2009: recession and class struggle

As the year draws to an end, Terry McPartlan looks back at a turbulent 2009. The world capitalist crisis began to dramatically affect hundreds of millions of workers throughout the entire world, who in turn started to fight back with strikes and factory occupations.

2009 will be remembered above all as the year that the political and social fallout from the world capitalist crisis began to dramatically affect hundreds of millions of workers throughout the entire world.

But it began with the savage Israeli invasion of Gaza. Millions watched in anger as the Israeli army fought a grossly one-sided war against the Palestinians. At least 1,400 Palestinians were slaughtered while only 13 Israelis were killed. Four of these were killed by so-called friendly fire, although the Palestinians no doubt didn’t think it was friendly. The invasion sparked mass protests which demonstrated the fact that, in the world of the internet and 24 hour news, the crimes of imperialism are a lot more difficult to cover up.

But of course everything was apparently about to change with the inauguration of Barack Obama. It’s probably true to say that no other US President in history (including JFK) has ever come into office with so many hopes riding on him. Many of those aspirations and expectations have been cruelly dashed over the past months as US unemployment has continued to rocket, standing now at 15.1 million. As it appears from the last set of elections, the Apathy Party has begun to gain ground.

Banking Crisis

Photo by publik16 on flickrThe consequences of the banking crisis have revealed themselves as a slump. As we’ve explained elsewhere, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79 didn’t wipe out Pompeii. It was the fallout of ash afterwards that choked the people. Throughout the world, companies have been falling like ninepins. In Britain unemployment is approaching 3 million and tragically 1 million of these are young people under the age of 25. But that’s not the end of it and next year could see the rate rising to 4 million. As might be expected, figures like these don’t engender a warm, loving feeling towards the government and New Labour’s woes only increased in the June local and European elections. Large swathes of what were previously Labour heartlands have now turned a murky shade of blue and yellow with victories by the Tories and LibDems. The stench of privatisation in these councils is more reminiscent of the sort of bile and brimstone of the Thatcher years. It was 25 years since the beginning of the miners’ strike in March this year, a timely reminder of what a Tory victory nationally would really mean for workers.

New Labour’s star is on the wane. Murdoch’s Sun has now nailed itself to the Tory mast and the days when Tony Blair and Mandelson were the toast of News International editors and the bosses are long gone. The MPs’ expenses scandal, though it affected all parties, inevitably served to further discredit New Labour as the party in government.

It is to the eternal shame of Blair, Brown and New Labour that tens and even hundreds of thousands of Labour voters just don’t bother turning out to vote at the moment. After all, the right wing of the party has had 12 years with a huge parliamentary majority but, far from squeezing the rich, Blair and Brown have frustrated many workers with their pro-business policies. A minority of disillusioned workers have turned to the racist programme of the BNP. Griffin and another BNP candidate managed to get elected to the European Parliament, but what was most noticeable in those elections was the abstention rate. The reformist/nationalist programme presented by the Communist Party of Britain and Socialist Party’s NO2EU campaign received a derisory vote, proving that there are no short cuts to fighting in the official labour movement for a socialist programme. This socialist programme is also necessary to undermine the BNP and send them scuttling back under their stones. We saw a glimmer of that fighting approach in November in Glasgow with the campaign against the ‘Scottish Defence League’.

But despite the lack of movement on the political front, the workers have moved towards industrial struggle instead. Notable in 2009 has been the reappearance of factory occupations in Britain. Socialist Appeal readers will be familiar with the wave of occupations in Latin America, but it’s been a long time since we saw factory occupations here. In fact the first examples of occupations in these islands weren’t in Britain, but in Ireland. The workers of Waterford Crystal took over the factory after management announced it was going to close.

