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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?
Frank Richards examines how the legacy of past let-downs helps make people reluctant to resist today, and suggests a political solution

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.

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.

Unconscious fears

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.

Empty shells

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.

Individual solutions

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 Essex man.

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.

Dated yuppies

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 day.

Lesser evilism

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 the process.

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.

Political breakdown

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 class.

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.

Taking control

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

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