Crisis and Class Struggle: The American Way

Pratyush Chandra

If we have to name a single industry prototypical of post-second world war capitalism, which to a large extent defined the nature and range of economic activities in this period, the choice would undoubtedly be the automobile industry. With the financial crisis finally taking its toll over this industry (especially the Detroit Three – GM, Chrysler and Ford), the crisis has almost acquired a general character. The most interesting aspect of this long impending collapse in the automobile industry is its bearing for the industrial regime that will evolve out of the present crisis – this will largely depend on the balance between the forces (classes and their agencies) which will see through this process of restructuring. The bailout package has already been declared and it aims to completely disarm the workers, that too with the assent of their own unions.

A foremost business magazine, The Economist (‘A Giant Falls’, June 4 2009) while assessing “where did it all go wrong”, found the “insupportable burden” of its commitments to workers (that they wrested through decades of their struggle) as the single most important factor that led to the bankruptcy of General Motors, the collapse of the American pride. So obviously the general consensus is being created that these commitments were not justified. It was a case of “mismanagement and decline”. Thus, “the auto unions, themselves once emblematic of what workers could achieve within capitalism, have been reduced to lobbying to save “their” companies, and a decades-long trend in private-sector labor negotiations has now confirmed collective bargaining as having shifted from demands by workers to demands on workers.” (Herman Rosenfeld, ‘The North American Auto Industry in Crisis’, Monthly Review, June 2009)

General Motors (GM), that shaped the American way of life and economy for so many decades, is bankrupt, now, and Obama has alighted to save it. The bankrupt capitalists hid themselves behind the State which is determined to save the “American way of life”. Such determination can be fruitful only under the condition of some sort of social corporatism – through the state-sponsored or negotiated peace among capitalists, and between workers and capitalists. The first reproduces a capitalist-class-for-itself, while the second submits the workers to the logic of capital accumulation and the competitive needs of “their” employers. Didn’t Gramsci teach us that corporatism (or consensus) is the only alternative, besides coercion, for dealing with the crisis of legitimation and accumulation in capitalism?

Around 90 years back, in October 1920, a crisis had struck another giant automobile company, Fiat, in Turin (Italy). To counter the militancy of Italian workers, evident in the tremendous Workers’ Councils and factory occupation movements, the Fiat management had offered a scheme of co-operation, which the workers summarily rejected. Gramsci and his comrades understood the designs of the State and Fiat behind their ideology of co-operation – to get the workers at their mercy. The Turin Communists understood that within this scheme, “[t]he workforce will necessarily have to bind itself to the State … through the activity of working class deputies…. The Turin proletariat will no longer exist as an independent class, but simply as an appendage of the bourgeois State. Class corporatism will have triumphed, but the proletariat will have lost its position and role as leader and guide.” (Quoted in Antonio Gramsci, ‘Some Aspects of the Southern Question’, Pre-Prison Writings, Cambridge University Press, 1994, 325-326)

Where Italian premier Giolitti could not succeed, Obama has succeeded. The “working class deputies” in the US have ultimately bound the workforce to the State and the bourgeoisie, right at the time of a crisis, a moment that Marx and Engels acknowledged as “one of the most powerful levers in political upheavals”. Crisis indeed is a moment for heightening class struggle. Why not? If capitalism itself is shaped through open and hidden struggle between capital and labour, then should the moment of crisis be left out from this fight? At least capitalists are not going to do that; they know the meaning of the crisis – now or never! And in the absence of any strong labour movement, they know it is an opportunity not to be lost.

There are diagnoses and recipes going around to save the ‘economy’ from the deepening crisis, as if the economy in itself is something neutral, and we can struggle over its colour once it is saved. Even when capitalism is blamed (taking into consideration the growing interest in Marx throughout the First World) for its own ailments, the revival is recommended through various interventionist measures. There are many Keynesian quacks nowadays roaming and gossiping around irritating the capitalists – “we told you so”. But the capitalist knows what to do. Yes, intervention, if it’s must, but on whose cost – capital’s or labour’s? The capitalist must be bailed out, and the labourer must be reined in. Social corporatism is not at all bad, if it subjugates labour to the ‘general interests’ of the economy.

Capital doesn’t want to mess up with labour. It has tried to evade the very circuit in which labour-power has to be bought in, but every time it does that destiny reminds it of its painful bond with labour. This time capital had almost created a world of its own without the nuisance of labour. But these consumers and debtors, on whom it relied so much, betrayed it – it suddenly realised that these were in fact the same little urchins – those children of labour, whose devilish smell and smile it wanted to forget.

Time and again, the capitalist class is reminded of the basic lesson in political economy that ultimately profit generates in the productive sector, through engagement with labour. But this class which is composed of competing entities – individuals or groups – relapses into amnesia once prosperity steps in, as they compete to “accumulate, accumulate…”. Ultimately, they all find it ideal to directly jump from M(oney) to M'(oney) without going through the strenuous process of production where they must deal with labour, which simply cannot behave like another dumb ‘factor of production’.

Once capital comes to its senses, and realises its inevitable bond with labour, it tries very hard (and every means) to sterilize labour – alienating it from its creativity (hence, its destructivity) and thus, its humanity. Whoever – capital or labour – mobilises its class and community first during the crisis commands the post-crisis phase. Here labour is always at a disadvantage, it has to make an enormous extra effort and prior preparation to come to command. If it arrives late, it gives enough time for capital and its agents to put themselves in their headquarters. They don’t meet in the streets (only leaving their dogs and watchdogs for the street-fights) but in lavish boardrooms and in the offices of national and international agencies. The labouring multitude is reduced to its representatives, who are b(r)ought in these offices to negotiate a deal. Thus, the social compact is attained.

This is what has happened in the auto industry and will probably happen in many other cases until and unless the working class too realises that crisis is a moment of class struggle, not of negotiation and compromise. In fact, what is a compromise, but an institutionalisation of class struggle under the conditions of capital, in which the defeat of labour is immanent!

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