France: Recession, austerity, class struggle. Our Political Tasks.
By Greg Oxley (PCF and La Riposte)
The coronavirus pandemic has had a devastating impact on the global economy.
It has come at a time when the economic cycle was already starting to descend. In France and Europe, growth rates were already low (1.2% for the euro zone) before the advent of the health crisis. Since then, the economy of Europe and the world has fallen sharply.
In 1740, Prussian troops were parading before Frederick the Great and Prince Leopold in preparation for the invasion of Silesia. An officer of the guard noted extracts from their conversation, of which the following :
Frederick: Dear Prince, when you see our army gathered in this way, what impresses you most ?
Leopold: Majesty ! Could it be anything but the sight of our troops and the regularity and perfection of their movements ?
Frederick: No, dear Prince, what impresses me the most is that here we are, perfectly safe as we watch 60 000 men. They are all our enemies, and every one of the mis better armed and stronger that we are. And yet they tremble in our presence. We have no reason to be afraid. That, dear Prince, is the miraculous effect of order and subordination!
[From C. Hildebrandt: Anecdotes on the life of Frederick the Great. Volume 5, Leipzig, 1829-35.]
The coronavirus pandemic has had a devastating impact on the global economy. It has come at a time when the economic cycle was already starting to descend. In France and Europe, growth rates were already low (1.2% for the euro zone) before the advent of the health crisis. Since then, the economy of Europe and the world has fallen sharply.
According to a first analysis published by the International Monetary Fund, the world economy will contract by 3% in 2020. The American economy will drop by 5.9%, which represents the largest annual decline since 1946. In the euro zone, the IMF forecasts an average 7.5% drop in GDP for the 19 countries concerned. The downturn of the European economy will no doubt be the strongest of all the regions of the world. China's growth rate also slowed before the health crisis. And now, it is not expected to exceed 1.2% for the current year, which would be the slowest growth in the Chinese economy since 1976. No country in the world will escape the recession. The total loss in value to the world economy in 2020 is estimated to be something like 9 trillion dollars. This situation is causing to a sudden deterioration in the living conditions of workers and a massive increase in the number of unemployed. In the euro zone, the number of unemployed is expected to increase by 40%. It is difficult to say how long this recession might last, but its economic and social repercussions could be spread over several years, especially if the virus proves difficult to control in the most developed countries and spreads massively in the Indian subcontinent, Latin America and Africa.
The capitalists and their political representatives will launch an even more relentless offensive against the rights and living conditions of the workers in order to defend their profits despite the crisis. They will justify the imposition of new austerity measures by the exceptional circumstances arising from the pandemic. In relation to public finances, the capitalists are already demanding massive handouts and tax concessions. Macron and the ECB have responded favorably. Taxpayers will foot the bill. This increase in public spending will go hand in hand with an inevitable reduction in returns from VAT and income taxes, pushing the government to further tighten social spending. Pensions, social benefits – including family allowance or unemployment benefits – will be the target of new attacks. In businesses and factories throughout the country, employers will strive to maintain and increase profit margins despite the drop in activity, to the detriment of employment, wages and working conditions. All the injustices and inequalities that caused the Yellow Vests movement and the strikes of the last period will worsen. The impact of the health crisis is particularly harmful for the most vulnerable sections of society. Thus, the attempt to restore an "economic equilibrium" according to capitalist criteria will end up destroying the social equilibrium, that is, the passivity of the mass of the population on which the capitalist order rests.
This process has already been underway for some time, as evidenced by the social unrest in recent years. The cumulative effects of rising inequality, mass unemployment, increasing job insecurity and the downward pressure on wages and pensions have produced a profound change in the social and ideological climate, prompting into action previously inert and "apolitical" layers of society. The Yellow Vests were a movement that incorporated various political tendencies, including elements close to the far right. However, generally perceived in public opinion as a massive challenge to the existing social order, the movement benefited from the support of several million citizens. Then in the wake of this movement came the longest transport strike since 1968, in opposition to the pension reform.
