The Recession, Labour Productivity and the ‘Mole of Revolution’

May 28, 2010 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

It cannot be denied that the historic global crisis of capitalism has not, in Britain and America, led to an immediate corresponding rise in class struggle (unlike say in Greece). Does this rule out the class struggle in the long term? No. But in order to understand why it has been delayed, it is necessary for socialists to concretely analyse all the conditions of the class. Up to now the predominating effect of the recession, certainly in America and Britain, has been to reduce working class confidence due to high rates of unemployment. As the Economist magazine says “so far workers have borne [the effects of the recession] with remarkable stoicism – partly because they feel lucky to keep their jobs.”

Although this has a dramatic effect on consciousness it does not find an outward expression – it is hidden. Millions of workers will be thinking the same things about their jobs, the boss, and capitalism but they do not necessarily know that other workers are thinking the same thing, and that if they stuck their head above the parapet others would follow suit. Marx stated poetically that the ‘mole of revolution’ for a long time burrows under the surface. But this situation can only go on so long. Eventually the mole must come up for air!

Recent studies highlighted by the Economist show the corresponding effect this situation of low strike activity has had on consciousness. The capitalists, from London bus companies and the Royal Mail, to large scale manufacturers, have taken advantage of the recession to attack the working class. This is what is meant by increases in ‘unit labour costs’ as they euphemistically call it. They have been able to raise productivity not through costly investment but by increasing workloads, pressure and stress on the workers, in effect increases the rate of exploitation.

The Economist reports: “the average amount a worker is expected to do has increased by a third since the beginning of the recession. The Hay Group…says two-thirds of workers report they are putting in unpaid overtime. The reward for all this effort is frozen pay and shrinking perks.”

They attempt to cover this up with patronising schemes and awards for high performing workers. Bus drivers at London depots have reported that drivers are now monitored on how sharply they accelerate and brake. Those who are ‘smoother’ drivers get no material incentive but are given celebrated ‘green’ status for saving fuel (i.e. increasing profits). Those who aren’t can face disciplinary.

This sort of tactic is always used but there is more need and scope for it in a recession. Royal Mail recently infamously monitored its postmen to make sure they kept up a pace of 4mph. The same Economist article reports that “Cap Gemini, an IT consultancy, has a “gold awards programme” complete with a public ceremony…Cap Gemini ‘gives’ as many people as possible 3G devices so they can do their administration while travelling.” These are experiences that millions and millions of workers are silently facing more and more. This is how labour productivity has been increased in the past period.

The effect that this is having is to produce low morale and a simmering anger in the working class. It undermines illusions in capitalism because it exposes what was previously hidden – that profit is made from the unpaid labour of workers.

“The Hay survey notes that 63% of workers say that their employers do not appreciate their extra effort. And 57% feel that employees are treated like dispensable commodities…Absenteeism is on the rise. Low-level corporate crime is growing. Corporate loyalty is on the wane. The proportion of workers willing to put in ‘discretionary effort’ has dropped by almost half since 2007.”

This shows that under the surface workers are reaching the end of their tether. The bus drive interviewed in South London told me “ultimately we need a strike of all London buses. Some drivers aren’t confident enough, especially ones whose first language is not English. But that strike would grind all of London to a halt. We would win.”

This article first appeared on Socialist Appeal.

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This post was written by Dan Morley

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