The wages of fear
As the number of redundancies reaches new heights, the number of strikes
sinks to a record low. Why is nobody fighting back against the consequences
of this recession?
The crash of a helicopter, and the death of 11 of the oil rig workers who
were on board, did not stay in the news very long back in March. It was
just another North Sea tragedy. It is easy to forget that another three
men died when their Bell 212 crashed last August. According to those who
know the North Sea oilfields, fear is a permanent way of life for those
who work in what are manifestly unsafe conditions.
Frank Richards examines how the legacy of past let-downs helps make people
reluctant to resist today, and suggests a political solution
The dangers faced by those who work in the North Sea are exceptional. But
the experience of fear is now the norm for most people at work in Britain.
Fear is often an intangible quality. It is rarely so clearly focused as
in the case of the oil rig worker who still recalls how the Piper Alpha
disaster blew a rig apart in 1988. For most people, fear is a far less specific
sentiment. Yet it is always lurking in the background, and influences attitudes
more than we might suspect.
It is the preoccupation with material survival that shapes the prevailing
psychology of fear. Meeting the mortgage payment and having a bit left over
to buy clothes for the kids are constant sources of anxiety. Above all,
the dread of losing your job creates a climate of insecurity. As a result
people are prepared to tolerate working conditions that they would have
rejected out of hand not so long ago. That is why the experience of work
has changed so drastically for so many people in recent years. They are
working harder, for longer hours and putting up with whatever their employer
throws at them.
In the offices of the south-east, it is now common to work through your
lunch break and stay behind after hours and finish off some task, so as
to demonstrate loyalty to the firm. Manual workers also suffer new conditions.
The smoke and tea breaks are gone and in many cases overtime has become
something you do 'voluntarily' and for free.
There are no trade union militants. In fact unions, in the traditional sense
of working class organisations, no longer exist. That is why the officials
who preside over the empty shells of the old unions spend so much energy
agonising about being 'relevant' today. It appears that, in a desperate
attempt to show that they still have some purpose in life, unions have opted
for the role of circulating junk mail leaflets offering financial services
to their members.
It happened in a school in South London, and it is a scene that has been
repeated in many other places. The cleaners and other ancillary staff were
called into a meeting with management. They were informed that they had
just been made redundant. But, if they reapplied in a week, and accepted
a one pound an hour cut in their wages they would be re-employed. Management
warned that if the workers breathed a word of this to their union or the
media, then the deal was off altogether. And that was it. Management's ultimatum
was effective. People who are scared and without much hope are unlikely
to fight back.
Reducing the wages of already underpaid school cleaners is no more or no
less difficult than throwing thousands of BT workers on to the dole. When
it was announced recently that BT was to make 20 000 more redundant, nobody
pretended that they were going to contest the decision. Unions do not bother
to organise a response. It all has a kind of relentless inevitability.
And what has happened to the good old-fashioned British strike. The number
of working days lost through industrial action during the year to January
was the lowest since records began to be kept a century ago. But the number
of leaflets offering special deals distributed by the unions is probably
at an all-time high.
Second time around
The sense of insecurity is strengthened by the terms on which the new generation
entering the workforce is forced to work. What new jobs there are now are
either part time or temporary. Many have been forced to become self-employed
and go to work for a sub-contractor. Others work on short contracts. Working
no longer has that permanent feel about it. But it is those who have been
in work for some time - and who have something to lose - who feel most vulnerable.
Many of these people experienced the recession of the early eighties. Either
directly or indirectly, they have been acquainted with unemployment in the
past. The desperation to avoid such a fate again is a powerful motive influencing
everyday life. Many are keeping their heads down and silently praying that
they will be spared from enduring a second bout of the jobless experience.
A private affair
Changing patterns of work and the new ruthlessness of employers are important
influences on workplace attitudes. But they cannot entirely account for
what appears as the political paralysis of working people today.
There is something peculiarly insidious about the experience of this recession.
It is a very individual and privatised affair. People are bitter, yet their
bitterness is seldom aired in public. The experience of having your life
messed up by the slump is becoming increasingly common. Yet there is no
collective representation of these experiences in public life. The reaction
to the recession is muted and appears to have no reality in the outside
world. A grumble over a pint occasionally punctuates the sense of unease.
But that is about all.
The fear is experienced privately for the simple reason that there are no
functioning collective organisations or institutions through which people
can come together for support and to seek solutions. As individuals, people
feel far more anxious than they do as part of a group. Isolation heightens
uncertainties and weakens the will. And, with the collapse of the old working
class movement, isolation is all that seems to be available today.
On your own
In this situation people have no positive objectives. On the contrary, most
just want to be left alone. If you work for BT, your main reaction to the
announcement of mass redundancies is likely to be to hope that somebody
else will lose their job rather than you.
People think like this because they have been let down in the past. The
unions and other working class organisations have been exposed as out of
step with contemporary times. More importantly, the old political policies
associated with Labour have become an anachronism - as the New Model Labour
Party's own general election campaign starkly revealed. People who would
once have had a strong working class identity are now left politically naked.
Political paralysis goes hand in hand with the process of turning in on
yourself, acting as an isolated individual. When people feel that they are
on their own, problems often seem insurmountable. And every time another
series of redundancies is announced, the sense of being on your own is reinforced.
Without a collective movement or political identity that can make sense,
people sense only the weakness of their own individual circumstances. Throughout
the eighties some tried to make a virtue out of necessity. Having acknowledged
the failure of collective solutions as represented by the old labour movement,
people opted for individualistic ones. This was the trajectory of the so-called
For a while it seemed that this individual option could work. Thatcher's
generation would be amply rewarded for its hard work and entrepreneurship.
The flourishing of the individualistic spirit probably reached its zenith
in the aftermath of the Tory election victory of 1987. But suddenly it all
went wrong. The real fear is that, having seen the collapse of the old collective
solutions, many now suspect that individual ones do not work either.
Of course even if individual solutions cannot be seen to work, they will
still be tried. When all other options seem to be closed, the instinct of
survival takes over and individual self-preservation becomes the dominant
impulse. In such circumstances, calculated action, such as moving town in
search of a new job, coexists with the sense of being out of control, of
being unable to do anything much to change your situation.
In this position, human beings are particularly vulnerable. The kind of
fear that haunts people today is not simply a reaction against collective
solutions gone bad. It is the response of those who, having seen collective
alternatives fail, have tried to survive on their own, but now find that
they are isolated in an increasingly hostile environment.
Working class people do not have a monopoly over fear. The elite in capitalist
society suffer from their own anxieties, and call it a confidence problem.
When the experts produce statistics to show that rising numbers of businessmen
lack confidence in the British economy, it is their way of saying that people
are scared. The strident, swaggering yuppie of Thatcherite mythology looks
distinctly dated already. To see the swift demise of eighties bullishness,
go to your video shop and hire Wall Street. In every sense it seems
to belong to a different era.
The ruling class has lost its sense of purpose. This internal impasse is
expressed through a culture of pessimism which can only reinforce the fragmentation
of society. Traditional symbols of authority are now too weak to neutralise
the dynamic of social decay, the sense of things falling apart. In Britain,
the scandals surrounding the monarchy are symptomatic of the mood of the
times. It is in the sphere of party politics that the problem is most concentrated.
A weakening of traditional affiliations, and the lack of positive loyalties
and commitments to any political movement, is very much the order of the
As the general election campaign showed, political choices are now usually
made on the basis of which party is the lesser evil. For some the Conservatives
are the devil they know, they couldn't possibly be as bad as Labour. For
others Labour is the obvious choice since they could not be as terrible
as the hated Tories. Commitment and affection are the absent ingredients
in this equation. In such circumstances cynicism is the real victor.