The social instability of the last period is of deep concern the capitalists. Materially, their power comes from the fact that they own and control almost all the major levers of the economy and that the present state is in the hands of their servants. And yet, despite their seemingly unshakable power, the capitalists are seated on a volcano. Virtually all of the essential functions of contemporary society are performed by the workers of the country. This position gives them an infinitely greater potential power than that of the capitalists, if only they were to become conscious of this power and decide to use it. We are not there yet. But the social unrest of the last period indicates a development in this direction, and the most discerning representatives of the state and the capitalist class feel that "the miracle of order and subordination" is beginning to dissipate.
Dead-end jobs and hospital cuts
By pushing to make jobs more "flexible" and by increasing the numbers short-term, poorly paid contracts for decades, governments and employers have greatly increased the vulnerability of people. They wanted a higher the rate of exploitation of workers, sharpening competition between them in the context of mass unemployment, making it easier to sack workers and weaken the unions. In the current crisis, unstable jobs – fixed-term and temporary work agency contracts, subcontractors, etc. – have been axed on a massive scale. The workers in question have virtually no means of defending themselves. The self-employed and other "uberized" workers also find themselves suddenly without work and without income.
Hospitals and health services are at the forefront of the fight against the pandemic. However, the political representatives of capitalism over many years have slashed so-called superfluous beds and health facilities. Today we are paying the price for this destructive activity. Faced with the coronavirus challenge, hospitals are sorely lacking in staff and equipment. The whole strategy of the capitalists and successive governments – both right and "left" – has been aimed at increasing the power, profits and privileges of the capitalist minority, to the detriment of the rest of society. One after another, the all the profitable sectors of the economy previously in the public domain have been handed over to the capitalists. Awareness of this reality is now taking hold of a growing mass of citizens. Despite the government's persistent calls for "national unity", the current crisis has brought out the class nature of society more starkly than before. For the time being, confinement measures limit the possibilities of active struggle. But when the pandemic recedes, people will be demanding changes to respond to public distress, create jobs, increase wages, reduce the vulnerability of workers and improve the situation in hospitals and retirement homes and end austerity.
The danger of nationalism and populism
These aspirations go directly against the objectives of the capitalists and the government. Capitalists give themselves the right to defend their interests. The workers, for their part, take the right to defend their own. And where rights are equal, force will decide. The suddenness and severity of the economic crisis may delay the conflict, but eventually a major confrontation is inevitable.
Here, precisely, we come to the heart of the question in relation to perspectives for France. It is one thing to raise the probability of a large-scale confrontation between the classes in the coming period. But predicting the outcome of this confrontation is another matter. To paint a picture of a future made up entirely of "class against class" would obviously be childish. The historical process is contradictory. The anger caused by a crisis and the need for change does not necessarily flow into the channels of progress and revolution. It can also, in certain circumstances, broaden the social base of reactionary and nationalist forces. In the coming period, society will become more and more polarised. The extremes will win at the expense of the center.
The social consequences of the current crisis will reinforce the nationalist tendencies which exist in France and in practically all European countries. The propagandists of the European Union promised that free trade and the opening of borders would guarantee a future of economic and social progress. In fact, the French economy has been exposed to increasingly fierce international competition leading to the destruction of whole swathes of its industrial and agricultural infrastructure. Relocation has accelerated in the scramble for cheap labor from abroad. The European Union has helped the MEDEF bosses’ confederation and successive governments in their fight to wear down and destroy the social achievements of the labor movement. Direct competition between workers from all over the world is seen to be a threat to the status of French workers. Faced with the ravages of capitalist globalisation, austerity and the fear of impoverishment or of being "declassed" are expressed in a resurgence of nationalist ideas. The feeling that France’s destiny is in the grip of external forces as powerful as it is uncontrollable and that the country is being strangled by the invisible hand of the world market has favored the nationalist and protectionist ideas. The wide social basis of Le Pen’s Rassemblement National is an expression of the growth of nationalism. Other movements hostile to the "elites" are sometimes tinged with nationalist reflexes to a certain extent, as was, for example, the Yellow Vests movement. There are also nationalist currents in France Insoumise and the PCF. While giving a new impetus to the class struggle, the current crisis will tend to radicalise nationalist and xenophobic tendencies in society, especially since, for many, the arrival of the coronavirus in Europe will be viewed as the consequence of too much exposure of the country to harmful foreign phenomena.
