Resumption of the exploitation of the labour force
Resumption of the class struggle
Resumption of mass movements of political protest
In issue 171 of Échanges (Summer 2020) under the title “Le grand nettoyage du printemps” [The Great Spring Cleaning], we had emphasized how providential the unexpected and unpredictable irruption (no conspiracy theory) had been for world capital in enabling it, through the confinement of populations and national barriers around the world, to put an abrupt end to a whole series of diverse struggles and mass demonstrations that, at the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020, were increasingly sweeping the planet, threatening to become a truly international movement.
The “Great White Tornado” of Covid19 seemed to be able to put all these resistances aside and replace them with new struggles around this disease, struggles to adapt to the pandemic that had nothing to do with political demonstrations against the existing powers or with the class struggle against the exploitation of the labor force. But it was in fact a regression in the level of struggles compared to the situation prior to the expansion of Covid-19.
We can recall the global state of this multifaceted protest at the end of 2019, when the premises of the pandemic were developing in the Wuhan region of China.
The United States had just emerged from a forty-day strike at all General Motors plants, a strike that had somewhat cowered the multinational, forcing the other American automobile multinationals into alignment, under threat of being affected by work stoppages as well. A teachers’ movement, which had been going on for months, persisted along with many other local conflicts in the hotel, coal mine, food and fast food industries. By 2018, the country had seen the highest number of strikers in 30 years.
Many Latin American countries are experiencing strikes and mass political movements. At the end of 2019, Chile was shaken by recurrent strikes and demonstrations (some with millions of participants) that were severely repressed (11 deaths and 2,000 arrests).
From Ethiopia to the Philippines, as in all of South Asia, waves of strikes affected the garment sector in particular, not to mention other local movements such as the Iranian women’s movement or struggles in various sectors as in India. Indonesia was shaken by recurrent strikes and demonstrations. And the Middle East was practically on fire and blood, not only with the Syrian conflict, but with mass demonstrations in Lebanon, workers riots and demonstrations in Iraq (1), strikes in Iran and even in Israel political protest was in the streets.
In France, the strikes around the retreats persisted, supported by other local strikes and the Yellow Vests movement could not be stopped. Other European countries had their share of protests and strikes, and spontaneous internationalism was beginning to develop around climate change and women’s action against sexual harassment. Even if the repression might seem to contain what might appear to be an uncoordinated offensive against capital, the fact remained that leading economic circles and their political servants could express concern about the uncertain future of all these challenges to the system. In many of these conflicts, national or religious barriers seemed to be on the verge of breaking down (such as the youth movement against climate change or the women’s movement or the unanimity of the population as in Iraq or Lebanon).
Could the worldwide instrumentalization of Covid-19 make it possible to curb this generalization of oppositions?
With regard to this threat of the generalization of various contestations of the capitalist hold, one can never underline enough the instrumentalization of Covid-19 which allowed the States to take control of the activity of individuals in the smallest actions of their lives.
This instrumentalization has everywhere taken two distinct forms: one direct, in the various forms of individual or collective constraints, and the other much more insidious — vicious, one might say, by making people believe that economic activity is at its lowest ebb, in order to allow restrictions to be imposed on the conditions of exploitation of the labour force.
Recent GDP figures have shown that this rate has fallen by less than 10%, which means that productive activity in France has been running at 90% of its annual average, which also means that this single form of surplus value formation has not been seriously affected and that, overall, the productive economy is not doing so badly *) – and that there is no need to change anything at all. Everyone can verify in their own environment that during this period practically all the factories, from very small enterprises (VSEs) to large units, have continued to operate without any serious hiccups. If any other proof were needed, it would be enough to consider that there was not – except around Covid-19 – any disruption in the supply of goods, which means that the productive economy continued to run.
So why all this campaign for a “recovery” that would require “sacrifices” for the workers? The sectors affected by the crisis of Covid-19 are the non-productive sectors where, in one way or another, part of the surplus value is consumed (social, cultural, sporting activities, etc.) and the present instrumentalization consists in letting people believe that this sectoral crisis concerns the whole economy, which would require drastic measures on the whole production process.
It can also be observed that the fall in this non-productive sector has led, not to a decline in fact, but to transfers of this part of consumption of surplus value to other sectors, mainly the GAFA, due to the demented multiplication of the use of social media (teleworking, home schooling, cultural activities on social media, etc.). A form of delocation in a way.
It does not seem necessary to go into detail about these more minor state interventions, as everyone knows when trespassing his own doorstep and can know the size and nature of these constraints, but while in industrialized countries with strong state structures, this control is almost total (with differences according to national policies and the fact that states with dictatorships are ahead of the rest), this is not the case in developing countries, where state controls are less established (even if the form of government may suggest this). It is thus that while in the industrialized countries state control proved effective in the virtual elimination of struggles and movements in the spring of 2020, and their confinement to the struggles around Covid-19 alone, the same is not true in many other countries which see the continuation of existing struggles, to which those around Covid-19 may be added, appear from this time on.
At the beginning of May 2020, while the industrialized countries can boast of controlling the situation at the price of a blockade of the economy, an article in the Financial Times (May 4, 2020) can point out that “workers in middle-income countries are struggling to survive in the economic confusion”. In fact, since the beginning of 2020 and despite the measures taken around Covid-19, the existing struggles in these countries have not ceased, whether in Lebanon, Iran, Bangladesh, Iraq, India, Indonesia or Sri Lanka. There, the measures taken to deal with the pandemic had no effect. But for the developed countries, it was only a postponement because no one could foresee what would happen after the “divine surprise”. This instrumentalization of Covid-19 began to crack and increasingly proved to be inoperative. State intervention carried with it a fundamental contradiction: on the one hand, through its control and its measures reducing each to his or her individuality, it could hope to break any collective movement; on the other hand, pushing for an economic development of what had been preserved by necessity in the apparatus of production, this intervention (notably through financial aid) recreated collectivities and significant resistance. Class struggles and political demonstrations resumed after a few months of confinement, although it can be assumed that these class and/or political resistances were woven in the shadows and forced silence before appearing in broad daylight.
