Wildcat 87, Summer 2010

[Home] [English Index]< --> [Archives (German)] [Order] [Contact]

A season in (the vestibule of) hell

The economy is depressed, as is proper in an economically depressed area

Elfriede Jelinek

Sometimes, Stimpy, your wealth of ignorance astounds me!

Ren Hoek

Credit Action UK statistics, Feb. 2010:
1,841 redundancies per day (August 2009 peak: 3,300);
one home repossession every 11.4 mins.;
one personal insolvency or bankruptcy every 3.69 mins.;
average household debt 58,040; daily increase in govt. debt: 384,900,000.

In April 2009 the UK Ministry of Justice announced plans to build a new 1,500-capacity prison on the site of the former Dagenham Ford factory1. Proletarian prospects as officially scheduled in a 'managed' crisis could hardly be summed up better. But what happened next is also indicative of the way social tension has been simultaneously contained and deepened over the last year. In Dagenham the state eventually gave way on the local issue after a respectable campaign backed by the Labour MP and council: no jail will sully that particular Business Park, but identical projects remain on track elsewhere, and the government will keep its 'promise' to lock up 96,000 people. Meanwhile the Wildcat thesis that state-led 'crisis provisions do not aim at economic recovery, but at surviving politically'2 has been played out in practice. Life has not stopped getting materially worse for workers and claimants: hundreds of thousands have lost jobs, wages, housing, benefits, state services, and above all the certainty of future access to these things. But the effects have been dispersed across time, place and self-identifying social groups, and attempts at struggle have been correspondingly uneven. Socially concentrated – and therefore collectively experienced – 'shocks' have been forestalled and rescheduled for a near but unspecified future. The experience of personally plunging from 'aspirational' to proletarianized to 'socially excluded' (and therefore prison-ready) status has apparently not yet become common enough to extirpate the widely held belief that when this happens it's at least partially the fallen individual's fault.

In terms of the 'phases of crisis policy' set out in the Wildcat '15 Theses'3, the state in Britain (as elsewhere, but with the added incentive of an imminent general election) seems to have done everything possible to prolong 'phase 3', in which full-scale attack is prepared and 'spelled out', but left suspended while 'gimmicks' buy political time. As in other large 'financialized' economies, this has meant turning enormous volumes of private sector debt overhead into state liabilities. But in Britain the interim effectiveness of the 'political fix' may have been enhanced by particular characteristics of the local economy before and during the crisis. For example:

Of course this impression of 'public opinion' is only anecdotal, and boorish anti-solidarity may also be unusually common in London, where wealth and ignorance tend to concentrate.11 But there are plenty of signs that 'phases 1 to 3' of the crisis have not gone far in breaking down the widespread assumption that the natural relation between wage-earners (whether individually or in groups, eg. by nationality or employer) is competitive, and success or failure in this competition is a matter of merit. In Scotland the SNP deputy first minister was forced to apologise for 'inappropriately' suggesting that someone convicted of 'benefit fraud' should not be sent to jail. Unions thundered against bank bonuses, but uttered not a word about 'performance-related pay' in general and its wage-cutting, hours-stretching uses below senior executive level.12 In particular, identification with real estate 'ownership', rather than the wage, as the basis of personal survival seems to have survived the crash of housing prices, even among the propertyless and bearers of 'negative equity'. This is evident from the way the Tory promise to cut the deficit (i.e. public sector wages and pensions, plus benefits) in order to keep mortgage interest rates down was unequivocally framed as 'populist' policy targeting non-impoverished working-class voters. (In socio-psephological terms, the targeted group is labelled 'Motorway Man': still-employed residents of housing estates outside London, with children, cars and aspirations.)

But the resilience of pre-crisis social attitudes during an artificial period of economic pseudo-'normality' does necessarily not mean a 'political fix' has worked, if the latter is also supposed to ensure the future survival of capitalist institutions. The often-heard phrase 'socialization of the losses' will take on concrete meaning once the liabilities absorbed by the state in the name of 'society' are passed on to the working and state-dependent class, and familiar material elements of social reproduction start disappearing.14 To the extent that 'attitudes' also imply expectations, collective shock may be all the more violent when the basis for competitive personal aspiration is revealed retrospectively to have been maintained an illusion for so long.

Certain aspects of preparation for this social trauma have been discernible during the reprieve the state has bought for capital at our expense, although it would be a mistake to see too much cohesion in them: some institutional operators may even sincerely believe in 'economic recovery'! Rhetoric about future 'collective sacrifice' and 'shared austerity', often with allusions to the Second World War bombardment of London, has been common for a while now, but it remains to be seen whether it will pass unchallenged when economic bombardment becomes present-tense reality. Concrete detail about 'austerity' (or Structural Adjustment) policy is rare, but occasionally it slips through dressed up in 'communitarian' and preferably 'green' morality. Thus Labour proposes a 'co-op'15 local government model (in a country where welfare, housing, schools and other basic state functions are run municipally): essentially permanent scabbing by 'community groups', who would 'volunteer' to do for free the work the council previously paid someone for. (Branding suggestion: 'Dig Your Own Grave'.) More generally, functions abandoned by the state will be among targets (whether through new outsourcing deals or direct privatization) for 'bottom-feeding' private investment, leveraged thanks to state-backed financial reflation. Financial media are already predicting a new private equity boom, with freshly-created money expected to capture 'distressed' public and private assets, maybe even providing some sort of employment on 'caught-down-with-the world-market' terms. One sign is that Blackstone is lining up along with Tesco and Virgin to grab opportunities in retail banking; it's also easy to imagine well-funded corporate buyers sweeping up 'distressed' housing when rising mortgage rates provoke a foreclosure bonanza. Pensions are sure to be another target, with private employer schemes gutted by employer contribution 'holidays' and stock market losses, while public sector 'entitlements' are already under political attack; meanwhile the government has just appointed the manager of a liquidated hedge fund to run the new quasi-compulsory 'personal account' system.