Nationalism is a poison for the consciousness of the workers. It blots out the conflicting and irreconcilable interests between exploiters and exploited, while sowing mistrust and hatred between victims of exploitation on the grounds of nationality, and often, by extension, of color or religion. For the workers' movement, it constitutes an extremely grave danger, because it undermines the foundations of collective action and solidarity, without which the workers are weak and vulnerable. If capitalist globalisation and free trade are a blind alley for workers, so also is that of "sovereignty" and nationalist isolationism. Nationalism is a serious and potentially deadly threat. To say that nationalism is a blind alley is of no comfort. After all, Nazism was also a blind alley for the masses, but it was able to inflict terrible suffering on humanity before demonstrating this. Today, many wars are going on, some of which are at the gates of Europe. However, after several decades of peace in Western Europe, world wars may seem like a distant past. But contemporary nationalism is no less dangerous for that. It draws its strength, precisely, from the innumerable humiliations, exiles, persecutions and massacres, nation against nation, in European and world history. Nationalism revives the old hatreds, rivalries and resentments buried in the collective consciousness and injects them back into the present-day politics. History shows that once nationalism manages to take root in society, it is very difficult to eradicate. The fight against this scourge is therefore of vital importance.
Apart from the people who have been contaminated by propaganda of consciously chauvinistic and racist elements, the sources of nationalist reflexes in the population are many. National consciousness has deep historical roots. We know that Marx and Engels, in the Communist Manifesto of 1848, said that workers "have no country." The working class is indeed an international class with common interests in the struggle against the exploitation and injustices of capitalism. Organisations that claim to defend the interests of workers in a given country should therefore seek to develop solid links and solidarity with struggles in other countries and oppose any attempt to pit workers against each other on the grounds of nationality, color or religion.
However, it is obvious that even the most internationalist among us cannot be indifferent to the fate of the country in which they live and work, nor to the fate of their language and cultural roots. The workers see that "in their own country" there is a shortfall of several million jobs, that this tends to lower wages and undermine the gains of the past, that there is a shortage of housing, that health systems, social security and pensions are under pressure and deteriorating, that local industries exposed to global competition go bankrupt or go abroad. They feel that the economy and society in their country is being battered by powerful external forces that no one seems to be able to control. In reaction to this, it is inevitable that people will feel the need to gain control of the situation, to bring society back to a smaller and more easily manageable territorial base and regain "national sovereignty". This phenomenon is not, of course, limited to France. There is a rise in sovereignist tendencies in practically all the countries of Europe. In the UK, the vote in favour of "brexit" was an expression of this, to name just one example among many.
In addition to the negative consequences of globalisation, this nationalist reflex is underpinned by the absence of an alternative to the capitalist system in the program of the workers' movement. Those who say – as we do – that it is the capitalists and not the "immigrants", who destroy jobs, are told that the capitalists are indeed in control and that therefore we have to live with that reality. The fact that the program of the workers' movement does not offer any prospect of breaking with the capitalist system, and that even the so-called reformists are in reality "reformists without reforms", can only encourage the emergence of nationalist tendencies. After all, if no transformation of society to create enough jobs and meet the needs of all people is possible, there only remains a struggle to know who will have a job and who will not. This is how the notion of "national priority" promoted by the nationalists is making headway. To roll back nationalism, it is essential that the workers' movement be freed from the straitjacket of reformism and that it should put forward a program for the revolutionary transformation of society.
