Unpopular capitalism

Amid the protests taking place in Prague against the International Monetary Fund, pollsters everywhere are detecting a growing anti-corporate mood throughout the major capitalist countries. After years of privatisation, stock market euphoria and propaganda about the wonders of the capitalist market, the pendulum is certainly swinging in the opposite direction.

Amid the protests taking place in Prague against the International Monetary Fund, pollsters everywhere are detecting a growing anti-corporate mood throughout the major capitalist countries. After years of privatisation, stock market euphoria and propaganda about the wonders of the capitalist market, the pendulum is certainly swinging in the opposite direction.

Karl Marx once said that "social being determines social consciousness." As we predicted, years of downsizing and corporate domination are causing a reaction not only amongst the working class, but also in the middle class.

All too often the capitalist media and their shadows in the labour movement, attempt to paint a picture that everything is wonderful in the market economy. For the strategists of capital, the golden economy is piling up wealth and prosperity on an unimaginable scale. Everyone is a winner in this corporate world.

But the growing mood in society is a lot different. This is no more the case than in the citadel of world capitalism, the United States, where ìmarket valuesî have penetrated deep into the national consciousness. Despite nine years of economic expansion in the US, there exists a profound disquiet at the domination of big business, and a growing backlash against the ever-powerful corporations that dominate everyday life. "Amid the good times, Americans feel uneasy", states Business Week. In fact, according to a poll carried out by the magazine, nearly three-quarters of those surveyed think that business has gained too much power over too many aspects of their lives.

The Business Week article continued: "The revved-up New Economy has also left many families feeling overworked and stressed out." One of the key elements in the recent strike at Verizon Communications, where the unions gained a victory, were complaints about stress and compulsory overtime. "At the same time," states the article, "many Americans feel they're not getting their fair share of the riches. The reason: average wages and benefits have outpaced inflation by only 7.6% since the last recession ended in 1992, while productivity has jumped by 17.9%." (Business Week, September 11th, 2000).

The growing intensification of labour, which Marx described as relative surplus value, is having a colossal effect on the outlook of the working class, and also the middle class. The growing levels of stress in the workplace are a reflection of this process, whether it is in the New Economy or the Old Economy. But the squeeze certainly has its limits. Stephen Roach, the chief economist and guru of flexibility, realised this when he warned that this squeeze would prepare a workers' backlash at a certain stage. Part of this ìbacklashî is the growth of anti-corporate feeling.

This process has also taken place within Britain. The Labour landslide in 1997, which represented a political earthquake, was a total rejection of Toryism and all it stood for after 18 years in power. It also represented, in a way, a ìbacklashî against big business and capitalism generally.

In a recent article in the Financial Times entitled ìUnpopular Capitalismî, this reaction to big business is analysed from the point of view of the ruling class. The article sounds a note of warning to its readers. It states that "the economic liberals' conviction that the companies serve the interests of society best by maximising profits does not convince the US public. So, too, with the UK. In a recent Mori poll for the Financial Times, only a quarter of those surveyed thought the profits of large companies a good thing. This compared to half in 1969." (FT, 11/9/2000).

Last year, when the FT first commented on these results, it was very concerned that under Tony Blair there had been no improvement in this outlook: "Worrying for both the business community and the politicians, the growing unpopularity of the profit motive also parallels the privatisation of state assets, begun by the Conservatives in the early 1980s but now accepted by all the main political parties." (FT, 22/2/99).

Since then, privatisation has become even more discredited in Britain. The train disaster at Ladbroke Grove saw support for the renationalisation of the railways in one poll climb to 75%. There is widespread opposition to the privatisation of London Underground and air traffic control. Similarly, there is a general perception that privatisation is blatant asset-stripping, at the expense of the services. It is a license to print money. No one believes a word the privatised utility bosses say anymore on safety or anything else. The overall view is they are fat cat executives, who are only concerned with maximising profits for their shareholders without regard to health or safety of the public.

According to the Business Week poll, 73% of Americans feel that top executives of US corporations are overpaid. In the same poll, two-thirds thought large profits were more important to big companies than providing safe, reliable products.

"Crony capitalism is an understandable public concern," warns the FT. "The legal bankrolling of politicians by big business in the US, another Nader theme adopted by Mr Gore, is a strain on democracy. In murky Europe, big business in France was implicated in the Mitterrand government's illegal funding of Helmut Kohl's Christian Democratic Union in Germany. The alleged vehicle for the transfer of funds in this intriguing case of cross-border cronyism was Elf Aquitaine, the French energy group.

"Still murkier relations between government and business in Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea have led to profound public disillusionment."

The Financial Times forgets to mention the sleaze in Britain under the Tories and the present links of business with the right wing tops of the Labour Party. The Bernie Ecclestone and Mandelson affairs are no one-off experiences. Peerages have been handed out to millionaire businessmen, while others, who have never been elected, have been brought into the government. These blatant manoeuvres, together with the pro-capitalist policies being pursued by Blair have led to widespread disillusionment, especially amongst Labour's core support.

