PressEurop, November 16, 2011
Love or loathe the Occupy movement, one thing is for sure: it represents a decisive break from the political struggles of the past. In fact, it mirrors the economic malaise that has gripped many Western economies in the past two decades – deindustrialisation.
They have gathered in cities across the world, calling for social justice and curbs on high finance, but one thing marks this latest wave of protests out as different from previous political movements – and it’s not for the good.
Hailed as decentralised, lacking leaders, and therefore potentially authoritarian control, much has been made of the Occupy movement’s autonomy, as well as its resultant difficulty in coming up with a political programme. But one of the most striking aspects of this new protest movement, one that has had scant attention paid to it, is its total absence of an orientation toward industry.
Wags have labelled Spain’s indignados ‘dog-flutes’ after their propensity for animal and musical instrument ownership and, indeed, there appears to be a fair smattering of hippies in every Occupy protest, but, then again, every left protest since the 1960s has had a hippy component. What is different today is the complete absence of a connection to the sphere of production, the place where, despite decades of theorising about consumer society, the real battles over the future of society take place.
In this, the protests mirror major political shifts over the last three decades, primarily the financialisation of the economy and retreat from production. The primary form of struggle was the withdrawal of labour: the strike. Even when occupations took place, they were generally workplace occupations and often involved fighting the closures and job losses – fighting against what one might call a strike on the part of capital.
Labouring under an illusion
Why, precisely, is labour missing from the picture? To be sure, unions have been broadly supportive and share many of the protestors’ concerns, but how can you have a battle between capital and labour if actual labour is not in the picture? The short answer is: you can’t. The longer one, well, perhaps in their disconnection from past forms of struggle, the protests couldn’t be any other way in a society that pays almost no attention to productive activity.
Strikes are obviously economic in nature, the objective being to wrest better pay and conditions from employers, but even occupations have, until now, often had a direct link to industry. Even at their weakest, such as the occupations of Visteon, Prisme and, in Ireland, Waterford Crystal in 2009, the demands were economic, if often meekly so (typically seeking better redundancy packages). At Prisme, a packaging firm, workers planned to run the business without the bosses, though few press reports followed-up on how the co-operative enterprise has been doing since. By contrast, the new occupations are merely occupying space.
Back at St Paul’s, and elsewhere around the globe where the Occupy movement has set up camp, few doubt the protestors’ noble intentions – even the pages of the Financial Times and Economist have voiced muted support. But even if one thinks the protestors’ complaints are entirely legitimate (and, frankly, they’re both too inchoate and incoherent to really qualify as a systematic critique), the fact remains that in focussing on finance and ‘fairness’ rather than industry and economics, the scope for meaningful change is close to nil.
This shift is by no means restricted to the protestors, though. The loss of faith in productive economic activity is obvious from the top to the bottom of society. Earlier this year, Prince William and his bride left the royal wedding in style, driving a classic British car: his father’s Aston Martin DB6. Undeniably a beautiful piece of engineering, the choice nonetheless revealed the nostalgic character of the British monarchy and, more significantly, pointed to the sad decline of Britain’s engineering. One might argue that the monarchy itself is an exercise in nostalgia. Certainly it is an anachronism, but whether it is a brake on genuine democracy or the glue that holds British society together is not the concern here. The loss of interest in British manufacturing is.
Britsh manufacturing is by no means dead and cars are not necessarily the ne plus ultra of production, but despite promises to “rebalance” the economy, little has been done to encourage manufacturing.
Today it is virtually an article of faith that western countries, such as the United States and Britain, with their high wages and standards of living cannot compete with China, but there is evidence that this is not true. Unfortunately, to argue for greater industrial development leaves one open to charges of naiveté or worse, from left and right alike. The left, having abandoned many of its objectives – and its old constituency – complains about ‘addiction to growth’, while the right performs similar intellectual acrobatics to defend the worst kinds of rent-seeking and areas of high finance as economically unproductive as any public sector job.
Both have been seduced by what should by now now be entirely discredited theories of post-material economics and both suffer from an aversion to investment in material work. Springing, as they do, from the equally “post-material” university classroom and boardroom, the protestors and the protested have more in common with each other than either side would care to admit.
When Jean Baudrillard wrote, “GNPs merely recount a numerical, statistical growth, void of meaning – an inflation of accounting signs incapable of providing a fantasy for the collective will,” he could scarcely have imagined that bosses bored with owning costly factories were his natural constituency. This is not to say finance is an unnecessary component of economic activity, serving as it does the purpose of channeling capital around and managing risk, but it represents too narrow and too unproductive a base to build a strong economy on. In refusing to get to grips with the need for serious capital investment in productive activity, both the protestors and the financiers are as decadent as each another.
The right claims British manufacturing was destroyed by unions run rampant, the left says it was dealt death blows by the Thatcher government of the 1980s. Either way, few today are willing to stand up for manufacturing, seeing its decline and move to low wage economies as having been inevitable, if sped along by the bogeyman of choice. While it is true that Chinese industrial output is the economic engine driving the world, it is very far from being the only significant producer of manufactured goods. Germany lost its status as the world’s largest exporter by value only last year.
Fixing the economy is not as simple as just “making stuff and flogging it” and the fantasy that every country in the world can simultaneously export their way out of recession is one that takes no account of the need for someone to buy the exported goods and services.
Italy’s travails are now well known: a debt-to-GDP ratio of 110 to 120 percent and low growth despite its significant industrial base. Nevertheless, getting back to the business of work would be a good start.
If only someone on either side of the barricades would notice.