Resisting the Mega-Bulldozer
From Crisis to the Political Offensive
Reduced Working Hours as a Project for Unions and Civil Society
By Mohssen Massarrat
[This article originally published in: Freitag 15, April 2, 2004 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, http://www.freitag.de/2004/15/04150502.php.]
Neoliberal promises, more employment through growth and less poverty through liberalization, have intensified mass unemployment after a quarter-century of neoliberal globalization - in industrial- and in third world countries - even where growth was possible. Global poverty and the gulf between income groups are growing. Neoliberalism is a strategy of wealth redistribution and of the zero-sum game. Many people have come to know its true face. Therefore official meetings of neoliberal representatives can only take place under police protection. Resistance against neoliberal globalization is growing.
However imagining neoliberal globalization to be in a serious legitimation crisis would be politically na´ve. Neoliberal globalization is like an imaginary bulldozer that is underway on a steep plane of global wage differentials demolishing all political and moral barriers. In addition, liberalization of the financial markets and privatization and deregulation of all areas of life accelerate the speed of this mega-machine. Still the global wage differential remains the main driving force. This mega-machine is a metaphor for an invisible dictatorship of the rich, a new type of capitalist accumulation that - not to be mistaken with Adam Smith's invisible hand of the market - ensures lower wages and longer working hours in industrial countries and starvation wages in the third world - even without the absolutism of Manchester capitalism and military dictatorships in the third world. Almost unnoticed, this mega-machine destroys democratic achievements. This dictatorship is effective, blocks the further development of justice and democracy and insidiously washes away their foundations.
Neoliberal dictatorship functions as long as the vicious circle of mass unemployment and lower wages continues and the one-sided liberalization along the asymmetrical axis of global power inequality holds open the door for uninhibited exploitation of human workers and natural resources. Thus neoliberal propagandists draw their "cultural hegemony" from this vicious circle and pass it off without a word of protest as a natural law - there is no alternative - to which everyone has to bow. And they do bow. From the social democratic and socialist parties to the catholic bishops, everyone bows to this "merciless practical necessity". While neoliberalism makes leftist parties into willing executors of its "reforms", the social base falls by the wayside. The next stage of the neoliberal offensive, namely lengthening working hours without wage equalization, has long been underway. If the public service extends working hours to 40 or 42 hours, the economy will follow.
Classical employment-Keynesianism to which the left still clings presupposes high growth rates from constantly rising productivity, rationalization and mass dismissals that are neither economically possible nor ecologically responsible. Where can a political offensive exist under the conditions of a structural and conceptual crisis? Is it possible to breakthrough the neoliberal vicious circle, to curb the global mega-bulldozer and break the spell of the invisible dictatorship?
The answer is Yes but only under certain conditions. First of all, one must bid farewell to the illusion of a boundless growth and recognize zero growth as a positive economic and moral goal. A zero growth on a high level is a very pretentious goal that mobilizes creative powers. Secondly, the reduction of paid working hours - 30-hour week by 2010 - must be emphasized as the only possible alternative for overcoming mass unemployment.
Zero growth, less gainful work and more quality of life, are new substantive orientation points that help regain lost terrain for genuine reforms and for a more socially and ecologically just world. Reduced working hours with full wage compensation is in contradiction to zero growth. In contrast, a strategy of cost-neutral reduction of working hours is compatible with zero growth and a politically offensive strategy since it enforces the neoliberal concept of reduced working hours without wage equalization which is presently insidiously implemented, turned upside down and delegitimated.
A reduction of working hours without or with small wage equalization requires redistribution and new sources of financing. This is doubtlessly a great challenge for the unions. Nevertheless it is not an impossible task. On one side, the costs of unemployment could be saved and the saved funds amounting to 100 billion marks used to relieve lower income groups. On the other side, the zero growth goal opens up the real perspective of maintaining prosperity and even raising quality of life with less money through the intelligent combination of gainful- and personal work.
This offensive strategy is far more than a wage matter. It can be realized when the unions successfully ally with the large social networks, with parts of both churches and with the global justice movement. What is central is not a new leftist party with old concepts but different substantive priorities that could lead to the genesis of new political alliances from the civil society, unions and the remnant of reform forces in the parties. The historical presuppositions for non-parliamentary mobilization in an offensive alternative to the neoliberal project are very favorable. A clear political vacuum exists because there is de facto a great parliamentary coalition for neoliberal "reforms". That nearly a hundred thousand people followed the call of attac and the unions to a Berlin protest demonstration in November 2003 against the Red-Green Agenda 2010 instead of the expected twenty thousand has to do with this political vacuum.
In my opinion, this historically unique constellation of the social power parallelogram for offensive political initiatives from the civil society will continue as long as Red-Green is in office. If this coalition is voted out of office in two years which is very likely, they should try in the opposition to mobilize new majorities for the next election period, setting themselves at the top of the global justice movements as an advocate of the unemployed and all socially disadvantaged persons. Many of those waving the banners of attac would return to the bosom of the mother party SPD. Non-parliamentary possibilities for future-friendly alternatives also exist. The parliamentary game between black-yellow and red-green for the next two to three election periods starts all over again.
Conversely a political offensive for reduced working hours and against the neoliberal hegemonial project opens up a real chance for a new victory of the Red-Green coalition in 2006 if this coalition adopts the project for reducing working hours. Neoliberalism has lost its leftist executors while civil society groups drive Red-Green to reforms.