Saturday, February 23, 2013

A Few Notes on Austerity

There's no doubt that the global economic crisis has precipitated a wave of austerity measures across Europe and North America. As banking crises mutated into sovereign debt crises, austerity has been forced upon working people from California to Catalonia. In "peripheral" European economies, the continued existence of the welfare state---a virtually unchallenged feature of the political landscape for at least a generation---is by no means assured. That wasn't the case before the crisis.

In the United States, we have not faced austerity drives as severe as those faced by the Greek working class, but we are still witnessing historic, unprecedented attacks on basic social programs at the federal level, combined with deep cuts and anti-labor restructuring at the city and state levels.

This would make it easy to think that austerity is a relatively new development---an outgrowth of the crisis that began with the collapse of big banks in late 2007. That, however, would be a mistake, and it's worth reviewing why.

The politics of austerity dates all the way back to the origins of neoliberalism in the early 1970s.  David Harvey's account of this is process is as good as any. He argues that the post-war Keynesian consensus breaks down after stagflation and global recession set in by the early 70s. The fiscal and monetary policies that had prevailed a generation were no longer capable of restoring profitability to a world economy that was in protracted crisis. After a number of fits and starts, a strategy for restoring profits began to emerge.

This new strategy involved, first of all, breaking the power of organized labor in order to push labor costs down, reduce the number of strikes, and drastically speed up production on the shop floor. It also involved eliminating all barriers to the flow of capital across the globe---a move which opened up huge pools of the global industrial reserve army to corporations in core capitalist economies. The rest of the neoliberal package is well-known: deregulation, big tax cuts for business, drastic reductions in social spending, privatization, an emphasis on reducing inflation rather than aiming at full employment, and so forth. These policies weren't confined to specific countries, but were implemented on a global scale---from Deng's China to Thatcher's Britain to Pinochet's Chile. We could continue, but you get the point.

What this makes clear is that austerity has been a permanent feature of the neoliberal era. It has been ratcheted up ten-fold as a result of the crisis, but it is not a new development. The idea that austerity produces growth is a cornerstone of neoliberalism which, although new cracks in the edifice emerge every day, remains the default theory and practice of capitalist states across the globe.

The fact is that the working class all over the globe has, by and large, been enduring austerity for more than 40 years. It has by no means been a one-note symphony---it has varied in form and intensity in different times and places. But austerity is definitely the word we should use to describe the punishing "shock therapy" applied to Russia after the collapse of the USSR as well as to the brutal regimes of "structural adjustment" forced upon Africa, Latin America and elsewhere during the 80s and 90s. (I note, in passing, that Egypt, now the site of intense social struggles with global ramifications, was the first country in the world to undergo IMF-imposed structural adjustment). The same goes for developments in Europe and the US---think, for instance, of Clinton's decision to "end welfare as we know it".

This has important ramifications for understanding social struggles in the context of the current crisis. There have been a number of fights against austerity all over the world since the crisis began. But they have not yet been able to turn the tide. This is, to be sure, a frustrating fact that the left has to soberly assess, but it is less depressing when we keep in mind that we aren't simply organizing against a policy---austerity---that began with the financial meltdown in 2007/08. We are pushing up against a ruling class offensive that has dominated world economic and political affairs for more than four decades. During that time---especially during the "irrationally exuberant", triumphalist years of the 1990s---neoliberalism was, as Perry Anderson put it, on pace to become the most successful ideological/political movement in the history of the planet---more so than any of the major world religions. To expect, as many leftists did, that all of that momentum could be shattered by a few flare-ups of militant class struggle was unreasonable, to say the least.  

This should not be cause for pessimism. Sure, it's true that the left is not on the offensive and it's undeniable that the working class is taking it on the chin all over the globe. But that has been an enduring feature of the whole neoliberal period. What's different about where are today is that the neoliberal configuration is experiencing a deep, protracted internal crisis. This crisis is both structural as well as ideological. Structurally, there is not yet a clear path out of the stagnation and anemic growth brought on by the Great Recession. Overproduction on a world scale and sovereign debt crises in Europe remain unresolved, although temporary solutions have been found. Ideologically, neoliberalism is no longer the ascendant, up-up-and-away set of ideas it was in the mid 1990s. By now, an entire generation has lost confidence in the absurd technophilic triumphalism that underpinned the internet boom of the late 90s. Growing numbers of people see that the notion of the "free market" has always been a facade for the socialization of costs and the privatization of profits. Young people today in the United States say that they look more favorably on "socialism" (49%, according to a recent Pew Poll) than "capitalism" (46%). In 2012, the number one, most highly-searched word on Miriam Webster's website was "socialism". It is by no means unambiguous what these figures mean---or what the participants understand the word "socialism" to mean---but they do show, at the very least, that growing numbers of people are interested in systemic alternatives to what they see around them. We can imagine their reasoning going something like this: if capitalism means war, ecological disaster, insecurity and economic crisis, then it's opposite---socialism---can't be all bad. It stands to reason that the politics of socialism-from-below will continue to be best placed to appeal to young, newly radicalizing people who are unlikely to be inspired by the grey bureaucratic domination of Stalinism and its progeny.

