Belabored Podcast, Episode 2: “The neoliberal era is over.”

Belabored Podcast, Episode 2: “The neoliberal era is over.”

Belabored interviews the BBC’s Paul Mason and talks minimum wage, maximum subsidies, the expansion of Working America, the end of the American Crystal Sugar lockout, the beginning of a strike at “Fashion Police,” and the role of guestworkers in the immigration debate.


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This Week in Labor

Minimum wage, maximum subsidies, the expansion of Working America, the end of the American Crystal Sugar lockout and the beginning of a strike at “Fashion Police.” And we take a closer look at the role of guestworkers in the immigration debate, and recent guestworker organizing.

“The neoliberal era is over”: an interview with Paul Mason

As the economics editor of BBC Newsnight, Paul Mason has been front and center for the collapse of the global financial system and the wrenching austerity policies that have been imposed across Europe in its wake. His latest book, now in a revised edition, Why It’s Still Kicking Off Everywhere, looks at the global revolutions and movements that started in 2011; his previous book, Live Working or Die Fighting, draws on hundreds of years of labor history to examine today’s global labor movements. We spoke to Mason shortly after the death of former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher about the role of labor in Europe’s fight against austerity. Excerpts from his answers are below.

On Thatcher:

Those of us who lived through it are very keen to stress that the number one priority for Margaret Thatcher was defeating the labor movement.

Those of us who lived through it, and I did live through it, are very keen to stress that the number one priority for Margaret Thatcher was defeating the labor movement. The power of organized labor in Europe and above all the UK was very strong in the 1970s. Thatcher assumed that once organized labor was defeated, lots of other things could be done. The restructuring of UK society, business, politics even, and ultimately the restructuring of the Labour party as a pro-neoliberal party, all of these things followed from the defeat of the trade unions, so she prioritized defeating the trade unions, executed a strategy very carefully, and almost like sort of incrementally. For me and for those of us who lived through that time, that is what Thatcher’s legacy was, it is the defeat of organized labor. And I mean strategic defeat, we’re not talking about the old strike defeated, we’re talking about a whole demographic of working-class people, who lived their lives through the labor movement, who had some ideals, saw those ideals if not capable of being fully realized, those ideals sustained them, they sustained a political project. All that went, with Thatcher, with the defeat of the miners, the printers, and ultimately then the collapse of union membership.

On the end of the neoliberal era:

For me the starting point of the book I’ve written is that the neoliberal era is over. That the whole last twenty years, the twenty years in the run-up to Lehman Brothers, turns out to have been built on a fault line, and that fault line was globalization of production, the downward pressure on wages in the west, leading to the stagnation of actual wages, and so where did demand come from, where did growth come from? It turns out it came from credit, and much of it therefore was fiction. There’s no going back to that model.

If we then ask, what is the alternative to neoliberalism? That’s where the contradiction lies. The future is waiting to be born, as it were, but it’s not there. The social movements in southern Europe that have resisted austerity don’t have a coherent alternative.

On labor’s role in fighting austerity:

In each of the countries, the relationship between the occupation-of-space movements and the labor movement is different. So in Spain, you have a very strong Communist left. They’ve got about 10, 15, 20 percent, depending on where you are, of electoral support, the main union is Communist, CCOO, many young people have grown up in a kind of Communist tradition. So the Indignados were much wider than that. They obviously included what they include everywhere, which is anarchists and autonomists. But it’s also fair to say that the Indignados drew in a lot of middle-class young people into a sort of verbally anticapitalist type of protest, but who didn’t have a major labor movement orientation.

“You know what those sticks are for? They’re to beat the anarchists.”

In Greece it was different. The unions have been absolutely front and center in resisting the austerity since it started. The union movement there, there’s a Communist-allied union federation but there are two big federations that are traditionally allied to PASOC, the Social Democratic party. Those union federations remain very militant in their opposition to austerity, but I’ve stood on Syntagma Square so many times and seen the following process: There’s at the front the sort of protesters, whether it be anarchist, autonomist, far-left, Syriza…and then the unions just march past them on the other side of the square, even as the riot’s going on. The Communist unions are armed literally with sticks two inches thick, which are banner poles, and crash helmets, and they link arms, and there’s very beefy young men at the front…I’m talking hundreds of people thus attired. My Greek journalist colleague said “You know what those sticks are for? They’re to beat the anarchists. They’re to stop the anarchists from coming anywhere near this contingent.” And that’s true. The only time I’ve ever seen them used is when they fought each other….