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly where, when and how this resumption of class struggle and political demonstrations is taking place, as many of them are masked by the media frenzy around the virus.
For the class struggle, it can be said that the specific reactions are largely class responses to the use of the situation of extreme division of proletarians in the confinement of companies as a whole in an attempt to impose working conditions that go back on previous achievements.
If from May 13 Le Monde can title “La colère sociale couve sous le virus” (Social anger smoulders under the virus), this reflection does not only apply to France, but to the whole world.
As for political clashes, it is often difficult to define the participants because on the one hand they may involve the extreme right and the extreme left, and the motivations may be for or against containment, against or for state intervention, for or against the police state.
On May 16 in Stuttgart, for example, demonstrations against the “police state” will be held every Saturday with between 50 and 5,000 participants.
But on the same terrain of the struggle against police violence, a worldwide explosion will fuel the justified concerns of all leaders regarding the development of global resistance movements. A spontaneous movement, in line with other international movements, organized or not, that may have existed before the rise of Covid-19: on May 25 in the United States, in Minneapolis, a police officer coldly murders an African-American by strangulation. This provokes not only, as usual, a local explosion of anti-racist and anti-police violence, but also the expansion of the movement that appeared a few years ago under the slogan “Black lives matter”, which is spreading not only in the United States but practically all over the world, in a totally spontaneous way, as a premonition of other international movements that may arise in the future. From June 2 to June 8, this “Black lives matter” movement thus extends from London to Sydney, covering practically the whole world. In the United States, the actions related to it will become almost daily, with a climax in the city of Portland, where clashes with a federal agency still broke out in mid-September. On September 7, there will still be nearly 90,000 protesters in 74 counties.
It is difficult to say whether this movement has consequences, in many developing countries, in the resurgence of already existing movements or in the emergence of new resistances, although in others such as Algeria, Tunisia, the extension of Covid-19 leads to a weakening of protest and allows for increased repression. Still, from mid-June, mass political protest movements will be reborn as they existed before the pandemic. And this is happening all over the world: Riots in Colombia in Bogotá (until September); disturbances in Ethiopia that will last for months, or signs of protest in Thailand, which will turn into a political movement to challenge the monarchical regime itself, involving a marching wing of students and the entire population; mass demonstrations in Lebanon, which will begin on June 11 but will take the tragic turn known to all; a powerful mass movement in Belarus, giving rise to an organized opposition that will find the support of the workers – they will go on strike especially in the state-owned enterprises – and that will be part of the international concert of relations with Russia; demonstrations in Russia itself, in distant Siberia – on June 28, between 50,000 and 100,000 demonstrators protested in Khabarovsk against the arrest of the regional governor opposing Putin; a series of demonstrations in Iran, in July; daily mass demonstrations have been repeated in Bulgaria for the past two months against the ruling power, which would like to revise the constitution in order to maintain it.
The scale and generalization of such movements of political protest somewhat mask the facts and gestures of the class struggle which, beyond the struggles around Covid-19, are going to accompany all the productive activities, those which had not ceased and those which are gradually resuming.
Who mentions that in Portland, a city that is also widely talked about, the 200 or so workers at the Bath Shipyard [?, Bath at the east coast, Portland at the west coast; translators note] are back to work with a new contract after 63 days of strike action? Around the world, this visible renewal of class struggle is just as much masked after the media frenzy around Covid-19. In Brazil, which had already experienced a wildcat strike of 3,000 workers at a tire factory in Sao Paulo on June 8, all the workers of Correios (Brazilian postal service) were on strike on September 7 in their fourth week against a wage reduction and a privatization project. In London, on July 3, the Tower Hamlet district authorities fired 400 striking municipal employees, only to rehire them on inferior conditions to those they had previously had. In the United States, in order to force the approximately 40 million unemployed back to work, there is talk of eliminating an additional $600 per month per week in extra compensation.
In Iran, on August 21, the entire oil and chemical industry entered its third week of strike action. In India, strikes and demonstrations are recurrent in virtually all sectors of the economy. In Colombia, coal miners began their third week of strike action in mid-September. And who is talking about the riots that broke out several nights in a row in the working class neighbourhoods of various cities in the Netherlands at the beginning of September? **)
If these strikes by workers for their working conditions are repeated around the world, they are just as masked as the effects of climate change:
if we talk about the drought and high temperatures in France or the forest fires throughout the American West, who is talking about the floods in Southern Sudan?
the recurrence of tornadoes in the central and southern United States, particularly in Louisiana where a hurricane proved to be almost as devastating as Katrina in early September?
of floods on 6 September in Great Britain in Swansea, on 8 September in Afghanistan (70 dead), on 10 September throughout Southeast Asia, on 11 September in Senegal, on 13 September in Nepal (30 dead), on 14 September in Vietnam (9 dead), on 15 September in Indonesia (4 dead, 2,000 displaced), in Cape Verde, Mauritania (with deaths)?
ÉCHANGES 172 AUTUMN 2020
Translation from French by F.C., 23-11-2020
_____notes added by the author_____
- « Irak, de l’émeute à l’impossible réforme », de Tristan Leoni.
- « Tempête sur l’Asie », de Jacques Chastaing.
_____notes added by the translator_____
*) Remark by G. Bad in Échanges: “I would be more cautious than H.S. about the fact that the factories are running, see on this subject the serie of factory closures…”
**) Some meagre ‘background articles’ in the Dutch press, that are generally hardly worthy of the name: