Richard Seymour, keeper of the Lenin’s tomb blog, and Pluto author (Against Austerity: How we Can Fix the Crisis they Made; Pluto, 2014), has written a column for the Guardian this week on protest in the age of austerity.
Seymour argues that the left should welcome the rise of social movements as union influence wanes, but protesters must form alliances if they are to be effective.
We’ve reproduced a section of the article below. You can read the whole thing on the Guardian website. Keep your eyes peeled for Seymour’s forthcoming book, out in March. In the article he draws on the analysis of the late sociologist Charles Tilly. Tilly’s widely acclaimed textbook on social movements, Social Movements 1768-2012 is in its third edition now. You can buy it from the Pluto website for £20.50.
So much for a winter of discontent. The etiolated state of the British left in 2013 gives us no right to expect any such climax. All the seasonal metaphors – red-hot autumns, summers of rage, even democratic springs – have eluded us.
Why is the landscape so bleak? In 2011, things looked different. The election of a Tory-led government in the UK and a spate of Tea Party Republicans in the US initiated a sequence of austerity programmes – prompting direct conflicts between governments and organised workers. And this seemed to fuse with a heterogeneous series of global struggles, from Middle East revolutions to strike action in Greece to the indignados in Spain and the Occupy movement.
The militancy was short-lived. As far as the UK goes, the strikes of 2011 look like a blip. In 2012, the days lost to strike action fell from 1.4m to 250,000, one of the lowest rates of action on record. As for the US, the disputes such as the one in Wisconsin were far more politically salient than anything else. The rate of industrial action in the leading capitalist economies since the credit crunch has not been merely low: it has been at historic lows. The disruption to the flow of profit is minimal: less than 0.005% of working time is lost to strike action each year in the US, for example. No wonder corporate profits have been at historic highs. Meanwhile, in the same economies, the movements largely collapsed or deflated, or were swept up by violent police intervention.
There are structural tendencies at work here. There is the secular disengagement of masses from organised politics, whether party membership or, increasingly, voting. The old institutional bases of radicalism have been demolished. There is the long-term decline in union density and a decline in the frequency of industrial action. Restrictive labour laws and the growing bureaucratisation of unions means strikes occur more slowly and less often. Industrial action is “tertiarised”, taking place mainly in the service sector, and mostly in the public sector.
Take a simple contrast. The peak years of the winter of discontent saw strikes take place in large, strategically important industries. They were often led by rank-and-file movements, acting against the union leaderships. They shook governments, and made the social contract of its day – a pay restraint agreement leading to real cuts in living standards – unworkable. Some 39m working days were lost to strike action in 1978 and again in 1979. In 2011, the strikes were led by union bureaucracies, they took place largely in the far less central public sector, they each lasted one day, and their main use was as a negotiating lever to obtain a slightly less worse pensions deal.
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