The youth of today have no tangible stake in the preservation of capitalism. The failure to provide any kind of future for young people has resulted in a cry of despair which is the death knell of any social system. Such a phenomenon is present in all the recent episodes of social explosion, from the austerity riots in the UK and Sweden, to the youth movements of Greece and Spain, and of course the great Arab revolutions.
After five years of this crisis, one which is likely to continue for years if not decades, our generation is now faced with a serious choice, fight or flight? Asked to accept falling wages, rising prices, a lack of jobs or real education and declining prospects generally, young people, more than anyone else, have nothing to lose but their chains.
Unemployment and zero hours
A sharp indication of the future we can expect was the recent admission by the UK government that people toiling under the notorious zero hour contracts has quadrupled to over a million workers. Zero-hour contracts, which could also be translated as “zero rights contracts”, guarantees workers nothing, whilst liberating the employer from all those pesky obligations such as a holiday or sick pay, or the provision of regular hours and any possibility of job security to the workers.
Taking advantage of the rise in youth unemployment, and therefore the greater demand amongst this layer for jobs, the majority of such “zero-hour” workers are drawn from the 18-25 age group, thus affecting the youth disproportionately. Like most temporary, seasonal and part time jobs, it has the added effect of depriving the worker of the security needed to freely form unions which can help improve their conditions and lives.
As usual, attempts by the government and business leaders are made to justify these semi-serf-like contracts. They argue that they increase flexibility for both the employer and the worker, but in reality they merely provide employees with nothing but the obligation to meet the employers’ needs. In other words: flexibility for the boss. However, the rise of such contracts is just a drop in the ocean when considered alongside the other measures deployed to make life easier for business owners.
Whilst workers rights are quietly eroded, the media, with the approval of the government, festively announces the arrival of the fabled green-shoots. Unemployment slightly down! Growth slightly up! All apparently is well, or will be, but these attempts barely mask a still serious situation.
Effectively hiding real unemployment figures, the UK has seen a massive increase in the number of workers under-employed; that is in part-time and temporary work. The University of Stirling recently revealed that under-employment rose from 6.2% in 2008 to 9.9% in 2012. The rate is 30% for 16 to 24 year olds. Once again the young are affected the most. Along with those on zero hour contracts, workers stuck in this bracket face a nightmarish situation of trying to maintain a budget, whilst rent, energy and food prices are constantly increasing (according to the UK essentials index, inflation on important goods has risen an incredible 33% from 2008 – 2012!). All this with minimal paid work.
Alongside this, wholesale statistical trickery has been utilised by governments since Thatcher in order to artificially lower the official unemployment figures. The manipulations include:
Redefining unemployment – Originally the figure included those who registered as unemployed, now redefined as those who claim unemployment benefits, disqualifying the unemployed who, for various reasons, do not claim benefits.
Cutting benefit entitlement – Thereby excluding many from claiming and therefore being registered as unemployed.
“Workfare” doesn't count – Those forced to work for free or lose their benefits are no longer deemed unemployed!
Disability and incapacity doesn't count – An estimated 900,000 have been transferred to incapacity benefits instead of unemployment benefits, further lowering the official figures.
When the evidence is all taken into account, we are left with the worrying truth that an overwhelming majority of young people in the UK are in fact unemployed or very close to unemployment, gaining no real experience and therefore barred from `getting on´ never mind getting by. This is further accentuated in local areas where the industrial bases have been wiped out, such as the Midlands, the North, Scotland and Wales.
Alongside the creeping commodification of public education and the collapse in graduate jobs, we can start to see how the noose is tightening on our generation’s neck.
The crisis of capitalism
The question therefore must be posed in the sharpest terms. What is in it for us? Why we should support such a set up?
Perhaps more than any other generation in history, the question of an alternative, of a society fit for purpose, is knocking at our doors. Instead of a system that demands the selling of the youth, we demand one that can utilise our potential. We need and must fight for a system that can provide economic and social security for youth and workers of all ages, free education, public services, the right to decent fulfilling work, with a living wage, sick and holiday considerations and reasonable hours to free us for engaging in other important aspects of life.
However, to cure the sickness we must understand the cause and not just the symptoms. We must understand that this crisis has not fallen out of the sky but has arisen from very real, material circumstances rooted in the class nature of capitalist society.
The only serious attempt that has been made at understanding society from a scientific stance has been the materialist method of Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels. They understood that capitalism is crisis ridden and will organically go into deep slumps thanks to the division of society into classes. To speak in Marxist terms, the proletariat – workers, those who have no productive property but their own labour which they sell for wage - are exploited two-fold by the bourgeoisie – capitalists, the class that owns production, factories, companies etc - once by only being paid a wage that is a fraction of the value that they produce and then again when they go to the shop and have to pay inflated prices.
All this extra value the capitalist keeps, and has been given the infamous name: profit. Furthermore to increase profits, capitalists are forced by competition with one another to produce as many goods as possible whilst also driving down costs, principally wages.
Marxism asks a simple question, what happens when more and more value is transferred from the worker to the capitalist across the system as a whole? The result is crisis. Workers do not have the money to pay for all the goods produced and sooner or later the whole set up fails. We call this the crisis of overproduction: a crisis of capitalism itself.
These are Marxist explanations, secure in their scientific concreteness and vindicated time after time through historical events. In any revolutionary situation a correct grasp of theory can provide the key to success.
Currently we are living through such a crisis as defined by Marx over 150 years ago. This time it has been accentuated by the ridiculous explosion in credit and financial speculation that was used to pave over the previous slump of the 70s and 80s.