No wonder there is growing panic amongst the serious strategists of capital at this mood of anti-capitalism. "Where will it all lead?" they ask themselves. According to Business Week, "For Corporate America, there is a danger in the new climate: In a word, renewed government regulation. For two decades, market deregulation has fostered competition and lowered many prices. But the pendulum may have swung too far for many citizens, who now take the gains for granted and want to dampen the extremes that can come with unfettered capitalism." (Our emphasis).

Daniel Yankelovich, chairman of pollsters DYG Inc, also warns that: "There's an increased readiness to believe negative things about companies." And this is not only affecting the youth, although they are at the cutting edge of this anti-corporate revolt. "If today's anti-corporate backlash is more low-key than the counterculture of the 1960s, it may be even more dangerous for Corporate America," states Business Week. "Back then, anti-business attitudes were restricted mostly to youth and college students... Today, those Americans angry at corporations cut across generations, geography, and even income groups."

This is a truly remarkable picture ten years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and all the capitalist euphoria that went with it. Wide sections of the American population - working class and middle class - are becoming anti-big business. It is the early reflections of a profound radicalisation that will sweep the United States in the years that lie ahead. It is this that terrifies the representatives of Capital. For his short-term opportunistic electoral interests, even Al Gore is adopting certain anti-corporate rhetoric! So desperate is he for votes, he has stated that Americans must "stand up and say no" to "Big Tobacco, Big Oil, the big polluters, the pharmaceutical companies, the HMOs." However, more interestingly, 74% of those polled by Business Week agreed with his remarks. The BW poll also revealed that 43% believe medical corporations (HMOs) serve their customers poorly. But Gore is playing with fire in stoking up anti-capitalist feelings, and in the future will get his fingers burnt. If elected in November, Gore will drop this radical language like a hot potato, but those who agreed with him will not be so forgetful.

Breaking point

Nevertheless, states the magazine, the greatest threat to the corporations comes from their own workers. "Assaults from citizensí groups are bad enough," says BW, "but for most executives, the most potentially hazardous attitudes lie with their own employees." According to the bourgeois economists, the best economy in 30 years has brought a bounty of jobs and exuberant consumer spending. The competitive wars against Europe and Japan of the 1980s and 1990s have been won. Why then this discontent on the shop floor? Why isn't everybody happy? "Many employees in Corporate America think they're being worked to the breaking point..." explains the magazine.

Last year, 43% of workers at big US corporations said they "find it very difficult to balance my work and personal responsibilities," up sharply from 36% in 1997. Again 44% said that they are "very much underpaid for the work I do," up from 38% two years earlier. At the same time there is growing resentment at soaring profit levels and stratospheric levels of boardroom pay.

Even more telling, Business Week explains that "such feelings reflect the stark discrepancy between the high productivity rate the US economy has achieved in recent years and the slower pace of wage gains. This is one reason an astonishing 40 million employees say they would vote in a union today if given the chance, double the number of a decade ago, according to pollsters Peter D. Hart Research Associates." (Our emphasis).

There is a sea change taking place in the mood of working people in the USA, with union organising drives on the increase in recent years. This is the other side of the American boom. Super profits and squeezing at the bottom has produced a backlash against big business and created more of a pro-union mood. This is also reflected in the high levels of public support for industrial disputes, which is in marked contrast to the 1980s under the Reagan Presidency.

This mood is also beginning to affect the workers in the New Economy, such as telecommunications. The recent union victory at Verizon Communications demonstrated that the idea that the Information Economy would be union-free was a fallacy. Without doubt, the American trade union movement scored a major victory at a company that epitomises the New Economy.

The inheritors of the old Bell system, including Bell Atlantic, AT&T, and SBC, assumed that when they merged with largely non-union cable and cell-phone companies, the non-union parts of the business would eventually supplant the unionised parts. There were certainly union fears about such a possibility, as this actually happened at AT&T, where members of the Communication Workers of America were reduced to 25% of the workforce when the company merged with other cable and wireless operations. In turn, this served to harden AT&T's anti-union stance.

However, recent events have stopped this trend in its tracks. At Verizon Communications, the American unions have succeeded in establishing a foothold in the virgin fields of broadband and wireless. At the centre of the dispute was the union's aim to organise the non-union workers in what used to be GTE and Vodafone. Other issues involved the company's ability to transfer work from union to non-union units, work-control and overtime. These were key grievances in an industry where workers are under pressure to service customers with only a two-second break between calls, and are forced to follow a rigid script.

The two unions involved in organising Verizon, the Communication Workers and the Electrical Workers, now represent 53% of the 250,000 workers employed in the company. At SBC, the union density is even higher.

The willingness of telecom unions to take action - not simply over wages and conditions, but over the future of hi-tech unionism - is opening a new chapter for American labour. It is a clear answer to those who wrote off the working class following the decline of heavy manufacturing industry.

In Britain, a similar process has begun to unfold, beginning with a number of strikes at call centres. Damned as the ìsweat-shops of the 21st centuryî, these workers have been subjected to Fordist production methods superimposed upon the emerging 24-hour service economy. They are at the sharp end of ìtime and motionî techniques pioneered by Frederick Taylor 100 years ago. Impossible targets, understaffing, continuous stress are all part of these modern white-collar factories.