But the dynamic is the same everywhere. They haven’t between them stopped a single thing.

The reason they can’t stop anything is because the stakes are so high. It’s poker with a single hand.

The reason they can’t stop anything is because the stakes are so high. It’s poker with a single hand. The moment you defy austerity the bailout money stops, you can’t fund your current borrowing as a country, you go bust. You probably have to leave the Euro. That’s the high stakes game. It played out in Greece. Syriza came within 2 percent of winning the election, this far left party. I went to remote villages in Greece that should’ve been conservative, where the farmers are sitting around at lunchtime drinking their beer, you walk in and say “Who you going to vote for?” “Syriza, Syriza, Syriza.” “Why?” “There’s no alternative, we have to vote for them.”

The momentum Syriza had was massive, but the population blinked.

So the momentum they had, the roll they were on, in 2012, the second election in June, was massive. But what I think happened, it’s not just the parliamentary Right got its act together and unified everybody around this crumbly and quite crisis-riven right-wing-center party, New Democracy, it’s that the population went almost literally “Shit, if we put Syriza in power, we provoke a crisis that destroys our savings and we go out of the Euro.” The population blinked at that moment. It’ll be the same in Spain, same in Greece, same in Portugal, if it comes down to it. The European Union has created the game that makes you have to leave the Euro, endure weeks if not months of social catastrophe worse than what you’re already enduring in order to defy or oppose the austerity.

On the possibility of a general strike in the UK:

There was a one-day general strike against Thatcher, very early on, I think 1981 or 2. Several million, possibly more than four or five million people took strike action on this particular day. It didn’t stop anything. Now thirty years on we have a shrunken labor movement, a labor movement very concentrated in the service sector, very concentrated in the public sector… if one were in these discussions these union leaders have been having about the question of a general strike, one would want to know what their estimate is of what they could pull off if every single member came out on strike…

Would it shut down society in the way that the 1926 general strike did? I think given that union density is extremely low in the private sector in the UK, I think it’s something like 17 percent, well, you’d have to conclude that unless it went wildcat and became a sort of anarcho-wildcat spontaneous thing, it’d be very difficult for them to pull anything off similar to what happened in the early 80s.

On the future of unions

The ecosystem that created strong labor movements is gone. It’s a workforce with weak ties.

Trade unionism as we knew it is in decline. And I think that those people who kind of dream that one day it will suddenly revive as it used to be are just ignoring key demographic factors. In my book, what I say is that the terrain, the ecosystem that allowed and created strong labor movements that we lived with and we are living with in some way the survival of, the terrain is gone. The majority of the workforce was male, the majority of the workforce was manual, the majority of the workforce had grown up in a Keynesian economy, whether it’s USA, Spain, Portugal, UK. There was strong social capital. Now we live in the exact opposite of that. And of course fair play to those who keep unions going in workplaces that don’t have any of these attributes, so it’s primarily female, it’s temporary, it’s precarious, it is white-collar, and as the sociologist Richard Sennett has written, it’s a workforce with weak ties….

The ecosystem has changed. What can you do? Do you sit around mourning this? As a journalist I’m reporting it and trying to study it as a social historian. I think what you have to do is understand it. You have to understand the new terrain.

Listen in for more on Thatcher’s legacy, on the fight against austerity, and where organized labor is going.

 

Stories We Wish We’d Written

Sarah on Matt Taibbi’s latest—the hedge fund manager asking unions for money while lobbying to gut their pensions.

Josh discusses a forum at The Nation on what should be in—and what should be left out of—any final immigration bill.

 

Subscribe to the Belabored RSS feed here. Subscribe on iTunes here. Tweet at @dissentmag with #belabored to share your thoughts, or join the conversation on Facebook. Belabored is produced by Natasha Lewis.


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