‘As a minister, I experienced the power of industrialists and bankers to get their way by use of the crudest form of economic pressure, even blackmail, against a Labour Government. Compared to this, the pressure brought to bear in industrial disputes is minuscule.’
Tony Benn, Diaries, 1988
The smallest rumour of a worker downing tools in response to an injustice is enough to provoke hysteria in the British media, so little wonder that what is billed as the biggest wave of strikes in 85 years (albeit by a union not yet taking action) means our airwaves are full of questions as to the legitimacy of strike action.
Let’s skip over the ludicrous argument that one day’s less schooling on 30 June does more damage to the development of a school pupil than Michael Gove’s onslaught on the education system. And the one that the average teacher’s principal concern is their annual salary rather than the thankless job they have chosen to do – presumably in sharp distinction to our selfless banking class.
The vast majority of workers in the UK will only take strike action in the most extreme of circumstances, even when their wages, pensions and working conditions are under attack. Society is worse off as a result of this reluctance. Since the 1970s, workers’ share of the economy has been severely eroded. Our economy has turned into a giant casino for the super rich, with asset bubbles placing basics like housing out of the reach of ordinary people. Massive mortgages, credit card bills, privatised pension funds, public-private partnerships and a hundred other means of transferring money from the pockets of the majority into the investment portfolios of the elite have been created. Workers’ quiescence has been deafening.
Another section of society is much more active when it comes to protecting their own very narrow interests. Those in control of our society, most particularly the financial sector, are not afraid of using economic power to ensure governments of whatever shade serve their interests, no matter what the impact on millions of ordinary people.
The term ‘capital strike’ refers to the practice of business elites, in particular banks, withholding capital in an economy in order to pressure or undermine a government. Roosevelt first accused big business of capital strike in order to undermine his progressive ‘New Deal’ reforms in the 1930s.
But you don’t have to go back that far to see corporations ‘downing tools’. At every stage of the financial crisis, business elites have gobbled up their bail-out subsidies and piles of ‘quantitative easing’ while withholding those funds from small business. For all their posturing, Vince Cable and George Osborne have done nothing to ensure banks assist recovery, allowing them to raise rates for borrowers, keep them down for savers, and pocket the difference. Meanwhile, even a hint that the banks might be taxed a little more to pay for their behaviour provokes howls of protest and threats to move abroad.
Where threats fail to work (they usually don’t), finance indeed brings the economy to a halt. In April, Portuguese banks stopped buying government bonds, forcing the government within a matter of days to go to the European Central Bank for a bailout. It really makes no difference whether that bailout was sustainable, the point is to get those funds flowing into the banks’ coffers once again. Society will pay the price for many decades to come.
On a wider scale, a small group of unaccountable companies called Credit Ratings Agencies issue verdicts which effectively dry up a country’s access to finance, often sending economies into a tail spin.
None of this is limited to our own part of the world. Just to take a very recent example, the election of Ollanta Humala to president of Peru earlier this month, on the mildest of social democratic platforms, led to a stock market plunge after he dared raise the prospect of windfall taxes on the mining transnationals which are looting his country.
All of this has a deeply corrosive impact on democracy of course. Back in 2001/03 Lula da Silva faced an even tougher ride than Humala at the beginning of Latin America’s left turn. During his campaign, the Brazilian currency fell very quickly as it became increasingly clear Lula would win. Financiers attempted to subvert the democratic process, and indeed won a fair bit of influence over his government.
So again and again financiers use their power to change society to suit their own interests. It’s in the interests of everyone else that workers use strike action to shift power back in the direction of the rest of us.
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