Workers and the Crisis - the Limits of Stoicism

By David Tate

1 October 2008

As the Labour Party conference in Manchester closes with Gordon Brown’s job safe - at least for the time being - it’s a pity that the same couldn’t be said for those thousands of workers whose jobs have already gone in construction and for thousands more in the finance sector, whose firms are being merged, or "nationalised."

Alongside the threat of redundancy the spectre of inflation is once again haunting the lives of workers: currently running at 4.9%, and for some items/services well over 10%. It doesn’t take a genius to see that wage rises of some 2 to 3% in actual fact amount to wage cuts. Combined with escalating personal debt, and a significant rise in both mortgage arrears and repossessions, the future for many workers looks increasingly bleak.

Inflation, unemployment and soaring levels of personal debt are bad enough. But when the effects of the credit crunch are added into the mix there is a potentially deadly cocktail of fully blown recession or even full-scale depression. For many commentators the only question is how deep the crisis will it be and how long will it last. Bank of England governor Mervyn King seems to think that two years is a reasonable time frame - an informed guess which might easily prove to be too optimistic, especially if the planned bailout of USA corporate debt fails.

Faced with such desperate times, not only in Britain but also globally, why has there been little evidence of organised resistance from workers? For some commentators on the Far Left the answer lies in the poor leadership of trade union leaders. This perspective sees a bubbling cauldron of workers' anger held in place only by the trade union beauracrats. Commentators of the reformist Left, on the other hand, see workers as having become, for the most part, too well off and complacent to offer resistance to wage cuts/redundancies.

I think that both these views are wrong. In my view, the reason we are not witnessing an upsurge of class struggle is that for many workers react to economic hardship with stoicism rather than resistance. In times of economic recession the dominant narrative utilised by all authorities, be they capitalists, politcians or labour leaders, calls for a state of stoicism to be endured primarily by workers, on the grounds that economic crises are like a force of nature that which come and go like the wind. Workers are told that sacrifices have to be made to ensure that the storm passes with the minimum level of destruction.

Stoicism as a way of ethically enduring hardship by the oppressed class is an integral part of class societies. It ensures that the oppressed class has accepted the dominant mode of production and does not see the need to overthrow it. In contemporary societies this means that, though unhappy with capitalism, workers, as a class, cannot see any viable alternative and so remain in a stoical attitude in regard to their suffering.

However in capitalism, for stoicism not to develop into pessimism and doubt about the sytem's future there has to be policies and interventions that promise to minimise the impact of social problems such as poverty and unemployment on workers, if not actually abolish them. This is what is occurring when Brown talks about putting in place some sort of international regulation of the financial markets through the intervention of the IMF.

What he is unable to see is that the problem is not the lack of regulations. After all, the bourgeoisie who have been benefitting from the lack will find sufficient loopholes to continue benefitting, which will make the regulations eventually be ineffectual (see Andrew Kliman's recent comments in the this journal on Joseph Stiglitz's diagnosis of the current crisis). What Brown is unable to see is what Marx pointed out: the various national bourgeoisies are a band of warring brothers united only by their hatred and fear of their respective working classes. International regulations simply will not work because the bourgeoisie will not introduce measures which will infringe on their ability to increase profits.

It increasingly looks however, that stoicism is being challenged by some workers, at least in the public sector. We have seen calls for the public sector unions to ballot for industrial action against the Labour Government's 2% pay ceiling. Workers are beginning to say that they are no longer prepared to suffer hardships and are beginning to demand freedom from the iniquities of an irrational market which threatens not only their jobs but also their homes. Unfortunately, trade union leaders appear to be defusing this growing mood of militancy, as seen for example with Unison taking the pay claim to binding arbitration by ACAS (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service).

While the unions, as currently organised, defuse militant struggles, the mainstream media seeks to isolate public sector workers from other workers by arguing that if they get above inflation pay rises then this will only further push up inflation. This in turn, they argue, will only lead to a deteriorating situation where wages chase inflation. As socialists we have to reject such arguments and put the counter argument that the reason for rising inflation is that the capitalist class has been doing everything in their power to drive up rates of profit. In fact the share of the overall economy going to wages has gone down this year, as it has every year since 1995.

While these strikes need supporting we also need to ensure that all socialists in their workplaces and communities have the argument with other workers as to why support should be given to those on strike and why all workers are experiencing an increase in alienation. As part of such a process I believe that there is an urgent need to be involved in setting up community based campaigns which can involve all workers and can engage in discussions on workers democracy and how this form of democracy can be used to ensure that resources are directed at providing solutions to problems.

While stoicism endures, the struggle for human emancipation is obstructed. As Hegel pointed, out stoicism existed historically where there was universal fear and bondage. It is this fear that we need to challenge by encouraging a narrative and set of practices that emphasizes the desire for freedom that exists in all human beings. We need to consistently argue that this freedom is unobtainable in a capitalist society be it ’free market’ or state-capitalist and that it can only be achieved through the abolition of capitalism itself through the introduction of a socialist world. This can only occur when workers are self confident and conscious of their desire for freedom.