As Sue Fernie, research fellow at the London School of Economics Centre for Economic Performance, put it: "The possibilities for monitoring behaviour and measuring output in call centres is amazing to behold - the tyranny of the assembly line is but a Sunday school picnic compared with the control that management can exercise in computer telephony."

The dispute at BT last year centred on the threat of disciplinary action if workers failed to complete every call within 285 seconds. No wonder that in a number of cases the turnover of labour can be as high as 80%.

As in the USA, stress levels in Britain, also in a boom, have reached record heights. In a recent survey conducted by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, analysing the effects on workers of the constant drive by companies to reduce costs and increase profits, job insecurity has reached its highest level since the second world war.

Lack of trust

Far from finding that job insecurity fell as unemployment fell, research showed that the workplace was permeated with a lack of trust, sense of a loss of control over the pace of work, general anxiety, and a sense that employees were being worked too hard. Despite the campaign by the TUC for 'partnership agreements', only 26% of workers said they believed workers and management were on the same side.

In the survey, more than 60% claimed that the pace of work had increased over the last five years, as downsizing had put pressure on the remaining workers to do more. Half said current staffing levels were inadequate or very inadequate. Again, two-thirds of workers said they always or regularly worked longer than their basic hours; just over 30% of men said they were putting in more than 48 hours a week, and 39% said that the length of the working week had increased over the past five years against 15% reporting that it was now shorter. The European directive on working hours has not made a fundamental difference.

The report also showed a link between job security and health, with workers failing to adjust to the higher levels of stress. "On the contrary, physical and mental well-being continues to deteriorate the longer employees remain in a state of insecurity," states the report.

Last month 300 council workers in Plymouth took strike action over budget cuts, which resulted in an increased workload and stress. The Unison branch secretary Tony Staunton said staff cuts and heavy workloads were placing workers at "considerable risk" of stress and even mental breakdown. "We are pulling people out on strike to protect them from unreasonable work demands," he said.

Royal Mail management has been struggling to impose new 'flexible working' arrangements for years, pushing the workforce at every point. This has resulted in a spate of so-called "wildcat walkouts", usually localised, exploding suddenly and over very quickly. The Post Office accounts for nearly half of all recorded stoppages - 84 of the 195 logged by the Office for National Statistics last year.

But this is a gross underestimate. In the three months from April to June this year, 5,976 working days were lost in 74 disputes at Royal Mail - all except four of them were spontaneous or unofficial walkouts staged without lawful ballots. In 1999-2000, the total number of strikes was greater than the 84 recorded officially; Royal Mail admitting to 210 stoppages (only 27 of them official). In 1998-99, there were 206 (70 official), and in 1997-98, around 337 (176 0fficial).

Eight official one-day strikes in 1996-97, more than 100 unofficial stoppages and another 70-odd walkouts meant that the number of days lost topped the 80,000 mark. Now management are coming back for more! They want to discuss even greater flexible working to handle the increased volume of mail. "In the Post Office, there is hardly a day goes by without something going off," says Steve Jones, a CWU official based at Mount Pleasant in London.

Despite the boom, the growing pressures in work have reached intolerable levels as employers put on the squeeze. The Financial Times once described this as a 'Joyless Boom'. Workers are being forced, with growing insecurity, to work harder and for longer. The British workers work longer hours, take few holidays and get less pay than their European counterparts. Now European bosses are attempting to reduce their workers' standards to British levels, all in the name of competition. It is part of a global squeeze to drain the last drop of surplus value from the labour of the working class. Under the banner of 'competition' and 'free trade', the capitalists are blackmailing workers to engage in a race to the bottom, where there is no finishing line.

It is these conditions, together with the growing reaction to the demands of the 'market economy' and the insatiable desire of the monopolies for greater power and wealth, that are primarily responsible for the changing mood in the USA, Britain, and elsewhere. All this in the longest boom since the second world war! Where is it all leading to?

Anti-market sentiment

The Financial Times recently posed the question bluntly. "But if the anti-market sentiment is so strong when economic growth is robust and globalisation remains far from complete," it asks, "what might happen in a downturn as globalisation grinds on and unemployment figures rise?" (11th September).

This sums up their dilemma. The pendulum has shifted far to the right over the past 20 years. It is set to swing sharply to the left over the coming decade. It is the very conditions of life that come into conflict with the aspirations of the mass of people. A new economic downturn, which is inevitable, will have devastating effects socially, politically and economically. We have already entered a new period of instability on a world scale, as is witnessed in the bombing of Yugoslavia. It is a period of sharp turns and sudden changes. This volatility marks not a rebirth of capitalism, but the opening of a period of revolutionary convulsions on a world scale. The anti-capitalist mood will give way to a pro-socialist outlook as events shake the consciousness of the masses.

This whole episode is a preparation for the entry once again of the working class onto the stage of history. As always they will tend to take the least line of resistance and move through their traditional organisations. These, in turn, will be transformed and retransformed. The Marxist tendency can, on the basis of these events, carve out a decisive position for itself. One victory for the working class in one country will transform the entire world situation. The socialist revolution will be on the order of the day.