The lack of this perspective opens the way for "populism", which is characterised by the denunciation, in the name of "the people", of the power of the "elites". Populism exploits popular resentment against the powerful and against state institutions for political and electoral ends, but does not present any alternative to the existing social order. Furthermore, the easy target of "elites" serves to hide the real cause of social inequality. The privileges and the power of the rich and the people “at the top” in general are derived, in one way or another, from the grip of the capitalist class on the economy and on the whole of society. Fixing attention on the "elites" protects capitalism, of which they are only an emanation. The elites benefit from the system, but the system itself will only disappear when the ownership and control of the productive, commercial and financial apparatus of the big capitalists is removed. The elites will fall with the class they defend.
Parliamentarianism and bourgeois democracy in general can only acquire stability to the extent that all social classes benefit from it to some extent. But when the balance between the classes gives way to a policy of permanent austerity to protect the profits and power of a minority, the parliamentary system begins to appear, in the eyes of those who suffer this austerity, as being a cumbersome and ineffective talking shop full of well-placed parasites, divorced from the people and serving only their own interests. Today's capitalist system, which can only exist by imposing permanent austerity, is thus undermining the economic and social foundations of parliamentarism. The emergence of powerful populist tendencies in practically all European countries is explained by this process and by the changes it brings about in the psychology of the masses. At the same time, the impotence of parliamentarism, which satisfies neither the capitalists nor the workers, favors the emergence of Bonapartist tendencies in the political regime. Here, we are not talking, of course, about the Bonapartism of the ascending phase of capitalism, but that of the reactionary decadence of the system.
The weakening of the workers' movement
The workers' movement must now face renewed attacks from the state and the capitalist class in a weaker position than in the past. There are objective causes which have contributed to the weakening of trade union organisations and left-wing parties in recent decades. Among them is the transformation of the industrial landscape. Historically, the strength of trade unionism developed with of the industrialisation of the country, particularly with the creation of large concentrations of workers in heavy industry such as the steel, coal, railways, ports and airports, energy, cars and aviation. The breaking up of many of these concentrations and the dislocation of the communities around them have largely destroyed many former strongholds of the CGT and the PCF. The growth of the international division of labor and the specialization of production have led to a massive use of subcontracting in large companies, dividing and weakening the workforce. Mass unemployment, the spread of unstable jobs and the profound changes in production as a result of the development of technology (computer science, internet, artificial intelligence, robotisation, etc.) have made the task of trade unions considerably more difficult. But despite all these challenges, the CGT is a still very important force of several hundred thousand members, whose reserves of support in society go far beyond its own membership. It constitutes the central and by far the most preponderant element of the French workers' movement.
In addition to the social and economic changes that have weakening the left, the consequences of the policies of the PS and the PCF over several decades have done considerable damage and have greatly discredited these parties in the eyes of the workers. Once they found themselves in government, the leaders of the parties that were originally created to defend the interests of the workers capitulated to capitalist pressures, to the point of adopting vicious counter-reforms. In 1981, when they came to power, the Socialist Party and the PCF had a massive and enthusiastic social base. Both parties were theoretically "revolutionary" according to their statutes. But their program was limited to social reforms which created some temporary inconvenience to the capitalists, but which left economic power firmly in their hands. The nationalisation of the banks and of some industrial groups had no socialist content, since the internal hierarchy and the criteria of profit and competition remained the same.
Under pressure from the capitalists, it only took a few months for the government to proclaim a "pause" in the implementation of its program. Shortly after, starting in the summer of 1982, it adopted a policy of massive closures in steel and coal, together with counter-reforms. The PCF leadership supported the entire austerity policy at ministerial level and in the National Assembly and did not leave the government until July 1984, under pressure from the party ranks. Back in power from 1997 to 2002, the PS and the PCF applied a policy of privatisations. Then the last “socialist” government of François Hollande (2012-2017) was completed wedded to the interests of finance capital.
The experience of these left governments demoralized and disoriented workers who believed in the promises of "change". The leaders who were supposed to defend their interests had turned against them, once in power. The wild enthusiasm of the early 1980s gave way to passivity, defeatism, political indifference. It is no coincidence that the extreme right, in the form of the National Front, began to make ground precisely when when the socialist-communist government turned against its own social base under Mitterrand. The membership of the PS and the PCF collapsed. During the period of PCF participation in government, from 1997 and 2002, during which certain privatisations were carried out directly by a PCF minister, the party leadership went so far as to claim that the opening of capital to private investors and employees was a new form of "social ownership" of the means of production! Over the same period, the party's membership fell from more than 250,000 to 100,000. Today, the PCF has around 50,000 members.