On top of this, capitalism across the world has long been exhausting itself of any real progressive possibilities. You don't need to be a Marxist to recognise this. Scientific and technological advancements have reached their peak under capitalism, a fact determined by the need to link investment in research to a profitable outcome. Once the harbinger of the railways, vaccines and vast improvements in industry, agriculture etc., now we have only new version of the iPad every year, high food costs, and closing factories, with no real progress in pharmaceuticals, the winding up of the space programme, delays in renewable energy technologies, etc.
The current crisis is not an ordinary slump but an organic fault of a decaying system which no longer has anything to offer. Laden with debt, high unemployment, poverty, wars and with no real future of its own, the defenders of capitalism look for a way out, the only way they know how, through transferring its losses onto the shoulders of the working class along with the youth of today and tomorrow. Marxist analysis allows us to see the impasse clearly. Again the question must be asked? What is worth saving here? Furthermore, how can we fight back and improve the situation?
How to fight back
The workers and youth have faced many attacks in the past; indeed most, if not all, of the ´privileges´ that we are asked to give up, were won by workers organisations engaged in mass struggle. We still have trade unions and a mass political party in the form of the Labour Party, which arose out of these historic battles. These massive organisations of millions are the organisational weapons of the united working class, with the potential to rally workers and youth in mass struggle once more.
However these mass organisations have not been untouched by the previous decades of boom and many of the leaders are the most vocal supporters of capitalist exploitation. The demoralising effect these leaders have had in the past, along with concessions in workplaces from the previous period, has led to a steady emptying out of these organisations. Taking advantage of the axiom “in still water, the scum rises to the top”, many careerists and right-wingers have carved out positions for themselves at the top.
These professional politicians assure us that once the crisis is over we will be handed everything back with a bow on top. Not only would any trade unionist with any experience in a dispute see through this laughable promise, but the prospects of a real recovery in the UK, are very dim indeed. Of course even if this were true, it is not much comfort to the youth who presumably must wait for old age before beginning their lives.
Since the crisis began in 2008, the work of these careerists has, however, become tougher. Trade union membership is once again on the rise due to the jump in attacks that working people are facing and the corresponding rise in strikes. The number of union members entering into disputes with the bosses and their government has led to pressure on the leadership and a resulting pull to the left. The General Secretary of Unite, Len Mclusky, has correctly called for a general strike; this call, which has been met with enthusiasm from the ranks, should be seen in correlation to this pressure from below.
In the Labour Party, political developments have been slower to appear, but signs are beginning to shine through the Blairite darkness. Due to its links with the unions, mobilised workers are starting to demand that the party of labour stick up for them. This process was seen clearly this summer in Falkirk when the selection process for the next parliamentary candidate was split openly along class lines, with trade unionists facing off with the Blairite party leadership. These battles are likely to be repeated over and over, and on a higher level, undermining the basis of the right-wing within the tops of the party.
Yet since 2008, no concrete action has been taken to fight off the attacks of the ConDem government. The Labour leaders do not want to fight and have openly declared themselves in favour of cuts and against mass action, thereby abdicating their right to lead the labour movement. Even the leaders who have responded to the pressure from below and moved to the left are still wedded to the capitalist system.
This is a result of the ideological inability of reformism to offer a realistic alternative. Still living in the previous epoch of the credit fuelled boom, they believe that the alternative to cuts is to simply reform the current system by taking on more debt, printing and spending more money and taxing the rich.
The impression they offer here is that there is no crisis! All the problems of unbelievable debt and the credit bubble collapsing around us are just an “ideological” Tory plot to cut services.
But the crisis of capitalism is very real and can be seen all over the world. Governments of the Left and Right are committing themselves to austerity, attempting in vain to defend profitability, and uphold their debt obligations - in other words, preserving the property and prospects of the capitalists.
The simple truth is that if you respect property, and the system that enshrines that property in law, then you must also accept that the debts must be repaid, hence the need to make cuts. Therefore these reformists are on a road that would lead them - if brought to power - to betray the people who empowered them.
This perspective was seen recently in France, where President Hollande won a victory on an anti-austerity ticket, he is now savagely cutting away just like all other capitalist governments. Therefore a genuinely alternative programme to the current impasse is needed; one that is bold and radical enough to shake off the prejudices of the past and the slavish worship of the status quo; a programme that questions capitalism itself and accuses it off being the root cause of crisis and misery. For this task, the youth, who have the most to lose, are perfectly situated. Socialist Appeal is fighting for such a programme and asking these important questions.
What's the alternative?
What if the labour movement had a leadership worthy of its name? It could organise a real campaign against the government of the rich, beginning with a one day general strike to mobilise all layers in society. With a bold programme, the power of our class could be unleashed with enormous force; alongside unionised workers, the millions of casual, part-time and zero hour contract workers, not to mention the vast sea of the unemployed, could be mobilised to join the fight back.
No more cuts, but an expansion of public works instead; a massive housebuilding programme; new schools, hospitals, and vital services; an end to unemployment with a shortened working week and a living wage; free education at all levels; for the nationalisation of the top 150 monopolies as a first step towards building a democratic and socialist economy: what if such a programme was demanded by the movement? Would it not quickly sweep aside the rotten coalition government?
Oversees, in Europe and beyond, the workers and youth engaging in their own struggle would be suddenly be provided with a real alternative; one worth fighting for, and one that would soon see the establishment of socialism internationally.
Now more than any time in history is has become necessary to win people to Marxist ideas and construct an organisation capable of championing a society fit for purpose. In this epoch of crisis and revolution which we have now entered, it is the youth who will determine the future.