One of the most thought-provoking pieces on the zero-hours contracts debate (see previous post) was from Ursula Huws, writing in Times Higher Education. She points out that, in much of the world and for much of human history, the precariousness that we associate with zero hours contracts was normal.
[T]he British public still clings to a rather romantic notion of work.
According to this notion, work involves performing some kind of meaningful activity for eight hours a day, five days a week under a permanent contract of employment, with a range of benefits attached. Anything falling short of that is seen as an exception.
Yet secure work of this type has never been the reality for most women or for many unskilled workers. In most parts of the world where capitalism has prevailed, a high degree of precariousness and impermanence has been the norm: dockers lining up each morning in the hope of being picked to unload a ship; day labourers on building sites; seasonal agricultural workers; employees in factories making goods ruled by volatile and unpredictable business cycles. Only in unusual circumstances have some of these groups managed to negotiate any degree of stability and employment protection for themselves.
Viewed through the long lens of history, though, there was one era during which things were more secure. The post-war period in the West enabled not just a few occupational groups but the majority of the working class to negotiate special deals for themselves. For two or three generations, workers had “never had it so good”.
Secure, well paid employment is a feature of a few advanced economies over a relatively short period of time. So how come workers in the western economies of the postwar world managed this?
It was partly because of the scale of the industries operating at the time. Although there were already large multinationals in the 1950s, most companies were still small enough to be seen as regional or national. This gave them a vested interest in negotiating long-term arrangements in their home base.
Another reason is technological. Many processes in the manufacturing industry involved specialist machinery and skills that only a few workers possessed, giving them significant bargaining power. In service industries there was little standardisation or automation, creating dependence on the knowledge of a growing army of bureaucrats and public and private service workers.
But all of this was reinforced by the ruling class’s fear or disorder and revolution.
The Cold War generated a real fear among governments and employers in Western democracies that unhappy workers might turn to communism. Many aspects of the post-war special deal, variously described by scholars as the “post-war Keynesian welfare state”, “Fordism”, “capitalism’s golden age” (or, in France, “les trente glorieuses”), can be satisfactorily explained only as an attempt to keep the workers happy and the trade unions moderate enough to want to buy into the capitalist system.
This stability began to unravel for private sector workers in 1980s Britain when the miners were defeated by the Thatcher government. But it was not until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 that the world entered a new phase of global capitalism in which the need for special deals between employers and employees evaporated.
Now I’m sure some of you will object to this line of argument. Workers’ rights and secure employment were aspects of a general progressive and egalitarian trend over the last 150 years. Trade union rights, employment laws and the beginnings of the welfare state pre-dated the Soviet threat.
True enough but the political consensus behind these measures came, at least in part, from fear of social disorder. The bloody violence of the French Revolution and the upheavals that followed it in the nineteenth century unnerved ruling elites across Europe. While radicals promoted welfare and workers rights for their own good, conservatives did so because they hoped to keep the masses from being drawn to revolutionary ideas. Throughout the nineteenth century, fear of revolution, as much as progressive idealism, was behind extensions of the franchise, factory acts and the ten-hour day. In Germany, the entire welfare state was created by a royal autocracy. The Kaisers wanted to bind the workers to the newly created German state and discourage them from doing another 1848. In the deliberations that led to much of Europe’s progressive legislation, Robespierre’s ghost was ever-present.
The Russian revolution, and the resulting heavily armed state with its anti-capitalist rhetoric, only reinforced these fears. Keeping the workers from the grip of communism became a matter of national security.
The collapse of the Eastern Bloc, symbolised by the fall of the Berlin Wall, is, so far, the most significant event in my lifetime. It is, perhaps, difficult for younger folk to appreciate just how much geopolitics dominated political debate in the 1970s. Stopping the Russians was paramount and everything else took second place.
There were economic reasons for wanting to prevent industrial strife but there were security considerations too. For both Labour and the Conservatives, maintaining industrial peace was a high priority during this period. It was the Tories, not Labour, who introduced employment protection and unfair dismissal laws. Channeling disputes through the courts was one way of reducing worker militancy.
But when the Berlin Wall came down, a lot of things that had previously been unthinkable suddenly became thinkable. Once the fear of a Soviet-backed socialist Ireland had gone, the British establishment was more relaxed about the possibility of a united Ireland and Sinn Fein politicians in government. Remove the danger of a Russian satellite state in southern Africa and an ANC government can take power with America’s blessing. Now that the red menace was no longer 48 hours away from Calais, the need for Europe to hang together at all costs had gone and Britain’s withdrawal from the EU was no longer a security issue. Look at the timing of all these events. The Northern Ireland peace process, the end of apartheid and the rise of Conservative Euroscepticism can all be dated to the fall of the wall.
And perhaps, as Ursula Huws says, something similar happened with workers rights. Once the fear of violent revolution and communist takeover had gone, industrial unrest no longer carried the same level of threat.
Chris Dillow asked an interesting question last week:
Social change requires not just intellectual arguments but some agents to drive it through; Marx thought these agents would be workers, whereas Thatcher ensured they were (some?) capitalists. This poses the question: who, now, are the powerful agents who might push for freedom?
Radical intellectuals may have made the arguments for the progressive measures of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries but behind them was the muscle of organised labour and the threat of revolutionary violence. Social change happened because a well-organised working class saw it as being in their own interests. You can win all the intellectual arguments you like but those with power rarely give it up without fight.
I have heard it said that environmentalism and the green movement bring a greater challenge to global capitalism than the socialism and trade unionism of the old left. That may be so but it is an intellectual challenge. Where is the muscle? Where are the masses who appreciate the intellectual argument but who also see the green movement’s challenge to capitalism as being in their own material interest? Anti-fracking protestors will only ever be a local nuisance. There are no longer any Soviet tanks, mass pickets or angry Jacobins to strike fear into the hearts of the powerful.