Chinese ruling class is forced to contain future social explosions by temporarily reducing the pressure on the proletariat, even as it attempts to reinforce its ideological control. Thus, already in 2008, the country had put into effect new labor regulations, more favorable to the workers. We can be sure that it is not out of benevolence, out of concern for the well being of its population, that the Chinese authorities made such a "sacrifice". In the same way, the local authorities of Sichuan province, in the southwest of China, increased the minimum monthly wage by 44.4% as of August 1, 2010.
After the revival of exports at the end of 2009, the industrial provinces were confronted with a shortage of manpower. Indeed, following economic development of the interior provinces of the country, workers who usually came from afar to the coastal factories found work closer to home. On the job market, the balance between labor supply and demand thus suddenly appeared more favorable to unskilled workers. All at once, the factories and the local governments of the south and east of China were constrained, to attract workers, to give a better deal to their work force. In addition, as of 2015 the active population of China will actually start to decrease and in particular, that will affect the number of 15-24 year olds who currently constitute the bulk of the workers employed in the factories producing for export.
But all this has a perverse effect and demonstrates, in a general way, what contradictions threaten the ruling class. The quest for profits implies increasing productivity and, among other things, reducing to the maximum the reproduction costs of the labor force. The extremely low wages of Chinese workers have made them an attractive labor force for both Chinese investors, and American and European companies. But nothing is more dangerous than social conflicts that interrupt the plans of capital and destabilize production. And, faced with that, the ruling class has been forced to grant pay increases, improvements in living and working conditions, which then, in turn, make Chinese labor less attractive to capital.
Here, then, is one of contradictions that the ruling class faces; one of contradictions that the structural crisis of the capitalist mode of production further exacerbates.
The social conflicts to which we have pointed, as well as the overall situation of Chinese capital, are only reflections of the current situation. But they prefigure the contradictions that the ruling class very probably will face for years to come: a deepening of the crisis and its manifestations, a direct and catastrophic impact on the living and working conditions of the proletariat, massive exclusions of workers from the production sector, the constitution of masses of unemployed completely without resources, without hope, a multiplication of the social reactions vis-a-vis these degradations on all fronts, and a destabilization of the production sector for the ruling class…
The only bulwark that the global capitalist class has to canalize class movements is its left factions and its trade union organizations. As we have seen in the “emerging” countries, the ruling class supports the formation and spread of unions. Similarly, as the demonstrations against austerity in Brussels, in September, showed, the trade unions sought to contain the feelings of rage and bitterness on the part of European workers by scrupulously blocking any attempts to act outside of the legally sanctioned modes of protest. Seeking to negotiate or to confine protest within the legal framework, and blocking any real expression of class antagonism, is the primary role of the left and the unions.
Nonetheless, the present situation is rich in potential because the tensions between the ruling class and the proletariat are likely to increase in tandem with the misery and violence that the crisis brings. There are those who have proclaimed that class war had become an obsolete concept; the present situation demonstrates that it has never been so acute!
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