Visteon workers occupy plant in BritainVisteon workers occupy plant in Britain Factory occupations are different to strikes. They are on a higher level and require the active support of the workers outside. The occupation at Waterford Crystal eventually ended after the company effectively held a gun to the workers’ heads, threatening them that they would lose their pensions unless a buy-out went through. But the political lessons weren’t lost on workers in the Belfast Visteon plant who occupied their plant when it was threatened with closure. The Visteon occupations spread to Basildon and Enfield, and a few months later the Vestas workers on the Isle of Wight took the same line when their plant came into the firing line. These occupations were crisis measures by workers who stood to lose everything, but who weren’t prepared to go down without a fight.

Depth of recession

While the depth of the recession forced many workers to take a sharp intake of breath in 2008, what’s been noticeable in 2009 has been sections of workers taking a stand against job losses and pay cuts. This was particularly the case with the construction workers at Lindsey who took on the bosses after they had tried to undermine their national trade union agreement. Despite a virulent campaign in the press, which tried to present the strike as a battle around “British Jobs for British workers”, the management were forced to back down in the face of solid united strike action. Just recently the postal workers have been involved in a series of strikes against Post Office privatisation, backed up by an absolutely solid strike ballot result. These struggles have fed through into the trade unions themselves, most notably in Jerry Hicks’ support in the Amicus-Unite General Secretary election.

Enormous movement against the electoral fraud in Iran. Photo by Hamed Saber.Enormous movement against the electoral fraud in Iran. Photo by Hamed Saber. In a sense 2009 represented the passing of one political period and beginning of the next. It was the end of the series of fireworks associated with the banking crisis and little old ladies queuing up outside Northern Rock, and a period where workers began to draw their conclusions from the political and economic crisis that they found themselves in. There are big changes in workers’ consciousness taking place under the surface and big struggles and class conflicts are being prepared, not just in Britain, but on a global level. Three international examples stand out. On the one hand the enormous movement against the electoral fraud in Iran, which has refused to die down despite repression by the state. From Iran’s history: the revolutionary movement of 1979 demonstrates that the Iranian working class are quite capable of toppling even the most heavily armed regime. On the other hand the mass movement in Honduras against the coup that toppled Mel Zelaya reveals the weakness of reaction. Despite the farcical agreement signed recently, the working class, properly prepared and mobilised, could potentially overthrow the illegitimate government provided that the correct leadership is present. In Venezuela the Bolivarian movement continues to develop and the next period will see the strengthening of the PSUV, the mass party led by Chavez. Sooner or later the Bolivarian Revolution needs to move forward and challenge capitalism in Venezuela, and then in the whole of Latin America, if it is to succeed.

Limits of Imperialism

The limits of imperialism are further revealed in the ongoing war in Afghanistan, which has now spread into Pakistan. The conflict is proving a huge drain on US and British resources - and for what? The recent elections have proven to be a farce with widespread irregularities, and neither Karzai nor the Taliban offer any solution for the masses. If the health of a society is reflected in the way that its women are treated, then Afghanistan looks to be on life-support for decades to come. The only solution for the workers and peasants of Afghanistan lies in a socialist federation in South Asia. That can only come about through the strength and combativity of the South Asian working class.

As 2009 reaches its conclusion across the Middle East, Asia, South America, the ruined European economies and the USA, millions of workers are looking for a way out of the misery of capitalist crisis. Capitalism has reached an impasse. The capitalist crisis has seen a bigger collapse in production than in 1931 but, given the growth of the world market and the interpenetration of the capitalist economies, its political ramifications will echo around the whole of the globe for years. We have a world economy, a world market and world politics. A successful socialist revolution in one major country would have a dramatic effect and would act as a beacon for the entire world. Latin America has been the epicentre of huge movements over the past few years, but the effect of the crisis means that the potential to transform society along socialist lines exists all over the world.

World socialism would allow us to transform the lives of millions of people, to plan the harmonious development of society and to lift whole continents out of misery. It would see an end to the horrors of capitalism, sectarianism and poverty, starvation and disease. That’s a big prize.