Not surprisingly, very many workers have drawn the conclusion that the traditional parties of the left, far from representing an alternative to the capitalist system, are themselves part of the system, and that even if the militants of these parties are not conscious agents of the system , they have no alternative to offer. Opinions such as these were rife among the Yellow Vests. The reformist policy of the PCF leadership has reduced its appeal to the new generation of militants. Its base in the CGT has declined. Despite repeated attacks on the rights and living conditions of workers and young people, the party has not seen any increase in membership. However, in the economic and social situation that lies ahead, the PCF could begin to regain ground. But that will largely depend on its political program.
France Insoumise has also experienced a decline, starting from a much smaller militant base than the PCF. Its program is a watered-down version of the reformism of the old PS, before it turned right in 1982-1983. Mélenchon's political approach is a form of left-wing populism. The people on one side, the elites on the other. But we will search in vain, in the program of France Insoumise, for any decisive measures against the capitalist class. Despite relative electoral success, the internal structures of this party are fragile with a weak roots in society.
Trade Unionism and Yellow Vests
The position of the labor movement today is very different from the situation that existed in the past. After the wars of 1914-18 and 1939-45, or in 1968, and then during the fall of dictatorships in Greece, Portugal and Spain, the first wave of the revolution always pushed to the fore the left parties which had not been completely discredited in the previous period and which had an important political tradition. During the general strike of 1968 – in the context of the industrial boom of the "glorious thirties" with a very low rate of unemployment – the PCF and the CGT were in a position to capture and organise the immense majority of social forces in motion. This is no longer the case. The 2018-2019 Yellow Vests movement was a massive militant movement that took place outside of traditional workers' organisations. However, despite its decline, the PCF is still the largest party in France in terms of militant strength. The CGT is by far the most important union structure with an incomparably greater capacity for mobilisation and stronger social roots than all the other structures put together. Thus, the next time capitalism provokes a class conflict as acute and massive as that of 1968, the PCF, and especially the CGT, will still occupy an important position, but this time, this will be alongside with a significant movement of “direct action” but forces outside of their structures and over which they will have no control.
It could be said that the distrust of trade unionism on the part of the Yellow Vests was partly due to their inexperience, but it must be understood that it was also due to an indirect experience of the concrete results of trade unionism in an epoch of counter-reform. Just because they were not unionised doesn’t mean that their opinion was based on nothing. They had that the countless sporadic demonstrations and strikes organised by the unions and long years of fighting "against austerity" had not prevented the deterioration of living conditions. Unions - and especially the CGT - offer workers the organisational framework for defensive action, faced with the greed of employers and reactionary policies at government level. The CGT constitutes the backbone of the French workers' movement. Without organisation, workers are completely at the mercy of employers. But unionism has its limits, especially in our time, where the machinery of government and the workings of the capitalist system are wholly and relentlessly turned against the interests of workers and social progress. Even if the most combative unions were much stronger than they are today, union action alone could not solve the problems created by capitalism. Even a general strike, which is the ultimate expression of union power, can only temporarily hamper capitalism and paralyze certain sectors of activity. The general strike could only become a serious threat to the survival of capitalism if it formed part of a political offensive for the seizure of power by the workers. The Yellow Vests believed they could do better than the unions were capable of through direct action – blocking highways, assaulting "places of power", etc. But the Yellow Vests movement won no tangible concessions. To struggle with any chance of success, it is necessary to define objectives, to elect representatives; in a word, to organise.