In the United States, we've seen no shortage of resistance---think of Wisconsin, Occupy, the wave of protests against the murder of Trayvon Martin, the successful teachers' strike in Chicago, and so forth. The last four decades have left the labor movement and the left in shambles. Many have no direct memory of what mass movements look like. It is inevitable, therefore, that the first flashpoints in the growing resistance to neoliberalism will be works in progress. A collective learning process will have to occur within the working class whereby it re-gains, by means of these struggles, some of the confidence and militancy that has been shattered by a 40 year class war from above.

This won't happen overnight. But there is more space to build this fight now than there has been in a generation. What looked unassailable 10 years ago is now vulnerable and open to a challenge from below. The future is uncertain, but the potential to re-bulid the left is greater today than it has been since the demise of the movements of the 60s. We should be sober about what has happened since the crisis broke in late '07. But we should not lose sight of the fact that there is an opening today that did not exist for decades. We have to keep that in mind when soberly assessing recent defeats and setbacks in the class struggle.


Monday, February 11, 2013

What do Union Density Figures Actually Mean?

What do union density statistics actually mean? To what extent can we draw sweeping conclusions about our present political period from them?

Union density measures the percentage of the work force that is unionized. Recently, new figures came out which indicate that union density in the United States recently reached a 95-year low point. It would be easy to hastily conclude from this (admittedly depressing) statistic that things are getting progressively worse for the workers movement in the US.

As Chris Maisano at Jacobin has convincingly argued, however, that would be a grave mistake. Increasing union density does not necessarily translate into increasing workers power, and declining union membership does not entail a one-to-one decline in workers power. After all, much depends upon the extent to which rank-and-file workers are organized and activated within the union, among other factors (both subjective and objective).

Consider the example of the Chicago Teachers Union. The CTU has had tens of thousands of members for decades. But only recently has the union been transformed by its members into a rank-and-file-led vehicle that can wield the strike weapon to defend public education. In fact, during the last 10 years, the city of Chicago has closed a number of schools and I would wager that the CTU’s membership declined as a result. But in this case, figures about declining membership hardly mean that the CTU was on the road to decline, veering ever closer to disaster. The result is this: despite the fact that union density in Chicago public education fallen over the last 10 years, the prospect today for a upsurge in rank-and-file-led, social movement unionism among teachers is favorable.

Or, consider an example that Maisano discusses in his piece, namely the fact that union density in France is only 8%---much lower than in the United States. Despite this fact, the French workers movement is in many ways ahead of its American counterpart. The French left has greater implantation in the trade union movement and workers there are often more likely to employ militant tactics, disruptive forms of protest, and so on. But you wouldn’t necessarily know this from keeping tabs on union density figures.

Consider another of Maisano's examples: New York State, which has extremely high union density figures---23% overall and more than 70% in the public sector. Despite these impressive figures, public sector workers have been forced by Gov. Cuomo (D) to accept concession after concession. This should lead us to ask: what will it take to transform these unions into organs of struggle for their workers and what role can we play in making that a reality? I fail to see how a schematic narrative about terminal decline---grounded on a faulty interpretation of the significance of union density figures---gives us any traction here. A far more fruitful approach would be to look at what militant teachers in the CTU did and try to generalize lessons for the left and for the labor movement writ large.

One more example. As Steve Early discusses in his excellent book Civil Wars in US Labor (Haymarket Books: 2011), SEIU added thousands upon thousands of members in the 1990s and early 2000’s. Now you might think that this entailed a general upswing in workers power and class consciousness. You’d be wrong. As Early shows in the book, much of that growth in union density was built on an edifice top-down business-unionism and aggressive pro-Democrat electioneering.

Yet, in spite of declining union density because of public sector layoffs, the prospects today for a working-class fightback are far greater than they were during the early 2000’s. Again, we see that the meaning of union density statistics is hardly as obvious as some leftists would have us believe. The real problems are more complex and abstract hand-wringing about declining union membership does little more than paper over them and encourage an unjustifiable pessimism about what's possible today.

Without struggle the labor movement withers on the vine. There are no irreversible gains in the class struggle. When militant action from below declines, so does the energy that enables the labor movement to tread water (let alone advance forward). Conditions today are making workers more and more open to militant, disruptive tactics (such as illegal strikes and sit-downs and all the rest) as well as radical politics. That won't erase overnight the lacerations of 40 years of class war from above. But it's reason to think that there is more possibility today for working class struggle than there has been in decades.