Are we beginning to see the red shoots of recovery in the class struggle? It certainly seems that way. The annual conference of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), held in mid-September, approved motions calling for ‘joint industrial action’, and union leaders have promised ‘street protests’ and a campaign of ‘civil disobedience’ to oppose planned government spending cuts. Two-day strikes on London’s Tube network have already taken place. And as the TUC met, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned that America and Europe face the worst jobs crisis since the 1930s and an ‘explosion of social unrest’ unless governments tread carefully.
There’s no way of predicting with any confidence whether this expected ‘explosion’ will go off, or turn out to be a damp squib – it all depends on what millions of people think and decide to do. But the concern on the part of our bosses and rulers is real enough. The unions today may remain weak: membership has declined from 13 million in the early 1980s to just over half that today, according to the Economist, and membership is concentrated in the public sector (57 percent of public-sector workers are unionised compared with just 15 percent in the private). But, as the Economist points out, unions remain an important social movement. Its seven million members are a bigger force than, say, the four million who attend church at least once a month. Along with the concentration of forces in the public sector, this means unions can still ‘cause chaos’ – a transport strike prevents other workers getting to work, for example, and a teachers’ strike sends millions of parents home to look after their children. The Economist concludes from this that there is a vital need to keep the general public ‘onside’ in any conflict – they mean (as if it’s obvious) on the side of business and its government.
And that¹s the media’s job – to wage a propaganda war to make sure everyone’s ‘onside’, The tragedy is that their victory seems assured before the war is even begun. Why? Because alternatives to the system that got us into this mess are simply unthinkable. Even the most radical of the trade unionists, and leftwing commentary generally, did little but offer reforms that the propagandists will have no trouble portraying as unrealistic. If you accept the logic of capitalism, you play by its rules – and by its rules, savage government spending cuts are just necessary and inevitable. By its rules, to fight against cuts and for higher wages is as senseless as trying to shake fruit from a dead tree. Without a decent anti-capitalist argument, and an idea of what we are for, we¹ve lost before we’ve begun.
That’s why socialism is so important. Yes, it is, as we are often told, a ‘nice idea’. But when it takes hold of workers, it could become much more than that. It could become the fertiliser we need if the red shoots of recovery are going to take root, thrive – and blossom in a world beyond capitalism, a world fit for humanity.