Does the Left Have a Future?
The reports of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development are not the work of pamphleteers. They are written by technocrats and edited by diplomats. Hence, when a Jobs Study published on the eve of the European election turns out to be a manifesto against workers' rights, it is worth looking at.
The diagnosis is gloomy. The number of jobless in the O.E.C.D. area, that is, in the advanced capitalist countries, is now put at 35 million. If you add those who have given up looking for a job and the unwilling part-timers, you get 50 million. What is worse, however, is the rise in unemployment and the permanence of the phenomenon. Between 1972 and 1982 the number of unemployed trebled. It declined slightly during the mid-1980s expansion but has been rising ever since. The report does not conclude that something is fundamentally wrong with the system. Instead, it identifies the root of the evil as safeguards for the workers.
The report points out that statistically, the United States has done "better" than Europe by creating a good number of badly paid jobs. ("In 1990 nearly one-fifth of all full-time workers in the United States had earnings at or below the official poverty level.") The O.E.C.D. does not claim this situation is ideal but clearly that is its preference, since the brunt of its criticism is directed at European social programs "motivated to protect people from the worst vicissitudes of economic life"; these programs "have had the unintended but more and more important side effect of decreasing the economy's ability, and sometimes also society's will, to adapt." The catalogue of targets is eloquent: the minimum wage, collective bargaining agreements on a national scale, "relatively high" unemployment benefits, obstacles to wage differentiation and nonunion employment, and so on. To put it plainly: Anything that widens the bosses' freedom to hire and fire is good and anything that empowers the workers to increase their share of the national income is bad.
In calling for the dismantling of the postwar conquests of the labor movement, the O.E.C.D. is not alone. The European Employers' Association has just made a similar plea. The not so revolutionary proposal of Jacques Delors to spur production through public works has been drastically cut by the governments. The reactionary offensive is in full swing. Under the circumstances, it is not surprising that the Socialist parties, fully identified with this system, are feeling heat from their rank and file. Henri Emmanueli, Rocard's successor, admitted the party did not represent "the interests and the hopes" of its voters. In Germany, Social Democrat Rudolf Scharping was accused of projecting an image barely distinguishable from that of the Christian Democrats. This time, however, lip service will not be enough. The leaders of the left must show what controls they are ready to introduce, what protections they will re-establish, what deep changes in society they are determined to make in order to struggle against the scourge of unemployment. They must also realize that class struggle is far from vanishing--and it takes two to play.
Class Solidarity Exists, or Man Bites Dog
Didier Pineau-Valencienne is chairman of Schneider, an old and mighty French conglomerate. He is also known as a ruthless sacker of employees. On May 26 he was arrested in Brussels and charged with accounting fraud; he is accused of cheating Belgian shareholders and the tax authorities by secretly shifting funds to offshore companies. During the twelve days of his detention the press was full of stories about this unusual arrest. It also carried advertisements by the French financial and managerial elite expressing faith in the virtue of their colleague. Not having seen his file, I cannot say whether the Belgian judge was justified in keeping him in jail. Yet the fuss raised by this affaire prompts three comments.
First, the jails of many European countries, notably France and Italy, are filled with thousands of people in preventive detention. From time to time a serious study is published deploring this regrettable situation; it may get a snippet in the press. The fact that a Muslim or poor Frenchman spends twelve months in preventive detention is not news. Pineau-Valencienne's twelve days made the headlines.
Second, is the Italian example contagious? In Germany a series of banking and industrial scandals has shaken people's confidence in the virtue of their boards of directors. In Spain it has shaken the government, showing incidentally that once they are converted to monetarism, Socialists are as good as anyone at chasing money. In France, Tapie is not alone. A party in the ruling coalition, a government minister and two important water companies are under investigation. Pierre Suard, the president of Alcatel, producer among other things of the fast train, is now being sued for fraud and misuse of company funds. All this does not mean that Europe is on the eve of an epidemic of mani pulite ("clean hands," the name given to Italy's massive ongoing corruption investigation).
Finally, who said that class consciousness is disappearing? The French managers have just shown a beautiful example of it. The lack of solidarity lies at the opposite end of the economic spectrum. Admittedly, with the inflow of immigrants, the mass entry of women into the work force and the switch from blue- to white-collar jobs, the composition of the working class has altered deeply. But this is no excuse. Things will not start changing in earnest until the bulk of the exploited people grasp the principle that class conflict should not be waged actively by the few and borne passively by the many.