For a revolutionary program
In our times, capitalism cannot exist without constantly breaking down the social conquests of the past. Public services must be transformed into so many markets and sources of profit. The position of workers must be made more uncertain, more vulnerable. Social spending must be reduced if the resources of the state are to more fully meet the needs of the capitalists. Anything that stands in the way of the law of profit must be swept away. We can try to resist this process, but if the system remains intact, any serious attempt at bringing about a major transfer wealth to the detriment of the capitalists will end up turning against those who are supposed to benefit from it. A significant reduction in profits in a capitalist economy is ultimately counterproductive, since the capitalists do not invest in activities that are not profitable. Under capitalism, whatever cannot attract capital falls. It is precisely this reality that pushed the reformists at the head of the PS and the PCF to abandon their plans for social reform, when they found themselves in government. The conclusion which follows from this reality is that the fight against cuts in public services, mass unemployment, worsening working conditions, and against all the injustices and inequalities engendered by capitalism can be victorious only if it is part of an wider struggle for the abolition of the capitalist stranglehold on the economy and on the State. Social reform and revolution go hand in hand. It is of this objective truth – and its translation into a general programmatic platform – that we must now convince the militants of the CGT, the PCF, the Yellow Vests and all those who are engaged, in one way or another, in the fight against austerity.
The expropriation of the capitalists will pave the way for the establishment of a new social order, based on public property and the democratic management of the nation's natural, productive and financial resources, in the interest of the common good and social equality. We call this form of society socialism or communism, not to be confused with the oppressive regimes which in the USSR and in the Eastern Bloc, which usurped and distorted these denominations. The socialisation of the means of production is the only way to solve the problems posed to humanity, including the major problems of an environmental and ecological nature. But without the most complete democracy possible at all levels of the economic, social and administrative organisation of society, it is impossible to describe a society as socialist or communist.
Perspectives and tasks
The winter transportation strike of 2019-2020, which followed the mobilizations of the Yellow Vests, marked the end of a period of relative lull in union activity. But the events of the last period were only the initial phase of the radicalization which is underway. The threat from the coronavirus made the process less visible, but it certainly did not stop it. When the time comes, the next wave of struggles will likely be more explosive, especially since the electoral weakness of the left hardly allows for illusions in a possible solution by parliamentary means.
The central question of our time is that of the program of the workers' movement, in both its trade union and political components. If the workers' movement does not adopt, as the central axis of its program, the revolutionary expropriation of the capitalist class as a means of putting an end its power, then capitalism will resolve the crisis in its own way.
Failure to take power will leave society in an impasse and condemn the workers' movement to a serious defeat. Clearly, between the adoption of a revolutionary program and the realisation of the revolution itself, there will be a long way to go in convincing the workers of its validity. But, on the one hand, without program and without leadership, a transformation of society is out of the question. On the other hand, the adoption of the program will strengthen the fight capitalism and push nationalist far right into the background. Presenting workers with a perspective of revolutionary change is essential in the struggle against the phoney "change" propounded by nationalism.
To sum up, the current recession but we already know that it will probably be the most serious crisis of the capitalist system since 1945, and possibly more serious than the Great Depression of the 1930s. In France, as in all of Europe, the capitalists, whose profits and markets are threatened, will become even more relentless in their fight against everything that stands in the way of the submission to capitalism of all aspects of economic, social and political life.
In the face of this offensive, workers will have no choice but to resist with all their strength. The crisis will accelerate the process of radicalisation of workers and of the middle layers of society, whose exasperation and need for change were already evident in the previous period. In parallel with this process, the crisis will give new impetus to nationalist and xenophobic tendencies. The exacerbation of antagonisms between states, within the European Union and on a global scale, will also contribute to strengthening nationalist movements. The impotence of parliamentarism will tend to accentuate the Bonapartist aspects of the government regime.
A positive perspective in which revolutionary militancy will be more promising than in the past is now opening up before us. Among the most politically aware and militant layer of youth and workers, the impact of the crisis will raise the question of social change with greater urgency and give rise to a more demanding and critical attitude towards the ideas and behaviour of the leaders of the workers' movement. Every opportunity must be used to broaden the audience for revolutionary ideas. The workers' movement - the PCF and the CGT, in particular – must now rise to the occasion. The daily struggle for social progress must be clearly linked to the objective of the conquest of power by the working people.
PCF/La Riposte. April 18, 2020.