The weakening of political loyalties is not merely a British phenomenon.
Throughout the world the legitimacy of hitherto unproblematic institutions
is now being put to question. Separatist parties are calling for the breakup
of many of the key nation states of Western Europe. At the same time the
traditional mainstream political parties suddenly find themselves lacking
their old solid base of support. This trend is most advanced in countries
such as France, where the electoral system makes it relatively easy for
smaller parties to gain a foothold. But no Western nation is immune from
All the election talk of possible devolution, regional assemblies and Scottish
and Welsh independence testifies to the difficulty of sustaining the existing
scale of loyalties to the old institutions. This was the first mass general
election in Britain where the existence of the United Kingdom as such was
in any sense a serious issue. That it became an issue was not due to the
sudden emergence of any powerful and dynamic spirit of regionalism. There
is very little grassroots momentum behind any regional option.
Most astute political observers have commented on the growing distance between
the majority of people's lives and the proceedings of the general election.
This phenomenon is usually explained as the result of public cynicism about
and exhaustion with electioneering. In fact, there is also an unprecedented
level of passivity, the product of a loss of belief in the traditional alternatives,
which goes much deeper than a disgust with the parties' electoral tactics.
Old loyalties are weakening and the appeal of traditional symbols of authority
is slipping. This is the ruling class equivalent of the decline of collective
affiliations within the working class. They each have separate causes, which
have been discussed elsewhere in recent issues of Living Marxism. The
point to emphasise here is that the diminishing scale of loyalties in modern
society affects not just class but also national identities.
The crumbling of national institutions seems to run alongside the decline
of those associated with the working class. The upshot of all this is a
growing estrangement from the whole, and an increased emphasis on particular
sectional interests. This added importance is due not so much to the intrinsic
appeal of the fragments as to the discrediting of the old general conventions.
The tendency to narrow horizons and to focus politics on more and more parochial
concerns will come up against real limits. At a time when the world is more
interdependent than ever before, the parochial reaction seems more like
a cry for help than a viable political response. But in a period such as
this, the shrinking of the scale of political thinking can continue for
some time to come.
The anxiety of the ruling class about the future of its system, and the
fear of working people for their day-to-day well-being, creates a climate
which is hospitable to the narrowing of horizons. That which is more tangible
or local seems easier to control.
The narrowing of horizons ultimately leads back to the individual. Our anxiety
always returns to individual concerns, and it is at this level that it appears
that something can still be done, even if the Thatcherite fantasy of individual
prosperity is beyond our grasp. We can exercise, watch what we eat and try
to live a long life. Individual fears lead to the individual obsessions
with health, diet and psychology on which there now preys an industry of
quacks and quack magazines.
It is important to emphasise that the diminishing of political loyalties
has not been caused by material changes in the way that the world is organised.
Rather, it is a reaction to the breakdown of the political traditions which
have prevailed during the past century. The process affects all classes
in Western societies. It has a particularly devastating impact on the working
That which made workers feel that they were part of a class is gone. And
workers now experience life as individuals, rather than as members of a
class with collective interests and strength. The general disintegration
of political life only enhances this sense of privatisation. This is what
gives social fear its special late twentieth-century character.
The existing state of affairs is the product of political causes. It must
therefore be susceptible to political solutions.
People today are not suffering from a sudden collapse of imagination or
from congenital panic. The mind is concentrated towards the self and away
from others because it is far from clear what it is that binds us together
in a collective whole. This is where the battle needs to be joined, to establish
the contemporary case for taking collective action to gain control of each
of our lives.
People's very real fear of what outside forces are doing to them does contain
a positive impulse; the desire to assume control over their own destiny.
Drawing out that need to take control into our own hands can provide a powerful
boost for anti-capitalist politics. The narrowing of horizons is the wages
of fear. If that trend is to be reversed again, people will need to be convinced
of the connection between embracing the wider politics of human emancipation
and establishing individual control over their own life.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 43, May 1992