Certain other developments are never publicly linked to the crisis, but nonetheless look like preparation for a period of demographically inclusive 'social exclusion'. A major growth area for public-private contractor services is management of the 'hard-to-reach' population. The distinction between the criminal justice, care/training and welfare systems is increasingly irrelevant here, with the same methods (unpaid 'community service', cognitive-behavioural therapy, drug and alcohol testing) used at all levels, and by the same contractors (Serco, G4S, Sodexo). Convergence is the rule across the various enforcement sectors: BAE Systems recently missed out on a contract for military drone aircraft for Afghanistan, but as a consolation prize it gets to provide security drones to fly over Greater Manchester. Meanwhile traditional 'safety valves' for the unemployable also still function: army recruitment is up substantially, even in big cities, where recruitment showrooms in low-income areas use video simulation war games.16

Provisions like these seem mainly to be directed towards containment of an expanded but chaotic and unorganized 'underclass'. Meanwhile it's uncertain how seriously the state takes the quite different prospect of 'political' hooliganism, but an unprecedented body of political/security laws, ostensibly directed against Islamic militancy, is already there to be used. Perhaps the most effective 'preparation' against any class-based political threat, though, is one which has been developed over years, i.e. the diversion of an acute and correct sense of dispossession among the locally-born working class (including children of immigrant parents) into anger against more recently immigrated labour market 'competitors'. The left fails to make the connection between this hijacking of class hostility and the wholesale adoption of 'anti-racism' by the class masters of the putative working class 'racists'. 'Anti-racism' is almost the only ideology unanimously avowed by the bourgeois beneficiaries of class dispossession, so repudiating it means repudiating them, and recently-immigrated proletarians effectively function as human shields for the anti-racists' real dispossessing role as asset owners, employers, managers etc. How this mechanism works is well known, but its potential to divide and undermine class troublemaking is worth emphasising now, because the state effort to 'nationalize' the stakes of the crisis has made it much more likely that struggle in the long-delayed 'phase 4' will be 'political'.

Foot notes:

[1] The Ford plant, which once employed 40,000 workers, was closed in 2002. once employed 40,000?  –  for troublemaking history see Ferruccio Gambino, »Workers' struggles and the development of Ford in Britain«,

[2] Wildcat: Theses on the global crisis, spring 2009 n.7

[3] as above, n.10

[4] See James Heartfield, 'State Capitalism in Britain',

[5] James Heartfield, »State Capitalism in Britain«.

[6] Lindsey: last report/libcom; Visteon: Pete, Wildcat, also The Commoner;

[7]See The red shoots of resistance?', Aufheben 18.

[8] One relatively rare private sector dispute was at British Airways , where cabin crew were determined to use the Christmas strike weapon against downsizing of long-haul crew numbers, with the airline pleading 'uncompetitiveness' in an industry-wide profit crisis. BA eventually stopped the strike with a court injunction, supposedly over ballot procedures but framed by the judge in terms of inconvenience to passengers etc. A new ballot ensued, but Unite had apparently learnt its lesson and pre-emptively ruled out striking over Easter. The new ballot was overwhelmingly in favour of striking, so Unite put it 'on hold'.

[9] This account of recent strikes doesn't pretend to be anywhere near adequate, either as a list or in conveying the events and stakes in the instances mentioned. These cases are used only in order to suggest some tendencies running through the year.

[10] At the former Metronet, a maintenance/services operation outsourced under PFI, duly bankrupted, then expensively remunicipalized.

[11] Web forum comments on the Leeds bin strike – all from the immediate area, as it was hardly reported anywhere else – were split between sentiments like those against the tube strikers and statements of solidarity, often from other public sector workers expecting similar attacks.

[12] Web forum comments on the Leeds bin strike – all from the immediate area, as it was hardly reported anywhere else – were split between sentiments like those against the tube strikers and statements of solidarity, often from other public sector workers expecting similar attacks.

[13] The kind of thinking at work in the outcry over parliamentary expenses was best summed up when one MP complained that if he lost First Class train travel privileges he'd have to share carriages with "a totally different kind of person". A spokesman for "ordinary people" wrote to the Evening Standard explaining that what was outrageous about this was not the politician's horror of commoners, let alone the institution of empty First Class carriages in overcrowded, overpriced trains, but the idea that the MP might not have to pay personally for his special ticket. Class privilege is fine and natural, provided its monetary value – i.e. its reflection of merit – is not undermined.

[14] Imminent state-led class attack (or 'fiscal consolidation') is treated as certainty by all mainstream opinion, with disagreement only over scale and timing. More controversial in orthodox debate but recognized by many Keynesian and a few scorched-earth monetarist 'experts', all of whose most fervent wish is to save capitalism, is the irrelevance of the 'political fix' to the underlying accumulation crisis, which when 'stimulus' ends can be expected to resume 'unwinding' the 'real economy' with a vengeance. But this, mercifully, is not the place to expound that argument in full.

[15] They sometimes say 'John Lewis council', referring to a department store founded in the 19th century with a co-operative structure. A more appropriate historical allusion might have been the co-operative credit 'building societies' formed at around the same time, then transformed in the 1990s into predatory mortgage-specialist banks such as...Northern Rock.

[16] Whether the virtual enemy conscripts are already 'Argies' this early in the revived Malvinas pantomime is unclear.

[Home] [English Index]< --> [Archives (German)] [Order] [Contact]